Teaching Japanese-to-English Translation

by James L. Davis

In the Technical Japanese Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we teach Japanese-to-English translation in conjunction with Japanese language instruction. Separating translation skills from language skills is a tricky business, and completely separating the two tends to be impossible. However, as we move from the basic level to the intermediate level and finally to the advanced level, one can identify three key processes and an overarching concept that I believe are essential for teaching translation.

The first process is analysis of the source text. In principle, this involves document analysis [observing the overall flow of ideas from paragraph to paragraph], paragraph analysis [recognizing the function of each sentence and the relationship among the various sentences in a paragraph] and sentence analysis [untangling the structure of a sentence to identify the main clause(s) and whatever modifying information may be associated with each portion of each main clause]. By moving from larger units to smaller units, I encourage the student to grasp the general ideas of the text, which are often easier to understand, before moving into the detailed grammar and vocabulary of individual phrases. Gaining a "sense of the document" allows the student to make an "educated guess" when confronted with a difficult grammatical construction (I tell students that there is nothing wrong with an "educated guess." It is the "uneducated guess" that we are trying to eliminate).

We assume that each word or phrase has a specific function or plays an identifiable role in a sentence. We attempt to parse each sentence and then link each resulting word or phrase to some other word or phrase. This technique helps students to identify the detailed structure of the text, so that the writer's intended meaning will become clear. Understanding the rules or conventions of grammar in the source language is certainly essential in this regard. If certain words have been omitted--a common feature of Japanese writing--the student must identify the missing topic, subject, or object. When a pronoun is used, the student must identify the antecedent, so that the flow of ideas will be rendered accurately. A potentially more difficult task is to distinguish between the literal use of a word (or a series of words) and the figurative use of one or more terms. The recognition of idiomatic expressions, literary or historical allusions, or humor clearly requires extensive exposure to the target language. These literary devices share the characteristic that the "whole" is greater than the sum of the "parts." For this reason, I believe that such devices present the greatest difficulty to students. Most students are very aware of their own limitations and are extremely hesitant to move beyond a literal analysis of a sentence in the source language to seek a more complex solution. I seek to expose advanced students to such literary devices while they still have the opportunity to receive constructive feedback, so that they will be better prepared when they encounter such devices in the "real world."

The second process requires the translator to obtain a detailed understanding of the content of each sentence (Translation without understanding is not really translation at all, but rather, an exercise in pattern matching). Field-specific knowledge--however it may be acquired--plays a critical role in successfully recognizing and understanding the concepts and the linguistic tools that writers use to convey information, to introduce a particular concept, or to argue a certain position. With sufficient background knowledge, one may build upon an accurate analysis of a sentence to establish the main points of the sentence. The translator can then embellish the main clause(s) with whatever modifying clauses or other secondary information may be present. When grammatical analysis of a sentence in the source text yields more than one possible interpretation of the content of that sentence, the translator's field-specific knowledge will be the factor that makes the difference between a correct translation and an erroneous one. It is during this process that references such as dictionaries, glossaries, encyclopedias, and websites prove their worth. In particular, the translator must reexamine the source text, consult additional references, or (preferably) both when the apparent meaning (based on textual analysis) of the source text conflicts either with the translator's field-specific knowledge or with information gathered from reliable references. This problem is a daunting one for many students. Intermediate-level students frequently indicate in footnotes that they know their translations contain inconsistencies but they cannot identify the source of their misunderstanding. Such a situation provides an excellent opportunity to enhance the students' understanding by resolving the conflict(s).

The third process is the expression in the target language of the ideas gleaned from the source text. Familiarity with the "language of the field" is the most important requirement at this stage, since the words and phrases in the target language are the translator's primary vehicles for conveying the writer's meaning to the target audience. In the best case, the translator is able to make the connection between the meaning of a collection of words and the customary manner of presenting that information in the field in question. The more specialized the subject matter, the more important the manner of expression becomes. Of course, this means that the student must become familiar with common patterns of expression in the target language in the particular field(s) in which the translator will specialize. Developing and maintaining such familiarity by regularly reading or scanning target language publications (in paper or electronic form) are just as important for a successful translation career as are the abilities to untangle and understand sentences in the source language.

The overarching concept is "context." In both Japanese and English, there are certainly instances in which a particular word or expression can convey different meanings in different situations. This means that the translator must continually keep in mind both the larger context (characteristics such as the type of document, the field or discipline with which the content of the document is associated, the purpose of the document, and the intended audience for the document) and the smaller context (the position and function of a given sentence or paragraph within the document itself). The single word that I use most frequently in class during the course of an academic year is probably "context." Context cuts across all three of the processes mentioned above. Based on my own experience, I believe that the two most difficult aspects of teaching translation are teaching people how to extract as much information as possible from the context and training people to ensure that the resulting translation is faithful to the context.

Students often approach translation with the idea that translation is carried out in a linear fashion (analysis -> understanding -> expression). Many efforts in machine translation (or computer-assisted translation) seem to have been designed with that idea in mind. In reality, my observation is that translation consists of a series of loops, in which the translator's brain carries out numerous iterations among all three processes, with frequent references to context in order to either foreshadow upcoming information or confirm the "reasonable" nature of information already encountered. If we peek inside the brain of an experienced translator, all four elements (analysis, understanding, expression and context) might appear to be invoked simultaneously. Of course, we cannot teach translation that way, so we necessarily focus on one element at a time.

In the Wisconsin program, we spend most of our time in the basic and intermediate-level courses working on analysis of the text. We do this for two reasons: 1) this is usually the process that is most difficult for people with little experience with the source language to master by themselves, and 2) this is a process that cuts across many technical fields, so people with different specialties can learn useful information in a group setting. At these levels (basic and intermediate), we employ a common text and common assignments for all students in a given course. However, as we move from the intermediate level to the advanced level we shift our emphasis from textual analysis to understanding and expression. This means that more of the burden to acquire specialized knowledge shifts to the student. At this level, an instructor can introduce translation assignments that are customized for individual students. This allows each student to spend more time working with vocabulary and concepts that are related to the work that the translator will do after completing the program. We offer uniform instruction at the basic and intermediate levels (at which there is the greatest likelihood that students can benefit from each other's questions), and we provide individualized learning at the advanced level (at which students are able to develop their skills in specialized fields). The emphasis on context, however, runs through every course in our program.

These three processes (analysis, understanding, and expression) and this concept (context) represent the essential elements in our efforts to teach Japanese-to-English translation. When our students reach the point that they can combine these four elements as they prepare their own translations, we know that we have succeeded.

James L. Davis is Associate Professor and Director of the Technical Japanese Program in the Department of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A licensed Professional Engineer, he has worked as a chemical engineer in industry and he has also conducted research as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Kyoto University. He has been teaching technical Japanese at the University of Wisconsin since 1990. He served as Administrator of the Japanese Language Division of the ATA from 1993-95 and is ATA-accredited in Japanese-to-English.