One of the best pieces of advice I received as a beginner translator was “never assume”.
Never assume a kanji reading or a word meaning. Never assume you know what someone said.
Basically, never assume the Japanese and never assume that’s how someone might say it in English.
In other words, always double check and do your research. Always have a reason for why you translated something a particular way.
There are a few cases, though, where extra care and research is particularly important:
- Proper nouns
Make Sure You’re Accurate
I’ve had a few instances where I’ve assumed the meaning of a word and got it wrong, therefore throwing off my entire understanding of a segment.
The first step is to make sure you understand the Japanese and don’t just think you understand it.
It always helps to read a text at least once before translation starts. Whether it’s a short segment, a book, or entire video game, making time for familiarization helps so much.
Basically getting an overall understanding of what you’re working on in Japanese. Understand the entire context before you begin turning it into English.
If anything’s unclear it helps to ask your client or a Japanese native*. (*As long as the work isn’t covered by a non-disclosure agreement.)
Then it’s a matter of being accurate in the English rendition of the text.
If you’re familiar with the Japanese then this should be easy. But it’s still important to read everything carefully as you translate. When reading to familiarize it’s easy to skim read and assume what’s going on. So make sure you get everything word for word when writing out the English.
Historical accuracy is particularly finicky. If a fictional or non-fictional text ever refers to something historic make sure you take the extra steps to get the right terms and correct information! This sometimes means checking the Japanese and English multiple times!
If you’re ever unsure you can take a few steps to double and triple check.
- Google the term in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary.
- Use Google images in Japanese/English to get an idea of what different people assume a word means.
- Read it aloud to see if it makes sense/sounds natural.
If the English doesn’t make sense, don’t just assume “well that Japanese says that so it must be right”.
Read through the Japanese again and try to work out exactly what’s being said.
If you’re still unsure, make a note of it to ask you client/a native Japanese person.
If the Japanese is wrong (it sometimes is – we all make mistakes after all!), explain that to your client and provide an alternative.
Make sure you can explain to yourself/your client why you have made certain choices.
Always Triple-check Proper Nouns
Place names, people names, event names, treaty names, award names, mountain names, animal names, etc., etc., need checking in a few different ways. These approaches can vary depending on the type of text and client’s preferences.
Real Place/People Names
When a text is based on reality (i.e tourism websites) it is incredibly important to get the right spelling for the name.
The trick here is you’ll often have websites like TripAdviser which just copy the romaji of the Japanese, rather than use the official or most common spelling. Avoid websites like these because they often won’t have the most accurate name or spelling in English.
Check out official websites. See if they have an English site (that’s not been machine translated – don’t ever use those for reference.)
For example 築地本願寺 when looked up on Google is Tsukiji Hongan-ji. But according to the official website in English, the correct spelling is Tsukiji Hongwanji.
When you have a very obscure location, Google images is always a good place to turn.
Searching for a place in Google images in Japanese and English can sometimes come up with signs, maps, or other officially printed documents that might have the name.
If it’s super obscure there may be no English term. In those instances the safest bet is to look up the term in a Japanese dictionary, romanize the Japanese reading, and leave a comment asking the client to check the romanization.
Fantasy Place/People Names
When a text is made-up fantasy, it helps to think about what inspiration the Japanese is drawing from.
Is the root of the word Nordic or Greek or based on some other common trope? What English spelling equivalent would work best then?
Is the universe European in style? In that case, what names would make sense in that setting?
You can usually tell where a text draws inspiration from by Googling the Japanese name, or part of it.
Normally similar words will pop up along with articles about the subject. Again, Japanese Wikipedia is your friend.
You can then cross check these with the official (or common) English spellings.
Or even asking fellow translators who might have more experience in certain settings/languages.
Client’s Preferences (Style-guides)
One more thing to remember is how does your client want the text written?
Sometimes they will provide a style-guide indicating how they want common names to be tackled. Other times they won’t, so you should ask your project manager as early as possible.
Sometimes they will want all instance of “onsen” changed to “hot-spring”. But if “onsen” is in the official place name, then you might want to keep “onsen” but ask or add a comment for your client to confirm.
If the client wants the text written in American English then you will want “.” After abbreviations such as “Mt.” “Dr.” “Mr.” etc. But British English does not use these.
Formatting as well as spellings can drastically change depending on the client’s preferences.
Research other Content for Consistency
If you are working on something that has other work referencing it, it always helps to double check that other work first.
Of course, as I mentioned, there’s place names, people names, etc., but for popular media works this can be a lot more complicated.
Popular media texts based on other popular media text (i.e the manga of a novel) could have already translated phrases, words, terms, and ideas.
There was recently a bit of controversy with the translation of a novel of a popular video game. The English version of the novel had a lot of inconsistencies in translation when compared to the game.
It was evident the translator did not reference the game at all as key terms were translated completely differently. This was obvious to fans of the game, the core market of the novel, which lead to the fans being disappointed, confused, and frustrated.
It’s not that hard to look over the terms used in other media.
For video games the terms are easily available online. For things like novels, manga, anime, etc, besides official websites, it sometimes helps to invest the money and time in getting hold of official releases to use as reference.
If deadlines and costs for researching and materials is a worry, speak to your client. Explain how important this is and request a longer deadline and/or extra budget to cover research for accuracy purposes.
If you can, try and make sure certain materials and time are included in contracts/agreements before you agree to the translation.
If you are working on something that has another piece of media that been translated by someone else you can ask your client or the original translator for a glossary.
It can never hurt to go the extra step to ensure accuracy and consistency.
Note: No matter what you’re working on, it helps immensely to keep a glossary or termbase for future reference.
Here’s a guide on how to create and keep one in excel: Termbases for Manga Translation
Take The Extra Steps To Conduct Research in Translation
In summary, taking the extra time and effort to confirm the spellings, consistency, accuracy, etc., of details in the text can go a long way to improving your translation.
Not just names, but turns of phrase, idioms, and obscure references.
Research is a skill in-and-of-itself, so if you’re not used to researching then you may need to practice. Try to get into the healthy habit of double checking everything, and leaving comments for your editors. Help them understand your translation choices, and links to where they can cross-reference your information for themselves.
It’s very rewarding knowing that you are providing an accurate translation to the best of your ability.
Yup, I attest to your remark that any grammatical structure needs to be translated properly to avoid misinterpretations. There are a few documents my boss asks me to translate for one of our clients by the end of this week. Since I can’t do it all by myself, I guess I’ll just hire a professional to get the job done for me very soon.