I hate the phrase “lost in translation.” Not only because it’s a terrible, terrible movie, but because it’s a phrase that perpetrates the myth that translation is inherently evil or wrong.

 

When people use the phrase “lost in translation” to discuss translation they almost always talk about how translations don’t offer the same understanding or experience as the source text. This shapes the conversation to imply that the translation is “wrong” or “bad.”

Although these discussions can provide interesting looks at source cultures and how culture is intrinsically tied to linguistics, they also do a lot of harm to translation. They tell people who are unfamiliar with the act of translation that translation will always be wrong in some way. Sometimes even that the practice of translation itself is an act of violence on the culture they are translating from.

I hate it when this myth is perpetrated because it discourages people (especially those who do not know the language) from engaging with writing from different cultures. Sometimes this means a person will be motivated to learn the original language, but more often it makes people never engage with the culture, or to continue engaging but feel bitter because they think they’re getting a “sub-par” version of a story/text/movie.

Translation can never be a perfect one-for-one. Even between cultures that speak the same language there are still differences in dialects and word usage that result in differing understandings of the world. (That’s why British and US American editions of popular novels exist.)

Translation is not inherently evil. It’s not inherently bad or sub-par. Translation is incredibly important for the human species because it makes us more open minded and understanding of people who see the world differently from ourselves. Through experiencing their stories, we can come to better understand them.

Take Japan, for example. In the 80s and 90s a lot of Japanese media was translated and adapted for Western audiences. General information about Japanese culture was lacking amongst the average person and Western publishers thought that audience would be more comfortable with familiar things like “donuts” instead of unfamiliar things like “rice balls”. Scenes from Japanese animations were edited to remove things the West found questionable. Manga was flipped so it read left-to-right, instead of right-to-left. Essentially, the Japanese-ness, its culture, was erased for the Western audiences.

However, thanks to these shows and comics becoming popular, the West began embracing Japan. “Cool Japan” kicked off in the late 90s and 00s and over the next 30 years more and more Japanese media was translated without removing large chunks of the culture. This has resulted in more Western people becoming aware of Japanese culture to the point where you can say “onigiri” and “bento” without anyone batting an eyelid.

Thanks to translation (even those translations of the 80s and 90s) we got to experience more and more Japanese stories to the point where the Japanese anime and manga industry is a global phenomenon. We gained great stories, great experiences, and a better understanding of Japanese culture and language.

Was it bad that the translated media of the 80s and 90s erased the Japanese culture from them, even re-cutting movies and shows to “better suit” the tastes of their target audience? Arguably yes. Erasing culture completely and trying to pretend people outside our sphere don’t exist is not good for a lot of reasons. But also, arguably no, because it created a lot of anime fans through beloved shows like Robotech (an edited version of the anime Macross) and Cardcaptors (an edited version of Cardcaptor Sakura) before they even knew what anime was. This first generation of Japanese media opened the doors to Japanese culture for many people.

Thankfully now our culture and translation practices have evolved. We’ve learned our lesson that erasing the culture from foreign media is not good. The popularity of non-English media (aided by the connective power of the internet) has resulted in a boom of diverse entertainment from all around the world. Japan, Korean, China, India, South America, France, and more. And likewise English-originating media is just as popular in non-English speaking countries.

Video games from the West, as another example, used to only be translated into the “main” European languages: French, Italian, German, and Spanish. But now they’re also translated into Japanese, Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional), Korean, Russian, Thai, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, and many more!

Translation is the bridge between cultures.

 

The Balancing Act of Translation

I mentioned that erasing culture from foreign media is not good, but where do we draw the line? Words like “onigiri” and “bento” are now used in English instead of “rice ball” and “lunch box.” If a translation changes these words to “rice ball” and “lunch box” does that mean it’s erasing the original culture and is inherently bad? Well, no.

The choice to maintain or not maintain certain words in a translation is not necessarily erasing the original culture.

I was watching a Korean drama recently and the English subtitles had words “ahjussi” and “samchon” and others scattered throughout and I was thoroughly lost. I could hear the characters using them but with no English translation I had no context for what these words meant. This was a bad translation because it locked me, someone who doesn’t know Korean, out of understanding the cultural significance of these words.

Translation is a constant balancing act. It’s about mediating between two languages and cultures. The translator’s job is to present the original text in a way that is most appropriate for the intended audience of another culture. This audience might range from someone who knows a lot about the culture to someone who knows nothing at all.

One way translators get around this is by using the original terms that might be familiar to many, and then adding text to explain it. Such as “she slurped her ramen noodles” or “he ducked under the fabric of the noren hanging in the doorway, which marked the entrance to the restaurant.” In this way audiences are exposed to things common in other cultures without being completely lost.

Or another way is to find an equivalent expression which gives the foreign audience the same feeling as the original audience. You can’t add context in subtitles due to text and timing limitations, but you can find other ways to get the same feeling across. Take “ahjussi;” its direct translation is “middle-aged man” or “mister”, but in the context of the show it was being used in an endearing way, to show how two characters were getting closer to one another. Maybe the translation could have used the male character’s name, or dropped the word “ahjussi” altogether and found other ways to express the relationship. Even if the same words are not used, the essence of the original meaning is still maintained.

There are lots of ways a translator can convey the source culture without losing the audience. But no matter who the audience is, certain choices must always be made by the translator to best portray the source in the target language.

 

Translation as Collaboration

I mentioned that translation practices have evolved over the years. The industry is constantly changing, and one of the best changes in recent years has been the development of collaborative translations within media.

This is when a piece of media is created with people from different cultures working together to create said media. This results in the original media being influenced by the source text and the target text. Almost to the point where you can’t even say that one or the other is a translation.

A great example of this is with the video game Final Fantasy XIV. The original head of the localization team, Koji Fox, translated the game in such a way that he was able to shape the original game. Such as adding fluff text to the game to explain why a man needed the player to get him 99 bags.

This often happens in modern games where the localization happens at the same time as the creation of the original. It turns into a collaboration between the in-house localization team and the developers, which helps shape the game.

We’re seeing this more and more in other mediums as well where multiple cultures shape something new. Such as the anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (made in collaboration between Polish game studio CD Projekt Red and Japanese animation studio Trigger), or movies like Snowpiercer (made by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, based on a French graphic novel, using almost entirely American actors) and The Zone of Interest (created by English director Jonathan Glazer, but filmed entirely in German.)

As cultures become more global, so too does media becomes more global, leading to more and more collaborative efforts and blending of cultures. And none of this would be possible without translation or interpreting (the translation of spoken language between people.)

 

Translation as an industry and a practice is not perfect. It’s impossible to create a translation that perfectly educates audiences about other cultures while also keeping the media entertaining and understandable—we cannot please everyone.

But translation has evolved to a point where we are able to share more and more stories and information and points of view between different cultures, creating bridges between communities. With translation acting as these bridges between people and cultures, we gain more than we lose.

Sunset over Osaka Gained in Translation

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Gained in Translation
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