by Phil Robertson

(Note on terminology: since the terms “translation” and “interpreting” are often confused with one another in books and news media, it is worth reiterating that “translation” refers solely to the rendering of the written word into another language. The terms “source language” and “target language” refer respectively to the language of the original text and the language into which it is translated. Finally, three abbreviations are used for convenience: J2E for “Japanese to English”, NSE for “native speaker of English” and NSJ for “native speaker of Japanese”.)

Something is rotten in the state of the J2E translation market in Japan. In Europe it is axiomatic that a translator should only translate into his or her own native language. Thus, only a native German speaker will undertake an English to German translation. The underlying rationale is that even a person who has studied another language in considerable depth will inevitably have a greater “active” command of his native language than of his second language. The term “active” denotes a language user’s ability to identify the proper word in a given context (with or without recourse to a dictionary), to use technical terminology and idiom, and to accurately craft natural sounding sentences. (In contrast, “passive” facility in a language denotes the ability to comprehend text or speech in the language.) A true bilingual may have an equally well developed active facility in two languages, but such people are extremely rare.

Translation is essentially a two stage process, consisting of thorough comprehension of the source text followed by precise rendition of the meaning into the target language in written form. Only the second of these—the writing stage—requires an active command of the language in question (the target language). Thus it follows that a translator ought to be a native speaker of the target language, not of the source language. Reinforcing this argument is the sad reality that relatively few people are capable of writing well in their own native language—let alone in one that they have acquired through study. The number of people who can also write well in a language other than their own is much lower still, and the great majority of these are undoubtedly people working in pairs of languages that are structurally similar, such as English and French, or Japanese and Korean. For language pairs that are as structurally dissimilar as English and Japanese, people with strong writing ability in both are sufficiently rare as to be effectively non existent.

In Japan, however, where there is a huge market for J2E translation of documents, the caveat that only native speakers of the target language should be used for translation goes largely ignored. Much of this J2E material ends up being translated by native Japanese speakers—often with dire results. There are several reasons why this situation has arisen.

First, there is a shortage of proficient NSE translators. Japanese is still a fringe language in terms of study in English speaking countries (although Australia is leading the way in attempting to rectify this state of affairs). As a result, the number of NSEs who have attained a level of Japanese reading ability that is high enough to enable them to translate effectively has traditionally been fairly modest. (The increasing prevalence of PC based and on line dictionaries, which obviate the need for the translator to know the pronunciation of kanji in order to look them up has gone some way to alleviating this situation.) Hence, it might sometimes be difficult for an individual or company who requires J2E translation to find a suitable NSE translator who is available.

Second, for reasons of cost, some companies with no foreign staff opt to translate in house, and the task is routinely assigned to the resident NSJ who is perceived as having the highest level of English ability—no matter how limited this may be.

Third, there is a perception in Japan that Japanese is such a complex and subtle language that only NSJs can understand its nuances well enough to translate from Japanese into another language—the logical extension of this being that no NSE can ever attain sufficient Japanese comprehension ability to be able to adequately render the meaning of a source text into English.

Fourth, there is a belief in Japan that the best way to manage a J2E translation task is to have an NSJ familiar with the subject matter translate the source text into English and an NSE checker then edit the resulting English text to produce a polished final version. The assumption here is that although the Japanese translator’s English may not be perfect, his output will be of sufficient clarity for the editor to easily divine the correct meaning and turn it into natural English.

Fifth, a significant proportion of NSE J2E translators are significantly less adept at speaking Japanese than at comprehending written Japanese (as these are two quite distinct skills). This makes it difficult for them to convince potential clients that they can be entrusted with J2E translation projects, as the client may judge their suitability on the strength of their spoken ability (as irrelevant as this is to translation ability).

Sixth, some English documents are intended purely “for show”—that is, as cosmetic devices that are not intended to be read or understood. Hence, the quality of the English is immaterial and machine translation (or random number generator) output could equally well be used.

However, experience has consistently demonstrated that the various rationales for using non NSE translators for J2E translation are fundamentally flawed. Twenty years ago Japan was universally admired for the quality and quantity of its consumer electronic devices, but was a laughing stock for the English contained in the user’s manuals for these devices, which provided a stark illustration of the need to avoid non native writing in any language in the commercial arena. To a large extent, Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers have rectified this problem and now produce manuals of a quality commensurate with the products themselves. However, English text authored by NSJs is still prevalent in Japan, and can readily be seen in company reports, in corporate promotional literature, on company websites, and on barely comprehensible signs in public places such as airports, conference centres and sports stadia throughout the country.

Two of the reasons cited above for the continuing reliance on NSJs for J2E translation merit further discussion. The belief that only an NSJ can appreciate the subtleties of the Japanese language well enough to render the meaning correctly in English is pure rubbish, and denigrates the intelligence and diligence of numerous non Japanese students of the language. As mentioned above, the translation process requires only a passive understanding of the source language, and a diligent student could quite conceivably acquire a passive command of Japanese that approximates to that of an NSJ.

The notion that acceptable J2E translation might be produced by an NSE checker correcting the output of an NSJ translator is not so easily dismissed. (The arrangement may indeed be workable under ideal conditions, under which the NSE checker would have unlimited access to the NSJ translator for clarification of questionable points; however, this is rarely the case in practice.) The operative word here, however, is “acceptable”. The process of editing non native English rarely results in text that reads smoothly. More importantly, the individual or company commissioning the translation will often seriously over estimate the translator’s level of English ability and under estimate the degree of difficulty that the NSE checker will encounter in divining the intended meaning. Thus, in practice misunderstandings are highly likely to occur between the translator and checker, resulting in errors of meaning and nuance. Hence, the final text will be prone to imperfection—in terms of both accuracy and style.

Claims of efficacy for the NSJ translator/NSE checker combination in J2E translation are often buttressed with the argument that an NSJ translator with specialist knowledge of the field in question will make a better job of a translation than an NSE who lacks knowledge of the field. This is a complete red herring, however. A translator will naturally have a significant advantage if he possesses knowledge of the subject, and of the technical vocabulary and phraseology used in the relevant literature. However, this alone will not be sufficient to overcome the deficiencies inherent in using a non native translator, as outlined above. What is true is that high quality J2E translation of specialist material requires an NSE translator who possesses a sufficient level of understanding of the subject matter and adequate knowledge of the attendant terminology. However, this is a matter that is entirely separate from the issue of the translator’s native language.

What, then, is the best way to maximise J2E translation quality? Experience has demonstrated that consistently excellent results can be obtained by using the following process: first, a qualified NSE translator with knowledge of the subject matter translates the source document; second, an NSJ checker with an advanced level of English ability checks the translation against the original source text and points out any outright errors or mistakes in nuance; and third, an NSE editor (not the original translator) incorporates the NSJ checker’s corrections into the translated text and performs a final stylistic edit and check for accuracy. The two NSEs are thus making maximum use of their active facility in English, while the NSJ is bringing to bear his likely superior passive facility with Japanese. This use of high quality personnel and three pairs of eyes is a proven method of achieving a near perfect translation that will read as smoothly as an original document written in English. For individuals and organisations that are aware of the potential ultimate costs of bad translation, recourse to such an approach should be a matter of priority.