Confronting the original text and being moved to tears by its message

James Watt, Translator
Originally from Canada. After graduating from University of Toronto’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2003, Watt started working as a research assistant at UoT’s Department of Physics. He later came to Japan and joined the main campus of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) at the University of Tokyo as a graduate research student. Watt also had a managerial position at the Translation Department of the English Language Education Council (ELEC) while lecturing part-time at Hosei University and Tokyo Institute of Technology. He is currently working as a freelance translator and writer.

Considering things from the listener’s point of view while translating

Please tell us about your current job.

I have been translating for 12 years now. These days, I mainly translate audio guides for art galleries and museums.

Do you write the English transcripts of audio guides for overseas visitors?

The original Japanese transcript is written by a company that produces audio content. The museum curator then makes changes before it is handed over to me. I’m only in charge of the translation; narration is done by professional narrators.

This means that museum visitors get to listen to the words that you translated, right?

Absolutely. That’s why I have to write in easily understandable English. The content also needs to be in a form that the listener can fully digest. Let’s take a sentence directly translated into English as an example: “In the year 720, during the Yoro era of the Nara period, a book called Nihon Shoki was written.” If you don’t provide any context, visitors will be left wondering when the ‘Nara’ period or ‘Yoro’ era took place, or what ‘Nihon Shoki’ means, and will consequently have a hard time taking in what is being said. With texts like this, it is necessary to provide as much context as possible.

On the other hand, I do sometimes add a little something to increase the drama, so to speak. While I would usually refer to the Western calendar, at certain points I adopt phrasing from the Japanese calendar, adding something a little grandiose, like, “on the first year of the reign of Emperor Tenmu” to create a certain atmosphere. That’s not a technique I can use too often within one audio program though! In any case, I always try to consider things from the listener’s standpoint while I translate—what kind of impression would someone get from listening to this, and would they actually be able to fully digest the meaning?

James Watt, Translator

What’s important is communicating with the client

Do you face any difficulties when translating promotional materials?

As an example, using uninspired English expressions in a translation for a job posting will be completely ineffective if the client wants to hire a creator—truly creative people won’t even look at the post. In the advertising world, there are certainly times where you really do have to rack your brain coming up with slightly more persuasive and exaggerated expressions. Saying that, if you don’t take your time to create a good quality translation and remove any parts that feel unnatural, then you’re not fulfilling your responsibility as a translator. Simply translating a text word-for-word and quickly sending it back to the client is just like a brick layer skimping on cement, using only about half the necessary amount when laying bricks.

From listening to you, it sounds like you have a tendency towards perfectionism.

That’s probably true…! I guess I am quite a perfectionist. However, you do need to know where to draw the line. It’s a good idea to communicate as much as possible with the translation agency you are working with. Not just for the sake of increasing communication, but to find out key information like who’s going to be reading your translation, what style the client is looking for, and whether they want you to include some more literary elements, or would prefer you to use slang to maintain a more casual tone. Knowing this kind of information helps make translating a lot easier. There are times I have to spend a great deal of time pondering over these matters before starting a translation.

Quality, speed, or price?

I can imagine your form as you diligently work on a project. Don’t you sometimes end up spending too much time on a translation?

No. One of my policies is that when I receive a request, I always make a point of asking clients to pick only two options from good, fast, or cheap.

So, they have to pick two options from high quality output, fast delivery time, and low price?

That’s right. If they choose “good” and “cheap,” I will need a certain amount of time to complete the project. With “cheap” and “fast,” delivery time becomes the main priority. And if they chose “good” and “fast,” it will require some time—and a considerable amount of effort—to achieve a high quality result. When there’s a tight deadline, I wake up at 2 a.m. and work until 10 p.m., squeezing three days’ of work into one day. As you can expect, I feel absolutely exhausted afterwards!

In any case, I guess it is almost impossible to deliver a service that is all three of good, fast, and cheap.

There used to be a time when I accepted any kind of job. Even if a client asked for a 20,000-character translation by the next day with a fixed budget…! I was just starting out, so I would accept anything, especially around the time my daughter was born. But if I were to do that now, it’d kill me!

Crying my heart out from a translation about the 2011 earthquake

Have you ever worked on something that left a deep impression on you?

After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, Interbooks hired me for a project that involved visiting a conference held by university professors carrying out research on trauma and PTSD suffered by victims of the areas affected by the disaster. There, the professors gave a presentation on how to ease the symptoms of trauma and PTSD. What shocked me was that there were cases of people experiencing trauma even though they were far away from the affected areas and were not themselves a victim of either the earthquake or the tsunami. Take, for example, the city of Aizuwakamatsu. While the city was shaken by the earthquake, no houses collapsed, and since it is so far inland, the tsunami did not reach there either. There was also very little impact from the nuclear accident. Yet, several people from the city were traumatized by the event. According to the presentation, people can experience trauma just from watching tragic scenes of disasters on TV or YouTube, such as people and cars being swept away by a tsunami. They then reach a state of distress so powerful that it only takes hearing about, for instance, a woman calling for help to evacuate from a rooftop before being swept away, to move them to tears.

They are traumatized by a disaster even though they didn’t actually experience it themselves.

Apparently, it’s pretty common. I also started crying uncontrollably when I heard that part of the presentation.

After the disaster, I decided to quit my job at the company I was working for at the time and become self-employed, which allowed me to work from home. On the day of the earthquake, there were so many people in Tokyo who could not get home, or spent hours upon hours doing so. That hit me really hard. It also completely opened my eyes to the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my family. If I worked from home, I could be with them all the time and would not have to be separated from them. Looking back at the time I cried my heart out during the conference, I was probably so upset because I was also deeply affected myself after the earthquake.

Since then, I have been blessed with multiple opportunities to work with Interbooks on successive projects related to research, rescue, or reconstruction activities undertaken locally after the Tohoku and Kumamoto earthquakes. There was not one project where I did not feel moved while taking on the translation. It really touched me to see people working so hard to help others; so much so that I was translating with tears in my eyes.

James Watt, Translator