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The Subjective Nature of Translation

By: Christopher Nolan

My name is Christopher Nolan and I am a student at Umass Amherst, studying translation and Japanese. I wanted to use this blog post to talk about something that has always bothered me, which may vary depending on the language, but the topic is subjectivity within translation and how to best handle that. The short answer, I have no idea but I think I learned a couple tricks to best mitigate the potential problems that may arise when handling subjective translations. The first tip I have is to understand what was being translated and who would be reading it. When translating instructions, like for assembly or a recipe, I need to account for that in my translation. Remain pragmatic and consistent. Any cook worth their salt knows how volatile it can be, with slight variations in quantities, techniques and ingredients having a significant impact on the final product. Maintaining consistency with terminology and units of measurements used is crucial. In Japanese there are a few words for boil, each with their own unique usage. 煮る (niru), aside from being a verb meaning to boil, could also mean to simmer, to stew. The next verb is 沸かす (wakasu) which could mean to boil, to heat and even to excite, which has a whole different connotation associated with it. Even in pragmatic texts, word choice can make quite the difference, so be careful to not accidentally excite your pasta. Now when dealing with units of measurement, consistency is key. Thankfully, when translating American recipes into Japanese, you can just use the same words like inch, pint, quart, etc which are translated directly. However, if you are particularly passionate enough, you could even convert them into or from metric, as long as everything is consistent.


As an aspiring translator, one of the pitfalls I learned to avoid early on was unknowingly mistranslating someone's tone or attitude based on preconceived notions. To showcase this, I translated a section from the short story by Haru Momodo titled New aged Pinocchio found within the collection titled Minotaur’s blue labyrinth. The part I found myself having trouble translating was “俺を巻き込むな。さっさと手を放せ!” a very literal translation may read as “Don’t drag me down! Immediately let go of the hand!” However, when translating literature, the translator may change the word order or include an implied topic for easier readability. For example, my translation reads, “Don’t drag me down with you! Hurry and let go of my hand!” The reason I went with this translation was because I wanted to be as faithful to the source text as possible, only inserting the implied subjects (with you, my hand) for easier readability. However, the power and agency to insert things into the translation can sometimes be detrimental. Based on other movies I’ve seen of Pinocchio, I could see him being characterized as someone with an attitude, which could be reflected in the way he speaks. Perhaps Pinocchio could have made his lie more obvious by also insulting Geppetto, which would build on the established notion that Pinocchio doesn't have a human soul. To include a change like this would require a deep understanding of the text, so the question is; would this inclusion be for the betterment of the story? Or am I interjecting my own bias of what I think Pinocchio is? I think with time and more experience I’ll be able to find an answer to these questions but for now, I’ll stick to the source text.


The take away from this blog is to remember that subjectivity is rooted in a lot of the choices a translator can make, from diction to tone. Through being informed and self-aware, we can make the most out of those choices.


This post was written by a student that worked with Just Words during the Spring 2022 semester.


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