How Cultural Immersion Affects Translation

Clients always ask for “native” translators. But even among the natives, a strange mental fog can set in among translators with many years of experience in a given source language. Too much exposure to the language and cultural immersion can be a problem, in fact. After 20 years in the industry evaluating and trying to improve translations, I’ve seen it happen to the best of them, including me.

Mastery or Madness?

For those translating from Japanese into English, the threshold of linguistic and grammatical madness seems to be about 10,000 hours of translation work. That’s about five years if translation is your full-time job (if you take two weeks off each year). Many professionals lose their moorings and forget what “normal” English is.

Malcom Gladwell mentions these 10,000 hours in his book, Outliers, as the amount of practice it takes to become a “master” at something. Perhaps this explains the sometimes masterful yet thoroughly ridiculous phrases one often sees in professional English renditions of original Japanese texts.

Correct Definitions

Precisely because “native” translators are the ones writing incorrect translations of words and phrases, these errors shamelessly sneak their way into otherwise normal sentences and paragraphs. Many of the following dastardly cases of “not-quite English” have wormed their way into Japan’s most reputable translation houses and are now widely accepted as decent work.

Why Aren’t We Through with Through?

Although it is not as damaging as some of the other not-quites below, lets start with one of the greatest pet peeves ever published: the overuse of “through” in phrases like “We are working to improve profitability through workforce streamlining measures and other abstract multi-term compound nouns.” Why can’t we say, “We are working to improve profitability by streamlining our workforce and verbing some other object”? Isn’t that the way English normally sounds? I’m not complaining about the very useful word in the Japanese language that people translate using “through”… it does a great job in Japanese. It’s just weird in English, especially after you get to the fifth or sixth utterance within a couple of paragraphs.

Noun Overkill

There are a couple of abstract compound nouns that are still stuck in my throat from recent work:

  • Our consumer product quality evaluation initiatives are super groovy.” (OK, I made that last part up.)
  • “Our production performance indicator revision process is unique.”

The Japanese language can be incredibly efficient by stringing together kanji (Chinese characters that have been embedded into Japanese), but when translating into English, one should do better than five nouns in a row. Why not try something like “We use a unique process to revise our performance indicators on production”?

The Promotional Value of Existence

Above and beyond the above structural miscreants, there is another entire category of not-quite English that occurs when translators forget which culture they’re writing for. Here’s an astonishingly common example found in English reports issued by Japanese companies: “We strive for co-existence with local communities.”

In Japan, the word for “co-existence” may be steeped in thousands of years of collective and collaborative culture. But in Western English, aspiring to “exist” is hardly worthy of bragging rights, even if the goal is to exist with some stakeholder or other. Without getting too philosophical, two entities that are in the same universe automatically “co-exist” in English, and there is not much promotional value in that.

At the very least, translators should try adding an adjective like “harmonious” to make a word like “co-existence” a bit more substantial.

As the trusted cultural interpreter, you are in a special position: you can add great value not only to your product, but to your client’s internal processes as well.