Translation is all about looking for creative answers

Erica Williams, Translator
Erica is from Washington, D.C., USA. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English from The College of William and Mary in Virginia, and having studied abroad in the UK at the St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, she obtained her Master of Arts in English at the University of Virginia. Alongside her translation work, she launched Paper Crane Agency in 2014, a publishing agency where she works in the international rights business.

Bringing picture books from Japan to the world

I understand you are involved in another business besides translation, is that right?

Yes, I am also running an agency that sells international rights, mainly of Japanese picture books. Japanese picture books are so full of variety and there are so many wonderful ones! I want more children around the world to be able to read them. At first, I was actually a little surprised to find out how many Japanese publishers were not actively introducing their own lovely books and other content in overseas markets.

And your company’s name is “Paper Crane”... As if they would fly from Japan, off to the world!

That’s right! At Paper Crane, on top of selling copyrights, we also participate in the production of books like design and fashion books in which the visual aspect is central.

Do you also do translation at Paper Crane?

Yes, we do. When we introduce a book to a publishing company, we always provide a translated sample. No matter how famous the author or how amazing the work is, if the translation is not good, it will simply not catch the attention of editors overseas. Since publishers and editors are very busy, they need to be very quick deciding whether they like a book or not. That’s why we have to create a highly appealing translations, which is a huge responsibility.

Erica Williams, Translator

Creativity needs the human touch

What is your policy for translation work?

I think that the most important thing is to stay as close as possible to the nuances of the original text when translating. It’s a very difficult thing to do, though. If the original text is very well written, then the translation should be written equally well. So simply taking the content and information from the original text and writing it in another language is not enough—you need to find expressions that have the same meaning as the ones in the original language and you must not forget things like the text’s cultural background. This is what makes translation from Japanese to English very difficult sometimes. There is a huge amount of meaning, cultural context and nuance behind every word and phrase, so I often find it is difficult to come up with the phrases that perfectly match the original language within the limited word count.

How would you define a good or a bad translation?

For example, just as many machine-translated texts feel unnatural to the reader, a Japanese text that is merely translated literally will probably make the reader feel uncomfortable, like something is odd, and we want to avoid that. On the other hand, I feel like a good translation would be one that readers think is actually an original text written in the target language itself, while still containing all the nuances and meaning from the actual original text.

And machine translation is still not up to the task, right?

Computers are excellent tools, but we still expect linguistic style to come from the people who use them. It is the same for translators when they translate. Take an advertising slogan, for example. There are a lot of great ones in Japanese advertisements! But if you simply put it through machine translation, and a literal translation comes out, it will probably seem strange in English and will often have a completely different meaning. And anyway, it’s really fun as a human translator to wonder, “Hmm, what would be the right English expression to use there?” I always really enjoy translating advertisements and other sales-related work. It’s an exciting kind of work for me.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming very good at translation, but I have never been worried about it stealing the jobs of translators and translation companies. Because ultimately, AI translation at the moment can really only be used as a way to help us understand content in a fairly superficial, simplified way. Anything that requires creativity will always need the help of human editors and checkers.

What do you pay close attention to when translating?

Creativity is a necessary aspect to any translation. Even for translating road signs, a translator needs creativity to properly convey the message from the original language. While I’m working on a translation project, I even subconsciously think about phrases when I’m washing the dishes. It might just be a search for answers, but at least it’s a creative one! (laughs)

I live in Japan, so I am not in an English-speaking environment much of the time, so I need to keep up with English-language culture as much as possible, reading books, magazines, newspapers, watching movies, etc., and part of the job of a translator is to research websites in English to find how things are expressed in the right context in the English-speaking world to match that of the original language. No matter how simple the translation is, I’m always learning things and making full use of my creativity when translating.

Japanese katakana words have a lot of nuance

You’ve been asked to do a large variety of jobs for Interbooks too, haven’t you?

After about half a year working with Interbooks, they asked me to translate a fashion catalog. I loved looking at fashion magazines when I was a teenager and a university student, so I was really excited and actually had a really great time working on that translation!

There’s one thing that I remember very well. In the Japanese fashion industry, the words and phrases are often used in the same way as in English, but then I encountered the word “one piece” in Japanese, which I had never heard of in English other than for a “one-piece bathing suit” or something like that. From the reference material that Interbooks provided, I knew that in Japanese a “one piece” was a kind of dress, but I didn’t know how to translate it. I thought for a while before translating it to “shift dress”, which is like a slim-cut dress with straight lines.

The following year I had the opportunity to work on the same fashion catalog, and I realized that I should have just translated it as “dress”. It seems like a small thing, but it was the moment I realized I really have to keep on learning a lot more Japanese and hone my sense of the language more.

That must be difficult because we Japanese use a lot of Japanese words and phrases made from English...

Yes, and also because I had to keep in mind the possibility that the people who read the translated text might not all be native English speakers, and some of them might come from other countries where English is not the primary language. It was hard to translate in a way that still expressed the clothes’ appeal even to people who were not familiar with English-speaking cultures and expressions.

Within the field of fashion, I find sales-related translations particularly interesting because I get to translate while thinking about how companies and designers want to appeal to their audience. If the translation is odd, readers will feel uncomfortable, making it that much harder to appreciate the item’s appeal. So the challenge is to be able to translate sales copy into a kind of English that is not only correct but also engaging and accessible.

Receiving help from professional translation coordinators

Please tell us about any requests you have for our staff.

Everyone at Interbooks has been really helpful on so many occasions. I think that checkers are really thorough (and sometimes quite strict) when checking translations, which is great, because it really helps make the whole translation better! In my translations, I often get comments from the checkers on parts where I’ve made a mistake, but also parts that could be left as they are, but I have sometimes been surprised to find corrections on the smallest details (laughs).

The year before last, around the end of the year, I was working on checking the translation of a catalog for electronic devices. For me, Christmas is the main event at that time of year, so I am usually very busy until then. But in Japan, New Year’s Eve is more important, so everyone has their hands full of work right up to the end of the year. But even then, the coordinators of the project always answered my questions immediately, which was very helpful in making the work progress smoothly. I struggled a lot and found that checking was sometimes harder than if I had just translated myself from the start, but with the cooperation of the coordinators, I managed to deliver the document right after New Year’s Day. I felt terribly sorry because I think that I was asking too much of them during that time… But I also felt so grateful for such professionalism in their work.

Erica Williams, Translator