I'm having trouble translating a proverb. In English, it goes like this: "He who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client." Now, here's the question. Should I render this literally, using one of the many Japanese words for "idiot"? Or is it better to try to convey the gist of it, which is: "Never represent yourself in court". I really can't decide, and it's driving me nuts.
Come to think of it, this is nothing new. Whenever I sit down to translate something I get stuck and begin gazing into space within the first few minutes. What gives? Am I simply not cut out for this kind of work? As a writer, I'm always mulling over words, so that can't be the problem. No, I think what makes translation really tough is the lack of wiggle room.
For example, suppose you had to create the English subtitles for a Japanese film. And let's say that at one point in the movie, one of the characters says, "itadakimasu" and then starts to eat his dinner. That expression means something like "I thankfully partake of this meal", in this context, but how to render it properly into English? "Bon appétit!" comes to mind - even though it is a loan from French -- as that is something that one says before a meal. But when you say this, you're essentially encouraging another party to, "eat with gusto". So, the two phrases are hardly comparable. Hmm...
Okay, if not "Bon appétit!", how about a literal translation? Ah, but that's not a good idea, either. First of all, length is a problem. As a general rule, subtitles should be kept short so as not to wear out movie-viewers -- they're in the cinema to watch a film, not to read reams of text. Plus, it wouldn't fit the scene, in this case. "Itadakimasu" is just a few syllables. "I thankfully partake of this meal" takes forever to say. Well, maybe not forever. But I'd say there's one more reason to steer clear of this monstrosity: it's not something that a English speaker would say before eating. Such an utterance might very well strike the movie-viewer as somewhat unnatural, if not downright odd.
So, what to do? It seems that there is no good solution. In such a situation, skirting the problem might sound like a way out. That's right, just skipping over it. I must admit, I have done this a number of times over my career, when I thought I could get away with it. It's not something you want to do often, though. Because even if editors and publishers forgive, rarely can you pull the wool over the readers' eyes. "Who on earth did this lousy translation," one of them might write. On a blog. For instance.
And that's what I mean. It's this lack of wiggle room that's the killer. That's why I'll have nothing more to do with translation. I've washed my hands of it, I have. (or "my feet", for the Japanese side of things). If someone asks me to do a translation -- anything at all - my answer will be, "Absolutely not!".
And if said person talks me into doing it, anyway? Ha! I'll make it clear that the reader will certainly NOT have access to both the original document and the translation. I'll definitely put my foot down there. After all, it's only... Hmm? If -- somehow -- I get talked into being involved in such a bilingual project? Well, never, ever will I write a piece in Japanese and then do the English, too. That I can tell you. THAT would be pure folly. For as everyone knows: "Only a fool acts as his own translator".
Tony László, Linguist
László was raised in the U.S. with Italian and Hungarian heritage. In 1985, he came to Japan and began actively working as a writer. Since 1992, he has managed the "Together Project" (ISSHO), an NGO that researches multicultural co-habitation. He is married to a mangaka (manga author) , Saori Oguri, and is the "darling" of her piece, "My Darling is a Foreigner". László and Oguri have a child. László is known as a language anorak. His books include How to Grow a Happy Tony Flow, Outstretched in Italy - Adventures of Tony & Saori, My Darling is a Foreigner with Baby, etc.