After decades of innovation, we now have pocket-size computers that are more powerful than ones that used to take up whole rooms. But despite all the hardware advances we’ve made and the decades of research in computer natural language processing, Google translater still gives me this translation.
何しているの？ – What are you?
Hmm… nice try. The point I’m trying to make is that translation is and always will be an art and not a science. Especially with languages that are so different from each other such as English and Japanese. There will always be different interpretations and decisions to make on defining what the “best” translation is. It’s like trying to piece together the same lego set but with entirely different pieces. You can get some things to look similar or even almost identical but you’re gonna have to improvise on places where the pieces just don’t match.
However, there is an easy benchmark for determining how good a translation is for language acquisition: “how does the translation help you learn the language”? As adults learning a second language, it behooves us to learn new words by translating to our native language. You can save a lot of time by memorizing the word 「友達」 as “friend” rather than learning how a baby might from scratch. However, with longer sentences and more abstract concepts, translation can often be more of an hindrance than an aid depending on how you go about it. Ideally, translations should serve as a stepping stone to learn the core concepts with the aim of doing away with translation altogether. In most cases, this means going for the most literal translation.
For example, which of the following is a “better” translation?
1. May I eat it?
2. Even if eat, is good?
In the first translation, the translator (in this case, me) made a lot of decisions to try to craft what I thought was the most natural translation (“may” vs “can”, etc). If I was hired to translate a Japanese movie or text, #2 would be a terrible choice. But as a language learner, looking at translation #1 doesn’t help me understand anything about the core concepts that can explain other similarly structured sentences nor does it help me internalize the language for my own use.
Even if don’t eat, is it good?
Even if go from now, will not make it in time.
Some concepts just don’t translate into English very well at all as you can see in the following sentences.
It is that manner/appearance.
Morning doing in manner/appearance of waking up early.
Finally became manner/appearance of able to swim.
As for this movie, feeling of manner/appearance of having already seen.
But it doesn’t matter how bad the translation is, as long as it gives you an idea of the intent of the original Japanese and helps you conceptualize and internalize the concepts. That’s really the “best” translation. That also means my translations are just as bad if they don’t work for you, so take translations as just a hint for you to figure out the meaning on your own. When you can “feel” the meaning without quite being able to express it in English, that’s when you know you’ve truly learned it.