[Continued from my introductory post last week – What Makes a Good Translation? – Introduction]

When translating one language into another, as with any form of writing, there are many things to keep in mind, but in my opinion, one of the most important is audience. Obviously, a translation of a printer manual will look very different from a marketing document, and a work of literature such as a novel or manga translation also has to take different things into account. Of course, people are reading these documents for very different purposes, so the challenges faced by the translators are very different. For written documentation like a printer manual or dissertation, you want to have a translation that is very consistent and formal, and you want to avoid casual terms and slang. But, with manga and other media translations, there are other factors that translators have to keep in mind to make a really good translation. A formal translation in a manga without the use of contractions may sound overly strange or robotic, and so a translator might want to intentionally omit them to show that something is different from usual. “I’ll miss you” or “I’m gonna miss you” is something that sounds natural in conversation, while “I will miss you” or “I am going to miss you” are a bit too verbose to be used in standard conversation.

Translation is more than just the direct copying of text from one language to another, and just knowing two languages doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good translator. As I mentioned in my previous article, every translator has their own unique style. While some translators work on a wide variety of material, many focus on certain individual categories: law, medical, yaoi, etc. These translators have done the research and are confident that what they say matches what the author wants to say, and also how to present that content to their intended audience, whether that be doctors, lawyers, or yaoi connoisseurs.

While translating, it is necessary to keep in mind not only what the audience knows, but also what they don’t know. Renta! has a wide audience of readers, and of course while most of our manga takes place in Japan and the characters are Japanese, it would be unrealistic to expect all of our readers to know every piece of information about Japanese culture. For example, let’s take a Japanese festival staple, takoyaki. A Japanese reader will know all about these delicious round balls of octopus and yum.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

These are some things that are culturally obvious to Japanese people: where they’re sold (usually at some kind of festival); how much they cost (usually about 400-600 yen, or about $4-6); what happens when you stick them in your mouth when they’re still hot (pain). However, readers from abroad who have never been to Japan might be confused if the word takoyaki is used on its own without knowing that implicit context. “What is that ball?” “I thought they were at a festival, why do they suddenly have them?” “Why are they blowing on it?” “What is inside?” These are all questions that an uninformed reader might ask while just looking at the picture. Just leaving the Japanese as-is will be sure to leave some readers confused, so it is necessary to change the text to something more understood by general audiences, even though it is not literally what the author is saying.

Naturally, the text bubble is only so big, so it’s not possible or even really probable to give an overly-detailed explanation either. The result is that we end up with something kind of strange, like “octopus balls,” which is really the best thing we can come up with without sacrificing the author’s intent. Of course, many people from abroad who are interested in Japan happen to be interested in Japanese manga as well (funny how that works, huh?). But, just because some readers are familiar with Japanese cultural norms like wearing a yukata in summer, eating oden in winter, or visiting a shrine, it doesn’t mean every worldwide reader will understand these things.

Man in a Yukata (Utagawa Kuniyoshi)
Typical oden toppings
Meiji Shrine, in Tokyo

In these situations, a good translation must localize the text in a way that is faithful to what the author is trying to say while still being understandable to a general audience. We don’t expect all of our international readers to know some of these detailed points, which is why we change non-essential things like currency into USD, clocks from 24-hour into 12-hour, and measurements into imperial systems. These are really small changes that are made to reach a wide audience without sacrificing the author’s original intent.

Update: Check out Part 2 right here: https://rentastaffblog.com/2019/06/17/what-makes-a-good-translation-part-2-keeping-the-authors-intent/