Translation headaches

Putting aside the oft recurring honourifics debate for the time being, just a few thoughts based on what I’ve encountered or worked on personally over the last few years.

I’ve written about “was dumped” vs. “was turned down” issue before, but at least, in this case, there are appropriate translations even though you’d have to base it on the context in the story.

But there are many areas which don’t have direct or even appropriate translations, especially in the realm of linguistic routines. Linguistic routines are recurrent phrases or exchanges that are typically used functionally rather than to convey meaning through themselves. Greetings are a typical example, and the best one in English is the “How are you?” / “Not bad. Yourself?” / “Good thanks” exchange. Answering a “how are you?” literally is a major faux pas in most situations, but most native speakers probably don’t understand why it often puzzles the second language learner so much. The answer is simple really: linguistic routines are very different from culture to culture. A German-born lecturer I had at university once illustrated how the lack of similar routines in German can make conversation with e.g. Americans a frustrating experience for both parties (see Lana Rings’s article, linked below). And unlike what most people assume, the casual greeting in Chinese (and most if not all of its various dialects) isn’t “Ni hao“, which is typically taught as the equivalent of “How are you?”, but rather something along the lines of “Ni chi le ma?”, or “Have you eaten?”.

Similarly, there are many linguistic routines in Japanese that aren’t always used in English. To examine the challenges translators face, as well as solutions we might use, let’s look at three of them.

(1) いってきます (ittekimasu) and いってらっしゃい (itterasshai)

Literally, these mean “I’m off” and “Go and come back safely”. The first makes sense in English, and the second can easily be replaced by variations of “Have a good day”..

(2) お先に失礼します (osaki ni shitsurei shimasu) and お疲れさまです (otsukaresama desu – or deshita)

This one’s a a bit trickier. The literal meaning is something along the lines of “Excuse me for leaving before you” and “You worked hard today”. Workplaces in the English-speaking world probably don’t have a set routine, but you might hear something like “(Alright, I’m off!) See you all tomorrow/next week!” and “(Good work today!) See you!”, or perhaps “(I’m off!) Have a good night/weekend!” and “Thanks, you too!”. But it’s doable.

(3) and the worst is probably 宜しくお願いします

“Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”. This may be the hardest phrase to translate, ever! Or the easiest, depending on how you look at it. Basically, it’s used in so many situations that there are lots of different ways you can localise it to an English-speaking setting.

For example: when you use it at the end of an introduction speech – “I look forward to working with you”; in a message to a seller on some auction site – “I look forward to hearing back from you”. This pattern is pretty useful in a lot of situations, so you might think it’s the best one.

But then we have: after asking a friend to do something for you – “Thank you” or “I’m counting on you”. And for the final chapter of Seven Days though, I might have gone with “Thank you for everything.” rather than “Please look after me from now on too” or something to that effect. Though I suppose it might sound weird coming from a guy.

And that’s what I mean by headache. Though it’s much more enjoyable than a real one.

Further reading:

Beyond Grammar and Vocabulary, by Lana Rings
The Ethnography of Speaking 1 and 2, by Dell H. Hymes

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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