Posted by: patenttranslator | December 24, 2010

Gained in Translation

Non-translators love to complain about all those precious things that are lost in translation. There are so many untranslatable idioms and proverbs, for example. And there are so many disparaging sayings such as “traduttore, traditore” in different languages, coupled with creative abuse of oh-so-clever and really funny deposition lawyers who routinely call their interpreter “Ms. interpreter” [missinterpreter] and all that. People who don’t really know anything about translation because they speak only one language, we can call them civilians, can’t find anything good to say about translators. Probably not even dead ones, in spite of the old Latin proverb nil nisi bonum de mortuis that exists in many languages. But even people who know a lot about languages don’t trust translators. A well known example of an accomplished abuser of translators is the formerly Czech and now French writer Milan Kundera. Because he is fluent in French, German and English, Kundera was never happy with translations of his books into these languages. Since Kundera started writing in French more than a decade ago, he is now hopefully mostly abusing the French language. At least his French translator should be able to breathe a little easier now.

Civilians in particular don’t realize that translators in fact often must add certain things that are not in the original language into their translation in order to make the translation understandable. You don’t have to add a lot of new elements if you translate between European languages that are really quite similar, such as French and English. But you do have to introduce many new elements into your translation when you translate for example a Japanese patent to English.

Unlike the grammars of European languages, Japanese grammar is not based on clearly defined linguistic categories called parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, prepositions, tenses, or categories such as subject that were originally developed for Latin and then applied consistently to European languages for centuries. Some of them have equivalents or near equivalents in Japanese, and some don’t. For example, Japanese either does not have adjectives, or it has adjectives that can be in the present or past tense, if you can call them adjectives. Japanese has very important “speech parts” called particles ( 助詞, joshi) which do not exist in European languages as far as I know. This means that you cannot really perform a grammatical analysis of a Japanese sentence the way that you can analyze a sentence in English or German. Since the verbs in a typical Japanese sentence do not need to have a tense, verbs can be thrown into a sentence with the “ru” (る) form which is something like infinitive in European languages. But since you must have a present, past or future tense (which strictly speaking does not really exist in Japanese) in your English sentence, you have to take your pick and create your own tense in English. I often have to go back and change the tense I used in a long paragraph once I understand what the writer probably meant. Japanese also usually does not make a distinction between singular and plural. A truly accurate translation of a Japanese sentence would have to be consistently using “optional plurals” – instead of saying “widget A of apparatus B including part C” you would have to say something like “widget(s) A of apparatus(es) B including part(s) C, which would sound amazingly stupid. In reality you have to add singular or plural to every noun in English while looking at figures or based on your best guess.

The Japanese language must be driving machine translation programmers crazy because it does not need to have a subject. An English sentence generally must have a subject to make sense. While a good human translator will understand correctly from the context of a Japanese sentence what the subject must be in English, software does not “understand context” or anything else for that matter, which is one reason why machine translations from Japanese are usually extremely poor. The Japanese sentence may make a perfect sense in Japanese even when it has no subject, no tense, and no singular or plural because everything is dependent on context in Japanese to such an extent that unlike in European languages, context plays a major role from a grammatical viewpoint and it should really be considered just another category of  the “parts of speech” in Japanese. Because the grammatical and contextual relationships between the “parts of speech”, if we want to call them that, in Japanese are often very different from those that exist in English, a good translator will necessarily have to add and introduce new elements into his or her translation from Japanese to English.

One category of Japanese grammar which often stumps novice translators is the so called “topic” or “theme”  (話題 wadai) in Japanese. This is something like a subject, but often it cannot be translated as subject in English. You just have to keep in mind that the “wadai”, which is expressed by particle “wa” (わ) in Japanese, could be the subject of your Japanese sentence, unless the Japanese sentence contains one or more “subject particles ga” (が), which could then be the real subject(s) in English, while the “wa” particle would then play a largely adverbial role. If it sounds really complicated, it kind of is, but it can also be a lot of fun if you enjoy solving puzzles.

The only really reliable particle in Japanese is the particle “wo” (を) which indicates the object in a sentence. The easiest way to decode a long and ambiguous Japanese sentence is usually to identify first the object which is expressed by the particle “wo” and then to build your English sentence starting from this object. It works like a charm in long sentences because the qualifying words in Japanese precede the object, which means that you can create segments of sentences starting from the middle (object) and then connect them to the verb at the end of the Japanese sentence, or to several verbs that can be contained in a long sentence. Once you do that, everything should fall in place, provided that you have not forgotten what the topic (wadai) of the sentence was, which may be hiding on the previous page, and that you can connect the correct subject (ga) and object (wo) particle(s) with the correct verb(s). A typical Japanese über-sentence, which has to be translated always as one sentence in one claim, can easily have eight hundred or more words with many subordinate clauses separated only by the conjunction と (and).

What is gained as a result of a good translation, after a human translator has made a number of personalized additions in an English sentence, is of course the meaning of a sentence in a foreign language that now for the first time exists also in English. Before the Japanese sentence was translated, it was simply gibberish that had absolutely no meaning to people who do not understand foreign languages, which is the great majority of the almost seven billion people who share this planet with us.

But it makes sense now, because it is our job to make sense out of things that did not make sense before and bring a little bit of order and logic into our chaotic, incomprehensible, positively mad world.

How many shapes, starting with a human face, can you identify in the “Mad World” video below?


  1. Hello,

    Sincerely thanks for this article that I’ve read as if it were a story, in one breath!

    Time has come to inform you that your blog is part of a list of more than 100 blogs that feed the facebook page La Rassegna del Traduttore (!/LaRassegna). The page is, together with others, meant for Italian translators, but it now has so many links to blogs in other languages that it has gained an international interest for all translators. If you do not like to have your blog feeded real time on the list, tell me ( and we’ll take it out.

    Wishing you a nice Christmas today and thanks for all your articles, past and future ones ;>)))


  2. It will be my privilege to be linked on La Rassegna. When does it actually mean in Italian. I tried to translate “rassegna” with Yahoo Babel Fish and the result I got was “it resigns”. So much for machine translation.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Steve Vitek


  3. What a fantastic essay! I’m sharing it with friends via Twitter.

    Now I understand why I had such a hard time trying to learn Japanese in college. We translators who work from Romance languages have it a bit easier.

    Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2011!


  4. “We translators who work from Romance languages have it a bit easier.”

    Maybe so, but translators who work from Japanese have more fun!

    Best regards and a Happy New Year!


  5. Steve,
    Congratulations on your post. You made a point of saying some things that need being said, in no uncertain terms. I am a LatAm native Spanish speaker, certified translator from and into English, and although I do not deal with the intricateness of a target/source language such as Japanese, I do have to deal with source documents which simply beg for additions or amendments in order to be minimally intelligible in the target language. For instance, it is a fact that lawyers (at least locally) are dreadful writers, and to render into clear unequivocal English a lawyer’s brief can make you want to pull out your hair and scream. Never in a million years could MT achieve, or even tackle, what we humble legal translators have to face, day in, day out. So thank you for sticking your neck out for us much maligned translators…


  6. Thank you for your comment.

    I agree with you, but translators are deathly afraid of machine translation, mostly for all the wrong reasons.

    The posts that always get the most hits on my blog are posts about MT.

    Best regards, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


  7. Hello,

    Rassegna (stampa) means (News) Review.

    Personally I’m convinced that we should not be afraid of MT and that we should even hope that it will become better and better, as it would reduce our work to what it really is: “understand” the unwritten and ununderstandable “data” that remain hidden to who is not “interested” in these hidden data behing language. That’s the big difference between one who learns a language because he has to and one who is passionate about “language”. Often, in my case, the adding doesn’t mean “ad words” but “meaning”. I love the language story in this article, the way you perfectly express the – for me – incredible and misterious different way of “thinking while speaking and writing” of Japanese.
    For me the big problem for MT and for translations generally, is the source author, the source text. As long as we put the accent on the translation and not on the source “text” or speaking, we’re going the wrong way; the world of business would gain a lot of money if it started on concentrating on it’s own words and text production ;>)).


  8. I think that translators should welcome machine translation instead of being afraid of it. Machine translation is an alternative to human translation only when you can’t and don’t want to pay for human translation. It will never replace human translators because machines will never conquer the barrier of meaning – machines don’t understand anything and never will, and nobody can program meaning into a piece of software. In the long run, machine translation will only bring more work to human translators because only human translators can translate meaning instead of replacing words in one language by words in another language according to an algorithm. The concept of meaning is something that many non-translators either don’t understand or don’t want to understand. And of course, companies that sell machine translation software pretend that the problem with the category of meaning which cannot be programmed into software, simply does not exist.

    I wrote a post about it on my blog, see the link below if you are interested.

    Best regards,


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