Translation is Hard: 5 Obstacles to a Good Translation

There seems to be a lot of discourse on anime subtitle translation these days. The louder voices on Twitter tend to defend localized, less literal translations. I’ve been wanting to write a post on some of my own experiences with translation, but I’ve also been going through a bit of a burnout. Here it is anyway, because sometimes writing about it helps.

First off, a disclaimer: I am not an anime subtitler, and don’t even translate Japanese-English (except on my blog, solely for fun). I currently freelance as a Chinese-English academic translator, and worked briefly as a Mandarin-English phone interpreter prior to that. This is a fairly subjective post based on these experiences.

Some Context

Unlike translating for anime, translating for academia entails a rigorous emphasis on accuracy rather than on audience experience (though there’s obviously that too). It also means having the author of the work as your direct client. You never really hear anime script writers get upset over Western subtitles, probably because they have limited exposure to the final product. But academics who pour their souls into writing a research paper on one randomly specific thing? Oh boy… Not only are they more defensive about how their intentions are conveyed, they actually have the right to be critical. Unlike some random AniTwitter account whose authority stems solely from having studied Japanese, these clients pay the bucks after all. Although I don’t know exactly how much, I can tell you that it has to be high if you add up the cost for the translator, editor, and company. I do get paid more for this than for my library day job…

The weight of my responsibility is giving me quite the burnout these days. The stress never dragged me down when I spent most of my waking hours working two jobs, but now that the quarantine is happening, I’ve had the chance to realize just how stressed I was before upon actually relaxing.

Translations are like CG animations, in that they aren’t supposed to be noticeable if they’re good. Consequently, I rarely get feedback unless a client is upset. Didn’t my work go through a cross-checker and two editors, and weren’t they satisfied with it the last time I checked? I always ask in my head. But each complaint is a learning experience, regardless of whether it’s actually valid (I’ve received a complaint where a client didn’t think “financial” was a good adjective and thought I should have used “money” instead). I know that, but it still hurts sometimes.

So yeah, with half the rant out of the way, let’s talk about some of the main issues with translation that I’ve had to navigate or that I’ve seen going around Twitter these days.

1. Not being “literal” enough.

translation 3

Obviously, the big one that’s been going around. When I was an interpreter for banking calls, certain banks always made their representatives read this annoying warning to the interpreter: “All sentences must be delivered verbatim.”

You see, anyone who even bothers to consider how languages work would know that “verbatim” translations don’t exist. Especially when translating between an Asian language and English, when the languages don’t even share the same roots. Obviously, syntactical structures are different, and not all that transferable. And in terms of vocabulary, even the most widely accepted translation pairs can have vastly different connotations.

One of my favourite examples is “加油” (Chinese) / “頑張って” (Japanese) / “do your best” (English). These three phrases are probably the default translations for each other in any given context. Yet, the Chinese term has the literal meaning of “adding fuel” (you can use it at a gas station), the Japanese term encourages one to strive/persevere/invest effort, and unlike the first two, the English phrases uses the superlative “best,” suggesting that the quality of your effort matters. I used “literally” in the last sentence, but if you think deeply enough about it, “literally” just doesn’t exist.

Still, a translator must strike a balance between faithfulness and coherence–a balance that relies on a dash of intuition–which brings us to the next point.

2. Not sounding natural enough.

translation 4

This is the opposite end of the spectrum. In translation, no sentence isn’t an internal debate (especially when your average Chinese sentence tolerates infinite run-ons). Each translator has their own translation ideology, which goes to show just how unique each translation is.

I tend to favour preserving original intention over localization. This may be because I’m an academic translator, but then I’ve been in trouble for this too. The last time was when I used “world-wide epidemic” and “pandemic” in the same article based on a (redundant) distinction that was made by the author in Chinese. It’s not like I didn’t know that “pandemic” was the more official term, but I just couldn’t help being a stubborn stickler for details!

The problem comes up most often when translating proverbs, jokes, or anything with more cultural context. Not that I ever get to translate any puns, but when it comes to enjoying them, I know I prefer seeing a more faithful translation with a side note explaining that a pun was made than a forced pun in the target language. This is probably a controversial opinion, but honestly, if the pun is going to sound contrived, I’d much rather just appreciate the cultural context behind the joke.

3. Not being well-versed in the subject matter.

translation 5
Not a subtitle joke, but this is relevant

Oof, this is a toughie. A lack of understanding of the subject matter can lead to overly literal translations that don’t make sense (that’s when the translator decides to play safe). It’s the main reason translation is stressful. From the kinesiology behind selecting cross-country skiers to the effect of parental removal on great tits (a type of bird!), I’ve had to educate myself on wholly foreign subjects within a few hours. Google is your best friend in a pinch, but I’ve been betrayed by it way too often. Imposter syndrome was real during my first months, but I eventually came to accept that no translator can possibly know about such a variety of obscure topics prior to taking on some projects. It’s not that I stopped being an imposter–it’s more that I realized that every freelance translator is an imposter to some extent, and thankfully, editors exist.

Of course, you’re still responsible for accepting projects at your own discretion (I admit, the cross-country skiing kinesiology paper was a bad call). But it also really helps when authors provide keyword references, if their subject is obscure and they already know the English equivalent anyway. It’s as easy as putting the suggested English word in brackets. Saves me time, saves them several cents, and saves us both from lots of woe.

4. Too many translation notes.

translation 1

Speaking of side notes… One of my favourite things about being a translator is making comments on Word documents labelled “TN”! It makes me feel relevant when I get to have input, even if the final product won’t include it. Unlike in anime or novel translations, these notes are internal, and are meant for the editor and/or author.

I’ve been warned that excessive translation notes betray a lack of confidence, so I tend to be cautious with my inclusion of them (although I do wish there could be more internal communication). In contexts such as anime subtitling or light novel translations, where translation notes actually interact with the audience, I think a similar rule would apply. Excessive notes are not only in the way, but suggest a lack of faith in the target audience. Notes should exist where a translation fails to supply the full meaning needed in the context, not as a corner for elaborate fun facts?

5. Not being consistent.

translation 6
Nothing wrong with these subs! This is here because I can’t just leave Charles out.

Okay, finally something I’m good at dealing with! When I translate, I always keep a scrap paper for settling on Chinese-English equivalents of words to use throughout the project. I might be overdoing it, but I always make sure that as long as words recur a few times in the paper, they are only translated in one way unless the context forbids it. Lots of Ctrl+F and batch editing just to ensure this.

Inconsistency in translation is mostly a result of lackluster editing. While editing is a process I generally enjoy, I admit that my short attention span makes it more difficult to ensure the quality of the middle part of any large project. My most recent stupid mistake was inventing a virus called “COVID-10.” I found that editing one day after finishing a project was the most efficient mode for me–enough time away for a new perspective, but not enough to lose clarity.

I know that simulcasted anime has a bad rap for being inconsistent with names and pronouns, but that can be forgivable when information revealed in later episodes change how things should be perceived. These subtitle corrections are interesting to see, because they show that the translator is also a fresh audience to the story, and they too are doing their best to interpret all the mysteries in the initial episodes.

Wrapping Up

translation 2
Koiwai is my spirit animal

I hope that wasn’t too much ranting! This post is kind of a culmination of all the things that embitter me about my job, but at the same time, translation is still a passion. A Quora post I read likened freelance translating to solving difficult math formulas one after another, every day. I can so relate to that. But despite the tediousness of the work, the sense of accomplishment is still there.

And if you get to pick and choose projects like I do, translating can’t be all that dull either. I yearn to translate more creative works and literature papers, but I’ve enjoyed several other projects over the months too. A possible favourite: translating an article on artifact preservation in the National Palace Museum of Taiwan (I’ve visited that museum several times in my life, and contributing to it in some way was an amazing feeling). Translating COVID-19 articles also felt quite relevant, though I get the sense that many authors are rushing their write-ups way too much just to get published ASAP.

So yes, translation is highly stressful, but the toil is also rewarding. I’m still cutting back on the number of projects I take on now, just to give myself a break, but I know I’ll be translating many more bizarre and exciting things in the near future. Perhaps another post on the perks of translation in the future?

When you view a translated work, what factors affect your enjoyment and/or comprehension? What are your pet peeves? I know I follow a few translators on here too, and would love to hear what they have to say. Feel free to comment!

26 thoughts on “Translation is Hard: 5 Obstacles to a Good Translation

  1. I remember back then there was this person who actually read a Chinese novel translated into English yet the person didn’t enjoy the novel in the end because he never understood the context behind it. For him, it was a waste of money. And I’m like: “Why did you even buy it in the first place?”. This doesn’t even involves anime but the struggle is there.

    Ironically from where I come from, having knowledge in English is considered to be more in demand over my native tongue, which is Filipino, the national language, or Ilokano, a regional language. Hell, whenever anime is released here they prefer it in English subtitles over Filipino or any local language because to some it makes them cringe. Any anime released here is usually subtitled in English because they like it that way. I might’ve lost track there but the idea is there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. English is a prestige language in many parts of the world, and that’s also part of the reason I always get work to translate from Chinese to English and not the other way around (the other reason is that I’m significantly weaker at English-Chinese). It’s unfortunate that people give less credit to other awesome languages, but hopefully this will start to change in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a great article. You’re a translator? That’s awesome! I do hope to be good at being at least bilingual as I keep practicing some languages.

    You bring up very good points and I’ve noticed those things in anime before. I’ve taken Japanese classes during my high school years and during my senior year, I could probably hold my own in some Japanese conversations. Even now, I see things that don’t feel right with the wording or choices of translation especially if I still remember the word or words. With any language, there are words that you can’t directly translate into English.

    Some examples:

    Welsh: Hiraeth (A nostalgic sense of longing for a past that may or may not have existed)

    Kikongo/Kituba: Nsimba (Specifically refers to the first born twin sibling in a pair. In case you’re wondering, it’s unrelated to a certain Swahili word and name of a Hollywood ripoff of an anime character)

    Lao: Muan baw (One might make a slight translation to “fun”, but it’s a state of being to savor any positive moment in the day as opposed to working all the time)

    I guess one thing that annoys me when watching anime or at the very least non-English works, is when the subtitles try to make things super Americanized with the translations or adding profanity to be edgy even when the character isn’t swearing in their native language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for some of those words. I keep my own list of untranslatable words/phrases for fun too (could post about it if it might interest anyone).

      To localize or not is one of the biggest ongoing debates about translation, and I do tend to agree with you that over-Americanization kind of sucks. Still, translators for anime do have more leeway than academic translators, so I’d respect most interpretations that aren’t ridiculously off.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re certainly welcome. That’s amazing how you have an actual list with untranslatable words/phrases. I tip my hat off to you. Haha! You should give that a try. I’m sure there are ones in Lingala which I’ll have to find out other than Congolese food dishes like fumbwa or fufu.

        Sure thing. I don’t mind some of it if it fits a character, but the over-Americanization aspect can be very distracting if done wrong. The exception for that in my opinion is when they have anime characters with Kansai accents have subtitles and/or dub voices to reflect a Southern drawl given the comparisons with the grammar and perception of the respective accents compared to their accent neutral counterparts (ADV did this a TON back in the day), but only when done right. True that about anime translators having more leeway than the academic world since that makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, the accent thing is a good point, and I agree that replacing it with another English dialect is as close as it gets. Anime subtitling is a pretty amazing job!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeah. I’m glad you’ve noticed it, too. Some examples I could think of in anime with Kansai accents would be Osaka from Azumanga Daioh (obviously), Gin Ichimaru from Bleach, and the episode of Neo Ranga where they go to Osaka was fascinating in the dub because out of context, the characters could’ve gone to Texas or Alabama if they didn’t say they were in Japan’s 3rd largest city. Haha!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Haha. I never even noticed that Gin Ichimaru had an accent, and that’s because I watched Bleach before I knew enough Japanese to tell, and with Chinese subtitles that didn’t bother to simulate the accent. Little things like that really show how influential subs can be.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yup, he has a Kansai dialect. I remember some of the Bleach fansubs having his dialogue written as if it were a Southern drawl like him saying “y’all” or “Pleased to meetcha” for example. That’s such an interesting accent. However, the only thing I can say in Kansai Japanese is “Nanyatte?” (What was that?) only because of Yakitate!! Japan. Hahaha!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Hahaha! Yeah, that’s another good one. It’s fun learning about different languages, accents, and dialects. Funny enough, I just finished watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die 2 and it fascinating hearing some of the locals talk because their accents are completely different than most of England.


  3. Just wanted to say that you’re super cool, Moya! It’s a cool and admirable job. XD You’re helping others expand their knowledge about the world. Sorry to hear that you’re feeling burned out, I hope you feel better soon. ^^ 加油!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, thank you, Rose-senpai!

      It is indeed meaningful work (well…most of the time), but I just need a short break from it. Though I say that, I just picked up another project this morning (workaholicism is hard to combat, lol). Hoping to be back at it at full force soon!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s quite new to me! I’ve read several of Murakami’s works, but it never occurred to me that they might not be accessible to other audiences. Maybe I’m just Asian??


  4. Nice informative post! Well done!

    Something that bugs me in US translations of anime and live action films is when they think solely about appealing to the American market; for example, whenever money is discussed it is never “yen” in the subtitle but “dollars”! Everyone knows the currency of Japan so why change it to something so egregiously wrong? Makes no sense to me.

    Hope your translations aren’t that mendacious! 😉 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. The currency thing is a good point. I don’t mind too much when it happens, but it does irk me a bit when they turn “yen” into “dollar” and fail to convert the currency value.

      I often have to convert units of large numbers (in Chinese, large numbers are grouped in 4 zeros rather than 3), but they’d kill me if I ever did anything to the currency!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. First of all, major props to you for translating between two difficult languages. Seriously, I salute your efforts. Just translating for my parents to my co-workers knocked me out regularly when they visited to Japan.

    I really appreciated reading your thoughts as an academic translator. It brings up a lot of points that often get looked over when looking at fan translations, or non-academic translation!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This was a really interesting read. I worked at a translations company a couple of years ago and the word “localised” translation came up frequently. It’s was fascinating learning more about this.

    Liked by 1 person

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