Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Learning Japanese, Part 1a - Intro

I mentioned before that the cards are stacked against you if you want to learn a new language. The textbooks don't teach the language the way it's actually used, and you're trying to come up to the same speed as a native speaker that's been using that language all their lives. Doesn't mean that you *shouldn't* bother learning that language, just that it's not going to be easy becoming fluent. Having a specific goal for doing the study helps a lot - it keeps you focused, and gives you a reason to keep practicing when things get tough.

I originally fell in love with anime when I saw "Akira". At the time, there was little in the way of subbed anime or translated manga. So, I started studying Japanese just to figure out what was going on in these stories. My goal, then, was to learn Japanese to the point where I could read any manga and understand it. Eventually, the culture embedded in the dialog became just as important as the words were, which presented a problem.

If you look at the translation industry, there are 3 issues that they struggle with: being true to the original content; being true to the original spirit; and not adding or subtracting anything. That is, how do you translate the phrase "neko ni koban"? Literally, it's "cat to gold coin". Cleaned up, it's "giving a gold coin to a cat". This is not something an American is going to immediately understand, so you either stay true to the content and use "giving a gold coin to a cat" while explaining it in a footnote; or, you stay true to the spirit and convert the phrase to something more familiar, such as "pearls before swine". In either case, the phrase means that you're giving something priceless to someone that can't recognize its value. However, "neko ni koban", is a cliche as is "pearls before swine", so you may be tempted to use "it's wasted on him" to punch up the translation. But now you're adding (or subtracting) something that hadn't been in the original text, so in effect you're lying to your readers because you may be presenting the writer as being better or worse than he/she really is.

There needs to be a balance between keeping the original cultural references and converting some phrases into more normal-sounding English, while still not completely rewriting the original story.

At first, I thought that being true to the original content by keeping the original cultural references was the best approach. I now recognize that not all readers want that. Instead, many want something easy to read that requires little thinking. I'm going to mostly ignore those people, and keep true to the original content as much as I can while still aiming for as natural-sounding sentences as I can get.

To be continued...

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