How Not to Lose It in Translation.....

by Emily Shibata-Sato and Cliff Bender

“I can't believe it. My hands are shaking from excitement as I type this message!” replied Mako Sato upon hearing that she had won first place in the English- to-Japanese division of the First Annual JAT Translation Contest for new and aspiring translators sponsored by the Japan Association of Translators (JAT).

Winner in the Japanese-to-English division, Hiroyo Mori replied, “I thought there was very little chance that I would win, but that it would be a great learning experience for me. I rewrote the translated text many times, and I’m very glad that my effort paid off.”

What is JAT?

JAT is a Japan-based non-profit organization of professional translators founded in May 1985 as a spinoff of another professional organization called the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET). At present JAT has a membership of about 420 living all over the world, connected by a mailing list and the JAT website ( JAT members are translators and interpreters engaged mainly in translation and interpretation between Japanese and English languages. About 60% of the members live in Japan while the rest live primarily in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.

What is Translation?

—Some common misconceptions—

Within the industry, “translation” means to transfer the meaning of written content in one language to another language, while “interpreting” refers to the transfer of spoken content, although “translation” is often used in the general press as a generic term covering both practices.

Some people tend to believe that being bilingual is virtually an automatic license to be a translator, but that is like saying anyone that can walk can be a top marathoner. Just as the ability to speak two languages does not make one bilingual, bilingualism does not guarantee good writing skills, much less a talent for translating. An online manual titled “Working with Translators” (available from [the JAT website]) describes “Translation is more than just a mechanical exercise in looking up words in a dictionary and substituting the grammatical constructions of one language for those of another. Often there is no one-to-one equivalence between words in different languages—for instance, a particular word might have different emotional connotations in the other language. A professional translator will be aware of these potential difficulties and know how to cope with them. One veteran translator asserts that you need at least five years full-time experience to be a full-fledged translator.”

Some people think that if you are a translator, you should be able to translate in both directions— for example, from Japanese to English (JE) and from English to Japanese (EJ). Generally speaking, it is very rare for a translator to be able to translate equally well in both directions, even if both languages are spoken fluently.

Particularly in Japan, many people think of translating literature if they think of translation at all. But very few JAT members translate primarily literature. Most are engaged in commercial and technical translation dealing with corporate documents of all kinds from nuclear engineering to cosmetics marketing, patents on next-generation electronics, exciting video manuals, and scintillating government documents.

Some people think that machine translation will soon eliminate the need for human translation and that translators will lose their jobs. Fortunately for us human translators, machine translation is still far from being perfect, especially between languages like English and Japanese with totally different grammatical systems. More basically, computers still cannot think and are unable to understand language as it is spoken and used by people, partly because our spoken language is dynamic and continues to evolve year after year.

Translation Contest?

In early 2004 the JAT Board of Directors discussed how to commemorate the organization's 20th anniversary in 2005. JAT President Paul Flint, who came up with the idea of holding a translation contest, recalled that “we wanted to start a meaningful new project to encourage, recognize, and reward excellent translators and to promote JAT and the profession of translation.” His proposal was approved by the board, and the first thing we decided was to sponsor a contest directed to what we do: translate the nitty-gritty texts used in business and government. After all, there are other translation contests for literary translation, like the Shizuoka International Translation Competition.

We then decided that the contest would: (a) target new translators—both JAT and non-JAT members—with fewer than three years of commercial translation experience, (b) have both English-to-Japanese (“EJ”) and Japanese-to-English (“JE”) translation divisions and, (c) invite the first-place winners in both divisions to the International Japanese/English Translation Conference (IJET)—JAT's annual translation conference—as part of the prize.

Launching a Contest

Our first challenge was to recruit qualified judges from among veteran JAT members (three judges in each division), but what was even more difficult was to find suitable texts for the two divisions. From among a dozen or so candidate texts for the JE division, ranging from a book review to a stock analysis, we chose a passage from a government white paper on how to make it easier for young couples (women in particular) to balance work and child-rearing and to counter today’s declining birth rate. For the EJ division we chose a New York Times article titled "A Recipe for Disaster on Your Kitchen Counter" discussing kitchen hygiene and food safety.

The source texts were made available on the JAT website on September 1, 2004. By the September 30 deadline, 40 people had returned entries in the EJ division, and 24 people had entered in the JE division. After two-and-a-half months of screening and discussion among the judges— looking for the best demonstration of a good understanding of the source text, including technical terms, and ability to write an accurate and readable translation in the target language—the judges announced the first-place winners: Mako Sato from Singapore (EJ) and Hiroyo Mori from Tokyo (JE). Second place went to Yuko Tamaki and Mika Fujiki in the EJ division and to Jed Schmidt in the JE division.

IJET-16 in Chicago

Six months after the announcement of the contest winners, over 100 professional translators gathered in the Windy City at the Westin River North Hotel to attend the IJET-16 Conference from June 3 to 6. Participants ranged from veterans to first-timers and from translators of electronics, biomedicine, pharmaceuticals, and other highly technical fields to those specializing in anime or tanka poetry. Two full days of sessions were led off with a keynote address from Cornelius Iida, a former English-Japanese U.S. State Department interpreter who interpreted for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The break-out sessions covered topics from the translation business to biometrics and beyond. A highlight of every IJET, starting with the first IJET conference held in 1990 in Hakone, Japan, is the Saturday night banquet, and this year was no different.

Session on the Contest

One of the panel sessions at IJET-16 was “The JAT Translation Contest: A Learning Experience.” Panel members included Mako Sato, who flew in from Singapore, Jed Schmidt, the JE second-place winner, Ken Wagner as one of the judges, and contest organizers Emily Shibata-Sato and Cliff Bender.

We first reviewed the source texts, explained the judging method and discussed some of the common problems faced by the contestants. Mr. Wagner explained his method of judging based on a method used by the ATA for their certification test. In the ATA system translation “errors” are marked using about twenty criteria including ten in the “mistranslation into target language” group, with categories like “addition,” “omission,” “too freely translated,” “too literal,” and “ambiguous.”

Ms. Sato and Mr. Schmidt then talked about challenges they faced when translating the text.

The first thing Ms. Sato emphasized was that a translator should be familiar with the subject and should use common sense in translating the text: “I cannot help feeling how lucky I was. The theme of the English-Japanese translation question happened to be about safety in the kitchen. As a housewife I could easily relate to and clearly visualize the matters discussed in the article by relying on what I do everyday in my kitchen. I enjoyed the article so much that to this day, I continue to practice a couple of tips I picked up from the article, such as ‘washing my hands for 20 seconds and having two cutting boards.’ However, relying on personal experience had its drawbacks. Although I could easily visualize the items discussed in the article from personal experience, I found myself mixed up by visualization where what was written in the article was in conflict with the image I had. This was the passage stating ‘the temperature in the freezer should be 0 degrees’ but [it] didn’t say ‘Fahrenheit.’ This passage brought to my mind the picture of a refrigerator dial that read 0. A little common sense could have told me that ice cream would start to melt at 0 degree Celsius, but I had such a clear image of the normal refrigerator dial that I just translated this part as 0 Celsius, but it should have been -18 Celsius.”

Secondly, she pointed out the importance of doing research. “This contest also taught me the usefulness of the Internet in translation work. For example, the article had the term ‘cooking thermometer.’ I knew what it meant, but I did not know how to say it in Japanese. I checked both the US and Japanese web sites giving information relating to thermometers, to make sure what it means and how it is called in Japanese. The search was very useful.”

The issues of subject familiarity and research were later endorsed by Ms. Mori, the JE first-place winner, when she attended a JAT “Post-IJET report” meeting held in late June in Tokyo. "I was surprised to find out that all the entries were placed under such thorough scrutiny and evaluated strictly—word by word, phrase by phrase, fact by fact. After reading all the comments, I feel all the more honored to have been awarded in this first JAT translation contest. Tm now taking a translation course on government documents so I was familiar with the style of the source text. At least, it was not as difficult as the Defense White Paper, one of the assignments I did just before I learned about the contest. Finding the official names of the ministry and other organizations on the Internet was not much of a problem.”

Second Annual JAT Translation Contest

Based on the success of the First Annual JAT Translation Contest, JAT will hold the contest for the second year. The source texts for the contest are available early September. For further information please visit the JAT website at