The Sockdolager

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Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I'm a Japanese-to-English translator by trade—primarily of comics and genre fiction. If I'd read this essay sometime in the first five years or so of my career, I think it would have saved me the next five years of learning lessons the hard way. As it is, it still crystallized principles I've spent a decade internalizing. An absolute must-read for anyone interested in the exigencies of translation.