Translation Theory for Anime Fans: How to Critique Translation
Let’s start today’s post with a Youtube video.
What’s interesting about this guy’s take on fansubbing is that he brings up translation theorists in order to justify his argument that fansubs are Objectively Bad Translations. This is something you should probably take with a grain of salt. It’s really easy for an academic’s work to be oversimplified when it’s being talked about in a non-academic environment. Even if the argument itself is presented accurately enough, the context around it might not be. In other words, someone might present an academic theory as fact when a theory is really just a theory.
This is relevant to the world of translation because, if you read any of the modern theories, they’re pretty much all in agreement that what makes a good translation is… um… well… it depends.
Seriously, that’s what it comes down to.
Take the untranslated Japanese words in fansubbing, for instance, which the video above overwhelmingly presents as a bad thing. Venuti, one of the cited academics, actually wrote a book in 1995 called The Translator’s Invisibility, where he comes out in favour of leaving cultural terms untranslated. Here’s what he has to say for himself:
The translator … may submit to or resist dominant values in the target language, with either course of action susceptible to ongoing redirection. Submission assumes an ideology of assimilation at work in the translation process, locating the same in a cultural other, pursuing a cultural narcissism that is imperialistic abroad and conservative, even reactionary, in maintaining canons at home. Resistance assumes an ideology of autonomy, locating the alien in a cultural other, pursuing cultural diversity, foregrounding the linguistic and cultural differences of the source-language text and transforming the hierarchy of cultural values in the target language. (pg. 308)
In plain English, what he’s saying is that whitewashing the differences between cultures is racist.
Granted, Venuti is not saying that weaboo translations are a great thing. In context, he’s arguing that translators should show a critical understanding of the cultures they’re working with. He wants translators to take their role as cross-cultural communicators seriously. The average fan translator has probably not thought deeply about imperialism and orientalism, but these are things that keep translation theorists awake at night.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that there is no such thing as an objectively good translation. Lots of translation theories encourage certain approaches, but there is no scholarly consensus about what makes a good translation. Just like there’s no scholarly consensus about what makes a good anime (although eminent scholars definitely agree that your favourite anime is shit), a lot of translation is purely subjective.
But how can I tell if a translation is good?
See, this is an important question. I really encourage all anime fans to approach translations with a critical eye. However, if you don’t know the original language, how can you critique a translation properly? Are you really going to trust those guys at Cry More to do the thinking for you?
Here is what I think: Even if you don’t know the original language, you can still critique translation as a work of art in its own right.
The first thing you need to do is discard the notion that translations are inherently inferior to the original. Nor should you hold them to unrealistic expectations of faithfulness. If a translator has to change things around to make things work in your language, that’s okay! It’s a valid approach.
Think of translation like an adaptation. All translations serve a function, and all of them go through a process of transformation before you eventually read them. When you think of a translation in terms of what it is trying to achieve and how it is doing it, you can critique translation usefully even if you’re not an expert. I mean, I’m betting that none of us here are master animators, but we all have expert opinions about anime, right???
Anyway, there are two central theories in translation that should come in handy whenever you’re thinking about any translation.
I’ll start with the simpler one: skopos theory. Skopos comes from the Greek word meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’. The theory states that all translations serve a function, whether the translator is consciously aware of it or not.
The advantage of this theory is that it frees you from the assumption that translations have to read a certain way. You also don’t need to know the language to make reasonable guesses about what the translation is trying to do. What kind of audience is it trying to appeal to? How does the language reflect it? You can basically analyse a translation like any other text.
Of course, there are limitations to the theory. I think Anthony Pym sums it up quite well:
If every translation is dominated by its purpose, then the purpose is what is achieved by every translation. To separate the two, we would have to look at “bad” translations where purposes are somehow not achieved, thus complicating the notion of what a translation is. … Some appeal might be made to a principle of internal contradiction (one part of the translation goes one way, the other goes the other, so it is bad…). But who said a translation only has to have one sole purpose? The longer continues that line of argument, the less the Skopos rule seems to be saying. (pg. 152)
– From Exploring Translation Theories, 2nd Edition (2014)
This makes sense. Just because a translation fulfills its stated aim doesn’t mean it’s a “good” translation. For instance, the aim of a machine translation of a light novel is just to give fans a basic idea of what happens in the story. That doesn’t mean it has to preserve the stylistic elements of the novel or even be grammatically correct all the time. Basically, not all goals are created equal. (A similar thing applies to anime, by the way.)
That’s why proponents of skopos theory also mention that you can’t ignore the source text altogether when you’re evaluating a translation. It might not be the most important thing as far as translation is concerned, but it’s still pretty darn important.
Which brings me to the other central theory in translation: equivalence.
Translation works on the assumptions that words can mean different things in different contexts. That’s why there is no such thing as 1:1 equivalence. Even among speakers of the same language, there might be a need to “translate” words or phrases.
Now, there are certainly incorrect translations. You can’t translate 犬 (inu) as ‘cat’. But even when you rule out what a word or sentence can’t mean, they’re still open to multiple interpretations. Because of that, it’s better to think of equivalence in terms of a spectrum instead of a binary.
In other words, a translation doesn’t have to be literal or free. It can incorporate elements of both.
Moreover, equivalence doesn’t have to be posed in terms of this one spectrum. Eugene Nida came up with the idea of “formal” versus “dynamic” equivalence, where “formal” means sticking close to the word structure or form of the original text, and “dynamic” means capturing the effect. Friedrich Schleiermacher came up with “foreignization” versus “domestication”. Christiane Nord devised “documentary” versus “instrumental” translation. There are many more examples.
This might seem like an overload of terms all expressing the same thing, but they’re actually subtly different. A translation with lots of foreignised terms doesn’t have to be literal, for instance. An “instrumental” translation (i.e. one that prioritises its function over the form of the original message) doesn’t have to be a “dynamic” translation in the sense that it’s trying to capture the effect of the original.
You don’t have to know the names of all these approaches (in fact, I’m pretty sure these theorists are just making up new words for the hell of it). All you really need to know is that translations don’t just have to be literal or free. Once you open yourself up to the possibilities of translation, the more complex theories are easier to grasp, and you can still relate them to the translator’s word choices. That’s a topic for next time, though.
To finish, here are some things to think about:
When can you tell that a translation is a translation? What defines “translationese” for you?
Nida says that “dynamic” translations are generally preferable for literature. Would you agree with him?
Have you ever read a text in more than one language? Did reading that text in another language help you appreciate it more or less?