Crafting Natural English from Japanese - Episode 11

Welcome back to our series on creative J>E translation, where we translate the idea behind Japanese words, not merely the words themselves. If you’d like to go back to the first episode, click here. For the full episode list, click here.

Today our word is 世界観. But first:

A Note Before Continuing
The examples below come from actual projects that I have worked on for my customers, although I have modified the text to some degree in order to maintain confidentiality. Also, keep in mind that when it comes to translation, especially creative translation, there is usually more than one right answer. You may have different ideas for how to render these examples into English that could be just as valid or even better than mine. Much like writing, I’ve always thought of translation as an art, not a science. Of course, it also helps to have a good editor, so I’ve only selected examples from translations that were checked by a second pair of eyes.

Let’s get to it!

Caption: What’s your worldview?

世界観 (sekaikan)

Overly common translation: worldview
Suggested alternative: vision, style, story, or whatever else fits

First, let’s analyze the kanji in 世界観 and what they mean. The first two, 世界, are a pair and literally mean “world.” The last one, 観, can mean “view,” but also “to look,” “appearance,” or “outlook,” depending on the context. All in all, it seems like a pretty literal rendition of “worldview.”

But is that what it is? It turns out 世界観 comes from the world of philosophy, particularly the German word Weltanshauung. In fact, that’s the etymological origin of the English word “worldview,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. So, both the Japanese and English versions come from German. It also stands to reason that if we are discussing philosophy or, say, politics, as in one’s political worldview, then the use of this term poses no problem.

In Japanese, however, 世界観 has come to take on an expanded meaning in the past two decades, especially among creative professionals in film, video games, and other areas. It is now a 便利ワード (handy term) to refer to what used to be called a 設定 (setting), 物語性 (narrativity), 作風 (literary style or idiom), or 雰囲気 (atmosphere or ambience). (If you want to learn more about this transformation, check out this article in Japanese.)

Dictionary results seem at first glance to support this new status quo. My online dictionary of choice, 英二郎, has 43 entries containing both 世界観 and “worldview” and exactly three containing 世界観 and “vision,” my preferred translation outside of philosophical discussions. Although these entries with “worldview” are in fact accurate given the context, Japanese speakers learning English and English speakers learning Japanese could be forgiven for assuming that “worldview” is the correct translation of 世界観 all the time.

In fact, I also thought so early on in my translation career, but I gradually came to suspect this was not the case. This was because it seemed out of place most of the time. (Note that most of my translation work is of a creative nature for marketing, PR, and so forth—not philosophy.) After building up enough experience to challenge the conventional wisdom, I started translating 世界観 as “vision” in these contexts. Below are some examples.

We need to position ourselves as a desirable brand by showing customers an impressive vision.

CASE, a concept going beyond the framework of automobiles, has a vision that is difficult to completely convey with words alone.

Here are some cases where something other than “vision” feels more appropriate to me.

The wonderful coloring and the painstakingly use of materials offer a style not to be found anywhere else.

The new brand video will tell a story that feels familiar to Americans.

I hope this article has influenced your “worldview” so you can translate the word 世界観 without falling into the trap of literalness. Thanks for reading!

For other episodes in the series “Crafting Natural English from Japanese,” click here.

Click here for the full archive of The Kyoto Linguist. You could also read the randomly selected article below.


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