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Professional English Japanese Translation: Is anything truly untranslatable? – Part 2

In the first part of this article, I looked at seemingly “untranslatable” words between Japanese and English and classified these terms into those (1) untranslatable based on cultural context, (2) untranslatable due to different language constructs, and (3) untranslatable due to succinct language.

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In this second part of the article, we shall look at how the Japanese translator should address each of these scenarios, and whether anything is truly untranslatable.

For (1), we took the example of the word “Senpai”, which means superior or predecessor but includes many assumptions about Japanese hierarchical society. Unless the situation can be explained accurately using different culturally equivalent terms, I would suggest the best way of handling such terms would be state the term in romaji but leave a footnote explaining what the term literally means. This will allow the document to flow more easily from a structural point of view while avoiding confusion about what the term literally means.

I would suggest taking a similar approach for (3). Examples of these are terms where one word in the source language has no set equivalent in the target language (for example, “schadenfreude” in German). Whereas it is not good to overuse “borrowed” words before they become part of the general vocabulary, it is undeniable that being able to express ideas such as “schadenfreude” in one word has enriched our language. The translator can play a part in this process, while simultaneously overcoming the dilemma of the untranslatable term.

Whereas (1) and (3) are untranslatable ideas as one word, the ideas can still be expressed in English. Cases of (2) are much more difficult. We used the example of Japanese people actually saying the word “kowai” (which means “scared”) when they are in fact scared. I think this is as close as a word comes to being completely untranslatable. So how should the translator deal with this? Any attempt to make a literal translation will make the English text very unnatural so in this case, the translator needs to take some license. To continue with the example above, if the Japanese text has a girl saying “kowai”, this can only be translated like “the girl shivered with fear”. Many translators feel resistance about doing this, but it is the best option. It would definitely be worth sending a note on this when you deliver the Japanese English translation, however.

About the Author
Simon Way is a contributing author to SAECULII YK, the owner of Professional English Japanese Translation. Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news by Japanese Translation Services

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