This article by Dr. David Petersen originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of the Tsuyaku-Honyaku Journal. Reprinted with permission.

Aside from a few volunteer projects, my start in translation profession was with a private school in Hiroshima where I was employed as a teacher. The English department had taken on responsibility for a visiting author who was writing a novel about the atomic bombing. She had amassed a series of transcripts taken from interviews in Japanese with atomic bomb victims, and came to us looking for a clean English version. The project was to take 6 months. Although the department accepted the work, this was its first venture into translation, and there was no one available to deal with the task on a full-time basis. Knowing of my interest in becoming a translator, I was given a portion of the responsibility, and eventually the better part of the material ended up on my desk.

The opportunity was exciting and the material meaningful, but the pragmatics were daunting. The problem was the mismatch between my sterile textbook Japanese and text in front of me, with its fits and starts, colloquial grammar, incomplete sentences, and emotional tone. Under pressure for time and not wanting to embarrass the school, I ended up organizing a kind of team-translation situation with several of my Japanese study partners: I would read the transcripts for gist, and discuss with my mentors what I felt the speaker was trying to convey. They would correct my intuition, which tended to stray from the text particularly in the more idiomatic passages. I would then take my notes from these meetings, and through comparison with the original, arrive at an English equivalent at a later date. The structure of the product we ultimately delivered reflected the choice to focus on conveying the main ideas as clearly as possible in colloquial English, rather than preserving the structure of the transcripts. I think of this as target language-based translation because of the distance from the source text, particularly during the production of the final draft.

A full-time opportunity eventually opened up at one of the larger translation agencies in Hiroshima. Accepting this offer provided my first exposure to the work methods of professional translators, the start of a valuable and sometimes painful exposure to a completely different perspective on dealing with text. The key aspect of the approach was what I refer to as source language-based translation, because of the degree to which the terminology and rhythms of the final product were constrained by those of the original document. The conservative emphasis on preserving as much of the structure of the Japanese as possible in the final copy yielded work that, while not always aesthetically pleasing, could rarely be faulted for accuracy. It was a conservative style, reflecting years of dealing with customer expectations.

It became evident in discussion with the writers that source-based translation is closely associated with thinking in terms of mapping - the notion that there is always an equivalent in the target domain for a given word or phrase in the source language. Less convincing was the implication in office practices that such correlations should be considered invariant and largely unaffected by context. (Hofstadter takes a diametrically opposed position in discussing the need for evolutionary models if machine translation is ever to offer a realistic alternative to human expertise.)

In fact, company policy dictated that the same word in Japanese should be translated with the same choice of word in English regardless of how many times the phrase appeared in the same document. There is a good lot of repetition in Japanese, particularly in technical articles, and not surprisingly, following this rule inevitably produces materials that seemed stilted and lacking in authenticity. Yet more natural copy was dismissed as barabara (inconsistent) because of the violation of the mapping principle. In defense of the agency, assuring consistency was important given the nature of the material, which primarily consisted of patents, company standards and instruction manuals. As far as the customer was concerned, overuse of synonyms implied a nonexistent variance in the source text, something that could potentially mislead the reader. From their perspective, the artificial tone of the final product was a small price to pay for clarity.

Other aspects of the office organization also implicitly favored production of source language-biased copy. Each translated document was reviewed by at least one other person (usually Japanese) before delivery to the customer. Selection of more natural turns of phrase in English, and particularly the use of colloquialisms, increased the likelihood that the checker would be unfamiliar with the material and would thus flag the sentence for confirmation. The ensuing “hassle factor” was even worse in the case of client reviewers associated with certain companies, who could be counted on to reply with a list of detailed questions on word choice and syntax requiring an extensive explanation (in Japanese). The concomitant loss of time and stream of thought could be avoided by ensuring that the structure of the translation never strayed far from that of the original text.

Additionally, office promotion of computer-assisted translation (CAT) was wholly congruent with the focus on source language structure. As those familiar with TRADOS and other such products are aware, the software provides a database for comparison of previous translations both within and across documents. The active sentence is compared with all previous material. Anything judged sufficiently similar is recalled for the user, along with its corresponding translation. The previous work can typically be modified to suit the present case with only a substitution or two of nouns, thus speeding up the handling of documents considerably.

In gradually adapting to the way in which the software deconstructs the text, I found that my “conceptual space” was contracting from page or paragraph down to the level of the sentence, a factor which curtailed any temptation to read for gist and then paraphrase. It was difficult to build up elaborate explanations in the target language because of the constraint of providing approximately one English sentence per Japanese sentence. Working with CAT also tends to promote a kind of abstract thinking with respect to the material, focusing attention squarely on the syntax of the source language. Nouns take on a disposable quality thanks to the recycling of previous sentences, and the text becomes somehow less about content and more about form – primarily the abstract pattern of particles and verbs.

This I believe was responsible for what I see as the largest benefit of source language emphasis, i.e. the ability to adapt quickly when faced with technical materials in fields outside of one’s own areas of expertise. Learning to ignore the complexities of the placeholders in favor of the essential form - "A acting on B during C” for example, made it easier to visualize what the writer was attempting to convey, and to then fashion an equivalent in English.

The arrival of a new recruit provided an opportunity to examine the question of source/target emphasis anew from a more objective perspective. This person's background included no use of CAT: their process involved an initial reading for meaning, followed by an intuitive translation guided by the principle that the finished product must sound as if it had been produced originally by a native English speaker. The approach was hardly radical, but quickly led to friction with the other staff.

Fidelity to content for example was frequently an issue. Particularly in business Japanese, there are long stretches of prose tied to levels of politeness not normally utilized in English correspondence. If it is difficult to find an equivalent image or tone, there is a tendency to abbreviate, a habit which can betray the tone of the original if not used sparingly. In fact, the new recruit’s “authentic sounding document” rule was gradually augmented by a concomitant and less commendable rule of thumb – i.e. “if in doubt, leave it out.” Use of the latter heuristic was further reinforced by inevitable time constraints arising from stylistic concerns.

Target language emphasis was also problematic given the diversity of source materials. While a translator must of necessity be committed to continuous study, the ideal of operating only within one’s field of expertise is rarely an economically viable option. During the course of a typical day at the agency, it was not unusual to be faced with a private letter, a financial statement, specifications for semiconductor production, and an overview of the municipal water supply, all in quick succession. In this kind of triage situation, stylistic concerns become less important than providing as accurate and unambiguous a text as possible in the time available. This means keeping a close eye on the syntax of the original, and assuming that the result will make sense in the specialist context in which is it will be read. My peer’s commendable attempts to match the writing to each field in question meant being constantly under the gun as far as deadlines were concerned.

My circumstances have changed, and I have returned to working a more manageable schedule. Reflecting back the experience at the agency, I am left with a sense of the importance of balance. The policy of source-based translation was a pragmatic one, intended to maximize the throughput of material and hence profits. The results were often stilted, and there was certainly no comparison with the stylistic quality of my peer’s work. Yet there are times, particularly in unfamiliar fields, where the best assurance of correct interpretation is to internalize the grammar of the original and to give it precedence in the writing. In fact, I find myself now using computer assisted translation even with literary texts in which there is no chance of repetition. The reason is that focusing on the level of the line and its syntax helps to structure intuition. Staying close to the grammar of the original provides cohesion, thereby grounding the aesthetic choices that constitute the creative process in which we are all involved.