So, I’ve done professional translation work on and off for about ten years now. It’s all been technical or geeky in one way or another, whether software, video games, physics textbooks (I know, right?!), medical instructions, legal/patent stuff, geeky TV show subtitles or comic books.
FYI, in case you didn’t already know, translation is where you write and interpretation is where you talk. Since I am very much in touch with the shy-and-reclusive-little-hobbit part of my personality, translation it always is for me.
“Little hobbit”…it’s pretty frikkin’ redundant when you think about it, but you know what? No time to edit, fam! Let’s move on!
Now, what I’m about to do is engage in what will sound like showing off, and unfortunately that’s unavoidable. But as I said to your mother last night, don’t let it leave a bad taste in your mouth. Push through. (Phrasing!) Because I genuinely feel that I have some meaningful insights that people who have not translated professionally (but directly or indirectly depend on translators, and/or simply want to become proficient at an L2 — so, you) need to hear.
A lot of bad translation (by no means all, but a lot) occurs because the source material is poorly written. Illogical, vague. This has nothing to do with, say, the differences in grammar between Japanese and English; Japanese isn’t truly vague; it just leans on context. So it’s not a cultural issue we’re dealing with here. The issue is that a translator and their translation can only do so much to improve crappy text. Crappy source text sets a sort of soft ceiling on the quality of the translated result. “Sets a sort of soft ceiling”: say that ten times, fast — and Heaven help you if you have a lisp.
But you’re like: “Khatzumoto, I don’t want people to pay me money to sit at home in my pajamas and write cool sentences in Japanese or English or Chinese”. Fair enough, but what I’m about to say still matters to and for you.
Whenever you think you need to get better at writing Japanese/any L2 and/or start to wish you were raised in the language, stop. Slap yourself. And do this instead:
Don’t fix your birth/upbringing, fix your logic. Make your writing make sense at all, in any language, before you make it shine in an L2. Use lists and sequences and bullet points. Organize that sheet.
Am I saying “write in L1 first, then translate”? No. That’s not always necessary or even advisable. What I’m saying is: focus on making raw freaking sense first.
Well-structured writing is language-independent. In general, the structure (or lack thereof) of your writing will do far more to inform or confuse your reader than your (mis)use of vocabulary. A reader can overcome occasional poor word choice. Conversely, nobody — nobody — can overcome a textual clusterhump; many turds can be polished…but not this kind, matey. When your writing is confused, people automatically just ignore you or start making assumptions about your intent. And there’s no guarantee that their assumptions are going to be advantageous to you. Very sad. Ya coulda had ’em, bruh.
People are busy and distracted. Social media is poppin’. Smartphone notifications is poppin’. YouTube won’t watch itself. All that flitting about lowers people’s “operating IQ”. Their potential IQ is in the stratosphere, but sleepiness, distraction and multitasking exact a heavy discount, and bring things crashing down to the ground.
Make your logic great again. Get your logic right, and, with a decent vocabulary base, your L2 writing will be, as Pierce from “Community” used to say, streets ahead of even regular “natives” (you’re a “native”, too: you’re just remedial, remember? 😀 )
Informally, my friends of the Yamato persuasion will sometimes ask me to translate something for them, and I just punch them in the face instead. Is that acting like a bad friend? Perhaps. But hear me out. Let me tell you why I do it: because invariably (with few exceptions) they haven’t done the intellectual work of making their writing make sense. There is no time/action sequence. Topics are not grouped together. Cause-effect relationships are indiscernible. It’s like raw eggs thrown on top of cookies after baking them. The ingredients may be there, but that’s not how the dish works.
Sidebar: Like, you’d be surprised how much sense you can make by just listing things in the order they occurred. One time, I had a medical issue that required frequent specialist doctor visits. Once I finally found a specialist who wasn’t merely a contemptible ignoramus hiding behind the paper-thin veneer of a medical degree (Tokyo has tons of all kinds of people, so, no matter what, you’re bound to find someone good), I started — unbidden — to give her written, dated, sequential explanations of everything (related to the issue) that I was noticing and experiencing. This made both our lives so much easier that I don’t see her any more because she identified and conclusively resolved the issue in record time. Badabing. Logic works.
My Japanese friends think they need to improve their English — and they do; we all do (lol) — but they first need to make sense. Translation is not a substitute for thinking. In fact, translation often magnifies the erroneousness of buggy thinking. Don’t blame your L2 (second(ary)/”foreign”/simulated native language) for errors in your L0 (thinking and logic itself).