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Thread: Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

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    Default Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

    Hello, everyone.

    Yes... Let me preface this by saying that I know I've had a bit of a hiatus (and I haven't forgotten that I owe some of you revised translations), but now that my semester at uni is coming to an end, I have a little time to make a short comeback for the foreseeable future anyway.


    It's been some time since I did my first lyric translation.
    To be honest, I believe that when I first began, I did so prematurely.
    I thought that I knew enough Japanese to get by... and when it came to conversational skills, perhaps I did.
    However, that doesn't necessarily translate well when working on lyrics or other poetic works.

    It is for that reason that I now create this post in order to educate other would-be lyric translators.
    Do not misunderstand. I am in no way trying to dissuade anyone from the art, although it certainly would be best to wait until you are truly ready to do so.
    This is simply to educate others in the things to consider and look out for when translating lyrics.



    I have written a list of items that I believe to be important for a translator to know.
    Use the below points as a checklist to gauge whether or not you are ready for this next big step.
    To other established lyric translators: Perhaps you have accumulated knowledge of your own that you believe should be added. If that is indeed the case, then comment below and I will add your point to the list.
    Or perhaps I have worded a point somewhat weakly or could have explained better. I am happy to adjust that.



    Before I start, I will make a comment on romanisation/transliteration, as that is not something I will be covering within the checklist itself.

    Everyone has their own romanisation style... and that is perfectly fine.
    Some people prefer the Japanese romanisation style: は→ha, へ→he, しゃ→sya, つ→tu, し→si, etc.
    Others prefer a more phonetic style: は→wa, へ→e, しゃ→sha, つ→tsu, し→shi, etc.
    Other mixed differences include を→o/wo, ぢ→di/ji/dji, づ→du/zu/dzu.

    What is most important is that you stay consistent with the way in which you romanise. Don't change your style around during the same song.

    That being said... I'd like people to consider who you are romanising these lyrics for.
    It's not for you. If you can translate these lyrics, then you can get by with the kanji version.
    Nor is it for the benefit of other translators.
    You are romanising for people who cannot speak the language but wish to be able to sing along to the songs.
    For this reason, the phonetic approach is probably the best approach.


    My own handling of borrowed words is very much based on this phonetic approach rather than how the word appears in the original lyrics.
    If the word is voiced closely to the actual English pronunciation but written in katakana, then I will write that.
    If the word is written in English but voiced as though it's being read from katakana, then I will portray it in that way.
    It's all about the flow of the lyrics and being able to capture that same sound, isn't it?
    We may know better, but these people who do not speak the language don't. They only have us to guide them.



    As one final side note, also try to avoid region-specific terms when translating lyrics.
    By this, I mean a term that is uniquely American, or uniquely British, etc.
    This is the internet, and we're translating for people all around the world. For that reason, it should have a vocabulary that can be understood in any country.
    I realise that this is easy to forget, however.

    I do not refer to spelling. I instead refer to words like "bangs" versus "fringe".
    This example actually comes from personal experience. I was able to piece together that "bangs" had something to do with hair, but I was completely on the wrong path to what that actually referred to.
    Now... on to the main event.





    The Competent Lyric Translation Checklist


    1 - You should be able to competently switch between the various forms of Japanese.
    Polite versus dictionary form.
    Knowing some humble dialogue.
    Knowing a good deal of slang.
    Knowing some regional dialogue should not be expected, but certainly doesn't hurt.


    2 - You should be competent in the various usages of grammar.
    Clearly understand how auxiliary verbs piece together.
    The many and varied contractions.
    The many and varied particles and expressions used both within and at the ends of sentences.
    The use of proper verb tenses and nominalisers.


    3 - Understand how to read the lines before you.
    Look at the lines given in the paragraph.
    Does the sentence extend over several lines?
    Is the entire paragraph one whole sentence?
    Are you taking the wrong lines into consideration when forming a sentence?

    Lyrics don't always read like a book, and lyricists like to be poetic or creative in their wording... to slice and dice things and put them back together in a way in which they can express themselves.
    Because of this, lines may appear back the front or have typical words omitted.

    Sentences also aren't limited to only a single line.
    Sometimes they will extend across two or three lines... or even the entire paragraph itself may be the full sentence!
    You just need to read what's before you and understand what it is you're really translating here.


    4 - Think outside the box (but not too much).
    Often an answer to a difficult section can be reached if you think outside of the box and look at the greater picture. Just... don't get too carried away with it.
    It's hard to translate a song if you aren't understanding the true meaning of the lyrics and really, maybe you shouldn't translate it if you don't.
    Be careful of falling into your own interpretations too much.
    This isn't your song, so try to understand the artist's intended point of view.


    5 - If something sounds off, then it probably is.
    In a lot of cases, this is a result of the example in point three; not reading the lines as they are intended.
    You can't give an honest translation of a song without being able to understand it at its core.
    Before you even start typing out words, take a moment and think about what's happening.

    Is there a story here?
    Is there a particular emotion being expressed?
    Is there a subtle change in viewpoints between two or more characters that isn't entirely clear on the surface?
    Does a line that makes little sense make comparatively more sense when considering the context of something that happened prior in the song?

    Lyrics like to jump around without timeline or explanation. You need to do a bit of reading into things.
    Once you start to think of why something is happening, the rest begins to make sense and then it all falls into place.

    Also, try and see if the original artist has made any comments about their song.
    When translating, it's easy to put our own take and impression on what we imagine the song is really about. What it means to us. But this can change the dynamic of the entire true meaning of the song.
    Sometimes, expressing what the song is really trying to say requires naturalising more of the original wording than you'd like.... which brings me to point six.


    6 - Find the right balance between literal versus liberal translating.
    Both have their good and bad points.

    Literal translations follow closely the original wording of the song, and in doing so you can express the beauty of the original language to non-native speakers.
    But this also means that the wording can become stiff and convoluted at times.

    Liberal translations follow less the literal route, and instead try and paint the rough picture of what the artist is trying to say.
    However, the translator's own interpretations can get the better of them, and the original meaning of the lyrics can become lost.

    The right area is somewhere between the two, and it's not entirely clear where that line is until you've stepped too far over one side or the other.

    My advice would be to stay true to the original intentions of the author.
    Think about what is being said.
    You will most likely need to consider how certain phrases or entire sentences at times would be naturalised if being spoken in English.
    It's tough... and even I hate having to leave out some beautiful imagery and wording at times, but it really is most important to portray that original intention itself.

    Think about how what you've worded will be visualised in the mind of an English speaker.
    Is that image the same as what you see when you think about the original text?


    7 - Know the true purpose and implication of furigana and word supplementing.
    Irregular furigana can be an amazing tool for creating unique and poetic ideas within a lyric, but they can also be a translator's worst nightmare, and it's not just furigana, either.
    The word may be contextually similar, but different. I think one of the most common examples of this is the replacement of 空 with 天, but "そら" will still be the word voiced.

    One thing that I believe is overlooked by a lot of people, is when the artist will replace the entire word with a word of homophonous (or at least of a similar) pronunciation, represented by a new kanji reading.
    Most people will just take this to be a fancy way of writing the same word... but that's far from the case at all.

    These uncommon spellings are, in fact, the same word with different nuances implied to it.
    This is where your study of kanji and radicals really pays off, because a lot of the time, you can understand what this nuance is when comparing the common spelling to that which is added with the new one.

    For example, "詩(うた)" places more emphasis on the written part of the song than the musical element.
    "創る(つくる)" refers to something that is not just made, but created from scratch and having not existed before.
    "茨" has the grass radical, so it has a more of a plant feel and is the general wording for briars, whereas "棘" which has the wood radical, gives the general impression that the stem of the plant and the thorns it bears are harder, or even more pronounced.


    8 - It doesn't hurt to know some idioms.
    This doesn't come up so often, but when it does, it is quite important to understand what it is you're translating.
    If you fail to realise that it's an idiom or other type of expression, then the quality of your translation may pay the price.


    9 - If you don't understand old Japanese, leave it well enough alone.
    Classical Japanese (古典語) is an unventured topic, even for a large majority of native speakers.
    There have been a lot of changes in the language over time which aren't always apparent at first glance.

    If you encounter a lyric with koten and have no prior knowledge, then it's best to just leave it be.
    On the other hand, if you wish to educate yourself further and begin to understand how some of these old terms function, then this website here may set you off on that path.
    https://www.hello-school.net/haroajapa000top.htm




    With all that said and done... I wish the best of luck to all aspiring or budding translators out there, and remember... you never stop learning!
    Last edited by Hikarin; 06-17-2020 at 10:09 AM.


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    Default Re: Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

    A very interesting read, thanks for putting this together.
    I must admit I am a big offender of rule 5-- I can't get my head around why anison lyricists love what I call cool-word-soup [a mashup of cool sounding/meaning words (you know when you have words like 衝動 and 限界 that you're in for a doozy) that give a completely abstract meaning that sounds cool but is a pain to translate meaningfully]. I have frequently questioned whether or not there was any other intent behind it, but have never come to any conclusion.

    My personal thoughts:
    I personally have very flexible rules when it comes to literal and liberal translation, mainly when it comes to grammar.

    Half the time I find it sounds much more natural to break big sentences down into smaller ones and mess with the grammar. Usually if there's one whacking big attributive form on a noun, which itself is the subject or object of another clause, (e.g. 誤字を気付いた僕は 文章を読み直した which would literally be: 'I, who had noticed the typo, re-read the passage') I would say that's clunky and would prefer just making it a subordinate clause instead (in the example making it 'after I noticed a typo, I went back over the passage', also replacing an acceptable literal translation with something I'd be more likely to use in that context to make it sound more natural).

    In my early translations I was dead set on following the original grammar (so an attributive in Japanese would be a comma-split attributive clause in English) and line order (i.e. if a word doesn't appear on that equivalent Japanese line, it's not in the English, whatever happens) and it killed the phrasing and the flow. Now, as long as it's not something really emphatic (like an important word at the end of a verse), I have no qualms with just flipping a verse on its head (is it just me who finds that Japanese frequently has exactly reverse English word order?) if I can't find a decent way to phrase things. Yes, these are drawing away from the original song... but then again, an incomprehensible Engrishy translation is practically useless. At the end of the day, if someone with no clue as to what's going on must go away having understood something. Other things I recommend is not letting bad English that's been randomly thrown into the middle Japanese sentence control how you translate the sentence-- yes it looks cool when you've got the exact words in there, but if keeping it exactly the same makes the sentence clunky in English, don't be stubborn and just rewrite the bad/wrong English so it fits the translation.

    I also pay attention to where I'm splitting a line-- this is a personal thing, but I tend to favour splitting on a new clause if for no other reason but make it easier to follow. My messing with the grammar also lends itself well to this, because now I have a lot of good places to cut a line.
    Last edited by Fuukanou; 06-17-2020 at 06:21 PM.

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    Default Re: Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

    Thank you for saying so~

    Oh, that's a nice term - "cool-word-soup". I know exactly what you mean.
    To be honest, this list is as much for my benefit as it is for others. I have been guilty in the past of some, if not all of these issues.

    My biggest issues over time have been trying to stick to the sentence structure so that the transliterated and translated sentences looked like they fit when compared side-by-side. The result was definitely something very clunky.

    I have also found myself getting ahead of myself on numerous occasions. I'll be reading the lyrics and have an idea of how to translate something, and then that idea gets away on me.
    When I later read over what I've done and compared the line to the original, I can notice how far I've run with that idea and placed my own interpretation on it. That was... very bad. I hope that I have broken this bad habit, which seems to be the result of a story-oriented mind (I'm an aspiring author) putting its own spin on what it reads.
    So perhaps in that regard, number 4 was my curse. I had to start telling myself "This is not your song! Stop writing it how you envision it to be".


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    Default Re: Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

    Quote Originally Posted by Hikarin View Post

    As one final side note, also try to avoid region-specific terms when translating lyrics.
    By this, I mean a term that is uniquely American, or uniquely British, etc.
    This is the internet, and we're translating for people all around the world. For that reason, it should have a vocabulary that can be understood in any country.
    I realise that this is easy to forget, however.

    I do not refer to spelling. I instead refer to words like "bangs" versus "fringe".
    This example actually comes from personal experience. I was able to piece together that "bangs" had something to do with hair, but I was completely on the wrong path to what that actually referred to.

    Just wondering about this example, since you've mentioned it a few times before - do you mean you think that 'fringe' is the preferable word to use for translations?

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    Default Re: Sen's Advice for Producing Competent Japanese Lyric Translations

    Quote Originally Posted by bambooXZX View Post
    Just wondering about this example, since you've mentioned it a few times before - do you mean you think that 'fringe' is the preferable word to use for translations?
    I probably mention it because it was the one that I made a stupid assumption about.
    I'd suppose that it's preferable when trying to satisfy each English variant upon translating, unless American's don't understand this term? Then it may become confusing.
    I think to me, "bang" is a verb. "Bangs" is the verb in a third person present tense. It's likely a more unique example, whereas other differences (e.g. footpath vs sidewalk) can be more easily understood, even if the word itself in uncommon or unfamiliar.


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