“I Can Kill a Burger” — Translating the Idea, Not the Word

Some people believe that translation is a word-for-word process. They think that all it involves is replacing each word in the source language (the input) with its counterpart in the target language (the output). According to this logic, anybody armed with a dictionary should be able to produce a faithful translation.

And yet, Google Translate and its ilk have not replaced human translators. Why not?


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Caption: Read on for the thrilling conclusion to this enthralling murder mystery!


Let’s play a little bit of “Around the World.” In Round 1, we’ll take an English sentence as the input and plug it into Google Translate. The output will be a translation in Japanese.

Then, in Round 2, we’ll do the reverse by using the Japanese output as our new input and telling Google Translate to give us the English translation as the new output.

Got that?

Theoretically, the output in Round 2 should be exactly the same as the input from Round 1. Let’s see what happens!

EXPERIMENT #1

Round 1
Input (English): I could kill for a hamburger.
Output (Japanese): ハンバーガーを殺すことができました。

Round 2
Input (Japanese): ハンバーガーを殺すことができました。
Output (English): I was able to kill the hamburger.

Hmm… Something’s a bit off. That should have been fairly simple. Let’s try adding more rounds, with more languages!

EXPERIMENT #2

Round 1
Input (English): I could kill for a hamburger.
Output (Japanese): ハンバーガーを殺すことができました。

Round 2
Input (Japanese): ハンバーガーを殺すことができました。
Output (Spanish): Pude matar la hamburguesa.

Round 3
Input (Spanish): Pude matar la hamburguesa.
Output (Russian): Я мог бы убить гамбургер.

Round 4
Input (Russian): Я мог бы убить гамбургер.
Output (Arabic): أنا يمكن أن تقتل همبرغر.

Round 5
Input (Arabic): أنا يمكن أن تقتل همبرغر.
Output (Chinese): 我可以杀死一个汉堡。

Round 6
Input (Chinese): 我可以杀死一个汉堡。
Output (English): I can kill a burger.

Not much better… We’ve morphed from a subjunctive clause to the present tense, but at least our sentence is more concise by shortening “hamburger” to “burger.”

Perhaps the algorithm needs more context!

EXPERIMENT #3

Round 1
Input (English): Man, I can’t stand this vegan diet my girlfriend’s got me on! I could kill for a hamburger right about now. I mean a real one, made with real beef, not that fake soybean stuff.
Output (Japanese): 男、私はガールフレンドが私を乗せたこのビーガンダイエットに耐えられない! 今はハンバーガーで殺すことができます。 私は本物の牛肉で作られたもので、偽の大豆のものではありません。

Round 2
Input (Japanese): 男、私はガールフレンドが私を乗せたこのビーガンダイエットに耐えられない! 今はハンバーガーで殺すことができます。 私は本物の牛肉で作られたもので、偽の大豆のものではありません。
Output (English): Man, I can’t stand this vegan diet with my girlfriend on me! Now you can kill with a hamburger. I am made with real beef, not fake soy.

Whoa, that’s totally not what we meant. Plus, the Japanese translation from Round 1 is already pretty awful. (The Japanese was wrong in Round 1 of Experiment 1, too.) Hmm…

Perhaps more rounds of translation will do the trick! (Have you noted my sarcasm yet?)

EXPERIMENT #4

Round 1
Input (English): Man, I can’t stand this vegan diet my girlfriend’s got me on! I could kill for a hamburger right about now. I mean a real one, made with real beef, not that fake soybean stuff.
Output (Japanese): 男、私はガールフレンドが私を乗せたこのビーガンダイエットに耐えられない! 今はハンバーガーで殺すことができます。 私は本物の牛肉で作られたもので、偽の大豆のものではありません。

Round 2
Input (Japanese): 男、私はガールフレンドが私を乗せたこのビーガンダイエットに耐えられない! 今はハンバーガーで殺すことができます。 私は本物の牛肉で作られたもので、偽の大豆のものではありません。
Output (Spanish): ¡Hombre, no puedo soportar esta dieta vegana con mi novia! Ahora puedes matar con una hamburguesa. Estoy hecho con carne de res real, no con soya falsa.

Round 3
Input (Spanish): ¡Hombre, no puedo soportar esta dieta vegana con mi novia! Ahora puedes matar con una hamburguesa. Estoy hecho con carne de res real, no con soya falsa.
Output (Russian): Чувак, я терпеть не могу эту веганскую диету со своей девушкой! Теперь вы можете убить с гамбургером. Я сделан из настоящей говядины, а не из фальшивой сои.

Round 4
Input (Russian): Чувак, я терпеть не могу эту веганскую диету со своей девушкой! Теперь вы можете убить с гамбургером. Я сделан из настоящей говядины, а не из фальшивой сои.
Output (Arabic): المتأنق ، أنا أكره هذا النظام الغذائي النباتي مع صديقتي! الآن يمكنك أن تقتل مع همبرغر. أنا مصنوعة من لحم البقر الحقيقي ، وليس فول الصويا وهمية.

Round 5
Input (Arabic): المتأنق ، أنا أكره هذا النظام الغذائي النباتي مع صديقتي! الآن يمكنك أن تقتل مع همبرغر. أنا مصنوعة من لحم البقر الحقيقي ، وليس فول الصويا وهمية.
Output (Chinese): 杜德,我讨厌和我的女朋友一起吃素食! 现在您可以杀死一个汉堡包了。 我是用真正的牛肉制成的,不是假大豆。

Round 6
Input (Chinese): 杜德,我讨厌和我的女朋友一起吃素食! 现在您可以杀死一个汉堡包了。 我是用真正的牛肉制成的,不是假大豆。
Output (English): Dude, I hate eating vegetarian food with my girlfriend! Now you can kill a hamburger. I made it from real beef, not fake soybeans.

Well, at least our girlfriend isn’t riding us, nobody’s getting bludgeoned with fast food and we aren’t having to defend the authenticity of our bodily makeup. Still, this is a horrible translation.

For one thing, I don’t think vegans are thrilled when someone can’t tell the difference between them and vegetarians. I will, however, admit that “dude” is an acceptable synonym of “man” in this context, but it’s not the word we started with. I also fear for the hamburger’s safety. And when the hell did I start preparing the patty? Simply put, this translation is definitely not something anyone would want to pay for.

And this is where the human translator comes in: we who can parse context and nuance to communicate the same idea in another language, while making the appropriate adjustments to accommodate the different cultural environment of the target audience. This is something that computers simply suck at. To be capable of understanding context like a human, computers, AI or whatever would have to be as advanced as Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (albeit capable of using contractions).


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Caption: All your base are belong to us.


Granted, I wrote the English input with the intention of throwing Google Translate off track, but it wasn’t that hard to do. It took only one try. Unless the source text is very clear and precise, machine translation tools like Google Translate will inevitably run into problems resolving context.

This issue is compounded when the source is a high-context language such as Japanese, which often omits elements such as the subject of the sentence, a specific mention of the future tense or an indication of whether a noun is singular or plural. That is because these things can be implied from context. When the source is from a low-context (i.e. very specific) language like English, or especially German, this may not be much of a problem. Even so…English-to-Japanese was exactly how we started in each of the experiments above. Moreover, if you were to, say, translate from German into Japanese, a word-for-word translation simply will not do, as the resulting text will be unnaturally specific for a Japanese reader. The job requires a human touch to do it right.

Of course, some documents are meant to be literal. Contracts, patents and clinical trial reports come immediately to mind. And according to my translator colleagues, machine translation is making inroads in these fields, gradually automating the translation process. There’s still plenty of money to be made in these lines of translation, but for how long?

Creative translation, however, is a different matter entirely. The purpose of a creative text could be to entertain, as in the case of a video game, a novel or TV show subtitles. Many times, creative translation is for advertising copy or other persuasive writing. In either case, considering the results of our “Around the World” experiments, it would be hard to imagine a machine translation (MT) tool like Google Translate doing a respectable job of localizing a Hollywood film or an advertising campaign for international markets.

As an aside, you may have heard of translation memories, glossary databases and other such computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. They help, but they merely assist. They do not replace the human translator. For a quick rundown on the difference between MT and CAT, see here.

TRANSLATING BY THE IDEA

Now I would like to share my basic approach to creative translation, working from Japanese into English. There may be other ways of going about this task, but for more than 10 years as a full-time freelance translator, my method has been quite successful for me—or so my customers tell me.

The first step is to know the following three things:

  1. What type of document are you dealing with? (Is it a narration script, copy for a printed pamphlet, a Facebook post, subtitles, etc?)
  2. Who is the target audience?
  3. What is the purpose of the text? (In other words, what reaction does the writer want from a Japanese reader?)

As I look at each phrase, sentence and paragraph, I ask myself, “If I were to express this idea and write it down from scratch in English, in order to get the desired reaction from the reader, what would I write?” The answer to that question becomes the translation. This is translating by the idea, rather than the word. The interpretive theory of translation refers to this step as “deverbalization.”

Sometimes the idea will be wordier in translation, or sometimes it will be more concise. It depends on the idea and the creative decisions you make. Different translators will come up with different translations. Some translations are better than others, while some are just as good as others. That’s a subjective judgement (and another thing computers suck at.)

Let’s take a look at a few examples from my previous work. (I have modified the text to maintain client confidentiality.)

Example 1

Type of Document: A narration script for a corporate video about an industrial park.
Target Audience: Decision-makers at foreign companies involved in choosing where to place their laboratories in Japan. They will probably view the video at a trade show.
Purpose: Make the Kanto Industrial Park an appealing option for the viewer.

関東工業団地には「東京から世界へ」をスローガンに、中核的支援機関である日本科学機関(JSI)があります。
The Japan Science Institute, or JSI, is a core institution supporting the Kanto Industrial Park’s mission of sharing Tokyo’s technologies with the world.

There are several considerations in this sentence that affect your decision as a creative translator. First, whenever you see something inside of 「」 (鍵括弧 / kagi kakko), you may be dealing with a proper noun or set phrase that already has an established translation. In this case, however, to make the sentence flow smoothly, I opted to write around it. The end client may instruct you to use the set phrase, but here I was allowed more freedom.

I also did not want to use the word “slogan.” This, along with “motto,” are loanwords that appear in Japanese copy much more than they do in English, so you can usually produce more natural English by selecting something else.

Thus, instead of translating 「東京から世界へ」をスローガンに literally like this:

with “From Tokyo to the World” as the slogan

I went with this:

mission of sharing Tokyo’s technologies with the world

The last little creative liberty I took with this sentence was to take “JSI” out of parentheses. So instead of beginning with this:

The Japan Science Institute (JSI)

the sentence begins with this:

The Japan Science Institute, or JSI,

Why? Because this is a narration script. To make the narrator’s job easier, it needs to be written the way people actually speak.

Example 2

Type of Document: A map of a science-themed educational facility for children. It offers exhibits, interactive displays and workshops.
Target Audience: Visitors to the facility, especially adults accompanying children.
Purpose: Clearly inform the visitor what’s inside the facility and where it is.

ワクワクルーム
Fun Room

ワクワク (waku waku) is a Japanese word meaning “excitement” or “thrills.” A lazy translator would simply render this place name as “Waku-Waku Room,” but that does the reader a disservice because a native English speaker will have no idea what the room’s purpose is.

So what the heck is this room? A look at the actual map, provided to me as a reference document in PDF format, indicates that it’s a playroom, a place to take kids (especially little ones who are acting up) for a break from the more educational parts of the facility. I could have gone with “Excitement Room” or “Exciting Room” for the translation, but I personally think that sounds lame. Also, the DTP people who actually have to fit the English into the limited space always appreciate it if you can provide concise text. Therefore, I went with “Fun Room” for this one.

Example 3

Type of Document: Copy for a cycling sportswear brand’s website.
Target Audience: Potential customers of the brand.
Purpose: Regale the site visitor with tales of the brand’s storied history.

その頂上ゴールとなるヴァルディゼールで、世代交代の逆転劇が起きる。
Val d’Isère, the goal at the summit, was where the changing of the guard took place.

For context, this story is about the transition from one cyclist’s dominance of the annual race to a younger cyclist’s reign. The key turning point happened on an uphill race where the finish line was at a ski resort on the top of a mountain.

The only part of this sentence that I feel needs a non-literal approach is the phrase 世代交代 (sedai koutai), which means a change or alternation of generations. Since the purpose of this copy is to engage the reader with a compelling story, I felt something a little more elegant, like “changing of the guard,” would better serve this purpose.

Example 4
 
Type of Document: A presentation on the Japanese government’s inbound tourism policy.
Target Audience: Tourism industry insiders.
Purpose: Explain the government’s policy so tourism businesses (including foreign-run enterprises) can act with greater awareness of the environment they’re operating in. On this slide, the agency is urging quick action to take advantage of the current situation before it changes.

先手必勝、今からすぐにでも、できることから着手!
Fate favors the bold. Let’s do what we can do now!

“Fate favors the bold” is not the standard translation of 先手必勝, but I happened to hear ESPN commentator Alex Rodriguez use the expression during a baseball telecast I was watching while working earlier in the day, and it stuck in my memory because I couldn’t recall hearing it before. Then, when I saw 先手必勝, it came back to me because it perfectly fit the context.

Typical translations of 先手必勝, by the way, include “victory goes to one who makes the first move” and “being quick to take action leads to victory.” These don’t flow quite as well, though, in my opinion.

LAST THOUGHTS

I will leave you with just these four examples.

When it comes to creative translation, you never know what kind of tricky issues you’re going to run into. Just always remember why the text you’ve been handed needs to be translated, and let that awareness guide you as you work to understand and express the original writer’s ideas. The process may seem cumbersome at first, but with practice it actually becomes faster to think on the level of the idea rather than trying to translate one word at a time.

Plus, you’ll prove your worth as a human and stave off our planet’s domination by an AI superintelligence.

Happy translating!


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