Japanese-to-English is recognized by many as one of the hardest-to-translate major
language pairs because of the linguistic and cultural distances between the two languages. Even compared to the other direction, Japanese-to-English translation is more difficult, I think, because Japanese is a low-information, high-context language and English is the opposite: You often need to add implied information when translating from Japanese into English. Just to give you random word-level examples from the subject of this review, how do you translate 天下り, 七草粥, and 四百字詰め原稿用紙
Written by Judy Wakabayashi, Professor of Japanese Translation at Kent State University, this meticulously researched volume equips the Japanese-to-English translator with valuable tools to tackle these seemingly intractable problems. It is primarily intended as a textbook for postgraduate students, but it would also serve well as a reference book for professional translators and educators.
The book is carefully and systematically organized into 13 sections, and the topics are
loosely organized from the micro-level (words and word groups) to the macro-level. Along the way, various issues such as grammar, register and tone, and the spoken word are discussed. Each topic is concisely presented, thoroughly examined, and concrete problem-solving approaches
are presented with numerous examples.
Many topics have an “exercise” section in which the reader is instructed to translate given examples in a certain way or with a particular emphasis. It will take a semester or two to read this book thoroughly and do all the exercises, I think. What makes this book particularly valuable is the quantity and quality of the
examples, which must have taken many years and a lot of effort to collect. They are taken from literary works and business texts. I appreciate that they are recent, fresh and relevant: Many literary examples are taken from novels written after 2000 by authors familiar to many, including 村上春樹, 有川浩, 宮部みゆき, and 村田沙耶香.
Throughout the book, several major ideas come through. The first is that we are not translating the words but the meaning. This is obvious but we all tend to be unnecessarily constrained by the
source text. Examples after examples of great translations in this book tell us that we have more freedom than we think and it’s okay to take bold leaps. You may need to forget the source text all together—after understanding the meaning, of course—to produce target language text that feels natural to the intended reader.
The second major idea is that there is no single, “correct” way to translate anything. This book presents many different and equally valid approaches, and various factors that should guide the translator, the most important of which are the intended reader and the context in which the translated text is consumed. Personally, this book proved valuable to me, a self-taught translator who never studied translation theory or linguistics. The linguistic concepts and terminology explained in this book give clarity and deeper understanding about the process of translation. Also, as a Japanese native who translates from Japanese to English, I was humbled by some of the brilliant examples contained in this book, those that would never occur to me as a nonnative speaker. I realized that there is a gap that probably cannot be bridged, and that I should stick to business translation.
This is a wonderfully useful textbook and reference for the aspiring students and seasoned professionals alike. We are lucky to have access to it outside of Professor Wakabayashi’s classroom.