by Fred Uleman

Meaning-centric translation:
What it means and and why I write about it

What it means

When you start learning a language, you spend a lot of time on vocabulary and grammar. As you advance, you do some practice translations for teachers who are primarily interested in seeing if you understand the vocabulary and the grammar. So your translations tend to reflect the vocabulary and grammar. Even if they are awkward, you do this to show that you understand these things. And you think these translations are faithful to the original.
But in the real world of commercial translation, we need a different kind of fidelity. We need to be faithful not to the vocabulary and grammar but to the meaning. The meaning needs to be the center of focus. We need to do meaning-centric translation.

Why I bother

All too often, people assume that the kind of translation that won them good grades in college will win the work in the real world. They assume their translations are good because all of the words have been translated and the grammar has been replicated. So they need to be told: This is not so. The standards are different outside of the classroom. In the non-university world, you are not translating for your language professor. You are translating for your client—for someone who assumes you understand the vocabulary and the grammar and who wants you to recreate the document in another language so people who read that target language can get the same things out of it that source-language readers get. As such, it should not read like a translation. It should read like a source document. And I am writing this so you can learn from me rather than from your mistakes.

Two examples

Several months ago, I jokingly suggested a friend do something that is clearly illegal. Her response was essentially そのことをやったら手が後に回る. Literally, this might translate as: If I do that, my hands will go behind me. But that does not make any sense at all in English. More understandably, it is that she would be arrested—that she would end up doing time. (Note that “do time” cannot be back-translated into Japanese as 時間をする. Like your hands going behind your back in English, it does not mean anything.)

“We’re meeting to study that on Friday.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”

How do you translate this? Let me offer a word-faithful version and a meaning-faithful version:


良く言ってくれた。or simply 良かった。

Everything is an idiom

“But,” I hear you saying, “those are idioms. They’re the exceptions.” And I reply: “Idioms are the norm.” If you are used to looking at the first definition/translation in the dictionary, most of what you read is idioms. Take the simple word “get,” for example. You can get (得る) a present. You can get (得る) a black eye. But how can you get (得る) sick? How can you get (得る) married? How can you get (得る) lost or get (得る) older? You cannot. In those cases, “get” is more なる. But even then, we do not talk about “get married” and translate it as 既婚者になる. We translate that as 結婚する. When we talk about “getting up” in the morning, it is not アップを得る or 上になる. It is 起きる. When you talk about getting a joke, “get” is not 得る or なる but 理解する. How you translate something depends upon the context. It depends upon what it means—not on what the words are or on how the grammar is structured. That is why even the same phrase means different things in different contexts. “Get him out” in a baseball game is not the same as “get him out” of a burning building.

Most other words are the same. 溺れる can be either “drown” if the person dies or “flailing about in the water” if he is rescued in time. “Thermometer” can be either 温度計 or 体温計 depending upon what it is used for. “Brother” can be 兄, 弟, or even 仲間 depending upon the context. One of the terms with the longest history of being mechanically translated—and hence mistranslated—is “Dear John.” This is traditionally 親愛なるジョン様. But a “Dear John letter” is a letter that a woman writes to tell a man she is ending their relationship. There is nothing 親愛 about it. And in such cases, it is much closer to 拝啓 than anything else. Likewise, looking just at “dear,” the standard form of address for writing to the President is “Dear Mr President.” Would you translate that as 親愛なる大統領様? Of course not. It is 拝啓大統領閣下. And if the letter were really to a lover, wouldn’t she be more likely to write 愛しいあなた in Japanese? If you are translating, it is essential you look beyond the words and the grammar and think about what the passage really means. If there is meaning between the lines, your translation also has to have that meaning between the lines. If the source text is unclear on purpose (as sometimes happens with political texts), your translation also has to be unclear—and unclear the same way—on purpose. If the source text reads smoothly, your translation also has to read smoothly. Just as you should not omit meaning, you should not add new meaning or add new awkwardness in the translation.

Meaning-centric quality

The whole point of translating something is so someone who reads the translation will get the same content—both hard information and soft information—as someone who reads the source text gets. Meaning is the over-riding consideration. What does the source text mean? How can I convey that meaning in the target language? The words and the grammar are only important because they carry the meaning. Feel free to ignore them when they get in the way. This is the key to doing good translation.