Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My First Translation


Do you remember your first real translation job? How did you feel about it? Was it a life-changing, wonderful experience? One translator reminisces about his own.

Do you remember your first real translation job? I don’t mean some fansub you made for your favorite episode of Pokemon back in high school, or a letter you translated for a monolingual friend. I’m talking about your first real, paying job as a translator (freelance or in-house). How did you feel about it? Was it a life-changing, wonderful experience? Or did it make you want to burn your computer and claw your eyes out?

Most translators start out with the language-professional equivalent of “grunt work,” i.e. translating fliers or menus or simple articles. Conversely, a lot of people start out with boring, difficult, and tedious technical or long-winded reports. Generally, these people pay their dues and work their way up, in the hopes that one day maybe they can finally get to do fun, interesting projects instead.

Not me. I got to do a movie.

I remember my first real translation job quite clearly. I had been sending out resumes and emails for weeks, trying to get something – ANYTHING – in translation that would help me to sharpen my skills, build up my CV, and, well, pay. Finally I received an email from a translation outsourcer asking if I would be willing to translate the dialogue and subsequently put together the subtitles for a movie. I was so excited about not only finally getting work as a translator, but to be doing an actual movie that I almost had a heart attack. I replied within about 20 seconds, politely and eloquently stating that YES YES I WOULD INDEED BE INTERESTED THANK YOU THANK YOU PLEASE DON’T GIVE THE JOB TO SOMEONE ELSE OH MY GOD.

Two days later I received a copy of the script. It was for a Japanese omnibus film entitled R426 Story. The bulk of what I was to be translating was a set of clips of interviews with various Japanese hiphop and rap musicians discussing the history of Japanese hiphop, and why they did or didn’t believe that it was dying. Personally, I’m no fan of Japanese hiphop, but having lived here virtually since I was a kid I at least knew of most of the people in the film, which was kind of cool, and since it was musicians speaking (relatively informally) about music and their respective “scenes” (in the music world, not in the film), I was able to take a lot of liberties and make them sound more “real” in English, which was a lot of fun.

Usually, if you watch a subtitled interview, the English tends to seem stiff and sort of forced. I could never stand that (“THAT’S TOTALLY NOT WHAT HE JUST SAID!”) and therefore went ahead and translated it as closely as I could, using the right amount of slang and half-words (“.., like, ...”, ...”you know?”, “...and stuff”, etc.) to not only convey what they were saying, but how they were saying it as much as possible.

After first freely translating the dialogue, I moved on to editing the translation in order to create the subtitles. The general rule – at least as far as I knew – for English subtitles was “three words per second”. That was the entirety of my knowledge of subtitles and subtitling. Yet somehow, I managed to not only translate the whole thing but also work out all of the subtitles within a day. A few friends who also became freelance translators were always telling me about how hard and tedious and boring your first few years of translating can be, just because you can’t really choose your work and therefore end up getting stuck with projects with subject matter in which you hold no interest whatsoever, and that it would take a lot of patience and hard work to ever get anything interesting to do, and that the job was mainly thankless and underappreciated. After this project, I was firmly convinced that they were just telling me this to avoid having another competitor to deal with. What were they talking about?! That’s ridiculous! Obviously, the world of translation was cool! And fun! And interesting! And exciting! And profitable!

Then I got my second project. And then my third. And then my fourth and fifth and sixth... And then I started to curse that first project – for spoiling me.

After becoming a professional, full-time translator, and meeting many other translators as well, I realized that not everyone – in fact, almost no one – gets lucky enough to start out with translating movies, or video games, or comics. I was indeed just extremely lucky to get that job, especially as my first. To this day, I still haven’t actually seen the film, but someday I’ll get the DVD, gather a few of my friends, and sit there yelling “I DID THAT!! THAT WAS ME!! LOOK!! LOOK WHAT I DID!!” for the duration of the film.