Lost in translation

There is a member of our congregation who is a professional translator. She worked for law enforcement agencies during her career and served as a translator for quite a few different languages. Her training as a translator didn’t come from a formal school, though there are several official schools for translators, largely to support the demand of the field of international diplomacy. She was born to parents from Japan who had emigrated to Brazil where the official language is Portuguese. The family spoke only Japanese at home, but since she went to school and learned Portuguese in school, she became the family translator. As she grew up she discovered that she had a gift for languages and before long was fluent in Spanish and English, other minority languages in Brazil.

The experience of two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century resulted in a high demand for those who could translate from one language to another. At first, during the actual combat experiences, translators were needed for the process of collecting intelligence on the enemy. Later, after the hostilities ceases, the process of occupation demanded those who could translate from one language to another. In Europe the various languages all had connections to Latin and there were many people who were fluent in more than one European language. The Second World War, however, produced a need for many translators who could navigate the complexities of Japanese, a language with two distinct writing systems, neither of which use the alphabet that is used for English and several European languages. It should surprise no one that the majority of translators from Japanese to English have come from Japan, where in addition to formal schools teaching the Japanese language, many school children learn English. For those wanting to become professional or diplomatic translators from Japanese to English, there really is no substitute for the formal immersion programs for language translators offered in Japan.

There are two ways to translate a sentence between English and Japanese. One is chokuyaku. Chokuyaku refers to the direct translation of the actual words. This method of translation has value for legal documents and other communications that require literal accuracy. The other way to translate is called iyaku. Iyaku refers to contextual translation where the central meaning is translated, taking into consideration the context and purpose of the sentence as well as the literal meaning of individual words. One might expect chokuyaku to be a more accurate translation, but when you remove words from their context, you miss a great deal of the meaning. We are often aware of this as we travel as many signs and instructions that are posted in both English and Japanese are based on chokuyaku translations. The sentences are awkward and although you generally can grasp the intended meaning, the words do not read smoothly and sound distinctly awkward in English. Many people have experienced this kind of translation when purchasing products manufactured in Japan, Korea, Vietnam or China, where the languages have similar challenges for translators.

For the purposes of conversation, Iyaku translation is preferable. It makes the sentences flow in a much more conversational fashion. However, there is a challenge to this type of translation as well because the number of words it takes to convey a particular concept in one language might not be the same number required in another language. Most of us who have traveled to places where the common language is different from our native language have experienced the translation where the initial speaker goes on for several paragraphs followed by the translator stating something in a few concise sentences. The opposite can also be true. The phrase is short in the original language, but takes a lot of words to be explained in translation. We often use the phrase, “something was lost in translation,” to express the challenge of trying to convey complex concepts in a different language.

Languages convey more than mere words. They are ways of communicating culture. The first generations of missionaries, who traveled from one place to another with the purpose of sharing faith and theological concepts experienced the challenges of translation. In the case of Christianity, the experiences of Jesus and his disciples, who spoke conversational Aramaic, were soon translated into Greek, the common language of the region. Not long afterword, those same stories were told in Latin. Over the years some of the original Greek texts were lost or damaged and the translated versions became the tools for communicating faith. For more than half of the history of the Christian faith the dominant language for speaking of faith was Latin, even though neither Jesus or any of his first generation of disciples used Latin as their conversational language. As the Protestant Reformation began to spread, the demand for the scriptures and other stories of faith to be told in common languages arose. Those who first translated into common languages usually were translating from the Latin. Conveying meaning was essential and so literal word-for-word translation was less employed and a system of translating the meaning of concepts and ideas was used. In today’s world there are many different versions of the scriptures of Christianity and some of them convey cultural biases and carry values that are different from the original versions of the texts. While we claim that there is only one Bible, the truth is that there are many versions of that one book and the different versions convey different meanings to different people.

The bottom line is that there is no perfect way of translating from one language and one culture to another. There is always something “lost in translation” and often something added in the process.

Spending time in Japan is a reminder for me of how intensely difficult it is to translate. There are times when I wish that I could learn Japanese so that translations would not be necessary. It seems like there are things that hold deep meaning for Japanese people that simply cannot be said in English. I’m sure that there are ideas and concepts that don’t easily flow in the other direction as well.

We have to accept less than perfect translation and the simple fact that there are some ideas and concepts that cannot be translated. The more time one spends in another language setting the more one simply adopts a few key words and phrases from the other language.

Our communication isn’t perfect, but it is good enough that we are able to travel, to obtain food and lodging and experience the great hospitality of the people of Japan. And once in a while we make genuine connections that transcend the limits of language.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!