What makes a good translation depends entirely on the type of text and medium.
Technical translations should be fairly direct with wording, formatting, and style appropriate to the type of technical document. Marketing translations often involve complete transcreation, the wording massaged to fit the target audience, appeal to their interests, and sell the product. Entertainment translation should be…well…entertaining!
I wrote the barebones of this article for the JAT Anthology for 2021, but with only 600 words to make my point, I felt it could do with a deeper dive into what makes entertainment translation entertaining.
A Different Kind of Mistranslation
When you directly translate Japanese media such as novels or manga into English it can become really boring. What reads witty or exciting in one language can easily become dull or dry in another.
“Delivery for the elder doctor, from Dr Terada of the Citizen’s Hospital.” “Thank you very much.” Kimi had put on sandals and come out to receive him. The man removed his helmet and nodded in greeting. “Congratulations of the day.”
The above might be grammatically correct but the writing’s dry, awkward, and wooden.
Direct translations can even risk the translation becoming utter nonsense for the situation or no longer suits the character! (Such as the last line in the above example.)
A very simple example is with the infamous, 「いただきます」(itadakimasu), which Japanese people say before every meal.
A Japanese high school girl might say「いただきます」but an English high school girl would probably never say, “Thank you for this meal.”
‘Of course a high school student should say that if that’s what the Japanese says!’, some people may cry. However, by directly translating a sentence or idiom you introduce a different kind of mistranslation, one that betrays the intent or feeling of the original.
Let’s say you have a chipper, fashionable high school girl who loves to do her hair, makeup, and nails, and hang out with her friends at McDonalds. 「いただきます」is perfectly fine to say in Japanese as she digs into her burger. Ignoring the Japanese for now, if a fashionable high school girl in your home-town puts her hands together in front of her said “Thank you for this meal” before digging into her burger at McDonalds, you’d probably assume she was religious.
A different impression of the character is created, which can lead to the target audience having a different experience from the Japanese audience.
Of course, if you want to maintain the Japanese-ness of the character because she’s Japanese and this is a story set in Japan, then there is a way you can convey that. (More on that later.)
But directly translating every phase and utterance can create misrepresentations. This does a disservice to the source material.
This is why functional equivalence is so important for making entertainment translation entertaining.
Equivalence means “the condition of being equal or equivalent in value, worth, function, etc.” It’s about finding equal meaning from one language to another. Equivalence can be found in difference ways, from equal meaning in individual words and sentences, to equal meaning in tone.
American linguist Eugene Nida coined the terms formal equivalence and functional equivalence to help define this.
- Formal equivalence is when you translate meaning on the lexical (word) and grammatical level, making the translation more literal.
- Functional equivalence focuses more on translating the overall sense, emotion, and intent of the source, which makes the translation more natural for the target audience.
So, a functional translation of「いただきます」for a Japanese high school girl excited to eat her burger and can’t wait anymore, might be “This looks so good!” or “I’m starving!”, or if she’s in a group of people “Let’s dig in!”
If the context changes and it’s a group of people in a fantasy world sitting down for a meal “Grace.” or “We give thanks to the gods.” might be more appropriate for the setting.
Sometimes it’s fine to even drop「いただきます」as a spoken phrase and write around it, such as, “they thanked the host for the meal and began to consume the food in front of them.”
Translating for function can be rather daunting for Japanese to English translators without much experience. New translators can become too focused on the Japanese words, rather than the overall meaning of the sentence, paragraph, or scene.
Every translator goes through the ‘but the Japanese says this’ phrase. Which I think is why it’s important for aspiring translators to learn to distinguish between what the Japanese says and what it says: What is the word-for-word meaning of the sentence? And what is the meaning of the overall sentence or paragraph within the context of the scene?
Let’s take「その通り」for example. The word-for-word meaning (or direct translation) is “in that way” or a Japanese dictionary says “just like that” or “quite so”. However, based on the context it would be more natural to say “exactly”, “precisely”, or even “you hit the nail on the head!”.
[Tip!] Read more literature and/or non-fiction in Japanese
A great way to learn to make this distinction is to read more literature and/or non-fiction in Japanese. Even if you want to translate manga or games, novels are best for improving context comprehension because you don’t have pictures to give you context. You have to understand the sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter as a whole to have a better understanding of what’s going on.
Speaking of novels, you can see another great example of functional equivalence from the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. The first three lines are;
10 minutes after the battle starts, soldiers are overflowing with fear.
Just imagine it.
A place where steel death flies past.
This was translated by Joseph Reeder and Alexander O. Smith as;
“When the bullets start flying, it’s only a matter of time before fear catches up with a soldier. There you are, steel death whizzing past in the air.”
Did you notice something in the above translation? The three sentences in Japanese did not become three sentences in English. They merged the sentences together, conveying all the original meaning and intent in a fluid and visually exciting way.
[Tip!] Change sentence order and structure to improve flow
When translating for function it is perfectly fine to change the structure or order of sentences and paragraphs to make the meaning flow better in English.
It’s even possible to change dialogue to prose and vice versa! As I mentioned with the「いただきます」example, it’s possible to change spoken phrases to prose such as, “Then she dug into her hamburger and fries.” Or even prose to spoken language. (Japanese often has unquoted spoken phrases nestled in description.)
Even in manga it’s OK to swap sentences around in order for the dialogue to flow more naturally. Or if the speech bubbles are too small you can shift information around so you don’t get a bubble squished with text next to a large bubble with barely a word inside.
This isn’t to say translators should re-write the entire text. It’s important to know when to massage sentences and phrases so the correct information and emotions are being portrayed, while also still trying to maintain the voice of the original Japanese. Translators need to constantly keep themselves in check so they don’t stray too close to or too far from the original.
I highly suggest both the Japanese and English translation of All You Need is Kill. Not only is it a fantastic novel, but the translation is a great example of how functional translation can make the English edition a thrill to read.
Removing Text From the Japanese
Repetition and Redundant Information
Japanese writing often uses repetition to emphasize a point or emotion, but this redundant information can make a translation feel slow and clunky and can draw the reader away from that point in English. Which is why directly translating repeating phrasing and words on a word level can lead to mistranslation of intent.
It’s perfectly fine in Japanese for information to be repeated numerous times. In English, however, this often comes across as either 1) the characters are idiots or 2) the author thinks the reader is an idiot.
If your character’s name is repeated 5 times over the span of two pages, remove a large chunk of them! If the information from a previous sentence is repeated not long after the first instance, you can cut it out!
I read a translated novel where “he has a worried look on his face” was repeated five times across two pages. That’s way too many worried looks! (It’s also an unnecessarily wordy way of saying “he looked worried.”)
[Tip!] Edit your own work as if it were someone else’s
As an exercise, edit your own translation as if you were editing someone else’s original work written in English. Read it out loud, add comments to yourself, cut and change sections. This is hard to do with something you’ve done recently so either pick an old translation or translate something as an exercise then leave it for a week.
In media translation (especially novels and video games) major changes or cuts are always discussed with the project manager. This is so they can check if the change is suitable either with their manager or the original author/developers.
Big changes might be the removal of questionable content such as in the case of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and edited by Elmer Luke.
In this novel one of the main characters (who’s in his 30s) has a few intimate scenes with a teenage girl. After a discussion with the Western publisher, the most troubling scenes were removed in the original English release in 1991.
Although there is a re-translation in the works that will include these scenes, I highly doubt this novel would have been as popular in the West at the time had these changes not been made.
(You can hear Daniel Morales and I discussing these changes in the novel in this episode of the Translation Chat podcast.)
[Tip!] Always discuss problematic sections with your client
If you’re translating a manga, game, or light novel and come across something problematic, then you should let your project manager know either while you’re translating when you deliver the translation.
It’s best to translate the scene in the best way you see fit, but leave a comment explaining a translation of the original, why it might be a problem, what you translated it the way you did, and with some suggestions for alternatives or other possible solutions.
For example, in a light novel I translated the main character at one point describes a very young girl as 目の保養 (“a feast for the eyes”) but that he wouldn’t touch her because イエスロリータノータッチ (“yes loli, no touch”). This is based on a Japanese meme that basically means it’s OK to be attracted to underage girls but not to do anything about it.
A direct translation of “feast for the eyes” and “yes loli” in regards to an underaged girl is extremely problematic in English. Not to mention the protagonist is supposed to be likable, and a direct translation would have made him sound like a creep in English. So I pointed this out to the client in the file and suggested an alternative translation. I also pointed it out to them in the e-mail when I submitted the work.
When To Stick to the Japanese
Sometimes there are times when you don’t want to move too far from the Japanese. Such as with words that are so entangled with culture that you either have to completely change them or translate around them.
What I mean by this is with words like 寝巻 (nemaki) or お塚 (otsuka), which conjure very specific imagery to Japanese audiences. The direct English translations, “nightgown” and “mound”, will conjure a very different images in an English reader’s mind.
[Tip!] Use Google images to see what images are connected to what terms in English and Japanese
A great way to find out what might come to someone’s mind when they read a word is with Google Images. By Googling images of お塚 and “mound”, you can see visually how the Japanese audience and English speaking audience might interpret the words differently.
Let’s take the sentence「お塚は朽ちかけたものあれば、綺麗に手入れされ明かりを灯した蝋燭が奉納されている物もある」(from 京都伏見のあやかし甘味帖 Kyoto Fushimi no Ayakashi Amajicho). A typical functional translation might be, “Some of the mounds had decayed, while others were kept clear with candles dedicated to them.” But it’s hard to conjure an image of the scene without knowing what these “mounds” are.
This novel is all about Kyoto, the places in Kyoto, the food, the shrines, the local folklore. By translating お塚 as “mound” it not only creates a different image in the readers mind, but completely removes the feel of place. This betrays the intent of this novel, which ironically makes it no longer a functional equivalence!
[Tip!] Expound and explain culturally specific terms
With culturally specific terms that English readers are unfamiliar with, it’s better to expound on them. This is when you explain the meaning of a word within the sentence and add to the translation so the reader has a clearer image of the term and/or scene. Some common ones might see are “ramen noodles”, “onigiri rice ball”, “jinja shrine”, or “obon festival”.
Or take the aforementioned「いただきます」. If you wanted to maintain the Japanese feel of the line because the setting is Japan, then you could translate it to “‘Itadakimasu‘ she said, thanking her host for the food before digging in.” (But you don’t have to do this every time. A sense of time and place can be maintained elsewhere in the translation.)
A better translation of the above line from Kyoto Fushimi no Ayakashi Amajicho which expounds on the scene might be, “Some of the otsuka stone shrines scattered across the mountain were in disarray, while others had been well kept with fresh candles offered to the gods.”
Or you can translate around the term “otsuka” to avoid too many Japanese terms riddled throughout the translation. Which means you just get, “Some of the stone shrines scattered across the mountain…”
Translate What You Love
Love for a project you’re working on can really make a translation shine. If you hate a story, the characters, the writing, etc., then it can show in the translation.
Love for a genre, era of history, type of literature, different languages etc., can also help when it comes to random information that might pop up in a translation. Some people get into a wide range of interests, while others get really into a few select hobbies and become specialists in those subjects.
Embrace your otaku-ness
Modern Japanese popular media poses a challenge for entertainment translators in terms of modern culture. Memes, references, jokes, slang, new turns of phrase, and new trends all influence modern writing. And manga, games, novels, etc., cross pollinate as memes spread.
The majority of Japanese fantasy, for example, often references the video game series Dragon Quest in one form or another. Even if you don’t know the reference, you have to learn to recognize a possible reference if one comes up in a translation!
[Tip!] Consume a wide variety of media in Japanese and English!
Being an otaku defiantly gives the modern entertainment translator an edge. Consuming a wide variety of manga, games, and novels, and being involved in online communities in Japan and the West, increases the chance that you’ll pick up some weird asinine information that may or may not be useful down the road.
Take the slang term「リア充」. This word is often used by netizens to refer to someone who thinks “real life is more than enough”, and directly translated would mean “real enough” or “real sufficient”, but that doesn’t make sense in English. This is a term often used with disdain, or at least as an insult, so a functional equivalence would be “normie” or “sheeple”, which is more understandable to Western netizens.
[Tip!] Follow the rabbit hole
Entertainment translators need to trust their instincts and follow the research rabbit hole when they think a word might be a reference, meme, or slang. That’s when their understanding of the target audience and English popular culture comes into play to find the appropriate equivalent translation.
Being involved in a translation community is also great because if you have an inkling something’s a reference, you can run it by your peers and see if anyone knows where it might come from. This helps when deciding how exactly to translate a cultural reference or joke.
Kill your darlings
There’s loving something and then there’s being slightly too attached to it.
As translators we get very attached to the projects we’re working on, but have to understand it’s not just us who are working on them. Other people’s inputs and opinions are valid. A good editor is there to help make the translation shine, and taking criticism and accepting feedback is a very important part of the translation process.
I’ve come across too many stubborn translators who will refuse to let people edit their translations, or stand by a style even if it goes against the style guide, or act as if they’re better than the editors, proofreaders, or other staff members. It’s not just the team who suffers but the translation too.
Of course, I’m not saying a translator should take every change and feedback at face value either. It’s also important to be able to argue your point and explain why certain translation choices were made. Hopefully a compromise can be met, but sometimes you have to let something go even if you don’t agree with it.
Good collaboration and communication between translator, editor, and the team really helps make a translation shine.
How To Improve Your Entertainment Translation Skills
Entertainment translation is a balancing act. Yes, you want to convey the original meaning, but you also want to convey intent, emotion, and character through creative writing. But you also you don’t want to stray so far from the original that you accidentally introduce a completely different meaning or intent from the original.
This, of course, also depends on what you’re translating. High fantasy translation tends to be a lot more creative, while stories based in Japan will maintain Japanese cultural terms and expound upon them in the translation.
How do you learn how to balance these? Well, like learning how to spin plates (which everyone learns to do at some point in their lives, right?) it takes practice, feedback from peers, familiarization with the medium, and a healthy development of soft skills like gut instinct and empathy.
Practice makes perfect and the more you push your boundaries and comfort zone, the more you’ll expand your horizons.
Honestly, this is why I love taking part in translation competitions. They’re great for working towards a goal while trying new things and not having to worry about a client. I’ve always found them a great way to push myself.
But translating in your spare time on things that interest you is also a great way to practice! You can’t share these translations online (unless you translate something that isn’t copywritten), but they’re still great practice.
It’s possible to find a mentor who can give you feedback. If you do find a mentor then be aware that as the mentee you have to be proactive. Coordinate with your mentor (they are giving up their spare time for you). Send them questions and things to look over, they will get back when they can. But just be aware they probably won’t be sending you regular homework and checking in with you all the time.
Then again, finding a kind translation mentor who is skilled and good at giving feedback can be difficult. An alternative is to join a translation community and ask people there if they can give you feedback on your work.
Read Japanese Literature
As I mentioned before, even if you’re not interested in translating literature, at least reading it can help your Japanese comprehension skills immensely.
It doesn’t have to be literature either, could be non-fiction or self-help-books. As long as it’s something you’re interested in and will get you reading.
Maintaining Your Japanese as a Translator
Understanding Source Texts – How to Improve Your Translations Skills
Read Translated Literature
I’ve found reading translated literature to be really useful for finding what I like and don’t like in translation. This has helped shaped how I think about and approach different translations.
Don’t just read Japanese to English translations though. Exposing yourself to a wide variety of translations and cultures can only ever enrich you.
Books and Bao is a great blog chock-full of reviews of translated literature from all around the world.
Gut Instinct and Empathy
These are the two most difficult things to improve because they come with experience.
The more you translate, read Japanese, and read English texts, the more you’ll start to pick up on certain linguistic tells. Hints that perhaps something is a reference, or that nagging feeling that an English sentence doesn’t quite sound right.
Empathy is also an important skill to be aware of because you must be empathetic with Japanese and Western audiences. How does the Japanese audience interpret an action conducted by a character? How can you convey that in a way the English speaking audience will interpret the scene in the same way?
Then combining both gut instinct and empathy and thinking, what can you add or take away, how can you word something to convey the same intent?
Making entertainment translation entertaining means taking a step beyond just translating a Japanese text word-for-word or sentence-for-sentence. It involves transforming the text in a way so that the intent of the original is conveyed in a way so that the target audience are entertained in the same way the original audience would have been.
How to build the skills and confidence to do this will take time. Practice, feedback, and being widely read in both languages can really help a lot.
Intent, target audience, and entertainment should always be factors when translating. There’s never a ‘one translation fits all’ scenario and it always varies between translators and texts. But every piece of entertainment translation can really be an entertaining experience!