Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Proper Names in Translation

There is one extremely common – and yet easily avoidable – problem that I come across all the time when reviewing translations: the mistranslation of proper names.

It can be rather disheartening when you’re reviewing or proofreading a translation from a translator whose skill level is obviously high, and yet there are tiny, mistakes of this nature sprinkled throughout the text. I’m writing this article in hopes that I can help people to avoid missing out on lucrative job opportunities (as well as to avoid looking amateurish) through easily avoidable and pointless mistakes like these.

When using the Internet to assist with a translation, I’d estimate that 95% of your Internet time is spent on online dictionaries and the like. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this; personally, I rarely use physical dictionaries for translation. However when looking up names of, say, government institutions and such, a dictionary can actually throw you a fake-out. For example, if you try looking up the name of the branch of government that controls roads, trains, etc. in a particular language, you may get “Department of Transportation” – which is what this institution is called in the United States. In Japan, however, the English name is the “Ministry of Transportation”, and in the United Kingdom, this branch is called the “Department for Transport”. While the functions of these particular institutions are fundamentally almost identical, the fact is that the “Ministry of Transportation” and the “Department for Transport” simply do not exist in the United States.

Some people will (and do) make the argument, “But anyone would know what I was referring to, so that doesn’t count as a mistake!”


Does that mean that if I translate a phrase which carries the meaning “Barack Obama is the President of the United States” into English as “Berick Obomah is the boss of the America”, then this shouldn’t be counted against me, either? Yes, the meaning comes across. Yes, most people reading that would know what I was attempting to convey. But the fact remains that it is a mistake. While I do understand that many people would not find the former example to be such a dire error as the latter, they are both still technically wrong.

As I was saying, a dictionary cannot always be relied upon for the proper translation of proper names such as these. When dealing with the names of companies, government offices, etc., such as “ABC Shipping Co., Ltd.” or “Department of Education”, there is one extremely important piece of advice to remember:


Nowadays, most companies have their own websites – and a very large percentage of companies and corporations have websites in English – and virtually all facets of government in developed countries have their own websites as well. Use Google to track down these sites and find the official name for any company/corporation, government office, legal/professional/royal title, educational facility, or any other institution the name of which may come up in your translation project.

If you happen to be working on a project which involves a very small or new company that doesn’t yet have a website, or maybe even a government office from a smaller or underdeveloped nation which also doesn’t have a website, all is not lost. If worse comes to worst, you can always pick up the phone. I’ve actually had to do this several times in the past – call a company to find out the proper English or Japanese name, or even an embassy to find out how exactly I should translate the legal title of a diplomat or royal family member. It’s a bit of a task, but it will save you from making a mistake that may make it look like you just weren’t trying.

Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of this oft-overlooked facet of translation. There are so many translators out there who have wonderfully honed skills and who would normally be considered quite professional, and who often make the mistake of failing to properly translate a proper name here and there, thus lowering not only their image as professionals, but also chances of receiving bigger, important projects from PMs and outsourcers in the future. Don’t let this happen to you. Researching these proper names usually only takes a minute, and a lot of times it’s the little things like this that really count towards a translator’s good reputation.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Translating Dialects

“Translation” and “dialects” have a rather difficult relationship. Personally, I only speak English, Japanese, and some Spanish, and I know that (to varying levels) all of these languages contain a variety of dialects, and I’m sure that probably almost any language in the world has at least several local or chronological variations of the standard main tongue.

Some dialects may vary only slightly from the standard language (for example, the Osaka and Kyoto dialects in Japanese), and some seem to be a completely different language (Okinawan dialect and, well, the rest of the Japanese language). As for the reason these dialects exist, there are a variety of factors, including country of origin, local region, culture, history, etc. But on top of these dialects, most languages have a set “standard” or “official” dialect, which is used for things such as the news and newspapers, contracts, language arts classes in schools, and in business settings.

Let’s say you are contracted to do a Japanese to English translation – a contract, or a user manual, for example. Of course, the source text will be written in standard Japanese (known as “hyoujungo”), and it goes without saying that the translation you deliver will have to be written in proper English. But what if you’re contracted to translate a comic or book or movie script – and it’s all written in dialect... What do you do then?

This sort of job is relatively rare, but does come in every once in awhile. A long time ago, I was hired to translate the script of a Japanese indie comedy film into English, back when I had just started out as a translator. When I saw the script, I sort of freaked out. This was because about half of the actors’ lines in script were written in extremely thick Osaka dialect. Now this wasn’t a problem for me at all as far as comprehension goes, because I actually learned (REALLY thick) Osaka dialect before I could ever speak standard Japanese, but I was told to “make sure that (I) keep the style and tone of the characters’ respective ways of speaking and diction”. Since English dialects and Japanese dialects are totally different, I was stumped at first. Especially because the very fact that these characters spoke in such thick Osaka dialect, as well as the flow of the dialect itself, was basically the punchline or at least an important component of the majority of the jokes and gags in the film. The problem is, the difference between, say, “American English and British English” is completely different than the difference between “Standard Japanese (or “Tokyo dialect”) and Osaka dialect”, which I assumed meant that there was no way I could translate the script perfectly. After racking my brain for awhile (keep in mind, I had just started out), I came up with an idea: “The ‘standard Japanese characters’ would speak normal, proper English, and I’d have the ‘Osaka dialect’ characters speak with a thick, exaggerated version of the way kids back in my old neighborhood spoke, slang and all.” This not only helped make the translation go a lot more smoothly – it also made the job a lot of fun. (In the end, the client actually really liked the translation and I received a pat on the back, as opposed to having my translation thrown out, as I was kind of afraid would happen.)

Another example that has always stuck in my mind is an old episode of the famous manga “Ranma ½” by Rumiko Takahashi. When I was in high school, I used to watch that show all the time, but unfortunately I could usually only get my hands on the English dubbed versions. I don’t want to sound too much like an “otaku” or anything, but there’s a character in the story named Ryoga Hibiki, who in one particular episode is searching for a place called Nerima Ward in Tokyo. He ends up getting lost, and when he asks an old man on the street which way Nerima Ward is, the old man tells him “Tokyo? This here’s Shikoku!” (an island in the southwest of Japan, several hundred miles from Tokyo and generally considered to be deep in the countryside), in a thick, stereotypical Southern-American accent – as viewed by most non-Southern English speakers. In Japanese, of course, there is no “Southern accent” as we know it, and another viewing of the same episode in the original Japanese later revealed that that particular character actually spoke with a thick, stereotypical Shikoku accent – as viewed by most non-Shikoku-dwelling Japanese people. It was the sudden popping of this memory into my head that gave me the idea for my script translation when I was freaking out about how I was ever going to translate it.

There are some situations in which – even though the source text may be written in some form of dialect – you can just forget about the dialect aspect and translate the text into the standard version of the target language. But in situations such as the one I just mentioned, where you absolutely have to play the dialect card in order to keep the original tone, meaning, or style of the original, it’s necessary to think not only about the relationship between “one language and another”, but also “one dialect and another” as well. Of course, this problem doesn’t present itself when translating contracts, patents, etc., but every once in awhile you’ll find yourself translating a comic or book or something similar, when you’ll need to deal with dialects. Well, I say “need to”, but personally I find it to be fun to translate in and out of dialects every once in awhile, and it’s a good way to learn more about your language pair as well.

But for reals though, you hella couldn’t even do that for, like, some kinda article or whatever that you’re fittin’ to like, you know, post all up on a Website or whatever, dude. Cuz that would just end up looking all busted and broke and stuff, you feel what I’m saying, man?


Friday, March 1, 2013

Tips for Being a Good Project Manager

Here are a few pointers to help you be a good Project Manager.

Being a translator can be tough – especially for a freelance translator. Getting stuck with a bad project manager can really be a downer for a translator, and this can cause drops in quality and reliability as well as lessen chances of getting to work with a good translator again in the future. Here are a few pointers – in no particular order - for being a good PM:

1) Remember your manners, as well as your place.

You are not the translator’s boss. You are his or her “manager”, and only temporarily at that. Don’t talk down to the translator, or order them around as if you own them. Remember: whereas an employee of a company usually has no recourse but to quit their job if they don’t like dealing with a particular manager for being bossy and rude, a freelance translator has the choice to never work with you again. Also, PM or not, do you really need someone to remind you not to be a jerk...?

2) Reply to inquiries and requests ASAP.

Many project managers - after contracting a translator for a particular job – basically just give up on communicating with the translator until the project deadline, ignoring questions and confirmation mails/phone calls. Not only is this just plain rude, but it can also cause a translator to feel uneasy and suspicious. When I was working as a freelance translator, I would often receive a job from a PM and then receive no word from them whatsoever after sending my confirmation mail. This would make me wonder... Am I really going to get paid? Is this even a real company? Or is it just some guy looking for someone to do his homework for him? It is especially important to answer any questions relating to the project that the translator may have to the best of your ability. Don’t forget that - as a PM – if you turn in a translation of poor quality, then that poor quality will reflect on you and your company in the eyes of the client.

3) Keep open lines of communication with not only the translator, but the client as well.

If a translator has a question regarding his or her assigned project, it is important that you be able to relay that question to the client, as it may affect the entire outcome of the project. This means that you need to try to the best of your ability (depending on the client and the project, this is not always possible) to keep open lines of communication with clients. This is not only for the sake of the translator and the translation itself, but for your company and your company’s profits. Think about it from the translator’s point of view discussed above: if you receive a job from a client and can’t seem to get ahold of them after accepting the job, how sure can you be that they’re actually going to pay you on time? Or at all? Whenever possible, try to get not only an email address but also a physical postal address and a telephone number for any clients you work with, and be sure to extend them the same courtesy and respect that you would expect from a translator. This will not only help to let you feel more at ease, but also to build a stronger, more trusting relationship with important clients.

4) Be sure to keep track of all aspects of your projects thoroughly.

Who translated this project? When is it due? Was it turned in on time? Who was the client? How much are you receiving? How much are you paying the translator? When will the payment come in? When are you scheduled to pay the translator? How was the quality of the translation? Were there any additions or changes? What was the format? What were the source and target languages? What was the name of the source file? Was it proofread? Who proofread it? How much are you paying them? These are all important aspects of any job, and should be managed and recorded thoroughly. Failing to handle this part of the job could cost you translators, clients, and most importantly: money.

Of course, there are many more aspects of the PM job that deserve attention and care, but these are some of the most important.

Happy Project Managing!