Common Japanese-English Translation Issues: 2. Transitions

Overused transitions represent a multifaceted, seldom effectively tackled problem. Japanese uses transitional words and phrases much more frequently than in English. In Japanese, fewer than two dozen account for the majority of transitions in expository writing. These have fewer than a dozen common equivalents in English, and they are far too often word-swapped, i.e. translated mechanically on the basis of dictionary correspondence, not vernacular appropriateness.

Since well-composed, natural English is not over-unified by transitions, translators and editors need to bear in mind that with prudent recasting, many such words can and ought to be left out of any translation, lest the footprints of grammatical gymnasts be left deep into the resulting textzilla. If transitions are necessary (it can happen), translators need to seek variety (not conformance, which is the stronger cultural tendency) and above all, resist the bear trap that is mechanical, word-swapping translation. I have suspicions that in corporate situations, the dictionary method makes defensive sense. If, for example, a translator's efforts are questioned by a manager, recourse to the dictionary usually saves the day.

Here is an example:

Shitagatte, sore yue, desu kara (dakara), sore de, and so iu wake de need not be always, invariably translated as “therefore”, “thus”, “consequently”, etc. Different transitions can be used at different times, to achieve variety and create readability. Yes, "therefore" can be used 20 times on the same page. No grammatical rules would be broken, and the translator’s task might be simplified by the repetition. However, would the document read better if other terms were used? But that would require a higher degree of linguistic proficiency, not to mention courage and confidence on the part of the translator. Such competencies demand higher prices, and would that translator's skills be recognised by a manager or a quality/consistency checker down the line?

Another example:

Tokoro ga and shikashi do not always have to be swapped into “however” or “but”. Similarly, nao and sara ni, can be spared automatic rendering into “moreover” or “furthermore”. Also, soshite need not be slavishly flipped into “and” or “then”. In English, variety is a quality. For most common words, alternatives are available, and natural. Really good translations do not appear to be translated. They show the qualities of the language into which they are translated, not the traits of the source language or the cultural preferences of non-native authors.

Although different types of uniformity are important in achieving effective communication (nouns and verbs in instructions, for example, have to be used with pure consistency), rigid, rote matching in transitional conjunctions is seldom positive.

Another issue related to transitions appears in the conversion of terms such as katahō, ippō, and sono hanmen. These can all be translated as “on the other hand”. There are rare cases in which the contrast is totally unambiguous. Anglophone logic (unlike Japanese logic) refuses the “other hand” clause if a “one hand” clause has not been explicitly announced. Generally, if the “one hand” statement is not offered (which happens often in Japanese), the “other hand” is better translated as “at the same time” or "simultaneously".

Several common linking words create hindering infelicities. Sorezore can mean “respectively”, but also “each” or “severally”. For an extra ehadache, it is often used to merely indicate emphasis, so has no obvious,standard equivalent (the selection of the optimum word will depend on context and the sentence). Translators have to avoid routinely translating such words as “respectively”. English syntax - which is less easily acquired from a dictionary - must provide guidance.

For example:

“Infection occurred in 25% of the vaccinated patients and 45% of the non-inoculated group, respectively.”

Although such a sentence reads logically to a Japanese reader of English, it is a syntactic fiend.

A related problem is the hazard posed by Japanese terms that are often blindly swapped for "one-after-the-other".

Tsukete versus tsuzuite versus tsugi tsugi to and tsugi tsugi ni. All are normally translated as “________ one after the other” or “________ in succession”. However, translators and editors must note that too often these phrases only indicate continuous events or pluralities. The application of common sense and consideration of context will generate the appropriate solution. If a suitable English term is elusive, the writer's judgement on the matter must be obtained.