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On Translation Errors & Criticism

The intention of this word vomit is to discuss translation errors, what they are, how they occur, and what to do about them. It’s inspired by the kinds of criticism I have seen levied at myself and colleagues, and is essentially an exercise in disentangling my own thoughts on the matter. It’s aimed at both people who criticize translators, and translators who receive criticism.

Before we begin
  1. This is about the sphere of Japanese to English media translation specifically, as that is the industry I work in, though I’m sure it can apply to other language pairs and industries too.
  2. This is not an academic thesis. I’m not referencing any translation theories, I’m simply using my own working knowledge of translation and being in the translation industry.
  3. I’m writing this in my spare time and I’m not getting it peer reviewed or anything, I might not even spellcheck it, sorry not sorry.
  4. This is not an exhaustive discussion, it’s more a jumping off point.
  5. Do you know why I’m writing all these caveats? It’s because someone’s gonna come along and say BUT MERU what about blah blah blah and I’m gonna lose my mind.
Doing your job
Firstly, I want to open with some things to consider about the job of a Japanese to English media translator.
1. We very rarely have access to the author. In fact, many companies expressly forbid the translator from contacting the author of the work they are translating. You can lose your job if you try.
2. We very rarely have anyone check our translation for errors. “How did no one catch this?” is a very easy question to answer when you realize that usually the only bilingual person looking at the work is the translator themselves.
3. We very often have no say over our work once it is out of our hands, meaning that changes can be introduced at the editorial stage without our knowledge.
4. The pay rate means that we generally have to work fast and can’t always spend as much time as we would like on researching and refining things.
So you think you've found a translation error?
Okay, what are the first things to consider?
A line cannot be taken in isolation. Is something missing from this line because it has been included in a line later on? Is something that looks wrong actually related to something later on? For example, is a throwaway reference to a dog translated to a cat here in order to set up something about “the cat who got the cream” later?
Purpose of the text. This is the one people hate, but hear me out because it’s REALLY IMPORTANT: When translating an entertainment product into English, the goal is not necessarily to create a translation that is as close to the original Japanese as possible.
You might not like that, or agree with it, but it does not a mistranslation make. References that might be considered offensive in another culture are removed? That’s not a mistranslation, that’s an editorial decision. Characters using nicknames instead of honorifics? Again, a decision on how to represent those dynamics in English. You can disagree with it, but it’s not an error. As such, telling someone that their translation is “wrong” because of this is unproductive. You are not pointing out anything that the people working on it do not already know.
Still think you’re looking at a mistranslation? In my opinion, there are two main types of mistranslation that come down to issues with one of the following:
1. Linguistic comprehension
2. Textual interpretation
Linguistic Comprehension
Let’s consider errors that can fairly objectively be stated to be “mistranslations”. In other words, where the translation directly contradicts the source text, or cannot reasonably be traced back to any supporting evidence in the source.
For example: one kanji being mistaken for another, subject and object being mixed up, grammar not being parsed correctly leading to a translation that does not convey the same intent as the source.
Now we can consider why these errors may have arisen. Is it really due to the translator lacking in skill, or could it be due to one of the following:
Brain fart. I’ve looked at 七 and seen 九 before. Does this mean I don’t know these kanji? No, of course not.
Being human. Everyone makes mistakes, because we’re not robots.
How many times have you had your order messed up at a restaurant? How many typos have you spotted in traditionally published work?
You don’t fire the bartender who mixes a couple drinks wrong in a month. You might fire them if they mix a couple wrong drinks every night, though.
Insufficient support. What in the translation process could have led to this error? For example, does it seem like this line was translated without any context? Is it more likely that the translator ignored context, or that they were given a random line and told to do their best with it? This happens fairly often with agency work for games, and if you say you need more context, you will often be told to just put whatever might fit.
Now I am not saying that mistakes due to the above should be ignored! But connecting these kinds of mistakes to “this translator doesn’t even understand Japanese and should be fired” is hyperbolic and shows a lack of understanding of the process.
Okay, so it’s not any of the above. Now do I get to say that the translator doesn’t understand Japanese? Can I say they need to be fired?
I think this is a touchy subject, but let’s dive in. Do I think that some translators are better at translating than others? Sure, though that’s still a difficult statement to make, as people have different strengths and weaknesses.
Some translators are stronger in their Japanese skills, some are stronger in their English writing ability, some write amazing dialogue but struggle with narration. Ideally, you want a translator who is strong in every aspect of translation, but guess what, it’s actually hard to find and keep really good talent when there are no pay rises, no mentorship or feedback, no stability, and so on.
But let’s be real here. Do I think I’m “better” at translation than some people? Yes. Do I think other people are better at it than me? Yes. But we don’t get rid of everyone who’s not the best at their job, because then you’d only have one person left doing that job.
Assessment & Accountability
If I were in a hiring position and drawing conclusions about a translator’s skills, I would ask myself the following questions. These can also be useful for translators to ask themselves as a way of checking in with themselves after making an error:
  • How often are these mistakes happening? I translate around 2 million characters per year, which is about 1 million English words. If I make a few errors in all that, I think that’s pretty good. If I’m making hundreds, that’s a problem.
  • Is the quality of the work inconsistent? Does the translator perhaps need to manage their workflow better?
  • Are they mostly silly, brain-farty type errors? Does the translator need to pay more attention while working?
  • Are the errors down to making assumptions and lack of research? This is seen a lot with false friends and names where a quick google would have shown the answer.
  • Is it an issue of poor writing in the target language? Does the translator need to brush up on their creative writing skills in order to properly convey the meaning?
  • Do the same errors show up persistently? Is the translator struggling with a particular form of sentence construction? A grammar point they don’t understand? Do they mix up the subject and object? Are they misreading kanji? Essentially, do they need to study the language more?
  • Do the errors have a major impact on the quality of the work? Are they impeding comprehension or enjoyment of the text? Are they causing the reader to have a different reaction to what was intended?
What can and should a translator do once an error has been identified? Well, most of the time we can’t do anything; it’s the publisher who has to address any corrections, though we can pass on the feedback that comes our way and ask for revisions to be made if possible.
On a personal level, we can accept that we made a mistake, maybe even acknowledge it publicly if it’s appropriate, ask ourselves how it happened, and strive not to do it again. That is all we can reasonably do. Self-flagellation will not fix the error nor will it help us improve in the future.
As an aside, it is up to the hirer to decide whether or not a translator is able to maintain the quality standards that they require of their products, and fan response will no doubt factor into this.
When an error isn't an error
We interrupt this stream of consciousness for a non-exhaustive list of things that are down to personal preference and should not be treated as errors/mistranslations.
  • The character shouldn’t speak that way in English.
  • I don’t like that naming convention.
  • This translation should/should not use honorifics.
  • That reference to an obscure meme was changed into a reference to a different obscure meme and I don’t like it.
  • That offensive language that was never intended to be offensive in the original text is rendered as inoffensive language in English and that makes me angry for some reason.
Yes, you can voice disagreement with translation choices, but at least recognize them for what they are: choices.
Textual Interpretation;
or, "just translate what it says"
This is the difficult one, and one that results in the most arguments online.
Have you ever read a sentence in English where you don’t quite know what the author is saying? Have you seen people argue over the meaning of a text in your native language? Congratulations, you just discovered that language is not prescriptive; it’s an imperfect vehicle used to convey ideas from one person to another.
There is no inherent meaning to words; they’re a representation of shared concepts. What one person images when they see the word “dog” will be different to another. When someone says “hey, girl” one person hears it as friendly while another as condescending.
As translators, we have to attempt to infer both a) what the author is saying in the source language and b) how the reader might interpret our output in the target language. And that’s not even getting into the deep rabbit hole of how linguistic and cultural differences that can make this extremely difficult…
An example that’s been on my mind with recent outrage is the case of third person pronouns. The usage of third person pronouns in Japanese (she/he, 彼・彼女) is rare; the person’s name is often used, or the subject is simply implied. English relies much more heavily on explicit subjects and third person pronouns. There are many instances where, in order to write a natural sentence in English, you will use a pronoun that wasn’t present as a grammatical unit in the Japanese. These cases become particularly difficult to navigate when the gender of a character is obscured or otherwise indeterminate.
Japanese is highly context dependent language, and this is an issue I’d like to dive further into in another post sometime.
In short, this is why “just translate what it says” is a statement that any experienced translator will ignore, because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how translation works.
Questions to ask yourself if you think a translator has misinterpreted the intended meaning of the text:
  • How did the translator arrive at this translation? Can you trace their possible thought process?
  • What in the source text supports this translation choice? What works against it?
  • What about the purpose of the translation supports this translation choice? What works against it?
  • Is there anything elsewhere in the text, or in other material, that supports this translation choice? For example, is there a reveal in a later book that would shed light on it?
And finally, the most important one to consider before posting accusations on social media:
  • Is it more likely that the translation was written with malicious intent, or that the translator interpreted the text in a different way to you?
I do think that, if the majority of readers interpret the text differently, it’s safe to say that we can label it as a “misinterpretation”, and then we can circle back to assessing the error by asking some of the questions I presented in the section about linguistic comprehension, which can be the root cause behind misinterpretations.
Discussions about the meaning and intent of a text can be really fun and enlightening, but unfortunately, they rarely are.
Which leads me to my next point.
Critique-moi
One of the comments I see cropping up a lot is that translators are not open to criticism of their work. In response to that, I would argue that most people don’t know how to provide relevant, useful criticism, or, as the French like to say, critique.
If you can’t read the Japanese, I can’t in good conscience take on board your opinion on how the Japanese should be interpreted. You can tell me you read the English and you didn’t like it, but you can’t tell me that it doesn’t match the Japanese. This goes for praise, too, by the way; someone who doesn’t understand Japanese telling me that I accurately reflected the original is really nice, but it’s not actionable feedback.
People like to pull out the old “wow, are you saying I can’t complain if my burger is undercooked at McDonald’s?”, but to build upon that metaphor, I’d say that you certainly can, and they should get you a fresh, properly cooked burger. But if you go up and tell them you don’t like the taste of their burgers, what do you expect them to do? Change the recipe for you?
And to continue with the food analogy; we’re now at a super fancy restaurant instead of McDonald’s. I’m not a chef, and I don’t know much about cooking. I eat my meal, and I don’t really like the taste. I can either think “hmm, not for me” and perhaps leave a review saying it wasn’t to my tastes. Or I can go tell the chef that they suck at their job and that they’re clearly not cooking the recipe, which I’ve never even seen for myself, correctly, and maybe finish it off by calling for them to be fired. In scenario two, I become what some people might call an asshole.
Hmm, sounds like you just want praise
Yes, you would be right.
But seriously, do I think people should never point out mistakes? No!
Of course it sucks on an emotional level to have your flaws laid bare; I don’t think anyone relishes the idea of their work being picked apart. But it does help us to grow as translators, and so provide better translations for the fans. I remember when I had a tense issue I consistently made pointed out to me by an editor and it was so freaking helpful. I took this on board in order to improve my writing. I did not take on board the criticism from the random person who told me that using “y'all” was wrong because the character “didn’t say that in Japanese” and that I was lazy and incompetent.
If you want your thoughts on a piece of art to be taken seriously by its creators (yes, that includes translators), you have to be willing to engage with it equally seriously.
Social media and critiquing colleagues
Some people have asked me why I only tweet to defend translators who I think are being unfairly piled upon, and why I don’t dedicate an equal amount of time to calling out translation errors. Here’s why.
Firstly, if I wanted to adequately critique a translation rather than just have a hot take dunk on it, I’d have to write posts like this and I don’t have time for that these days (except today, apparently).
Secondly, I have a following on twitter, so whatever I post goes out to a bunch of eyes. I’m definitely not saying I’m famous or an influencer or anything, but I do have to be responsible. I see defensive action as aligning with this goal better than aggressive action.
Take a recent blog post that ignited fierce discourse. Maybe the poster had the best intentions, and I don’t have an issue with them making that post (though I disagree with some of the insinuations they made), but it ended up on sites that condone harassment. I am not okay with my words potentially leading to something similar.
In the last few years I have tried to move away from QRT'ing or calling people out, because it feels irresponsible. (I’m sure I still do it from time to time, no need to go through and point those instances out to me).
And lastly, it’s hurtful to publicly dunk on a specific person. I don’t need to do that to become a better translator myself. Yes, I do actually care about other people’s feelings, and no, I don’t think that makes me cowardly.
Conclusion
People are absolutely free to not like a translation. I mean, technically they’re free to do whatever they like, including telling localizers to go die, but that’s not the point here.
Having genuine errors pointed out, though emotionally hard for us to deal with (or maybe I’m just speaking for myself there), is fine. We want to deliver the best translations we possibly can, for the sake of ourselves, the creators, and the fans.
I’m not actually sure what the point of this 3000 word mess was, but I’ll just end it with some questions to think about.
For the critic: Do you want genuinely want this source material to be treated well in translation, or do you just want to put someone else down? Have you thought through your opinion, or is it a knee-jerk reaction?
For the translator: What kind of mistakes are you noticing in your own work? What can you do to reduce the frequency of these errors?
Thank you for reading!
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Meru

Musings on Japanese to English translation.

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