Taken Out of Context:
The Importance of Context in Japanese-into-English Translation
This month we continue with Professor Davis' series of examples illustrating how context provides essential information that can assist the Japanese-into-English translator in producing a translation that is complete, accurate, and natural sounding. In this installment: Example 5 - unraveling sense (感) and sensation; and Example 6 - awareness of loanwords and false friends.
Example 5: Sense and sensation
The character 感 is associated with the five senses, as well as many words related to emotions, feelings, and sensations of various types. In a paper describing the development and testing of a new engine for a sporty car the authors write the following:
The character 感 appears twice in this sentence: once in the word 伸び感 and once in the word 感性. The authors state clearly that 伸び感, レスポンス, and サウンド are three specific 感性 that the engineers had in mind as they designed the engine. A student suggested this translation:
“Performance that maintained environmental performance and moreover appealed to the driver’s three senses of ‘stretching emotion,’ ‘response,’ and ‘sound’ was sought, and this engine was achieved.”
The student translated 感性 as “senses,” but humans have only five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. A better translation for 感性 would be “sensations,” which encompasses a wider range of specific examples. If レスポンス is “response” and サウンド is “sound,” then we are left to puzzle out 伸び感. The verb 伸びる carries many meanings. Among these we find “grow,” “lengthen,” “stretch,” “straighten out,” “spread,” “increase,” “be extended,” “be postponed,” “lose elasticity,” and even “become groggy.” However, “stretching emotion” does not seem appropriate as a desirable sensation for the driver of an automobile. We may need to glean additional information from the sentence in order to gain a clear understanding of the word 伸び感. The word 性能 is often associated with “performance,” particularly in the context of the performance of a product under certain conditions. The verb 追求する usually means “to seek” or “to pursue,” but in the context of the performance of an automobile engine it could mean “to provide (to the driver).” Such performance could “appeal” (訴えかける) to the driver’s emotions or it could appeal to the driver through “sensations.” The “sound” could be the roar of the engine—something that most people associate with a high-performance automobile. The “response” could be the light touch on the gas pedal that is required in order to accelerate the car. In this context the 伸び感 is likely to be either the “exhilaration” or the “sense of speed” that the engine provides as the driver accelerates or winds his/her way along a twisting road. If we try to combine all of the information we have gained from the individual pieces of the sentence, we may produce something like this:
*** We developed an engine that could appeal to the driver through the three sensations of “exhilaration,” “response,” and “sound” but could still maintain the vehicle’s low environmental impact. ***
It is worth noting that although the word 性能 appears twice in the original Japanese sentence, it is probably better not to use the word “performance” in both instances. The Japanese term 環境性能 literally means “environmental performance,” but the English phrase “environmental impact” would be a better choice. The verb 実現する, which we discussed previously, also appears in this sentence. From the context we understand that the authors designed the engine in question in order to promote customer interest in a particular vehicle. In this instance “developed” seems to be the most appropriate choice for 実現させた.
The character 感 appears as part of a different term in the following sentence, which was taken from a book about the Japanese economy:
In this instance 感 is part of the word 存在感, which is usually glossed in dictionaries as “presence (felt by others)” or “sense of existence.” A student provided the following translation:
“Recently the Euro, which is the common currency of Europe, raises a sense of existence as for financial transactions of the world.”
The student correctly recognized that the noun ユーロ is the subject of the verb 高めている, but (s)he apparently plugged in a dictionary definition without understanding the meaning of the sentence. The phrase 存在感を高めている literally indicates that someone somewhere is more aware of the presence of the euro as an international currency than was true in the past. That “someone” may be currency traders or people who are engaged in international business. The combination of 最近では and 存在感を高めている suggests that this change began in the recent past and continues to the present. If we translate 最近 as “recently,” then the present perfect tense, not the present tense, should be used. The resulting translation would look like this:
*** Recently the euro—the common currency of Europe—has been attracting more attention in the world’s financial transactions. ***
In a situation such as this, when the word 最近 is paired with a verb that indicates an action in progress or an ongoing change, another option would be to translate 最近 as “these days” and to employ the present progressive tense, rather than the present perfect tense.
*** These days the euro—the common currency of Europe—is playing a larger role in the world’s financial transactions. ***
If we compare these two translations, we realize that the first option places more emphasis on the fact that this change began in the recent past and the second option places more emphasis on the fact that this change continues into the present. Depending upon the overall context of the document one translation or the other may be preferable. It is worth noting that as we thought about each of these sentences we refined our translation in several stages. At each step along the way we used the context as a guide for making choices among options for the meanings of individual words and for putting words and phrases together to form the overall sentence.
Example 6: Loanwords and false friends
Linguistic borrowing enriches languages all over the world. Many loanwords carry into their adopted languages the same meanings that the original words held in their original languages. However, almost every language allows for the possibility that a loanword could take on a new meaning in its adopted language—a meaning that might not be obvious to someone who is familiar with the original word in the original language. Translators often use the term “false friends” (or “feux amis”) to describe the loanword in the adopted language and the original word in the original language. A book about the Japanese economy contains this sentence:
At first glance the loanword リフォーム appears to correspond to the English word “reform.” If so, the term 住宅リフォーム would logically correspond to the widely used phrase “housing reform.” (“Housing reform” is normally associated with a government policy or program that is designed to make home ownership accessible on an equal basis to a wide segment of a given population.) Based on this understanding a student submitted the following translation:
“Housing reform (the extension/reconstruction of existing buildings) makes up approximately 30% of Japan’s housing investment; when compared to England’s 62% and Germany’s 50%, it is considerably lower.”
The first hint that 住宅リフォーム has nothing to do with “housing reform” comes from the character-based explanation (増改築) that appears in parentheses immediately after the term in question. The student focused on the meanings of the three individual characters and rendered this explanation as “the extension/reconstruction of existing buildings.” If we assume that this term is intended to encompass projects such as adding another room to an existing home or redoing the kitchen, then a more natural alternative might be “additions or alterations to existing buildings.” With this understanding of the character-based explanation in hand we realize that the term 住宅リフォーム actually corresponds to “home remodeling,” “home renovation,” or “home improvement.” If so, the entire sentence could be rendered like this:
*** Approximately 30% of Japan’s housing investment is devoted to home remodeling/renovation/improvement (additions or alterations to existing buildings). This figure is quite low in comparison with that of England (62%) or Germany (50%). ***
The loanword リフォーム certainly qualifies as a “false friend” in this instance. The context, in the form of the character-based explanation, provided enough information to overcome the “misdirection” that we may have experienced when we read the sentence initially.
(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.