Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Dangers of Second-Hand Translations

My work on Tezuka Osamu's "adult" anime films has given me a new appreciation of the issues with "second-hand" translations, that is, translations that pass through multiple languages and transformations from Japanese to English. This practice is pretty common in the anime and manga world. One well-known fansub group freely acknowledge that they work from Chinese subtitles rather than the original Japanese audio, but they (usually) subject their output to rigorous translation checking by a Japanese speaker. Others have not been so scrupulous or have not had access to a Japanese translator for checking. Then the result is something like the original subtitles for Senya Ichiya Monogatari or Cleopatra: unintelligible and incorrect.

It need not be that way. I've just finished collaborating with macros74 on the first English version of Shinkai no Kankei (Deep Sea Fleet) Submarine 707 (not to be confused with its much better known sequel, Submarine 707R). This ripe piece of anime cheese started with a Dutch DVD and Dutch subtitles. macros74 translated from Dutch to English, adding corrections based on his limited knowledge of Japanese. I edited the translation and arranged for a check by a knowledgeable translator. The translator corrected a few things but felt, overall, that the script was pretty good and captured the intent of the original Japanese. As a result, a hitherto unavailable Japanese OVA is be available in English (or will be, as soon as the  moderators at BakaBT get off their behinds).

However, there are many pitfalls in a multi-step translation process. First, the original translation must be correct, or correct enough. For Shinkai no Kankei, it is. However, many translations take great liberties. I'm not talking about localizations but total rewrites. A good example is Junk Boy. The English dub is basically a different story, as can be seen by comparing the dub and a later, accurate translation. (Both are on BakaBT.) Another problem is loss of cultural references. Unless they are noted in some way, they are sure to be lost in the passage through multiple languages.

Then, the second translation has to be correct as well. Shinkai no Kankei shows how to do it correctly. However, counterexamples abound. The translation of Senya Ichiya Monogatari from Chinese to English appears to have done by a computer. The same is true for the unreadable subtitles in Doukyuusei 2: Graduation. Many Hong Kong DVDs have English subtitles created by people with limited knowledge (to be kind) of English. No amount of editing polish can make up for meaning lost, and confusion created, in this step.

And finally, a translation check, by someone who knows Japanese, is essential. Japanese is a subtle, ambiguous language, and it's far too easy to lose nuances at either translation step.

As an example of what can go wrong, I tried to create an English version of Harukanaru Toki no Naka de 2 from the German DVD release. However, due to deficient training in my dear, dead college days, I don't speak German, I only read it. Even with my limited knowledge, though, I can tell that the German subtitles are overly compressed compared to the German dialog, not to mention the Japanese dialog. Too many of the details have been left out. So someone who speaks German might be able to create an English version from this source, but I can't: the German subtitles leave out too much. So it remains on my wish list against the day that some kind soul is willing to translate it, from Japanese or German, as the case may be.


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