The Fine Art of Translation

I like to believe that I have a flair for translation. Everytime I watch TV dramas or movies with subtitles, I mentally translate the subtitles — English into Mandarin and vice versa. I did score a B+ in Basic Translation, which shows at least some of my perceived aptitude isn’t entirely illusory. Now you may think that translation is easy as long as you know the source language and the target language, but it really requires finesse and years of honing and practice in order to get it right, if there ever is a right answer.

1. Domesticating versus Foreignising

This is an important concept in translation. For example, imagine someone says, “This is like a story of Romeo and Juliet” and you want to translate that into Mandarin. Now there are two ways to do it. First is to translate Romeo and Juliet directly, Luo Mi Ou and Zhu Li Ye, and then explain in a footnote what the story is about, to the audience who does not know English literature. The second way is to change Romeo and Juliet into something accessible to the audience, perhaps a Chinese romance that also has the same tragic ending. The first way is known as foreignising and the second is domesticating. Which is the better way?

It turns out that there is no better way. Some audiences like translations to adhere to their own cultural and linguistic context, whilst others want to learn more about the foreign culture they are experiencing. As a translator, one must decide which is the more appropriate method to the audience, and that is before ascertaining how to do it at all. Not every idiom in English has a counterpart in Japanese, for example, and sometimes the cultural differences make it hard for foreigners to see a different point of view entirely. To individualist America, what does it mean by suppressing your own deviant ideas in order to fit into social harmony?

2. Puns

Puns are very hard to translate. In fact, some jokes simply do not carry over well in a foreign language, let alone wordplay. Most of the time, translators have to either change the pun entirely into something of the domestic variety, or just write out the literal meaning and sacrifice humour. Or they could try to write out the pun and explain it in a footnote, but most times the effect disappears.

On an interesting note, in the Japanese game “Zero’s Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward”, the protagonist encounters a cat and starts ending all his sentences with “-nya” like how Japanese cats do. But it sounds odd for English sentences to end with “mew” or “purr”, and so the English localiser decided to use cat puns instead, something more often adopted by Westerners than the Japanese. I’m not sure if it was well received, but it was a good try on his part.

3. Grammar

Aside from seeing the large picture of translating culture and viewpoints, the finer points of grammar can also be confounding if one does not have an eye for detail. Professional translators call this a “linguistic sense”, where they see a sentence and feel that it just seems wrong even if they cannot pinpoint the mistake. It is an awkward sentence that won’t be used fluently in everyday tongue. The different grammatical structures of different languages mean that many sentences have to be changed entirely. In Chinese, for example, some sentences do not have a subject clause. In French, the order of the words is different from that of English (political science becomes science politique, for example, or something like that). You have no idea how easy it can be to make silly grammar errors during the course of translation, resulting in sentences that look like they fit in no language.

If you don’t believe me, try your hand at translation sometime! Grab an article from the newspapers and see if you can capture the meaning and mood of the article without sacrificing readability and comprehensibility. It is a fun challenge!


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