In one cartoon of Mox The Engineer-Translator, Mox, who is watching a movie with his girlfriend Lena, suddenly starts loudly protesting that the subtitles do not correspond to the dialogue in a foreign language. At the end, they are both thrown out of the movie theater and Lena’s bubble above her pony-tailed head says:”Mental note to myself: Never go to movies with a translator!”.
I know why Mox could not stay silent. To be silent in the face of injustice is to be an accomplice to evil. And to be silent in the face of a mistranslation when you are a translator is to deny your true identity, just like Peter denied Jesus, three times before a rooster crowed, out of fear of what would happen to him.
There is a scene in the movie Johnny English in which Rowan Atkinson, who is trying to impress Natalie Imbruglia by his skillful handling of chopsticks at a sushi restaurant, (“I practically live off these things” he says to her, while wondering how to separate wooden chopsticks that seem to be stuck together), utters a Japanese sentence with perfect pronunciation, which is translated in the subtitles as “Your friend’s daughter has 3 bottoms”.
But he did not say that!!! He actually said in Japanese “Your friend’s daughter has a small penis”. (Anata no tomodachi no musume wa chiisana o-chinchi wo motte iru).
I swear, that’s what said! I think that it is very funny both in Japanese and in English (it is clearly an imaginary daughter of an imaginary friend), while a daughter with three bottoms is not very funny, imaginary or otherwise, because it does not really mean anything.
Which idiot decided to mistranslate the sentence like this?, I wonder. Fortunately, I was watching the movie on my TV at home. Had I been in a movie theater, I would probably have done what Mox did in the cartoon, and I would then meet the same fate as Mox.
I don’t scream at the screen in movie theaters. I do sometime scream at my TV, but usually it has nothing to do with foreign languages. I do it sometime when a well paid “journalist” is blithely telling lies, just before I turn the TV off.
I also sometime scream and yell four letter words at the text that I am translating. I know it’s useless, but it seems to help a little bit. I have a number of very good reasons to scream at the stupid pieces of paper that I have to translate sometime.
1. The documents are often almost illegible, especially when these are old patents written in Japanese, because back in the day, Japan Patent Office accepted patent applications by fax. This week I was translating a utility model from Japanese and I had to guess so many characters when I only saw a filled-in outline of complicated Japanese characters, it was like sitting in Plato’s cave. Instead of being able to see the delicate and bold shapes and strokes of the character, I only see shadows projected on the cave’s walls.
2. The patent agents who write these patent applications often seem to be severely undereducated, except perhaps for the narrow technical field in which they specialize. They sometime use the wrong characters because they are pronounced the same way in Japanese, and I then have to spend a long time searching on the Internet in vain for compounds which contain this character to make sure that this is indeed a typo and not a new word that I don’t know.
I will use the example of the translation of the word “analog” into Japanese to give you an idea of how bad the writing of these people can be. Like many other technical terms, the word “analog” is generally not translated into Japanese, it is simply transcribed to fit the Japanese phonetic system as “anarogu”. However, some Japanese patent agents transcribe it as “anaguro”. As I already mentioned in a post called Don’t Commit Suicide If A Customer Hates Your Translation, when I searched for “anaguro” （アナグロ） instead of “anarogu” (アナログ） which would be the correct Japanese word, I got 13 patent applications on the Japan Patent Office Website, and 8 patent applications on the World Intellectual Property Office website.
3. These people sometime forget to include the verb,. Try to translate a whole paragraph that is missing the verb! Even German patent agents sometime do that, although not as often as the Japanese ones. The problem is, the verb is always at the end in both Japanese and in German …. and sometime they simply forget.
4. The most helpful thing in every patent applications are the figures or drawings at the end because they show the actual parts of the machines described in the text. It is particularly helpful in Japanese patents because there is, generally speaking, no singular and no plural in Japanese. So when I translate text that says 車輪 (sharin), I have no idea whether this means “wheel” or “wheels” until I see the figures. But Japanese patent agents often don’t identify which figure they mean, and I then have to look at 17 figures if I want to find out whether a certain word is in singular or plural.
Worse, they often say things like “wheel(s) 13 shown in Figure 5” …. but there is no part labeled “15” in Figure 5! It might be in Figure 17, or it might not be there at all.
5. I think that many Japanese patent agents must be evil people. And like Lady Gaga, they were born that way, because their first name consists of 2 or 3 Japanese characters that are often simply unidentifiable! (Japanese name can be very difficult to figure out as there are many ways to pronounce characters in names).
I realize that most of them had no choice about the characters because their names were given to them by their parents.
But why would parents name their children using unidentifiable characters, unless the parents themselves were evil as well and therefore wanted to impart as much of their evil nature to their offspring too, starting with the name?
I realize that screaming at a piece of paper will not change anything.
But it I think that it does help me on a subliminal level, and the screaming usually does not take me nearly as long as it took me to write this post.