The Deal with Translations: An Emotional Plea by Dr. M

Here's the thing: words are magic. If you don't think so, consider that pretty much everyone in the world  learns how to write by spelling. We make words by learning to spell...get it? Words are  magic. And they mean very particular things. I feel like admitting some things about myself in this post, so bear with me, Dear Readers, as I have a hissy fit make an emotional plea to translators, and  wax all academic up in this mug  discuss the complications of writing and translating in general.

Now something magics itself into being right?
Aren't you glad I didn't say Avada Kedavra?
(First Harry Potter reference of the day, y'all!)

First, I am an English Professor (not that you'd know it by my improper comma usage), which means that I deal with language all the time. I teach students how to translate ideas in their heads into writing language on the page which can then be translated by another person back into ideas and understanding...WHEW! This process of communicating (translating concepts, experiences and emotions into squiggles someone else can comprehend) is something that is extremely difficult for even the most talented of writers. When I teach I admit that. I actually do have a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing, and I still get frustrated and overwhelmed when I write. As a writer I am always trying to pin down an elusive thought or feeling into the exact right words, and sometimes failing. The reason for the difficulty is not only the nuances of our personal experiences, but the complexities of language itself. I warn students regularly about misusing the thesaurus, explaining to them that although there are many words for what seem like the same thing, but those words are NOT the same.

Every word is a living, adapting, evolving signifier with at least, if not more than, two "definitions." The first is a bare-bones basic definition, the denotation of the word. We can look this up in the dictionary and read about what a word means on its most basic level. But every word also carries within it a secondary connotation, a definition that is not only in flux (adapted, defined and redefined), but which often contains either value, judgement, nuance, emotional connection, or cultural association. What does this mean, well, maybe we should use an example? I'll use something scandalous...I know my audience.

The word Bitch means, quite literally, female dog. That's one of its denotations. The other denotation is that it is a pejorative term for an aggressive or contentious woman. Lots of words can mean two things. Unless you're a dog breeder, you aren't really thinking of the first definition, so let's look at the second one. Bitch can mean a lot of things, and the connotation of the word depends on the situation, speaker, audience and implications. If I am poking fun at my best friend (something I cannot help but do) and she laughs and calls me a bitch, I'm okay with that, because the context of the situation (our relationship, the mood, the tone of voice, and the implications of that word) makes it fine. If my sister puts a sticker on the back of her car that reads "Super Bitch," I might roll my eyes, but I know that a sticker like that is actually doing something very subversive; it is re-appropriating (redefining a word that is hurtful within the dominant culture for positive use within a minority culture) that term in a way that she can identify with, and implying that she is a strong, independent woman.
It might be interesting to discuss,
but I don't want this sticker on my car.
(Image from
If a waitperson at restaurant calls me a bitch, though, he or she will NOT be getting a tip (and I should probably check my food for spit)...the context of their comment is wholly negative, critical and could even be sexist depending on the gender and intention of the server. If someone at a bar calls me this, I will wind up in a fist-fight (I told you, Dear Readers, I am admitting things today). The word itself does not change, but the meaning does all dependent on the speaker, audience and context. Over time language can morph and move in and out of popular use, it can completely change meanings in remarkable ways because language is alive.
Ichigo is confused by all of this.
Let's just let him go fight bad guys.
He's not really a semiotics/sociolinguistics fan.
(Image from Anime Vice News)

So, if writing is hard even within one's own language, imagine the difficulty translators face when attempting to move not only from artist to audience but between languages which might have very different understandings of what words mean. To be a translator you have to know a culture very well and understand not just what words mean, but how they are used in day to day interactions, between various groups of people (among whom a particular word may mean something different in different contexts). The language of a culture reflects the ideas, values, and texture of a culture. There are words for things in some languages which simply do not exist in another language because there is no cultural equivalent, or because such a language has no use for a particular word (check out this list of 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Jason Wire at Matador Abroad). There are also cultures that are naturally multi-lingual in a sense, adopting words from other languages and absorbing, adapting, redefining them into their own daily use. Both English and Japanese adopt words regularly from other cultures when there is no equivalent in their own language. Although the words adopted are often used in similar ways to the original language's meaning, there are subtle differences in connotation. There are even cultural groups who technically speak the same language, but their use of it is so different that it causes translation issues. English is spoken in the United States of America, Canada, Australia, England and some island nations. And yet even close neighbors like the USA and Canada have language differences significant enough to cause translation and comprehension issues. Even within a single country like the USA, there are regional and cultural differences reflected in language. I live in the rural Southeast of the United States. Shakespeare lives in an urban environment on the West coast. We both lived in the upper Midwest for a while. I am from Appalachia. Each of those places has different speech patterns, dialects, regional speech, and values reflected in word usage, syntax, etc. People in different social, economic, cultural, regional and even social-specific groups can have an impossible time understanding one another, despite speaking the same language.

Shuichi is mad that Dr. M's poor fansubbed
Gravitation didn't do his story justice.
(Image by shubear88)
Translation IS hard. And I admire anyone who attempts it. In order to get my degree one of my requirements was to translate poetry (a slippery genre if there ever was one), and a snippet of critical theory from French into English. I had a hell of a time, despite knowing both languages rather well. I had a decision to make too, would I translate literally (this word is equal to this equivalent word) or would I translate for meaning and nuance (this word implies this meaning with this related word)? The whole thing is baffling and takes a careful, patient willingness to engage with original text, language and audience. I admire and respect translators to the utmost. Especially those translators who started out as unpaid fans of anime or manga, working only for love of the genre and a selfless desire to share the thing they love with their fellow fans. Fansubbers/Fanslators helped build a market for anime and manga. Now, as both traditional and digital publishers scramble to keep up with the demand of hungry fans like me, those amateur translators are starting to receive recognition for their work. They become parts of translation groups, and places like Digital Manga Guild hire them, finally paying them for their talents and dedication. Some groups are phenomenal (our new pals Cynical Pink, for instance) and produce translations that take into account the complexity of language. Some groups, on the other hand, need an editor and proofreader NOW! (Incidentally, I charge around $3.00/page for proofreading and $12/hr for editing, if anyone is interested. I have a lot of experience, and I expect people to pay for it.)

Nausicca approves of decent translations!
So, translations are hard, I understand that! They take time, and there are deadlines and rushed jobs, but regardless of those constraints they need to be thorough. Some publishers are very good at providing final edits and proofreads for their translators, and some are, well, some's up with the bad translations lately? I find the whole thing rather dismal, and I hope that it isn't the trend of things to come. Rushed translation jobs with multiple errors in usage, syntax, and grammar (not to mention the questionable stylistic choices) are not the answer to a growing interest in the genres. I would rather have no manga and anime, than poorly translated, formatted or (for whomever's sake!) edited works. I hate slop. Slop is hard to read. Slop does not do credit to the original work, and it does not successfully convey the complexities and nuances of a story. A consideration of language, the medium by which a story is told, is CRUCIAL! For this reason, I'm glad that Shakespeare has chosen to highlight the translator, or translation teams, working to bring us manga and anime when possible. I plan on following suit, and giving credit where credit is due. Kudos to those translators who love the genre enough to pour their time and effort into the difficult process of moving between languages. And shame on those who don't take it seriously. Poor writing is sometimes the fault of the original author, but more often than not, it is sloppy, unconsidered language that can make the difference between a good story (with bad writing) and a great story. I want great stories. I think we all do, so I'll end with that plea I promised.

Dear translators,

Thank you for your efforts to bring us stories we might never have access to, but please do remember to take your time.

Dr. M


The Moon in Autumn said...

Nicely put. A really good translation can push a reading experience to amazing places.

Dr. M said...

Yes, Moon in Autumn, and a bad one can destroy something that should be amazing.