William Flanagan

Translation Mistakes to Avoid

William Flanagan

All translators make mistakes at times, but not all mistakes are created equal. Some mistakes cost the translator more points than others when they are found in a submission to a contest like this one, or when submitted to a professional manga publisher in the hope of getting work. All the mistakes shown here are fairly common with young translators, and if one can correct these mistakes before making a submission, the chances of receiving paying work get better.

Mistakes to Avoid When Submitting a Translation

Over the years, several times have I been an editor that checks submissions from new translators, and although evaluating hopefuls has never been an exact science, there are some common mistakes to avoid.

Punctuation and Spelling

The very first thing to concentrate on is proper punctuation. If a translator doesn't use the rules of punctuation found in either Strunk & White or the Chicago Manual of Style, the editor may decide that a translator more familiar with the rules would be a better choice.

For example in one of the entries for Holmes of Kyoto:

When you think of an antique shop, names like “Gallery such-and-such”, “Antique something”, or even “something Hall” come to mind; just “Kura” seems… oddly simple.

Each of those commas will need to be put within the quotation marks, causing extra work for the editor.

From Egg Star:

“Alright” is still not “all right” in professional publications. Even if some words, such as “alright” are now noted in the dictionaries, book publishing needs to be more conservative with grammar and vocabulary so the words don’t distract readers from the story.

Don’t Assume Your Audience Knows

Although it may be true that most readers of Japanese manga are fans of Japanese culture, as a professional translator, you can’t assume they know what you know about Japan. So you have to provide information they may not know.

In Miyako Bijin,

The reader may not know what the Showa Era is. There should be a gutter note added or some information in the balloon to indicate when it is. The other entries do a better job.

The other entries used a parenthetical in the caption (shown above) and an editorial note to get the information across.

Similarly, a non-Japanese person might have problems understanding just how much money is being referred to in a panel of a manga from Egg Star.

Two million yen sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but in concrete terms, how much? Can two million last the hero of Egg Star for ten years? Two million dollars could, but the actual amount…

About twenty thousand dollars probably can’t last that long in Tokyo.

These bits of extra information for the English-language readers are vital to translate since a Japanese reader will already have that information, but the English-speaker probably won’t.

Make Sure You’re Not Overly Influenced by the Japanese.

A pitfall for young translators is to stick too close to the Japanese sentence order when translating. That isn’t to say that a translation that preserves Japanese sentence order is ungrammatical. It can be grammatical but still awkward.

In Holmes of Kyoto…

‘She wants to go in, but she just can’t, that girl.’ Maybe that’s what they were thinking.

The quote in these two sentences is fairly standard for Japanese, but although grammatical, it isn’t normal for English speakers. It’s best to rewrite entire sentences, especially in novels where there are no space limitations such as you might find in manga.

In another instance out of Holmes of Kyoto…

“However, I didn’t pass the entrance exams, because I was always playing with my grandfather.”

The Japanese word for “playing,” asobu, comprises a lot of concepts in English. Just spending time with someone can be considered asobu. In this case, a man in his twenties would probably not say “playing,” but maybe, “hanging out,” instead. Or if you interpreted a nuance of regret in his statement, “wasting time,” with his grandfather might work.

A Note on Accents

In the case of Holmes of Kyoto, accents became something of a pitfall for the translators. All three translators chose to translate the Osaka man and Kyoto woman as lower-class British accents. I suppose it could be argued for the Osakan because the Osaka accent gives a hint of earthiness in their attitude and because the original Holmes stories are set in London.

“Blimey! A red herring, then. So this one’s a faker, too?” says Ms. Mieko, her eyes dropping back to the hanging scroll.

However, since the Osaka and Kyoto accents are similar (both being Kansai accents), the translators fell into the trap of translating Ms. Mieko, from Kyoto, with a similar accent to Mr. Ueda from Osaka. The Kyoto accent is, to the Japanese ear, in no way rough and earthy. It’s thought to be more refined and delicate. All three translators of Holmes of Kyoto lost points with a number of our judges due to this.

An accent very well done can be found in the winning entry for Egg Star.

You may not be able to place a region for the accent of the snake, but you certainly can tell what kind of character the snake is. The characterization of the snake was one of the standout moments of this year’s winners, and I hope many young translators learn from it.