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Translation By Example: Principles for minimizing errors



For any fan translators unfamiliar with the jargon:
source language/text = language/text being translated from
target language/text = language/text being translated into

While writing sufficiently well in your target language is important to ensure both that the finished product is a smooth read and that no errors occur because of you being misinterpreted by your editor or audience, it’s all for nothing if you didn’t interpret your source correctly in the first place.

Reading a source text without making errors can be surprisingly difficult even with a decent grasp of both your source and target language. Certainly most fan translators, and more professional translators than I’d like, are lacking in at least one of those two areas: personally, I am objectively significantly worse at Japanese than the average native Japanese high schooler¹.

There are more ways than one to avoid mistranslations, and often you can compensate for lacking in skill by being more cautious while reading the source text. Personally, I like to focus on two basic principles: always trying to detect possible gaps in your knowledge, and always considering whether your translation actually makes sense.

Does It Make Sense?

Bar things that are written specifically to evoke surrealism, writers usually try to avoid things that obviously make no sense. This is a pretty general principle and editors and proofreaders can both use it even if the translator does not, so it’s always a bit strange when I see some weird-ass obviously illogical mistranslation pop up. Theoretically QA/proofreading is extra powerful in this regard for games, as they will usually play the game as they work, so they can spot backgrounds or character movements contradicting the text too. For a subtle example of this, have something from a translation I love to hate on, Seabed:


Now when I saw this ingame it made no sense at all. Why would it be darker after you turned on the light? Part of this is probably just questionable doujinge graphical accuracy (and maybe needing the emphasize the light / mimicking how it would actually look as your eyes adjusted), but I would still make a note on this line were I QAing this². Now the Steam release of Seabed happens to let you switch to Japanese…



I flipped the switch on the wall, turning on just the nightlight (ナツメ球).

Well, that makes a lot more sense. The second background was probably going for an adjustment effect where everything but the light looked darker, but it wasn’t showing a bright light. Well, that or background 1 was a sort of generic movie-darkness-but-not-really kind of deal. The point is, we have a solution to the puzzle.

If your translation is contradicted by other parts of the game, whether it be the situation the characters are in, the lines before it or after (painfully common), or something else, you should look at those line extra damn hard. Writers do sometimes make mistakes, but it’s probably you. If you know someone with higher Japanese ability that can help check your translation of the line, ask them (make sure to give sufficient context if at all possible. I can’t believe how many people seem constitutionally unable to do this, though the worst offenders are learners rather than translators). Until the line makes sense or you’re confident it’s not supposed to, I recommend leaving the line/section blank or at least leaving a strongly worded note to come back to it later.

Always Be Suspicious

When I was still a high school kid, a freelance literary translator did a presentation at our school³. One thing she said really stuck with me: the principle of always keeping a careful eye out for anything that might not mean what you think it means.

The example she used was of a translator that had managed to get toy shaped like a dog from a lady walking her toy poodle, a small poodle breed, in English — leading to a rather surreal mental image⁴. I suspect this line wasn’t very important, but that’s not always going to be the case, and this kind of mistake is always an embarrassment.

One key skill to avoid that embarrassment is to grow an intuitive sense of what you don’t actually know — if you’ve hung out in some environments, you might actually already have gotten a slice of this with your English, or another language you know well. For example, did you know that strictly speaking bombastic is only to be used for things that are flashy but have little substance? I myself find myself googling words I only sort of know sometimes (…usually after unwisely pressing the enter key in some chat. At least I edit myself quick!). It doesn’t always go well. Ask me about the time I subtly misused reticent sometime… or don’t, actually. A soul can only take so much.

Either way, that same nagging feeling — that maybe you don’t actually know this — can be a valuable ally to maintain the proper level of suspicion when translating. You’re looking for when the structure isn’t quite like what you’ve seen before, or when you’re thinking you can figure out the meaning of something from its parts — look up とてもじゃないが for a real mindfuck of a phrase. And as above, you’re also looking for things that don’t make sense.

Always be suspicious of things that don’t make sense

Showing the interlinked nature of all your guards against mistranslation, the earlier example with the nightlight might also have been prevented by being suspicious. If it was a translation-side error, going deeper than a cursory google images search might have helped get it right — looking at the page, you’d think to yourself: do I really know this is just a normal lightbulb? Looking at ナツメ fruits they look kind of red, too. I’d better look further…

More examples

I was going to review Seabed for Fuwanovel, which is part of the reason why I took a lot of screens going through it. It fell through because I simply could not complete it: my examination had turned me hypercritical and practically every line bothered me — mostly for clumsy flow rather than translation oddities, though there were more of those too. But hey, I got some pictures for this post for all the trouble. Anyway, have another example:


Okay, so this doesn’t make sense. How are you seeing things in pitch black darkness? Let’s look at the Japanese:



見通しの悪い isn’t pitch black, it’s just the dark of the night making it hard to see. Now it makes sense that you can see the graffiti again, nice. It’s possible this was some kind of botched adaptation due to the background being solid black, but I don’t buy it.

For my last example, lets use this line from 新説魔法少女 (Shinsetsu Mahou Shoujo), an SRPG/VN hybrid with an ensemble cast of Japanese students, mostly in middle school. Moka is a first-year high school student who used to be in the swimming club last year. Before she graduated she was in the same club as Nagato, who is being discussed here due to her habit of not showing up for things (she still gets good results academically, and is also very strong athletically).


悪化してたか…… 試験だとか総体だとか 大事な時にサボる癖は治したほうがいいよ。

Huh, I guess it’s gotten worse… She should really fix her habit of skipping important events like tests and… 総体?

I was actually just reading this right now, and at first it didn’t make sense, or at least sounded extremely strained, with any of the definitions of 総体 in edict⁵. So I checked kenkyuusha (shin waei daijiten) and a J-J dictionary and they still had nothing illuminating. Now I was starting to think it could be some of my more unlikely interpretations. I checked out そうたい without the kanji to see if it might be using the wrong kanji; 相対 seemed more plausible in the sentence, but I was still not feeling it; my Japanese ability was telling me it wouldn’t look like that grammatically and the interpretation felt strained. My intuition told me that 総体 would be an event somewhat similar to a 試験, maybe sports related given who the speaker was. So I googled 総体 and the second result is a Japanese Wikipedia disambiguation page.

  1. 全国高等学校総合体育大会の略称の一つ。高校総体、インターハイ、インハイも同義。
    An abbreviation of the Interscholastic Athletic Meet. Synonymous with [various katakana words on the theme of “inter-high”].

Well, that confirms my suspicions. It’s some kind of sporting event. This definiton actually specifically mentions high school events, but there’s nothing saying you can’t have them in middle school.

This interpretation makes sense; a swimming club member would want gifted other club members to be at their competitions. Even if I didn’t use that principle, suspicion could also have saved me and made me actually google the word. But Japanese knowledge also helped me: Japanese often shortens longer terms into a word using some of the term’s kanji; for example 自動販売機 becomes the probably more familiar 自販機, and I knew to suspect this. In the end, the more Japanese you know, the less errors you’ll catch with these methods… but remember, kids: a totally radical book once said that pride comes before a fall. It had a point⁶.

To tie this up, I think my soul has recovered from the baring some time ago, so let me tell you of another English-related fuckup: for the longest time I used to think “craven” was related to “craving”, and none of the times I’d read it had disabused me of this notion. I then saw it used in the Tokyo Babel translation in a way that was clearly incompatible with craving anything, so I looked it up… and was enlightened. It was a sad moment, because at the back of my mind I knew I’d misread it like 10 times by now. With that said, I kinda blame the English language for this one. That, and not having dictionary lookup just by hovering over the word. Man, the browser addons we have these days are pretty dang good...


¹ The JLPT N1, well known for not being particularly indicative of ability but seen as a decent anchoring point nevertheless, is apparently supposed to be easily passable to any student that has finished Japanese high school. I originally wrote most of this essay in ~2017, when I didn’t think I would pass it — I now think I have a decent chance, with pass/fail mostly down to listening ability (not very relevant for text translation) and if a lot of media-obscure grammar points I don’t know happen to show up. I’m still much worse than a Japanese high schooler, though — you’ll have to believe me on this one.

² It’s hard to know where exactly this went wrong, and it’s possible only QA could have saved it from what could be both a reasonable editing decision or a translation oversight. Maybe the translator used google images and saw the bulbs looked more or less like normal bulbs and just went with that; ナツメ球 is in edict, but edict is unreliable and a professional translator might understandably avoid it (I wouldn’t – it has better coverage on a lot of random more contemporary/obscure stuff, though I if I were truly high effort I would probably get access to more updated online daijirin/shinwaei dictionaries).

³ Among other language pairs she was a JP->SE translator I believe, but I can’t remember if she did it firsthand or second. I also remember the title of one book she worked on, Shine, a localized title she didn’t pick or particularly like and which seems to be entirely impossible for me to find anywhere. I also don’t know if she was entirely a literary tl, it’s not like those get paid a lot, though I guess probably more than VN translators (let it be known that the muffled crying of our industry professionals can be heard in the background of this sentence).

⁴ It’s possible she was actually just holding it or something and I’m misremembering, but this way the example has more of the dimensions I want to discuss in this post.

⁵ At the time, Translation Aggregator with JParser and mecab was my first-line lookup choice. These days I have to look things up infrequently enough that a browser addon that has shinmeikai and shin eiwa daijiten 5th ed EPWING dictionary lookup in addition to JMdict (basically fancy non-boomer edict) serves my needs better. Those did not help me here, though.

⁶ In keeping with the principles of this post, I ended up checking out the origin of the proverb. The passage used to read “a totally radical guy once said…,” since I was assuming it had been directly said by Jesus (also, it was funnier that way). At least it really was from the Bible! Though the fall implied is supposed to be “calamitous”, apparently, so maybe we’re using it a bit lightly here. Then again, a bad enough mistranslation really could cause a disaster… though if you’re translating the nuke launch protocol, I really hope to whatever deity will still give me the time of day that you actually know what you’re doing. The rest of you, feel free to muddle along doing your best like us other mortals.

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