Between Translations

Logo - Smartling

Recently, I came across Smartling, a translation software company that translates website content into different languages. As someone who spends quite a bit of time reading manga, I’m not that new to the business of translated works, but it’s something I hadn’t really spent a lot of time considering before. But after spending some time on the site, it got me thinking about the time and energy that goes into act of translation, not only of web content but of books. Mostly, it got me thinking about the most important aspects of a book when it’s being translated from one language to another, and what–if anything–is the MOST important thing about a work that should stay consistent between languages.

Ironically, one of my recent favorite books is BATTLE ROYAL: REMASTERED by Koushun Takami and translated by BattleRoyale-RemasteredNathan Collins. The translation is so well done that it’s easy for me to forget that the book was originally written in Japanese and published more than 15 years ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, BR has often been described as the poppa of THE HUNGER GAMES (if you say it was based off  of THE HUNGER GAMES…YOU. ARE. WRONG.) A class of junior high students is taken to a deserted island where as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they’re each given a weapon and forced to kill one another until only one is left standing. Not only is the book exciting, but it’s a insightful look at fear and the strength of friendship.

Even though I can’t speak about the source material (my Japanese is limited to the few phrases I learned in one semester in college and the copious amounts of anime I watch in my free time), one of the things that made this edition of BR so great was its voice. Despite the fact that there’s more than 40 characters who die–and yes, you get to know ALL of them before they die, even those that show up for one chapter before kicking the bucket–the book reads very much like YA, my favorite genre. Through dialogue and action, each character’s personality comes through on the page, despite the dark nature of the plot.

Which is why when I really think about it, I think one of the most important aspect of a translated piece of literature is its tone.

To be a good translator, I think you need to understand just how words work. You can’t just translate word for word. You need to get the rhythm and overall tone right in order for a book to reach its chosen audience.  As a reader, the tone is the first thing that reaches me, even before I know the main character’s name.

Recently, I read an interesting blog post by a light novel fan translator and he called this kind of translation “sense-for-sense” translation.  He said:

The most faithful translation is generally agreed to be one that draws from the widest range of inferences (that is, aspects related to the text) and channels them into the most coherent package possible. Translations will always be different depending on the needs of the target audience and how the source text is viewed at the time, so there is no such thing as a “definitive” translation.

Based on experience, I have to agree. You can’t translate a novel that’s casual and fluffy to something that’s literary. I believe a good translation is one that’s honest to the text, while meeting the expectations of the intended audience. If that’s not your goal, then you might as well write a completely different novel. One of the cool things about Smartling is that their mission is to preserve and carry the original intent and purpose of text for all readers, regardless of genre.

With all that said, what do YOU think is the most important aspect you’d want to remain consistent in a translated edition of your favorite book?


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