Jun 28, 2015

Words and 言葉 by Jim Davis

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 7 - reaching for specific vs. general; and Example 7 - wanting to maintain vs. improve.

Taken Out of Context:
The Importance of Context in Japanese-into-English Translation
(Part 4)

Example 7: Specific vs. general

The character is most frequently associated with the specific concept of “world,” but it can also carry a more general meaning: “society,” “era,” “generation,” or “lifetime.” The following sentence, taken from a book about the Japanese economy, contains the common phrase 世の中:

日銀は資金の需要と供給のメカニズムを通じて金利をコントロールし、世の中の景気を調整している。   (11)

In this sentence 世の中 modifies the noun 景気. A student translated the sentence in this way:

“The Bank of Japan controls interest rates by using the mechanisms of capital supply and demand, and through this regulates the economic conditions of the entire world.”

The term 日銀 is a common abbreviation for 日本銀行 (the Bank of Japan), the Japanese central bank. This translation asserts that the Bank of Japan can, by virtue of its interest rate policy, regulate “the economic conditions of the entire world.” Not even the head of the Bank of Japan would claim that his institution has that much power. This assertion alone makes us return to the original sentence for a more careful examination. It appears that the student read the phrase 世の中 and thought that it was equivalent to 世界中. The term 世界中 does indeed mean “all over the world” or “throughout the entire world” in the sense of our entire planet. However, the phrase 世の中 could mean “the world” in the very vague sense of the comings of goings of the people around us, it could refer to “society,” or it could mean “the times” in the sense of the events that occur around some individual observer during a particular period in history. If we begin with the assumption that the Bank of Japan can only exercise direct control over economic events within Japan, and we recognize that a Japanese economist has written this book for a Japanese audience, we may safely conclude that 世の中の景気 refers to the Japanese economy or economic conditions within Japan. This leads us to the following translation:

*** The Bank of Japan uses the mechanism of supply and demand of capital to control interest rates. In this way it regulates economic conditions/the economy (around us). ***

This translation suggests that depending upon the way in which we integrate this particular sentence into the larger context of the paragraph in which it appears, it may not even be necessary to translate 世の中 explicitly. If we do decide to translate 世の中 at all, a vague sense of “the economy around us” would be sufficient in this particular instance. This same Japanese phrase appears in two other sentences that appear in the same book:

しかし、世の中にはもっと様々な形態の金融取引がある。   (12)

物価とは、世の中全般の価格動向のことだ。   (13)

The subject of sentence 12 is 金融取引, and the setting for the main clause is simply 世の中. A student translated this sentence as follows:

“That said, the bank has financial dealings in a variety of forms worldwide.”

Sentence 12 appeared the same paragraph as sentence 11, although the sentences were not consecutive. The sentences between sentence 11 and sentence 12 dealt with purchases of Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan as a means to stimulate the Japanese economy. This student made the same error regarding 世の中 that a different student made in sentence 11. In addition, this student assumed that the Bank of Japan was the unstated topic of this sentence. In fact, there is no unstated topic; this sentence focuses on transactions, not the organizations that make such transactions. Because the subject (金融取引) is “financial transactions,” the setting (世の中) is probably “the business world” or “the world of finance.” Thus, the intended meaning of sentence 12 would be more like this:

*** However, in the business world there exist financial transactions in a much wider variety of forms. ***

Sentence 13 functions as a definition of the term 物価, which is glossed in some dictionaries as “prices” and in some dictionaries as “commodity prices.” However, in the business world and in the media the term “commodity prices” normally refers to the prices of agricultural products and materials that are mined or otherwise extracted from the ground. Such products are frequently purchased in bulk by companies or traded on commodity exchanges. Examples of commodities include corn, wheat, crude oil, coal, iron ore, and bauxite. As sentence 13 indicates, the term 物価 carries a much broader meaning. A student translated this sentence as follows:

Commodity prices, is the trend in the cost of everything in the world as a whole.

There are two significant issues in this sentence: 物価 and 世の中. In order to ensure the integrity of the entire sentence our translations for these two portions must be compatible. If 物価 is “prices,” then 価格動向 could refer to “the trend in the cost” in 世の中全般. (In principle the word 価格 could be “cost” or “price.” If we are defining “prices,” we cannot very well use “price” in the definition. In this instance “cost” is the preferred alternative.) We typically monitor prices for an individual country or for a particular geographical region. Rather than the clearly defined meaning for 世の中 that we encountered in sentence 12, this sentence seems to favor the more vague sense (“around us”) that we observed in sentence 11. (This is consistent with the broad meaning of “prices” for 物価.) If so, then 世の中全般 would mean “everything around us” or “all of the items around us,” and we could translate sentence 13 in this way:

*** Prices reflect the trend in the cost of all the things we buy. ***

If we think about the content of this sentence, we realize that another concept that is related to the trend in the cost of various items is the “cost of living.” If we rearrange the wording to incorporate this concept, we could translate sentence 13 as follows:

*** The cost of living reflects the movement of prices for purchases (in general). ***

In this instance the optional phrase “in general” provides the sense of scale or sense of scope that we obtain from 世の中全般 in the original sentence. Depending upon the overall flow of information in the paragraph from which the original sentence was taken, either the first or the second translation may be more suitable.

Example 8: Maintaining vs. improving

The word 整備 has two meanings. It could mean “maintenance,” “servicing,” or “upkeep” in the sense of keeping machinery or facilities in good working order. It could also mean “development,” “improvement,” or “expansion” in the sense of enhancing the capabilities of machinery or facilities. A book about the Japanese economy contained the following passage:

進出先で生産体制を整備していかなければならない。地域で歓迎してくれ、行政の協力で整備が進むと、だんだんと生産が軌道に乗ってくる   (14)

The term 整備 appears twice in this passage, which was part of a discussion of Japanese companies shifting production facilities from Japan to other countries in order to reduce operating costs. A student translated these two sentences as follows:

“In the place of advancement the company has to be maintaining production systems. If it is welcomed by the region and maintenance is progressing with the cooperation of the administration, eventually production will become financially stable.”

Keeping in mind that the passage pertains to the movement of production facilities, we realize that 進出先 must refer to the location to which the facilities have been moved or “the new location.” Because this is a new location, the primary challenge for the company is to put into place a production system that operates efficiently and with the necessary level of quality. This suggests that the intended meaning of 整備 falls into the “development” category, rather than the “maintenance” category. The final clause contains the phrase 軌道に乗ってくる, which the student translated as “become financially stable.” However, the direct object of the verb in the first sentence is 生産体制, and the subject of the second sentence is 生産. This information suggests that the primary focus at this stage is on production, rather than profit. In this context the expression 軌道に乗る corresponds to a phrase such as “to get on track” or “to move ahead.” If we put these ideas together, the translation for passage 14 could read like this:

*** We must improve/enhance/upgrade the production system in the new location. If the new facility is welcomed in that locality and the improvement/enhancement/upgrade proceeds with the cooperation of the (local) authorities, production will gradually get on track/move ahead. ***

Both general meanings for 整備 are widely used, and in this instance it is purely from the context that we are able to select the meaning intended by the original writer.


In each of the above examples we relied upon context to make key decisions about the intended meaning of a word, a phrase, or an expression. Both the short-range context—i.e., the text that preceded or followed the sentence in question—and the long-range context—i.e., the overall flow of information in the paragraph or document—were used to select certain options or to discard other options when multiple meanings existed for specific terms. Many factors play a role in the creation of a translation that is complete, accurate, and natural sounding, but the importance of context cannot be overemphasized.

Jim Davis is Professor and Director of the Technical Japanese Program in the Dept. of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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