Meaning-based Translation and the Search for Equivalent Impact
Two key questions for translators are: “What is the writer of the source text saying?” and “What would a native speaker of the target language say in this situation?” To answer the first question, translators need at least a near-native grasp of the source language grammar and patterns of usage, as well as a clear understanding of the content. This grasp of the source language and this understanding of the content are usually acquired over a long period of time through repeated exposure and close attention to detail.
Translating meaning, rather than words, allows the translator to look beyond individual words and break sentences into units of meaning. A unit of meaning could be a single field-specific term or it could be a figure of speech, such as an idiomatic expression. Awareness of context helps the translator select the correct meaning (among several possibilities) for a specific word or phrase in a specific situation. Awareness of context also allows the translator to “read between the lines” and translate meaning that does not appear explicitly. Thus, context helps the translator answer both questions. Context also provides hints regarding the appropriate style, register and tone for the translation—all of which are necessary for equivalent impact. In essence, grammar tells the translator what options (in terms of meaning) are possible; context tells the translator which option is intended in a specific situation.
One example is the expression 菅降ろし. This expression appeared frequently in Japanese publications during the latter months of the Kan administration. It refers to attempts by elected officials—including some members of Prime Minister Kan’s own party—to remove him from his position. The headline “菅降ろし与野党で 首相は譲らず” appeared in the 毎日新聞 in June of 2011. One option that accurately captures the meaning would be, “Prime Minister Kan Refuses to Yield to Ruling and Opposition Party Efforts to Drive Him from Office.” However, keeping in mind that this is a newspaper headline, a more suitable translation might read, “Kan Fights Ouster by Ruling and Opposition Parties.” Background knowledge, an understanding of grammar, and an awareness of context lead the translator to the ultimate goal: a translation that conveys the intended meaning and has the same impact on the target-language reader that the source-language text has on the source-language reader.
This article originally appeared in Translator Perspectives 2012, published by the Japan Association of Translators.
Jim Davis is Professor and Director of the Technical Japanese Program in the Dept. of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.