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Linguistics vs Psychology – Shifting Balance in Japanese Translator Skills (Part-2)


In the first part of this two-part series, we looked at how technology, particularly the emergence of Internet search engines, has increased accessibility to the translation profession, and the breadth of work available to translators, without specialized training and/or near- encyclopedic memory in a particular field. In this article, we shall look at the psychological factors required to differentiate good and, ultimately, successful translators.

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The main factor is what I would call source-language dependence. The purpose of translation is to communicate the intentions of the writer of the text in the source language in the most understandable way for the reader of the target language. It is not to faithfully reproduce the structure of each sentence of the source language using the target language. 

In less-experienced or less proficient translators there is a tendency to follow similar sentence structure to the source text. When translating from Japanese, this can lead to strange construction due to the way the subject is clearly separated at the beginning of the sentence (“As for me, I went to the park.”) or the never-ending string of adjectives before a noun. Whereas “the tall, successful, wine-loving, Bostonian Tom” just about works in English, most would agree that “Tom, from Boston, who is tall successful and loves wine” sounds more natural. There is also the issue of long sentences. Whereas it is quite acceptable for Japanese sentences to go on for line after line, this is considered bad style in English, with some notable exceptions such as patent specifications. 

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Breaking out of the tendency for source-language dependence takes a psychological leap. Inexperienced translators, obsessed with producing a “good” translation tend to equate divergences from the way in which the meaning was related in the original as being something akin to mistranslation.  For this reason, they avoid breaking up long sentences into smaller ones for fear that by doing so they would fail to represent the original text faithfully. As described above, however, this is based on a misconception of what translation is. Even for more experienced translators, another psychological factor of laziness can cause source-language dependence as it is certainly easier and faster to mimic source language structure when translating.

To recap, both language skills and psychological factors have always been important for translators, but with the progress of technology, the balance has shifted, and it is now more important than ever for translators to master the psychological factors to differentiate themselves in the field.



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

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