On Tuesday, March 15th, our Grade 11 class at Yokohama International School was lucky enough to spend 90 minutes with Japanese-to-English translator Alexander O. Smith. This was Alex’s third visit to YIS and as in his two previous visits, he enthralled us with intriguing, difficult, and often humourous examples of the challenges that translators face in moving video games, novels, biographies and other entertainment media from Japanese to English.
As a special twist this year, we asked for students to write original stories in Japanese. Three students wrote four stories, which I translated for everyone using Google Translate, with predictably horrifying nonsensical results. We then asked Alex to translate parts of the stories and explain some of the most interesting or difficult phrases that he had translated. Three of my favourites were:
- his translation of ワンコイン (“one-coin”, meaning the ability to purchase something with a 100-yen or 500-yen coin), because you can’t buy anything with one coin in, say, America. 500 yen could also sound very expensive to someone not familiar with Japanese currency!
- his translation of 三次会 (“third stage party”) as the “after-after party.”
- his translation of 菊の花 (“chrysanthemum”) as “Buddha flower” because the story’s plot demanded the cultural understanding that chrysanthemums are only given at funerals. In the story, the character is excitedly buying them for his new girlfriend (*smack forehead*). As Alex explained, a Japanese reader would immediately understand (“Oh no–not the funeral flower!”) whereas a non-Japanese reader wouldn’t have a clue and would therefore need a far more careful build-up.
Read Alex’s translations (in English) and the original student stories (in Japanese) and comments from staff and students (below).
“[Having my work translated] felt like I had met my long lost twin who had been raised in America. Having my exact intentions and words spoken in a completely different language made me realise that translators are mind readers. He seemed to know the exact things I was trying to say, and was able to choose the right words to say them. Also, as he translates, I began to realise the mistakes I have made in my writing, and think of better ways to word my story. It felt like he was an editor of a magazine, and my work was being reviewed by him. Also, I always thought translation only requires you to know 2 languages, but it also requires the knowledge of both cultures and how people speak and act as a part of those cultures.
May, Grade 11 student, whose two stories were translated by Alex
“The fluency with which he spoke surprised me, despite knowing that he was in fact a Japanese to English translator. I guess this made me realize that translation isn’t all about text to text and that it’s important to have a good grasp on the spoken aspect of the language to fully understand it.”
Reece, Grade 11 student
It was fascinating to see what Alex does and how much it differed from my limited translation experience, which was in a more academic, technical setting. While in university, I was contracted to help the nonprofit organization United Way of America translate their informational pamphlets from English to Spanish. It is not the correct way to translate, as the rule is that it is best if you translate into your native language but they were a nonprofit so could not be very choosy. As Alex said, in that type of work the goal is to be as faithful as possible to the original document. There is not a lot of creative license but you did have to ensure that the message was appropriately communicated and watch out for problems with names and slogans that would be inappropriate. (For example, the terrible sales of the Chevy car brand Nova in Spanish-speaking countries as it means “doesn’t go”.)”
Ms Aimee Hill, Spanish Teacher
CLICK HERE for English translation and explanation.
Harumi Kobayashi (小林晴美), Science Lab Technician