The Art of Editing (General Remarks)

Many people believe the process of (in professional terms just) translating or (in fanlation terms) editing to be like this: know what words in source mean, put them into target language, stay true to the grammar, watch out for figures of speech, the end. This often leads to the product reading “unnatural.” So if you’re one step ahead of this, you try to put it like a normal person/native speaker would. And in the end you’ve got a readable, albeit spiceless, wall of text that can be considered above average.

This process is, in my opinion, still wrong.

I think it was zzhk (Chinese to English translator of “Campione!” and other series) who once told me that he believes that

“built on the foundation of minimum proficiency in both languages, skill in the target language has a greater impact on reader experience”

– in most of our cases that’d mean English skills > Japanese skills. I believe him to be right. And now I’m gonna tell you why.

In my opinion, language in general doesn’t work solely on words. You can make yourself understood, alright. But as long as you stick closely to word to word translation, you’ll end up sounding stiff/unnatural/awkward. So I rather believe language works on ideas. It gets very apparent the shorter the idea you wanna convey is. Let’s take the three languages I somewhat speak (German, English, Japanese) and look at a very generic idea you’d want to convey – namely, that you’re leaving the house.

“Ich bin dann mal los.” (German)
“I’m off, later!” (English)
“Ittekimasu!” (Japanese, roumaji)

Those are three phrases regularly used, and the second you rely on word to word translation here, you lost. The German one’s even a mess grammar- and word-choice-wise.

To really convey an idea from one language to the other, you need to understand what a sentence really wants to say, what nuance the sentence is provided with. And it’s easier to understand a nuance, an idea, than to convey it into a language. This is why I will never be able to talk proper Japanese within the next ten years. I have to read and hear thousands of variations etc. to know what’s commonly used in which cases with what kind of nuance. I can make myself understood, no problem. But the second I open my mouth, people will know I’m “not from here.” The biggest compliment is when people are confused to whether you’re a foreigner or a native speaker. And you really did it when people assume you to be a native. Then again, you failed big time when people think you’re a foreigner when you’re not.

Let’s take a line from an anime I’ve seen before to try and get you a better understanding of what I’m talking about, since it might all read pretty damn weird, I’m just writing this up from the top of my head after all.

“Huh, nothing got delivered today?”

This was (more or less) the line and it’s proper English, no problem. It’s also what the guy on screen said, pretty much those very words. Up to this scene, he got stuff delivered on a daily basis. So the idea that he’s looking for a delivery’s already apparent. Would you tell yourself the already conveyed idea again when mumbling to yourself in this very situation? Probably not. It’d be something like…

“Huh? Nothing today?”

In Japanese, you need to use a verb in this case, but in the original he kept the line as short as possible, he was just mumbling to himself after all. In English, however, this much would work already. And that was the idea: mumbling to yourself as rudimentarily as possible that nothing got delivered. When you translate – or edit – you can pretty much do whatever the heck you want, you just need to get the idea across. If that means rewriting a whole sentence or paragraph, so be it. All you need to look out for is style, nuance, feel, and the three of those is what I already summarize under “idea.”

This gets all the more important in direct speech, since here people are supposed to sound like people. And there’s really no problem to do this in manga, anime subtitles, or light novel translations.

But there’s one genre where you just can’t do this: anime dubbing. You should already know the issue here: the translated lines spoken have to at least somewhat match the length of the source, or you’ll discover two kinds of issues. Either you’re not lipsync, or the voice actor/actress will sound either rushed or too slow since he/she has to make up for the timing being off. I wonder if that’s why Ash from Pokemon sounds like he’s on valium in the German dub?

Anyway, these are just some unrefined thoughts from me regarding translating/editing in general that I wanted to share. I think people are way too obsessed with being literal when they translate stuff, but like this you’ll never get the novel’s message across. And like this it’ll never really hit the sweet spot with native speakers. But you need people who’re very familiar with and fond of the target language. It’s also risky since if you scratch the whole damn source and write it up yourself while not fully grasping the idea behind it, you’ll go inaccurate as eff. Basically, it requires talent to a certain amount and is a job most underappreciated and -estimated. Hell, even Google Translate could translate a whole volume for you and you’d probably somewhat get what it’s about, but it’d be 1/10 the fun of a properly translated and edited novel. If you wanna see what a professionally translated novel where the team failed to get the idea across reads like, get Yen Press’ “No Game No Life” volume 1. If you don’t give a crap about English, you won’t see any problem whatsoever. If, however, you’re a native speaker with a certain sensibility when it comes to your mother tongue, then you’ll cry tears of blood and disgust reading it. Ignoring the idea behind it and translating it like a machine – love- and brainless – robs a story of its spice. It’ll become just a wall of text, hardly immersive. Yen Press’ “Index” volume 1 would be a good example for this. And as a fan, it’s very, very irritating that the stuff you like just gets thrown out like this, the message it gets across to me is: “hey, give us your cash while we take a crap on your head.” I feel so appreciated and loved.

If you got what I’m talking about then I’m very proud of you. I think the “language works by ideas” thesis is best explained by providing examples. I’ll have more ready next time.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Editing (General Remarks)”

  1. Wow, I’m flattered that you quoted me, but I definitely need to stress one precondition you omitted: built on the foundation of minimum proficiency in both languages, skill in the target language has a greater impact on reader experience.

    Without the condition of minimum proficiency, you get the extreme example of edited machine translations, which might read well, but almost certainly disrespects the reader and the original author by delivering content with no guarantee in accuracy.

    • Oh, I actually thought that was implied. It goes without saying that if – for instance – your Japanese goes as far as you being able to ask where the toilet is, it won’t make you a good Japanese/English translator, hence I didn’t point that out.

      I’ll directly quote you on that one to make things clearer.

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