How faithful are you to the original sentence?
Thread poster: 952313 (X)

952313 (X)

Local time: 19:45
English to Japanese
+ ...
Oct 25, 2008

Hi, I'm new to ProZ but have been a document translator (English-Japanese, both directions) for about 6 years. Before, I was a conference interpreter.

I just wanted to ask you this question because I recently went to a T&I ethics workshop. The code of ethics tells you to be as faithful as possible to the original document/speech. You are not to add, alter, or omit anything.

Now, I've always felt that Japanese and English are too far apart and it is virtually impossible not to add something. For example, a Japanese sentence may not have the subject word. You must guess from the context what the subject word of the sentence is. When I was doing simultaneous jobs, I often guessed the subject word wrong and had to insert a correction later. But without having a subject word, you cannot begin a sentence in English in any whatever way! In document translation, you do not have to output your translation at the same time as the input, so you may have a fairly high rate of guessing it right, but still, you do have to guess it. In business and private documents alike, it is often unclear if the subject word is we (the entire family, a section of the company, etc.) or I (the individual who is the author of the document), throughout the document. What would you do? The code of ethics I learned recently tells me to contact the client and ask them to revise or clarify the source document. Would you really do that? I mean, we cannot ask our clients to think like an English speaker and revise every sentence.

Do you think it is possible to translate from Japanese to English without guess work?

Having said that, I thought it was useful to take a fresh look at the accuracy issue many years into my career. After the workshop, I started analysing my translation once again to see if I have grown a bit too lax about the no-guess-work rule, when translating from Japanese to English.

In relation to the above, how do you translate "my sister" in a simultaneous situation? Do you go for 姉、妹、女兄弟、家族の者、or something else? If it is a consecutive job, would you ask the speaker to clarify if the sister is younger or older, or would you rather not ask it if that piece of information is not vital to the discussion/presentation/negotiation? I have personally done variously, all of the above. I'm just curious to know how you would handle it.


conejo  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:45
Member (2003)
Japanese to English
+ ...
Be as faithful as you can to the original while still sounding good in the target language Oct 25, 2008

You are right--with 2 languages that are as different as English and Japanese are, various issues arise (such as the "sister" issue you speak of) that make it difficult to really be 100% exactly faithful to the original.

Being as faithful to the original as we can is very important--it's our job. But, differences in the language make that hard to do sometimes. But, it's a 2-way street: in addition to being faithful to the original, it is also our job to be faithful to what it sounds like in the target language, by using correct word choice, proper grammar, using a tone that is appropriate for the type of translation it is, and using expressions that native speakers of the target language would use if they were saying that sentence on their own.

There are a lot of cases when translating Japanese>English that there is a sentence in Japanese that has no good equivalent in English, and it would sound weird if you translated it to be faithful to the original. Example: 先に失礼します. Instead of saying "I am being rude to leave before you/I apologize for leaving before you", which would make no sense to English speakers, you could insert something like "I'm heading home. Have a good evening," which might be something relevant that English speakers would say at such a time, although the meaning is different.

There are other times when something is used in Japanese that is either redundant or unnecessary in English, and it's better to omit it. Example: when 以上 is put on the last page of a document or at the end of a document. No English document originally created in English is going to have "End" at the end of a document.

What would I do with "sister"? If the age of the sister and the sister in general did not seem to be particularly relevant to the main point of the conversation (such as if the topic of the conversation is engineering), I would just pick one and go with it. If I felt that the identity of the sister was of major importance to the conversation (or if it was in a court interpreting situation), I would ask whether the sister was older or younger before proceeding. (And as I'm sure you know, in consecutive interpreting situations, sometimes the clients get frustrated if you keep asking questions during it. So it's best to minimize questions unless you really need to ask.)

If there is a way to be faithful to the original language and sound good in the target, do it. Being faithful is important, but the target language is also important. Both need to be kept in mind, and a balance should be kept. That's my 2 cents.icon_wink.gif

About guess-work: At least from the Japanese to English viewpoint, it is generally not possible to do a translation with 0% guess-work, because of the ambiguity inherent in Japanese documents (omitted subjects, vague expressions, etc.). Of course, the best thing to do is to ask the client. But sometimes the client doesn't know, because the client didn't write the document or doesn't know Japanese. Typically I do all the research I can on the Internet, and if that doesn't work, ask the client. If I don't get an answer, I translate it the way I think it ought to be, and include a separate notes file with information about any points I had to guess at. (But also, you can't ask the client to re-write the document, that's not really realistic. Ask questions when you must, and if that doesn't work include a separate notes file, so you are covered.)

About "I" vs. "We": I generally pick what would be used by a native English speaker in that context. For example, if it was a person writing a personal letter, I would probably use "I". But in business correspondence from a vendor to a client, usually people would use "we" in terms of "we the company", so I would use "we", unless it is clear that in that specific instance, the author means "I". And you can't really go asking the client about "I" or "We"... unless it's something where the difference is extremely important, because you'd have to ask 300 times per document.

[Edited at 2008-10-25 16:05]


Nadja Balogh  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:45
Member (2007)
Japanese to German
+ ...
Great Question! Oct 25, 2008

Hi Yonyon,

I really like your question. I've been asking myself the same thing many times, with different results - depending on the type of text, the type of client, my mood...icon_smile.gif

I translate a lot of patents, where accuracy obviously is a must. Here, the vagueness or rubber-like flexibility of some Japanese sentence constructs can be a terrible headache, because the German language demands, above all, a crisp and clear structure - almost the opposite of many a Japanese sentence (sigh). Still, the Japanese sentence somehow has to be reflected as accurately as possible - and with patents, it isn't possible to ask the client to amend the source text.

What I do instead is, I try to rephrase the Japanese sentence in a clearer way (the way I understand it) and send it to the client, asking "Is this what you were trying to say" or, if they didn't write the text themselves, "Is this what you think this is trying to say"?

When working for a non-Japanese client who doesn't have a clue about Japanese, things are different again. If I am totally lost (which luckily doesn't happen too often... knock on wood) I have to ask colleagues for their opinion.

In the end, it's impossible to generalize on this, but it is always a challenge, which is what I love about it!


Local time: 10:45
Japanese to Spanish
+ ...
My sister Oct 25, 2008

Hello, I've tried to imagine the situation you talk about. I think that if it is not relevant to the main points of the translation, I would not ask about details (younger or older sister), unless they are clarified beforehand or at the very same time the speech takes place. I would say then 妹 or 姉, but you could also specify, in a more informal way of speaking, うちの妹(姉)or うちの姉妹 in the case of plural.

I think that a Japanese audience would assume that both possibilites (妹、姉)are expressed in the English word "sister" or "sisters".

Please, consider this only an opinion.


952313 (X)

Local time: 19:45
English to Japanese
+ ...
Thank you very muct to all of you who responded. Oct 25, 2008

Hi, Conejo,

Thank you very much for your extensive reply. I let out a sigh of relief after reading your post. I haven't been doing it all wrong all these years, having to guess the subject words.

I have had the problem with 以上, too. I omitted it once and the client came back and asked me to include it! So I put "-end of text-" at the end of the document to make it look like it might have been inserted by the computer program, rather than the author himself. Fortunately the client did not come back to ask me to change it, so I presume he was satisfied. It's really funny how it works sometimes. When you are working for a Japanese client, you sometimes have to please them more than the English-speaking would-be readers of the document, so I guess it becomes doubly important to be faithful to the source document. But as you pointed out, it is also important to sound good in the target language.
It's a very fine line we have to cross back and forth, depending on the situation and client's expectations, I guess.

Hi, Nadja,

Thank you very much for your reply. It must be so hard to translate patent documents from English to German. Actually my husband used to be a translator between English, German, and Russian, and he was always complaining that English words were too vague to translate to German. I would wonder what Japanese would look like to a German eye, if English was too vague. Oh dear! You picked the hardest language pair! But I agree. We all complain about how impossible our task is, and yet, we do enjoy the challenge!

Hi, Belglobal,

Thank you very much for your input about singular and plural "sister/s". I did not think of うちの姉妹 to suggest that it is plural. That's a very useful idea. I'll use it next time I come across the situation like that. Thank you very much.


conejo  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:45
Member (2003)
Japanese to English
+ ...
以上 Oct 29, 2008

Yes, after editorial review, I have had a client or two come back and ask me, "Hey what is this thing on the last page that you didn't translate?" And I told them about 以上 and that it means "End", and usually they were satisfied and left it alone. But yeah, if the client wants it in there you can just put it in there, customer satisfaction guaranteed... lol.

And I definitely agree about the Jap>Ger combination... if German is even more precise than English, that would be a mess! Especially for patents.


Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:45
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
Concepts of the sentence Dec 25, 2008

In many instances, I added/deleted source words out of translation to keep the smart target language sentences.
Japanese has its specific features and I hardly find translations in the target languages.
Example: season greeting, sencence without noun/subject, redundant writing style, badly long sentences.

Soonthon L.


Geraldine Oudin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Japanese to French
+ ...
The End Mar 20, 2009

conejo wrote:

Yes, after editorial review, I have had a client or two come back and ask me, "Hey what is this thing on the last page that you didn't translate?" And I told them about 以上 and that it means "End", and usually they were satisfied and left it alone. But yeah, if the client wants it in there you can just put it in there, customer satisfaction guaranteed... lol.

And I definitely agree about the Jap>Ger combination... if German is even more precise than English, that would be a mess! Especially for patents.

I couldn't help smiling when I saw you answer because this very thing happened to me last week. I was translating the serious speech of a serious politician. The client asked me why I omitted 以上 in the end, but they dropped it when I explained how "theatrical" that would sound in French.


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