Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Translating

The resulting translation must convey not only the cultural context of the speaker but also the intended impact on the audience.

* * * * *

A friend of mine, as an exercise to learn Japanese, started to translate the lyrics of his favorite Japanese pop idols’ songs. Knowing I was a native Japanese speaker, he would ask me to review his translations. I saw why his love for these meticulously coiffed young women grew. He understood the translations cannot be literal, so he accepted my frequent corrections of the phrasings of common expressions. Beyond these expressions, even if each word can be literally translated, the Japanese grammar is such that the word order does not mirror that of English’s subject verb/predicate. When translated word per word, his translations came out as if Yoda was speaking of his teenage love. It was hard for him to stop inverting his English, because it projected an air of mystique and profound wisdom on behalf of these J-pop idols (who probably learned more choreographs for their songs than any classic poetry, literature or philosophy)—all unintended, of course. For example, “I have never known love until now” (how a Japanese audience might “hear” the song), because of the Japanese word order and lack of explicitly stated subjects, when translated literally, can become “until now, love, never known”.

Later, an acquaintance who dabbled in editing translated works, emphasized the importance of taking into account the impact the text was supposed to have on the reader, as well as the authenticity and the cultural context of the information written by the author.

I recalled these memories again when a Danish language classmate suggested the politeness level of “Tak skal du have” (an expression of thank you in Danish, literally translated as “thanks you shall have”, due to its “passive” sounding nature. My Danish friends, however, tell me that’s just what you say, because just saying “Tak (thanks)” seems too abrupt, and it is on the same level of politeness as “Tak for det (literally, “thank you for that”). This is Denmark, where being polite means ignoring others, so even the more longwinded, “Tak skal du have” turns into “Taks u heh” when pronounced (so, for the longest time, i thought they were saying “Tak for det” but with an “s” at the end of Tak…but that’s another story).

It is kinda fun to pretend that I’m actually saying “thanks you shall have” (could it be something overheard from an episode of “Game of Thrones”?) when I’m saying “Tak skal du have” in Danish. To overemphasize that those are just expressions to be memorized in context of when it should be used and how it will be taken, I went around the whole day using common Danish expressions literally translated into English, when speaking in English… e.g., the response to how are you in Danish is “Jeg har det godt. (I have it good.)” so I would go around saying “I have it good today.” in English. No matter how many times I said it, I could never get it to lose the English meaning of “having it good” when I was responding to “how are you”. Perhaps this is why many foreign language teachers swear by teaching only in the language students are supposed to learn and not provide literally translated meanings in the students’ mother tongue.

2013-08-17 17.51.55


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This entry was posted on February 3, 2015 by in Culture, Denmark, Japan, language, Travel and tagged , , , , .
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