Like many second-language students, I am less than happy with my level of Japanese. After years of work, I would consider myself fluent, but still nowhere near the fabled “native level”. Although it seems impressive to my family and others who don’t speak Japanese, to me there are still tons of moments when I don’t understand what’s going on. But dangit, I’ve spent SO. MUCH. time on this, I’d like something to show for it!
It’s All Relative
As it turns out, there are lots of people out there who don’t speak any Japanese at all! So over the summer, I put on my big-girl suit (I don’t remember, it probably wasn’t a suit) and finally managed to convince some poor fool to pay me to translate Japanese for them. By which I mean I went to go talk to the curator of a private collection of samurai armor in my city and tried really, really hard to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I was actually asking for a job… but instead I was asked to translate papers that sometimes came with the armor they purchased (turns out the curator only speaks French).
Now I work a completely separate, full-time job, and every once in a while I get a request to translate documents (mostly auction materials) for this collection, which I do in the evenings. So although I’m getting paid, I’m not sure I would consider myself a professional translator. But since I’m sure there are plenty of Japanese students out there who have something they want to translate (books, manga, song lyrics, whatever), I thought I’d share my approach. I’d also love to hear what other people do, because frankly I’m pretty new at this.
*The collection I translate for will remain nameless for privacy reasons and because I don’t want anybody to steal my job.
Getting Ready To Translate
After dinner, I sit down to work. I open the e-mail, and take a moment to freak out when I can’t read anything on the page. Honestly, these articles should be considered way above my level, but this is the kind of situation where you “fake it ‘till you make it”.
The first thing I have to do is convert the images my client sends me into text. (Standard practice is to charge by the character, so at the very least I need it for an accurate character count). I can try a text-converting program or just type everything up myself, depending on the quality of the image. This time my client has sent me both the image and the converted text (plus a botched Google translation, to remind me that she needs me). I copy and paste the text into a Google Doc and prepare my workspace.
This involves opening several tabs: Google Translator, Jisho.org, and Kotobank.jp. I also turn Rikaichan on in my browser, which is especially useful because I can wave my mouse over any word in the Google Doc to get a definition. If this seems like cheating to you, wait a little while and you’ll see why I don’t waste time on relatively common vocabulary.
1. Rough Draft
Remember this: the key is just to get English on the page.
Now that it’s time to actually start translating, I wave my mouse over the first unfamiliar word (unfortunately, it’s the title of the article). Uh-oh. Rikaichan is only defining the individual characters. “Iron earth” is not an acceptable description for a helmet, so I copy and paste the phrase into Google Translator.
Still no good. Jisho and Kotobank don’t give me anything either so I put a star next to this and move on.
I spend 15 minutes trying to find the meaning of 車患 before I look at the original image and realize the text converter has badly misread 鯱. This is why you always need to double-check converted text. I go through and correct all of the misread kanji before continuing. (鯱, by the way, is しゃちほこ/shachihoko, a mythical dolphin/whale/fish thing. Nagoya Castle is famous for the two golden shachihoko on its roof).
For the body of the dolphin / in the middle of the back / in iron lacquer / two plates with embossed fish scales / join on the left and right to take form / these scales also serve as mabisashi / and the dolphin’s head / covers a demon’s mask
Unlike English, the Japanese language does not frown upon run-on sentences. I think they would actually rather add modifiers to an existing sentence than make a new one if the subject of the sentence is the same. For this first draft I am trying to stay as close to the original Japanese meaning as possible, so I separate ideas with “/”. Later I will rearrange everything to make more sense with English grammar.
A lot of words I come across are jargon, specific to ancient Japanese armor. They either don’t appear in a Japanese-English dictionary or have a second, more common meaning. That’s when I go to Kotobank, a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, to find the more obscure definition. You can do this even if you still have a lower vocabulary level, because all you have to do is use Rikaichan on words you don’t know.
The key to getting this far is making educated guesses about the meanings you don’t know. If you’re still not sure you understand, you can try a search using the romanization of the word (in this case, マビサシ comes out to mabisashi). You might find something like this:
Number 12 is “Forehead plate – mabisashi (眉庇). Mystery solved! Thanks Wikipedia.
Everything I’ve written about so far has taken place in the first sentence of the text! Granted, it’s a run-on sentence that takes up most of the first paragraph, but you can see why this might take a while. And that was just the first draft–it has English words but makes no real sense in English. Plus, there were several words (I’m looking at you, 鉄地) that I couldn’t translate the first time around. Hopefully they’ll make more sense as I figure out the context that they are written in.
2. Second Draft
An English sentence like the one below isn’t exactly easy to understand:
For the body of the dolphin / in the middle of the back / in iron lacquer / two plates with embossed fish scales / join on the left and right to take form/ these scales also serve as mabisashi / and the dolphin’s head / covers a demon’s mask / on the left and right / large scales and koshimaki boards / are hammered into place with rivets.
This is actually where Google Translate is the most helpful, believe it or not.
Okay, so a key part of Google’s translating algorithm is based off of statistical survey of websites and documents that are written in multiple languages. The algorithm compares the English version with the Japanese (or Spanish, or Arabic) version to see how the words correspond. If, in several different sources, 日本 (nihon) corresponds with “Japan”, then that is how Google will translate it. The program is getting more sophisticated over time, and it can now recognize some common grammatical structures. This means that I can sometimes put a chunk of text into Google translator to see how the grammar is most commonly translated.
I’ll go ahead and use a different (shorter) sentence. Here, “鬼面の眼球には鍍金板が嵌入され” comes out to “Plating plate is fitted to the eye of the devil mask”. Uh… yeah, that doesn’t make sense. But I already figured out in my first draft that “in the eyeball of the kimen (a special armor term) / gilt strips are inlaid”. So now I can write “Gilt strips are fitted to the eye of the kimen”. That makes sense, right? This isn’t a foolproof method, but as one of several references, it can be helpful. I go through the whole first draft like this, to get a working English version. Sometimes I do a third draft as well.
3. Cleaning Up
Translating is more of an art than a science. The articles I translate need to be functional, because my client is trying to understand more about the piece of armor. There may be phrases I don’t understand (what the heck is 鉄地?!) and I need to come up with a reasonable guess. In the case of 鉄地 I decide to ignore the 地 (chi, earth) character because I thought “iron helmet” was more to the point, and “iron earth helmet” would have just been confusing. If I’m particularly concerned about something, I’ll include “Notes” in my translation. For instance, once a passage had several typos, including a wrong date and a wrong location. I translated the information as it was written, and corrected it in the Notes.
As a last resort, sometimes I just have to ask a native speaker of Japanese. There are lots of things I don’t know because I didn’t grow up in Japan, so if I absolutely can’t figure something out myself (whether a given location is, in fact, a typo, for instance) I’ll get in touch with one of my Japanese friends.
Waiting for the moment that you understand absolutely everything perfectly means never using your Japanese. Whether it’s for fun or for profit, it’s a good idea to take chances and use your Japanese, whatever level you’re at. Even if it didn’t have the added benefit of improving your Japanese, it’s rewarding to actually use a skill you’ve worked so hard to get.