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?

Oops...