Taken Out of Context:
The Importance of Context in Japanese-into-English Translation
(Part 1) by Jim Davis
Japanese is a high-context language. Among other consequences of this fact we find that in a Japanese document the context in which a statement is made exerts particularly strong influence over the way information is presented. Viewed from the opposite point of view, the type of information that is included in—or is omitted from—a particular Japanese sentence is heavily dependent upon the context in which that sentence appears. Thus, the translator must identify and make use of all potential sources of information within a text that can clarify which among several possible interpretations of a word or phrase is the one intended by the author. Context plays a role not only when multiple meanings exist for an individual word or a phrase, but also when topics or subjects are omitted, when antecedents are not clearly specified, and when idiomatic references are made. The latter point is particularly relevant when linguistic borrowing takes place and idiomatic expressions from English or other languages are rendered in Japanese.
Here I will present several specific examples to illustrate how context provides essential information that can assist the Japanese-into-English translator in producing a translation that is complete, accurate, and natural sounding. All of the Japanese example sentences appeared in books or technical papers that were used in Japanese courses that are offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A sentence translation that is surrounded by quotation marks was prepared by a student in one of those courses; a sentence translation that is surrounded by asterisks (***) is my own.
Example 1: Use of a noun for a figurative, rather than literal, meaning
The following sentence appeared in a Wikipedia article on the Internet:
The character 袖 means “sleeve,” so the literal meaning of the phrase 袖の下 would be “under the sleeve” or “beneath the sleeve.” However, the use of quotation marks in the sentence suggests that a literal meaning is not intended. It is clear that the writer is using a figure of speech. The verb 渡す means “to deliver,” “to hand over,” or “to provide (someone with money).” In this particular sentence the phrase 袖の下 functions as the direct object of this verb. From the context we may conclude that 袖の下 actually refers to a bribe or money that is handed from one person to another “under the table.” The Japanese phrase 袖の下 conveys the image of someone hiding something in the sleeve of a kimono or perhaps letting the kimono sleeve fall onto an envelope of cash that was conveniently left on a table. This Japanese phrase and the English expression “under the table” both suggest a desire to hide some action from the view of others.
The character 袖 also appeared in the following passage from a newspaper article that was published by the 日本経済新聞 several years ago:
民主党の鳩山由紀夫幹事長は 12 日、福島市内で街頭演説し、米国による北朝鮮のテロ支援国家指定解除について「1 年に 2 度も首相が代わるから、日米同盟を命のように思っていても米国から袖にされる。 (2)
In this instance 袖 becomes part of the expression 袖にされる, which is simply the passive equivalent of 袖にする. A literal interpretation of 袖にされる would be “is given the sleeve,” but this clearly does not make sense. From the context we can determine that Japan is “suffering” from this action by the United States. In fact, 袖にされる is an idiomatic expression that means “is ignored,” “is taken lightly,” “is not appreciated,” “is given the brush-off,” or “is given the cold shoulder.” Any one of these meanings would be valid in this particular context. The close physical proximity between “sleeve” and “shoulder” suggests that the Japanese and English expressions may have a common link through the gesture of turning one’s back on someone who is not liked or is not respected, but this is pure conjecture.
Example 2: Familiar words in an unfamiliar context
In a book that describes some of the problems confronting the Japanese economy the author writes the following sentence:
Two students offered the following translations:
“During the 1970s and 80s, Japan experienced two oil crises and entered a period of stable growth, with growth rates slowing to a high three percentage points. The growth rate fell further in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Bubble, hovering at rates below a half a percent.”
“In the period from 1970 to 1980, after passing through two oil crises a period of stable growth was entered. The growth rate then declined to a level of 3% in the latter half of this period. In addition, in the beginning of the 1990s there was an additional decline after the collapse of the Bubble, changing to a level of 1% within the first half of that decade.”
The words 前半 and 後半 are widely used to convey the meanings “first half” and “second half,” respectively, for an interval of time, a game, or a battle. However, in this instance each term follows the character 台, which in turn follows a percentage value. The character 台 literally refers to a pedestal, a platform, a stand, or some object for supporting other items. When the same character follows a numerical value, it usually refers to a “level” or a “mark” on a numerical scale. Based on this information we may conclude that the expression 三％台後半 refers to the “second half” of an interval that lies above the “three percent level.” The most logical choice for this interval would be the interval between 3.0% and 4.0%.
Using similar reasoning we may assume that the expression 一％台前半 represents the “first half” of an interval that lies above the “one percent level.” The most logical choice for this interval would be the interval between 1.0% and 2.0%. The first student recognized the percentage values but did not understand the relationship between 後半 or 前半 and the stated percentage. The second student also recognized the percentage values but assumed that 後半 and 前半 referred to an interval of time, even though there is no explicit reference to a time interval in either phrase. In this example the key point for the translator is to recognize that the “interval” in question is a percentage increment. With this thought in mind we understand that the phrase 三％台後半 refers to “the 3.5-3.9% range,” and the phrase 一％台前半 represents “the 1.0-1.4% range.”
(to be continued)
Jim Davis is Professor and Director of the Technical Japanese Program in the Dept. of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.