Why not try translating?


With the Tenina translation project wrapping up and my remaining duties now being mostly managerial, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the long journey behind me. For the handful of people waiting for any news at all, while there was a rough start in the beginning of the editing phase, a stable team has been assembled and consistent progress is being made. This should be the last December without angels.

Translation can be quite a satisfying activity. It is a process that leverages a variety of creative and analytical skills. Yet the only way to develop these skills is to actively work on translation projects. The result is a recurring void of talent when fan translators who spent years honing the craft move on to other things, leaving the next generation of dedicated fans to walk the same path from the beginning. This is a cycle that won’t ever be broken as long as translation remains an unprofitable way of living.

But even knowing that those years of dedication will likely not result in something permanent, I still think that it is an endeavor worth pursuing. There is a not so small pool of untapped talent that will never even try. That’s kind of sad. The biggest reason, besides lack of motivation, is confidence. While the difficulty of translation is not in question, if you have any interest at all in the activity, you may be sabotaging yourself from enjoying the experience. These are my thoughts and observations on the process, and I hope that they may dispel some of the self-doubt that an aspiring translator might have.

This is a journey of self improvement

Writing is an art, and art must have viewers. When people say that something you’ve poured your heart into is awful, it hurts. If you translate solely for other people, you are setting yourself up for pain that you may not be able to handle. Assuming that you aren’t an emotional masochist, you will be far more successful if your motivation comes from within.

Translation should first and foremost be a relationship with the text and the language. Your goal in the beginning should be to grow familiar with how the writer does things with words and recreate that with your own. If you can enjoy this process, even if the end result isn’t the best, you will have engaged with the text in a more substantive way than the first time you read it. As long as you learned from the experience, you will still take away an improved appreciation for the original work.

Forget about the language barrier

You may think, “My Japanese is not good enough,” and that will almost certainly always be true. A visual novel can be easily over a hundred thousand words, and among those words you will encounter patterns you don’t concretely understand. You will misread things in ways that completely obfuscate the meaning of the passage. A lot of these patterns even natives don’t fully understand, and your best aids will be articles written by natives for natives. Because so much of reading happens by feel and intuition, you will learn first hand that learning to translate is in some ways more difficult than learning to read.

What really matters is not how much you know now, but how you approach what you don’t understand. This is not only a skill that you can start developing at any level, it is also a skill that will help you gain a deeper understanding of the language. If anything, it is because you are still learning the language that you might want to practice translating once in a while.

The advantage that you have is that you will naturally go over the same passage many times. Writing is an iterative process, and while your first pass may miss the mark, if you keep working and reworking the wording, you can and will achieve a better final result. Of course, the larger the work being translated, the more time it will take to complete if your first pass is off the mark.

So start small

While it may seem like common sense to start with something short like manga, it will help to shoot even smaller. While you should certainly be able to translate manga if you want to take on a more serious project, the language never gets very complex. Even the simplest internal monologues in a visual novel use denser and more difficult patterns than you will see in manga.

Spending a year working on a larger work on the other hand isn’t quite the answer. Maybe about 10% of a visual novel is really interesting from a translation point of view, even less possibly. The vast majority of lines are throwaways. What word and grammatical choices you make don’t greatly affect the meaning and delivery of these lines. They are frankly not very interesting even though they may still take quite a bit of effort to work through. If you start translating an entire visual novel, it’s quite possible that you’ll get bored before you really get a chance to work on the fun parts.

So I propose an alternative. Find interesting passages that have flavor. This could be a single sentence. This could even be something that already has a translation. Do your best to translate only these passages and move on to something new. What you want to focus on is getting familiar with the process of identifying the techniques the author uses and prioritizing which qualities of the original work are the most important to capture in your translation.

If an existing translation already exists, don’t be bullied into doubting your own interpretation. Analyze what is different, and what aspects the other translator prioritized. Build arguments for why the things you thought were important should be kept, and why it might be better to compromise. You should find that most differences in translation choices aren’t necessarily caused by mistakes as much as differing perspectives that both have valid evidence supporting them.

Find a peer reviewer

A peer that is willing to read and critique your work is invaluable. Especially important is the feeling of safety you have, sharing with someone that you trust. And while many of us do not have a large network of friends that both know Japanese and are available, this will also be a hurdle you must overcome if you ever want to take on a real project. This is another reason why I suggest to work with small passages while learning. It is much easier to ask for 30 minutes of someone’s time rather than asking for a commitment that can last multiple months.

In practice, this peer doesn’t necessarily need to have stronger Japanese proficiency than you to be useful. Any pair of extra eyes is likely to see things that you didn’t see, and have perspectives that you didn’t consider. It is important, however, that they aren’t too easily swayed by other people’s writing. You want your peer reviewer to be able to stand up for themselves when they have a differing interpretation than yours.

On the other hand you don’t want one that’s overly confident. If they’re not sure about their interpretation of a sentence, you want to be aware of their doubts before you incorporate their advice. There will be times when both of you won’t know exactly what is going on, and being able to talk it out is not only educational, but also quite fun.

Learn to read in your own language

It is arguably more important to be a good writer in your own language than it is to be able to read the source language. As mentioned before, if you don’t understand what the passage is saying, you can figure it out with more time by reading it again and analyzing it. If you don’t know how to write well, that’s a much greater problem that takes even more time to solve.

That being said, improving as a translator can largely be done by being a better reader. What this means is becoming better at recognizing what literary techniques the author is using. While Japanese and English have different grammars and vocabularies, the devices authors use are largely the same. Metaphors, allusion, alliteration, parallelism, these are tools that work the same way in both languages. Even rhetorical devices and idioms often directly translate to the same effect.

If these are not tools you are familiar with, it might be a good time to start reading English literature (though it’s always a good time to read something great). Assuming you’re not still in school, these books have plenty of resources online that summarize what the author is doing and how. You’re doing this for yourself and not for a grade, so try to really understand how the language works.

Identifying what literary devices are being used by the author helps you create a better framework for your translated sentence, and once you know how they work, you already have hints from the author as to what words to fill that framework with.

Good luck and enjoy yourself

So write, write, write and read more. If you’re reading already, read more analytically. If you find yourself enjoying the process, that’s a sign that you might just be ready to pull a team together and start a new project.


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