I often encountered these problems while working as a freelance Japanese-to-English translator. As such, I was always wrestling with the decision to translate word-for-word, or what the text implied. I wanted readers to be able to appreciate the unique phrases and idioms, and come to understand the text via their own interpretations; yet, at the same time, I feared there would be misinterpretation.
Yet, it is precisely this lack of equivalence to another language that made me realise that undergirding every phrase, expression, and word was culture. Through evading, or even resisting, translation, their uniqueness to the specific culture is emphasized. Such phrases as “木漏れ日,” “青葉雨,” and “物の哀れ” reveal a heightened sensitivity to nature and ephemerality in everyday life that is unique to the Japanese. The degree of specificity and particularity of these terms exemplify the extent of care and attention that is given to nature in Japanese culture, something that sets it apart from others in the world. The honorific form 敬語, on the other hand, echoes the social hierarchies and seniority systems that are distinct to Japanese society. (Admittedly, Korean also has an honorific form, and this can be traced to certain overlaps in the histories of the two languages, but that discussion is for another time, another article). Thus, translation may not necessarily only entail a loss of information, but also a gain in insight; it helps us detect what we lose when switching languages.
In retrospect, it took taking on the perspective of a foreign language learner—an “outsider”—to gain a heightened sensitivity to the quirks of each language. Mayhap it is as the Chinese saying goes: “旁观者清
Not all words are put through the wringer, though. Every language has words that are loaned directly from the foreign language, perhaps in acknowledgement of its origins. For example, English directly borrows “tsunami (津波)” from Japanese, “dim sum (dím sām)” and “kowtow (kǎutàu)” from Cantonese, and “fengshui (风水)” from Chinese. While a literal translation and not a loanword, the term “brainwashing” was also borrowed from the Chinese word “洗脑
As hamburgers were introduced to Asia, the Chinese have taken to calling it “汉堡包 (hàn bǎo bāo),” the Japanese “ハンバーガー (hanbāgā),” the Koreans “햄버거 (haembeogeo),” and the Malays, simply, “hamburger.” It is not always obvious to native language speakers that they are actually using loanwords due to their normalisation and ubiquity within their own language. An assimilation of languages has thus occurred. Is this the way to subvert translation, then? To simply borrow and adapt? Are there any merits to subverting translation, though? And is there even such a need?Translation may not necessarily only entail a loss of information, but also a gain in insight; it helps us detect what we lose when switching languages.
At the very core, translation is an act performed in an attempt to understand. I would not say that it transcends boundaries, but it definitely serves as a bridge between cultures, societies, and individuals. Especially in our contemporary world of continual, rapid globalization, translation would certainly be viewed as necessary and a tremendous boon for cross-cultural exchange. Regardless of its imperfections, it is a powerful tool imperative to navigating the modern age. However, could translation also be viewed as an attempt to compel others to conform? To exert cultural dominance? By force-fitting another language into the lexis and linguistic rules of another, are we disregarding the nuance, context and historical origins of the source language and imposing that of the other upon it? No language exists in isolation. As various cultures interact, so do languages. And in our current world that adheres to the upward trend on pluralism, it is our imperative to be discerning of both the gains and losses when we attempt to translate one to the other, to be aware of the value that lies in understanding the original language, to realise that a language is more than its technical make-up and carries the weight of its history and culture, and to be aware of the subtle ways it influences how we interact with the world. f