A “faithful” translation

When it comes to translation, the word ‘faithful’ gets thrown around a lot.

If a translation is not faithful to the original, then it is not accurate. This is something I hear often.

But faithfulness and accuracy are very ambiguous terms. What makes a translation faithful? How exactly can a translation be faithful to the original text, if both languages have a completely different syntax and style, different expressions and cultural nuances that cannot be expressed perfectly in the corresponding language? This happens a lot in Japanese texts, a language with immense cultural intricacies and a structure that is much more vague than English.

If there is no subject in the Japanese sentence, how can you accurately and faithfully convey it into English? By adding a subject that is not in the original, you are, in a sense, modifying it. In principle, there is no singular or plural in Japanese unless you add a numerical counter. Accordingly, by adding an ‘s’ or choosing to translate the noun in the singular, as a translator you are deviating from the original text, and thus the translation becomes less faithful.

In the end, how can a translation be faithful? It does not endeavor to be of the same quality as the original. It is without doubt that the translation will always be the inferior copy, or a text standing alone rather than an exact mirror.

Of course, the issue of faithfulness has many levels. If you omit a typical Japanese phrase (read: よろしくお願いします, お世話になっております) from a translation because it would be awkward in English, does that make the translation less accurate or less faithful? From a perspective of readability and being natural, omitting the phrase would be the most effective way to be faithful to the English language.

Some people are very fixated on ‘faithfully’ replicating a text in translation, but it’s such almost unachievable. A faithful translation in the original sense may be very well impossible without rendering it unreadable or very awkward.

There’s a balance of faithful and natural that needs to be set in any translation, and fixating only on the faithful aspect is only part of the job.

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