Jan 21, 2014

Translating Figures of Speech in Japanese Documents

Professor and Director, Technical Japanese Program
Dept. of Engineering Professional Development, University of Wisconsin-Madison

2013 ATA Conference, San Antonio TX
November 9, 2013

Why are figures of speech used in languages? To convey particular messages in particular ways.

Generally speaking, the basic principle of translation is that the target text should make the same impact (emotional, etc., as well as factual) on its readers as the source text did on its.

To carry this out when metaphors occur in the source text, the translator needs to generate many alternative translations and then choose the best one depending on constraints such as the context surrounding the metaphor in the source and the desired impact on the reader.

These alternatives can be arranged on a matrix with a number of axes. For example, similar vs. different meaning and similar vs. different form:

Similar meaning

Similar form

Different form

Different meaning

This matrix can be considered as a tool to be used for generating a number of alternative translations. Once you have them, you can use the constraints of the context, the impact on the reader that is needed, etc.

Other axes (think of them as additional dimensions to these two: 3rd, 4th, etc.):
Paraphrase vs. describe: rather than trying to find a target language metaphor parallel to the source language metaphor, paraphrase the meaning or describe what the writer was talking about
Exotic vs. familiar: use target language which is relatively close to the source and therefore “exotic” to the reader of the translation, or language more familiar to the reader of the translation
Detailed vs. concise: use longer phrases to include details, or more concise ones

Still other dimensionss may involve style, register, tone, rhythm, and rhyme, etc.


1. 竜頭蛇尾

Similar meaning and form:      “Head of a dragon and tail of a snake”                      (Exotic)
Similar meaning but different form:
                                                “Start with a bang and end with a whimper”              (Familiar)
                                                “Strong beginning and weak ending”                         (Familiar)
                                                “Start well and end badly”                                         (Familiar)

Paraphrase/describe:                “Flash in the pan”                                          (Colloquial; longer)
                                                “Anticlimax”                                                  (Neutral; medium)                                                                         “Dud”                                                                        (Colloquial; shorter)

2. 蛇の道は蛇
Exotic:                                     “A snake knows the way of a snake.”
Familiar:                                  “Set a thief to catch a thief.”
                                                “It takes one to know one.”
                                                “Fight fire with fire.”

3. 弱肉
Similar meaning and form:      “The weak are meat, the strong do eat.”
                                                “The strong devour the weak.”
                                                “The big fish eat the small.”
Similar meaning but different form:
                                                “The survival of the fittest”
Paraphrase/describe:                “The law of the jungle”

4. ピンチをチャンスに
Similar meaning and form:      “Turning a challenge into an opportunity.”
                                                “Turning a problem into an opportunity.”
                                                “Turning a crisis into an opportunity.”
                                                “Turning adversity into opportunity.”
Similar meaning but different form:
                                                “Making the best of a bad situation
                                                “Making lemons into lemonade
Paraphrase/describe:                “Finding a silver lining”

5. という泥船に政党はない

No political party would          take a ride on a mudboat.
board a boat made of mud.
board a train bound for nowhere.
adopt a strategy with no future.
support a losing proposition.

6. この世界から足を洗ったら農業をやりたいとかんがえている。

If I (ever)                                 wash my hands of (the world of) politics,
turn my back on (the world of) politics,
walk away from
(the world of) politics,
decide to quit
(the world of) politics,
leave behind
(the world of) politics,
(the world of) politics,
give up
(I think) I would like to try farming.

7. 日本の防衛産業に秋波送る「友好

Friendly Countries                  Cast eyes on                           Japan’s Defense Industry
                                                Seek Partnerships with
                                                Make Overtures to

8. 再生事例リスケデを稼ぐ!経営改革に着手
The key to business revitalization: Buy (some) time
                                                        Gain (some) breathing room
through debt rescheduling, then   restructure operations
revamp operations
overhaul management

9. 党本部と都道府の分耐性の立=
Establishing a system for division of labor between the party headquarters and the local chapters/affiliates:
Eliminating the custom by which
“everyone comes to Kasumigaseki (to seek favors from the government,”
“every Tom, Dick and Harry brings his business to Kasumigaseki,”
“all decisions are made in Kasumigaseki,”
and in doing so
taking the first steps toward
laying the groundwork for
decentralization of decision making, so matters than can be handled locally are handled locally.

Thus, in conveying the message:
1. Use a strategy matrix tool to generate alternative translations.
2. Consider alternative meanings based on context.
3. Consider alternative renderings based on constraints.

(Other examples are in the session handout: contact James L. Davis: jdavis@engr.wisc.edu

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