Translation September 2016

Lost in Translation?

A few answers to help you find your way

Many foreigners in Japan need translation or interpreting services at some point. The following answers to frequently asked questions may be of some help.

Q: What’s the difference between a “translator” and an “interpreter”?

A: A translator works on a written document, reading the content in the source language (e.g. Japanese) and producing the equivalent document in the target language (e.g. English).

An interpreter acts as a verbal intermediary between two or more people (or between a speaker and an audience) whose native languages are different. Interpreting can either be “consecutive” (the speaker pauses for the interpreter) or “simultaneous” (the interpreter listens and speaks at the same time, since the speaker is talking continuously). Interpreters commonly work at business meetings and press conferences.

Most language professionals specialise exclusively in either translation or interpreting.

Q: Aren’t translators going to be replaced by computers/Google Translate any day now?

A: No. For extremely simple or repetitive translations (or for looking up individual words), a computer may suffice. However, computers are not capable of truly comprehending language (in the cases above, the computer is simply substituting individual words or phrases that are stored in its memory).

A knowledgeable human translator, however, clearly understands the subject matter (e.g. a legal case) and thus comprehends the implications of the source text, as well as what is stated explicitly. They can select just the right word, term or phrase, spot nuance, and deduce correct meaning based on context. These skills are beyond a computer. Also, computers cannot produce fluent, natural writing—another indispensable component of high-quality translation.

Q: Why is there so much bad translation out there?

A: We’ve all seen hilarious English signs in Japan. It’s less amusing when you pay for translation and the quality is much lower than you expected.

Sometimes, computer translation is the culprit. More common, however, is poor translation by human translators who are not up to the job.

To save money, Japanese companies often assign Japanese-to-English translation to a Japanese employee with a grasp of English, believing that—even if the result is not perfect—a native English speaker (or “native-checker”) can cheaply edit the translation to produce an acceptable English document.

Often, however, the cumulative effect of the incorrect word choices, grammatical errors and stylistic lapses in the English becomes overwhelming, and substantially obscures the meaning. The native-English rewriter is nevertheless expected to clarify meaning, eliminate errors and make the text sing stylistically. This often proves impossible, however, and the result is almost inevitably substandard.

The same goes for translators translating out of their own native language. Again, the belief is that a native-English editor can smooth out the draft and produce an acceptable final version. However, even “professional” Japanese translators are rarely immune from making poor choices of words and idiom, and significant grammatical and stylistic errors. Misunderstandings then occur between translator and rewriter, resulting in outright errors of meaning. Editing of non-native English also rarely results in smooth, natural-sounding prose. Hence, the final text will be flawed—in terms of accuracy and style.

Q: Is there such a thing as a “qualified” or “certified” translator?

A: Although some industry organisations and academic institutions offer translation qualifications or certification, there is no universal standardisation regarding testing criteria, and no evidence that the recipients are any more capable than their “unqualified” colleagues.

Many excellent translators enter the industry from another profession (e.g. law) and thus already possess essential field-specific knowledge. If they possess language and writing skills too, they have all the tools necessary for producing high-quality translations.

Q: What does it mean when a government agency requires a “certified” translation?

A: This means that the translator or translation company is required to append a statement to the translated document saying that it represents a complete and accurate rendition of the source document. They then stamp the statement with their official company seal.

This is required for translations of Japanese family registers and birth certificates for use in passport applications.

Q: Why are there such large price variations between different translation companies?

A: Many translation companies compete on price, cutting costs by using the cheapest (non-native-speaking) human translators available or machine translation—with predictable consequences.

Companies that compete in terms of quality employ highly capable, highly specialised translators and ensure that the translations they submit are reliably checked and edited. This increases costs, resulting in higher prices.

Seeking the cheapest vendor may seem like good business. However, if a translation is not up to standard and goes out into the public domain, what are the potential longer-term costs to the client company in terms of its reputation and public image?