Right Translation, Wrong Reason

If you tell Google Translate that “paper jam” is Japanese it will give the correct translation “atasco de papel” instead of “mermelada de papel” when translating into Spanish. ^o^;



I Stand Partially Corrected: Revisiting Google Translate & Related Tidbits

A few months back I posted about a hilariously off Google translation from English to Japanese of a status I’d originally posted to Facebook. After reading this massive article about how neural networks have dramatically improved the service, I got curious and figured I’d plug the exchange back in and see what it gave me now.

The original English:

Adult & three little kids walking down my street:

Kid: What’s that?
Dad(?): It’s a rooster.
Kid: What’s a rooster?
Dad: It goes *does an admirable impression of a rooster crowing*
Kid: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Kid 2: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Youngest Kid: *attempts to crow, ends up shrieking instead*

This made me smile as I sat in my window reading. lol

And now the new Google Translate result:




This is most definitely miles above the engine’s September attempt. Unlike that try, here the first sentence is completely correct, the sentences which used *description of action* are now at least grammatically if not contextually correct, and the very last bit of the last sentence has been corrected from an ultra-literal translation of “made me smile” in which “made” was interpreted in the sense of “create something” rather than “give rise to an action.” There are only two major problems with this translation: tone, and the engine’s inability to recognize misspelled words.

What I described was an informal exchange between a dad (I assume) and his three children. The use of the words “Dad” and “Kid” rather than “Father” and “Son” or “Child” partly indicated that in English. However, the tone of the Japanese translation is inconsistent. It used “Kiddo” for “kid” which feels informal, as does my narration which was translated in plain form. But the speech was translated into polite form, and “Dad” was translated to “Otou-san” (honorific way of saying “Father” when addressing your own father or when talking about another person’s father) when “Papa” would’ve been better for this scenario.

One thing I hadn’t realized when I made my first post about this translation was that I had misspelled the onomatopoeia for a rooster’s crow: “cock-a-doodle-doo” ends with two o’s, not one as I wrote it. Google Translate’s inability to interpret not what I wrote but what I meant to write created much of what made its first translation particularly funny. This time, instead of bringing a “huge cock” into the mix, it translated my misspelled sound effect as “Ojii-chan,” which is a somewhat affectionate-polite way to address your grandfather. How it got “Grandpa” from “cock-a-doodle-do” is beyond me.

I’ve actually come across a few similar cases doing translations from Japanese to English. For example, one customer wrote 通風 (“tsuufuu” meaning “ventilation”) in a list of diseases/conditions hot springs baths help to alleviate. Within that context, I figured this was a typo, and that the intended word was 痛風: also pronounced “tsuufuu,” but meaning “gout.” More amusing was 賛成用化粧品 (“sanseiyou keshouhin” meaning “cosmetics for [use by] agreements”) which appeared to be the product of the client typing in romaji input mode and hitting the “s” instead of the “d,” which would have gotten the correct 男性用化粧品 (“danseiyou keshouhin” meaning “cosmetics for men”).

Given the description of neural nets in the article, however, it’s only a matter of time before we can make Mr. Data even machines can spot things that don’t make sense and correct human errors in typing to produce translations of what was intended rather than what was typed. That said, I think there might be an unfortunate trend that would hasten the death of human translators somewhat unrelated to how good machines get at doing it, and that’s people accepting (paying for) sub-par translations and people not wanting to pay for things at all.

There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.

Common Law of Business Balance

I remember seeing a post somewhere (probably Tumblr) a few months ago about an otome game with an absolutely dreadful translation, which the OP rightfully pointed out. But then they said they hoped that wouldn’t turn anyone off from the game, because really it had a good story, and I wondered how they could gauge that when the writing was so horrible, and if they realized that companies would have no reason to invest in proper translations if they could make money off fans with crappy ones. I think the post was about the game Ephemeral by Hunex. I can’t find the precise post I’m thinking of but this one has some screencaps, as does this review. It is bad. Anyone who doesn’t think so either has a poor grasp of the English language, or has only ever been exposed to bad writing.

In a similar vein, I couldn’t help but recall all the reviews for Voltage games in the App Store where people were complaining that it wasn’t “fair” to charge for the games, how they loved the characters and everything but that the games would be better if they were free, etc. If so many people in your customer base like what you make but repeatedly tell you it’s not worth paying for, would you feel motivated to improve your product, a move which would cost you money and necessitate raising prices to remain profitable? Probably not.

While the examples I’ve given here are about a relatively niche market, I think it holds true even when taking a wider view. Services like One Hour Translation and Gengo wouldn’t exist if people weren’t okay with getting inferior products. Even if computers never become capable of producing 100% human native speaker-level translations, the skill itself has already been deprofessionalized enough to lower rates for translators working in the lower ends of the industry. Simply being bilingual and a good translator probably won’t get you very far without a STEM or law background.

Well, ultimately, what can I say? We’re probably living in the Eternal Sphere. What humans are doing now with AI is perhaps what someone else did to make us and we just think we’re thinking. Je pense, mais je n’en sais rien.

Pros & Cons of Gengo, OR, Me Trying To Turn A Rant About the Lower End of Freelancing Into Something That Might Prove Useful for Others

I joined crowdsourced translation service Gengo in mid-2014 and at the time was glad for my first opportunity in paid translation, and how easy it was to get started. But once I got higher-paying end clients, I didn’t even bother logging in to the site. I didn’t do any work through Gengo in 2015, and didn’t start using it again until this past July. Several of the things that had seemed problematic to me about the service are still there, so I decided to write this out.


Pro 1: Getting started is super easy

No interviews, no resumes. Just pass their tests, submit a W-9, give them your PayPal address, and you’re good to go.

Pro 2: Payments are timely

Gengo pays out twice a month (although you have to request the payout manually) through PayPal, so you know any money you make is definitely coming to you. I have never had a problem with payments.


Con 1: The pay rate is abysmal

Before I got into translating, I had the privilege of speaking with professionals in the field, and being directed to free online resources such as the Honyaku mailing list. The consensus was that for Japanese to English translation, the absolute lowest rate anyone should be working for was 10 cents (American) per Japanese character (moji) in the original text. Armed with that knowledge, Gengo’s standard rate of less than 2 cents per character (0.018, to be exact) is a pimp slap in the face. The “pro” rate of 0.048 per moji is still less than half of what should be the lowest rate in the industry. At standard level, it’s still possible to achieve semi-decent wages if you can manage translation speeds of at least 1,100 moji per hour, yielding about 20USD an hour, or about 15USD after taxes. However…

Con 2: Speed efficiencies are hard to achieve when jobs cover a massive range of topics

My former main end client (which I’ll get into a bit later) had a rate not much better than Gengo’s at 3 cents per moji. However, after a couple of months, I was able to reach speeds of 1,000 moji per hour on average, yielding 30USD gross, or about 23 net. Sometimes I’d even get close to 2,000 moji per hour, for 60USD gross. Not bad at all! But I was only able to achieve this because I was working within the same framework every time. Every now and then I’d come across a reference that I didn’t get, or some entertainment industry lingo that I had to look up, but overall, I wasn’t reaching for the dictionary much, and I was already familiar with the tone each character/story should have, so I could bust out good translations without even reading through the entire script first as I had been doing in the beginning.

In contrast, on Gengo, while they do seem to be making some effort to better code jobs so that what shows up on translator dashboards aligns with their interests or is at least similar to what they have worked on before (I think I’ve been internally coded as an onsen specialist? Ahaha…), overall, the jobs are all over the place. When there are lots of jobs available, you might luck out and have the luxury of choosing something you’re already familiar with. But when there aren’t many gigs on the dashboard, you might be tempted to take on something that you don’t know about but looks easy enough. I’ve done this a few times, and almost always end up taking so much time that the hourly rate goes below 10USD, which I consider my At Least I Still Have Some Pride bare minimum. Things like Googling place names isn’t hard, but when you’re translating a travel brochure full of them, it is time-consuming.

Also, Gengo doesn’t seem to have enough returning clients (at least, not in the Japanese to English pair) to make the “preferred translator” designation make a big difference. Being a certain client’s preferred translator means that client’s jobs will go to you and their at least one other preferred translator first before being released to the general pool of translators, but if the client is someone that needs something once a month or even less, the chances of you even seeing a job from that client again are low. That I know of, I’ve been designated a preferred translator by three clients, and Gengo set me as a preferred translator for two others. Out of those five, only one posts jobs with any regularity, and even though I’ve mastered the tone this client wants, I still do have to spend a great deal of time Googling place names or people names.

Con 3: You’re expected to provide customer service but aren’t paid for it at all

If 0.018 per moji is what you get paid for the act of translating a character into an English word, what’s the pay for reading a customer’s questions/concerns and responding to them? Nothing. Gengo translators essentially have to provide customer service for free. Granted, not every job will involve talking to the customer at all, but when it happens, it takes up more of your time with no additional pay. What’s worse, it tends to happen most when the customer submitted a very short request (one or two sentences) but didn’t indicate any context at all. It’s hard to know what people are going for sometimes with two sentences and no background, and when you get it wrong and have to go back and forth with the customer, it’s even more annoying because the pay rate was so low to begin with that having to spend even a second more on the job means you, the translator, as a business, are operating at a loss.

The outcome can be the same when customers submit very short translation requests but include 10 pages worth of translation notes which, of course, you don’t get paid to read. Once I picked up a job worth $1.52 to translate a flyer for a neighborhood festival. Or rather, to translate the headings for each feature of the festival. The customer explained what each feature of the festival was in great detail, which helped me come up with the most perfect translation for the heading, but that meant that I had to spend that much more time on it. Financially it was a loss at the point I submitted the job, but I had the further bad luck of the customer being someone who had some familiarity with English and thus felt that they could judge whether what I had written was accurate or not. They were very sweet (I imagine there was a baa-chan or jii-chan on the other end of the internet) but I basically ended up giving them an English lesson over the comments section of Gengo, ultimately spending like four hours on a job worth $1.52. That’s 38 cents per hour. Thirty. Eight. Cents. PER HOUR. That job happened to be chosen for review by a senior translator, and they noted how great my customer service had been, but I felt so, so, used afterward. It would have been much more rewarding to straight up volunteer for that neighborhood association, but to have a company make a profit, no matter how small, while I, who did the work, take a loss? I’m not here to do charity work for for-profit companies!

If you see a job on Gengo where the customer rejected another translator’s work, and they’re being demanding about things like word choice, run. If they know English that much more than the translators, they should’ve translated it themselves. I once took such a job, thinking as long as I avoided the mistakes the first translator had apparently made, it would be okay, but nope. There was the customer, nit picking like “‘Ax’ sounds like a big ax, could you write ‘hand ax’ instead?” and I’m over here like WHY CAN’T YOU DO THAT YOURSELF DO YOU REALIZE YOU’RE WASTING YOUR TIME TOO. Of course I didn’t say that, I just replied in keigo to the effect of “I’m terribly sorry, I will correct it,” but IRL I was more like:


Similarly, sometimes customers will spam the triple brackets feature to try to reduce their cost as much as possible. (Everything written within triple brackets is not to be translated, thus the customer isn’t charged for anything written within triple brackets.) So for example, let’s say the translation is for the text of the classic tale Momotaro. Let’s say the customer submits it like this:


What I would submit as a translator would thus be:

A long, long time ago, in a certain village, there lived an old man and an old woman.
The [[[おじいさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain, while the [[[おばあさん]]] went to do the washing at the river.

Do you see the problem with this? Sure, for the customer, it seems like a smart thing to do; once they see that おばあさん gets translated to “an old woman,” they can just plug that in themselves without having to pay to have the same word translated again. But the thing is, in this case, since I didn’t translate obaa-san to “Grandma,” the customer has to know when to use “the” and when to use “an,” something which is often difficult for non-native English users/speakers. Even if I had used “Grandma” like a name to save the customer that particular (articular?) headache, this practice makes me feel used as a translator, because it’s not like I can ignore everything in triple brackets: I may not have to type it out in English again, but I still have to read it and place it at the appropriate point within the English sentence. I can’t merely leave them in the same physical spot they appeared in within the Japanese sentence like:

[[[おじいさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain,  [[[おばあさん]]] while went to do the washing at the river.

Or bunch them all together at the beginning:

[[[おじいさん]]][[[おばあさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain, while went to do the washing at the river.

What kind of sense would that make?

Plus, it also ties my hands as a translator. There could be instances where repeating the thing in brackets would actually be unnatural or completely unnecessary in English, but since the Gengo interface prohibits translators from submitting jobs without every single instance of bracketed content intact, I either have to submit an unnatural translation, or bend over backwards to find a way to include that content even though it’s unnecessary.

So while it’s cheap on the customer’s end to do this, it could potentially have a negative impact on the output, and it’s insulting to the translator. People forget that when they pay for services from humans, they’re paying for that person’s skill and their time. When customers abuse triple brackets on Gengo, they take the translator’s time and skill but rob them of payment for both. I actually had this problem with the game scripts I was working on for the end client as well; there were codes throughout which were not included in the character count because technically I wasn’t translating them, but I still had to read them, interpret them, and write accordingly. These things that I wasn’t translating in the sense of “converting from Japanese to English” but was still having to process could add as much as 10,000 more characters to a script, or $300 worth of work. That’s a nice chunk of change to have to give away for free, ain’t it?

Things Which Could Be Seen As Either Pros or Cons Depending on the Person

Gray Area 1: Gengo is kinda sorta deceptive to customers, a bit insulting to translators in its word choice, and adds to the problem of deprofessionalization going on in many industries which ultimately lowers wages for all workers

I’m giving Gengo some leeway on this because even though I personally believe this is a definite CON, some things could be open to interpretation.

Recently a customer asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to so I looked at Gengo’s website from the customer side for the first time since I first heard of Gengo and several things caught my eye.

First, under “How it works,” it says “Our certified translators get to work within minutes…” (Emphasis mine.) I don’t recall having to submit any proof of certification when I applied to Gengo, not even a resume nor proof of my JLPT score. I’m not a certified translator, unless Gengo counts people passing its own test as certification. If that’s the case, isn’t that deceptive to customers? If I see an agency saying they have “certified translators,” I assume that means they have been certified by an external body, not the same agency offering their services.

Then, in the Customer Support article “How is Gengo different from a traditional agency,” it says “For years people have been paying for translation services from expensive experts. This means (most of the time) you get an excellent result but it costs a lot of money. We decided to to [sic] offer customers something a little bit different. Gengo specializes in doing simple, short texts rather than long, complex documents in specialist subjects. So we don’t charge you for that expertise that you don’t need…” (Emphasis mine.)

Yet later I saw this while reading the Gengo blog post “Eight hilarious localization fails in advertising”: “Find out how Gengo can help your business expand into overseas markets with a community of experienced translators worldwide, who are knowledgeable in specific industries.” (Emphasis mine again.)

Doesn’t “experienced translators knowledgeable in specific industries” imply a certain level of expertise? Expertise which Gengo translators supposedly don’t have which is why customers don’t need to pay so much? And isn’t it deceptive to customers to say Gengo translators are “experienced” when experience is not a prerequisite to become a Gengo translator? In the Translator Support article “What qualifications or experience do you need to translate with Gengo?” it says:  “You don’t need translation qualifications or experience to become a Gengo translator; we’re happy to work with anyone who can pass our translation tests and consistently translate to our standards. This makes Gengo a great option for both established translators and beginners with strong language skills.” So Gengo tells translators they don’t need experience, it tells customers the lack of experience is why their service is cheaper, but then it tells customers they have knowledgeable translators.


I suppose in its defense Gengo could argue that references to “experienced translators” refer to translators at the Pro level, but when they make the blanket statement, it sounds like they’re talking about the service as a whole. Realistically, I doubt someone with that much experience and knowledge would be picking up random jobs on Gengo. The higher up you go in the field, the more likely you are to find people so good they actually have to turn down projects. Projects that pay well, I mean. So I doubt they’re working on Gengo unless they’re just really bored and doing it out of morbid curiosity.

Gray Area 2: Payment is through PayPal

Well, now there’s also Payoneer, but I have no idea what that is, and it wasn’t an option when I joined anyway.

For me, getting paid through PayPal wasn’t that great because it severely limited what I could do with the money I made. The only online retailer I use regularly doesn’t take it. I didn’t trust PayPal enough to link it to my bank account either. Eventually I needed cash bad enough that I opened another bank account to use exclusively with PayPal, but for me it’s still a potential security breach which I would rather not have to worry about.

Gray Area 3: You get none of the glory of being associated with the companies that use Gengo

Gengo’s “Case Studies” page is full of brands anyone would love to have on their resumé: YouTube, HuffPo, Coach, Shiseido… But on Gengo, you’re nothing but a number, and you can’t take credit for your work. So while I’ve done translations through Gengo several times for, for example, a certain Japanese design firm I would love to be associated with, I can’t say it. My mouth is NDA’d shut. Furthermore, I have no way to prove that I even did such and such pages on their website, because there aren’t individual per-job contracts on Gengo. Some customers also remove their jobs from Gengo’s database after they’ve been completed, so there’s no easily accessible record, on my end, of my ever having done work for X Company through Gengo. While I was contractually obligated to sign over the rights to the English translations I did for That Certain Mobile Game Company I had been working for, I have the individual contracts (work orders) that prove that I did such and such stories. And while I currently have no intention of looking for work in the game industry again, if I ever needed to prove that I translated some story that had been really popular with fans, I can do so with the work orders. I can’t say the same thing about a lot of the work I’ve done through Gengo.

Gray Area 4: You will see others taking credit for your work

I don’t mind as much when I see the things I’ve translated on websites where no individual is credited for the text, but I’ve done things which ended up being blog posts, and the poster puts my translation on their blog with their name and their photo and doesn’t indicate anywhere that the text is a translation; in short, they’re making it look as if they produced content which they didn’t. Even worse: one time there was a job on Gengo that was a translation of a certain Hikaru Utada song. Was that content even allowed on Gengo? Technically? I’m not sure, but I figured if the person wanted it for personal, private enjoyment, who could object to them paying their own money to have it translated? Especially since there were already at least two translations of the song floating around on the internet. There was one line which I think other fan translators had misinterpreted. So I translated the song, and wrote down the phrase that was particularly unique to my translation so I could Google it later, see if the customer had posted it anywhere or just kept it for themselves. A few days later, sure enough, there was a new translation on the interwebs, and while the person posting it had changed the line I thought others were wrong about to match those perhaps wrong interpretations, there were other tell-tale clauses that led me to believe this person was the client from Gengo. Meh, I can’t really be mad at another fan translator, right? But then I saw the PayPal “Donate” button on their page.


You do not get to pretend like you’re translating this content and then get paid several times over for somebody else’s work! I made what, 5 bucks translating this song on Gengo? But if grateful fans donate to this person, they could potentially make much more than I did doing the actual work! To say nothing of the fact that if there’s one thing that can vindicate fans posting translations of copyrighted materials, it’s not taking money for doing so. Financially, I take a loss translating The Air Moon, because that translation is now the main reason I even pay $110 a year to keep Warped Frost with the space & design upgrades and the custom domain name. So to me, it’s like getting slapped in the face to see other fan translators taking credit for another fan translator’s work and having the gall to ask for donations. Granted, the customer had no way of knowing another fan translator would pick up their order, but still.

Gray Area 5: The main way to be profitable is to not do your best

And I hate this mentality. I hate not doing things as well as they could be done. But if I really sat up here giving every Gengo job the level of serious thought I would prefer to give things, I’d be making three or four dollars an hour, or 38 cents like that one time. And hell if I go down that road! Not for something I can do thanks to four years of college study, four years of living in Japan, and countless hours of independent study. Being able to translate is in itself specialized knowledge even if Gengo doesn’t define it as such to justify its horrible rates. Of course, staying profitable while working fast requires that you already have a very high level of translation ability. I currently have a 9.8 rating from Senior Translator reviews even though I don’t give every job my all. I’m looking at the clock like mad on Gengo. Speaking of which…

Gray Area 6: Decide your schedule yourself

It probably strikes readers as odd that this would be here rather than in the PROS section. After all, being able to set your own schedule is often touted as one of the greatest perks of freelancing. But what’s the major caveat?


As far as Gengo is concerned, this is probably an area that they ARE good for. You’re given a few hours to do most jobs, and should be completing them within at least a fourth of the time that Gengo gives you anyway, otherwise it’s not profitable. There’s a convenient timer on the top of the job page and the bottom of your browser window that helps keep you on task. If you’re not good with time management, or your schedule is super fragmented due to other jobs, school, or family obligations, the availability of short jobs on Gengo is great.

When I was younger and only had to do one thing at a time (that is, only work, or only study), time management was never an issue. I was great at it. And if I did fall behind, I had the physical stamina and psychological desire to pull all-nighters to get back on track. These days, I’m not as young as I used to be, and more importantly, in work settings I hardly ever come across content I genuinely enjoy reading, much less having to translate. These two things in particular are probably what doomed me in the end with my former main translation client, the game company. When I first started working for them, I had also started attending grad school part time. A couple of months in, and they weren’t giving me not even half the volume their job posting had promised. So I took on another job, with an NPO, and my time management woes began. It was all too easy to let the job which was bringing me the most money but with which I had the least connection take a backseat to the job that made me miserable but was here in real time, in the flesh, as well as to classes and family obligations. Things like having to clean the litter box because my cat just dropped a stink bomb would keep interrupting me while trying to work on my main client’s scripts. I resigned from the NPO job (after gaining 40 pounds because of it) and thought I would be able to manage my time better. At first, after a break, I was submitting work on time. But then, the company started getting back to me late, and the way the producer I was working with was responding, it felt like they were doing it on purpose. So there I was, already not satisfied with the job, but also being, apparently, penalized for being on time when this client had been accepting late translations from me for a year and a half already without docking my pay—which they were totally contractually allowed to do so I wouldn’t have fought it—and I just kinda turned into Petty Crocker. The last thing I did for them I did while I was in Japan for the LAST VISUALIVE, and while I could have submitted it on time if I had followed my original plan of holing up in my hotel room in Sapporo and only leaving for the concert, in that moment, I said to myself, “I’m in a new place, a place that took thousands of dollars to get to, why not take a chance and see what happens?”

You know how they say freelancing’s great because you can travel while you do it?

Yeah, about that.

Realistically, would you want to? Would you want to work instead of play if you’re in a new place? If you can, you’re some kind of special. I bow to your self-control! I learned the hard way that I can’t. I went sightseeing in Sapporo. I spoke to a docent about the beautiful cursive handwriting in hundred-year old student notebooks in the Tokeidai Museum, I walked into an esoteric Buddhist temple right when they were about to perform a goma fire ritual, I found the limited-time Kit Kat Chocolatory and was able to get great souvenirs. Then when I got back to the hotel and started working, I got bored with what I was reading again, and thought, “This is a great chance to watch Japanese TV.” So I turned on the television, and watching commercials felt more fulfilling than what I was translating.

That time was apparently the last straw for this client. A few months after not getting requests from them again, I wrote to ask if they were dropping me, which I would totally understand but would like to know for sure. I was given the ambiguous answer that they might have things for me in the future, but not right now. I took that as a “Yes we’re done with you” and started looking for other work in earnest. It’s been a rough couple of months once I depleted my savings and my car decided it was going to need a new catalytic converter right now, but at least I won’t go hungry because you can reload a Starbucks card with PayPal, and I can get money into my PayPal by prostituting myself on Gengo for a bit. Actually, there are probably many working girls who make far more than I do. I’ve read that sugar daddying is a thing now? Like there’s an app for that these days? Unfortunately I’m at the upper end of the Millennial age range, in that ambiguous, sometimes classified as Gen X spot, so I don’t think I can compete with all the pretty young things. orz Ahaha…

On the one hand, if it hadn’t been for this client, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of my Master’s program without student loans, buy a car, “see my mechanic more than my momma” as the song goes, and go to the VISUALIVE. So in that sense, I’m grateful to them. But on the other, “you can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right,” as another song goes. I realized that even though I do get a bit worn down from social interactions, even though I’m pretty introverted, I need to have communication with the people I’m working with. Not just, “Do this, sign that, here’s your check,” which I had thought would be the ideal working environment for me until I was actually in it for a while. Some of the producers were better about communicating than others (I worked with 3 different ones in under two years) but I was still not really connected to the team. And as my horrible NPO job taught me, I will go all out for a job that chews me up and spits me out if I feel like I’m personally responsible to even just one person who will see my face. A trait which I figure will come in quite handy if I manage to get the funds to finish this Master’s and end up an art teacher in a public school. ^o^;

An Illustration Of Why You Shouldn’t Use Google Translate Unless You’re Fluent In Both Languages And Just Need a Good Laugh

Perhaps automatic translation has made strides in the past few years, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to working between Japanese and English.

The other day I posted this heartwarming scene to Facebook:

Adult & three little kids walking down my street:

Kid: What’s that?
Dad(?): It’s a rooster.
Kid: What’s a rooster?
Dad: It goes *does an admirable impression of a rooster crowing*
Kid: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Kid 2: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Youngest Kid: *attempts to crow, ends up shrieking instead*

This made me smile as I sat in my window reading. lol

The next day I noticed that some unexpected people had liked the status, people who aren’t native English speakers and probably don’t speak it at a terribly high level (though maybe they do now, I haven’t seen some of them in like 6 years). So I wondered if they had just liked the stat for the sake of interacting with it, if they’d understood it, or if they’d read a machine translation of it and…well, what did that say? So I plugged it into Google, and it gave me this.




This is a horrible translation for several reasons, but if you just re-translate it back into English you might not see some of them, because some words will end up correct in English even though the wrong word was used in Japanese. So let’s human translate Google Translate’s attempt:

Adult & walk my street three small children
[The way that the children were “counted” was grammatically incorrect]

Kid: What is that?

Father(?): That is a rooster.

Kid: What is a rooster?

Father is: that goes **Performs an admirable impression of a rooster’s crow
[Invisible problems here: Japanese does not idiomatically use the verb “go” in this sense; the word used for “impression” means “impression” in the sense of “He made a good impression on me” rather than the intended “impersonation”; Google doesn’t understand the convention of narrating actions in the third person within asterisks—though to be fair perhaps such a convention doesn’t exist at all in Japanese.]

Kid: Cock is–doodle-does!
[Google Translate failed to recognize this as onomatopoeia, taking it as four separate words instead; yet, as with the asterisks before, seemed at a loss over what to do with the hyphens. The katakana word that it chose for “cock” can mean “cook” as in “chef,” “cock” as in “male bird,” or “cock” as in “penis.”]

Kid 2: Huge cock–doodle I do!
[Not gonna lie, this cracked. me. UP. Unlike the first instance of “cock,” which was rendered with a katakana word that at least had the correct meaning within its pool of possible meanings, there’s no doubt as to what  kyokon means, and it ain’t “rooster.” Also, for further inexplicable reasons, it chose  itasu, the humble form of the verb “do” in respectful language.]

Young child: * is, instead of trying to do crow finishes shrieking
[Here it took “crow” as a noun rather than a verb, so it used the Japanese word for the bird. Also, while “finishes shrieking” could potentially sound like the intended “ends up shrieking,” what the Japanese implied was actually that there was already shrieking going on, and that instead of trying to crow, the child stopped that shrieking, ultimately yielding silence.]

I sat reading my window, this made me into a smile. LOL
[The word used for “reading” can mean regular reading as of a novel but usually has some extra nuance, for example, a machine reading data, a person reading someone’s mind, reading between the lines, etc. Also, Google Translate attempted to convey “made me smile” by keeping the two verbs, but the thing is that the construction “made (someone) do (something)” is expressed in Japanese by conjugating the action verb with an ending that reflects the “made~”, so you end up with one only one verb when you translate this construction correctly.]

There you have it, folks, an analysis of some of the things that can go horribly horribly wrong when you use Google Translate and its peers. Sometimes those mistakes end up being pretty entertaining, but a lot of the hilarity would fly over your head if you weren’t bilingual.

After tearing Google Translate apart, I suppose it’s only fair that I should translate this myself. That said, I wouldn’t present the story the same way were I to have Japanese speakers primarily in mind. For one, that narrating actions in third person bit doesn’t really translate (as far as I know). Also, I’m a big proponent of using what you know rather than trying to sound as if all your languages are at the same level. I mean, even if I consider my Japanese to be strong, my English level is still far beyond that. So if I attempt to write something in Japanese at the same level as I can write it in English, I’ll probably fail. That’s why I don’t bother. I just use whatever words come naturally, like so:







Air Moon Update & The Night I Scanned All of the Things

Just a little update on my progress translating The Air Moon ~MOON PROJECT Document Book~: I have translated up to page 158 of 278, meaning I’m 57% done. Whew! I hope to get at least a couple more stops done while I’m on summer vacation, but once classes start back up and/or once I (hopefully) have to go in for training for a new job, the progress will go back to being erratic.

Anyway, you can find the Table of Contents for the translation here on my other blog.

In other news, recently my beloved 8-year old all-silver MacBook Pro died almost completely. It turns on but won’t boot up, I can’t even get it to start in safe mode. 😦 It wasn’t my main machine anymore and hadn’t been for the past 3 years, but it still made me sad. Perhaps that’s what prompted my Scan Party.

I have an old HP printer/scanner/copier that played nice with my laptops as far as printing, but the scanning software wasn’t compatible with the late MBP, much less the new(er) one. That’s why I’ve kept my 10-year old iMac around despite the fact that it’s practically useless on the internet and the screen has been dying a slow death for the past 5 years.

Still, the fact that this computer can still think after 10 years is impressive, isn't it?

Still, the fact that this computer can think after 10 years is impressive, isn’t it?

With my MBP brain dead I saw the writing on the wall more clearly than it has been. I figured I had to scan everything I wanted to scan NOW. For the most part, the Things I Wanted to Scan consisted of my extensive clear file collection. (Yes, I am a dork.) But as I was going through boxes to get at some of those, I came across several other amusing things. Such as:

I meant to send this to GACKT but never did.

Unfortunately, the artist did not write their name on the post card, so I have no way to credit them.

I don’t know if they’re still doing it, but when I lived in Fukuoka, there was an annual postcard exhibit and sale inside of the store InCube in Fukuoka Tenjin Station. All of the postcards featured were done by local artists from Fukuoka Prefecture. I found this one in either YFC’s first or second year, I don’t remember when exactly. The chicken’s speech bubble was empty and I knew I had to write in this line from the YFC “press conference.” I bought two so I could keep one and send the other to GACKT, but I never quite had the balls to do it, thinking he wouldn’t be as amused as I was.

Another thing I came across:

The CLAMP collab would have been so beautiful if it happened.

The CLAMP collab would have been so beautiful if it happened.

And this isn’t directly related to GACKT save for the fact that I went to Japan for the VISUALIVE, but since it pleases my inner train geek I’ll post it here anyway:

Peep the triple 7's yo!

Peep the triple 7’s yo!

When I exited JR Futsukaichi Station, I noticed that the balance on my IC card was 777. I wanted some way to commemorate this, and went to the card machine thinking I had seen the option 「履歴」(rireki “[personal] history”). I didn’t know you could print it out like this though, that was a nice surprise. This was actually the same IC card I’d had years ago, but now that you can use one region’s card all over the country, I figured it would be convenient to have so I took it along. 懐かしかった〜

A Proper Translation of Miss Colombia’s Final Answer

I was channel flipping this weekend and happened to come across the Miss Universe pageant. I kept watching when I saw that Miss Japan had made it pretty far and hoped she would go further. Alas, she didn’t win the crown, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I don’t think Miss Colombia should be given the crown simply because she initially received it by mistake. Miss Philippines won and that’s that. However, I do think it’s unfair that English-only viewers didn’t get to hear what Miss Colombia actually said in response to why she should be Miss Universe.

Below I have transcribed what she said and what the interpreter said, going off of this video, with notes from me in italics.

Miss Colombia: Yo estoy segura que debo ser la segunda—la tercera Miss Universo para mi pais Colombia–
Interpreter: I am positive that I should be the third Miss Universe for my country Colombia…

Here the interpreter chose to omit when Miss Colombia accidentally said “second” instead of “third”. In this particular situation I think it would have been fair to leave the hiccup in. After all, Miss USA couldn’t hide her mistake of saying “mext” instead of “next”, and it shows Miss Colombia’s level of knowledge of Miss Universe history.

Miss Colombia:
Porque tengo todas las capacidades de la mujer latino-americana–
Interpreter: Because I have all of the attributes that a Latin woman has…

“Attributes” isn’t the same thing as “capabilities,” which is what Miss Colombia said. “Capacities” would have also been a fair translation, though I think that sounds a wee bit unnatural in modern American English.

“A Latin woman” would be “una mujer latina,” an indefinite singular noun. “La mujer latina” is a singular collective noun which would be more accurately translated as a plural in English, “Latin women.”

I can understand choosing to say Latin instead of Latin-American, because to an English-speaking audience “Latin American” probably means “Latin-of the United States,” whereas in Latin America people don’t think of the word “America” as something the United States OF America has a monopoly on.

Miss Colombia:
La sensatez y el conocimiento que uno debe tener en las situaciones que una Miss Universo presenta en el mundo.
Interpreter: I am a woman who is full of feeling and have the attributes that a woman should have in Colombia.

“Sensatez” does NOT mean “feeling,” it means “good judgment” to put it simply, or, as the Diccionario General de la Lengua Española Vox that came with my computer puts it, “Cualidad que tienen las personas que muestran buen juicio, prudencia y madurez en sus actos y decisiones” meaning “The quality possessed by people who show good judgment, prudence, and maturity in their actions and decisions.” This is a pretty basic word, too, certainly one that I would expect an interpreter who could land a huge gig like this to know. Anyone who grew up with Spanish-speaking parents or who has watched a few telenovelas has surely seen one person accuse another of not having any sensatez.

Furthermore, as the interpreter had been cutting Miss Colombia off and apparently forgotten what she herself had said before, she threw in an extra “I am woman who~” rather than saying “Such as~” in reference to the “feelings and attributes” mentioned earlier (wrong though that translation was).

Lastly, by saying that these attributes are things that a woman should have “in Colombia” rather than “in the world” which is what Miss Colombia actually said, the interpreter made Miss Colombia seem as if she lacked consciousness of the world stage.

Miss Colombia: …Que Miss Universo enfrenta en sus eventos.
Interpreter: And that Miss Universe should have for all her events.

Miss Colombia understood that the interpreter had messed up and reworded the last part of her answer to get the interpreter to say it again.

To put it all together properly, here is what Miss Colombia really said:

I’m sure that I should be the second—the third Miss Universe from my country, Colombia, because I have all the capabilities of Latin American women, and the judgment and knowledge that one should have in the situations Miss Universe hosts around the world. …That Miss Universe is faced with at all of her events.

Versus what the interpreter had her say:

I’m positive that I should be the third Miss Universe for my country, Colombia, because I have all of the attributes that a Latin woman has. I am a woman who is full of feeling and have the attributes that a woman should have in Colombia. …And that Miss Universe should have for all of her events.

Again, Miss Colombia wouldn’t even have needed to say the last sentence fragment had it not been for the interpreter’s mistake. I bet this confused Spanish-only viewers who didn’t realize why Miss Colombia was suddenly tacking on this half-thought to her answer.

Personally, I don’t think Miss Colombia’s answer is much better than that given by Miss USA or Miss Philippines (I thought all three answers were generic, to be honest), but I do think it’s a much better answer than what the interpreter made it out to be. I mean come on, who says “I am a woman who is full of feeling”?! No one! And not Miss Colombia!

If I remember correctly, contestants had time limits for their answers. Short ones at that, so there was no reason for the interpreters to interrupt contestants mid-answer or worse, mid-sentence. For one, unless the event organizers were stopping the clock for the interpretation (and maybe they were, I don’t know), it puts every contestant using an interpreter at a disadvantage because then they can only use about half of their time to actually answer, whereas someone who is speaking in English can use all of their time for themselves. But okay, let’s say the organizers were stopping the clock. Why do all that? Why have to mess around with multiple stops when you can just give the contestants their time and then have the interpreter interpret? Not only would this be better for contestants as they’d be able to give more flowing answers, it would give the interpreter more time to put together an accurate translation. Of course, the interpreter should have a notepad along with an excellent memory. Whether they write down what was said or their translation of it is up to them but they should definitely be taking notes.

My interpretation experience isn’t as vast as my experience translating text, but even so I know that an interpreter must speak to the person they’ll be interpreting for beforehand to decide on a translation pattern, and even on a signal that the interpreter will use should the speaker start rambling without giving the interpreter a chance to translate (which will always happen at least once, especially with people who aren’t used to working with an interpreter or when the conversation gets heated). Miss Colombia looked like she was not expecting to be cut off mid-sentence, meaning such agreements were not put in place in advance. This may have been the pageant organizers’ fault. I certainly don’t think Miss Colombia was particularly rude to the interpreter considering how the interpreter kept cutting her off.

I’ve heard from professional interpreters that there are usually two interpreters working together at big events, so I do hope that there was another interpreter behind the scenes who gave the judges a more accurate translation of Miss Colombia’s answer. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but better to be judged for your own answer than for another’s poor translation.

Half Ranting in Response to a Rant about Supposedly Bad Translations

The other day I saw an interesting rant on the Facebook page of the mobile game company I have been freelance translating for this past year. A couple of fans were complaining about a game’s translation, and they got a fair number of Likes, so I guess many other fans agree with them. I haven’t played nor worked on the particular game that caused these fans so much anger, so I don’t know if they’re justified in some of their complaints. (Apparently the title they played was full of grammatical errors, which I have seen in this company’s first titles but I’m a bit surprised to hear it’s happening now and kind of wonder if this person’s getting their panties in a bunch over one or two typos. But I digress.) However, two of the complaints struck me as odd, both as a fan of various Japanese pop culture products and as a translator myself.

One complaint the fans had was that things were changed to be “less Japanese.” The example given was that of Golden Week. Apparently the English version of the game changed this to “spring break.”

I wouldn’t say the translation was changed with the intention of taking its Japaneseness away. I think it was changed simply to be more accessible to a Western audience, an audience which, by and large, does not know what Golden Week is. I think this is something that people who know some Japanese, or even a lot of Japanese, tend to forget. Especially if their circle of friends & acquaintances has the same interests as they do. It can be hard to believe that despite the anime & manga boom, there are still lots and lots of people in the English-speaking world who don’t give a flying eff about Japan, Japanese things, and/or Japanese culture. I don’t know how many people have asked me “So how did you like China?” literally 60 seconds after I told them I’d lived in Japan. I wish I were exaggerating. There are still plenty of Americans & Canadians for whom Asia=China and they will hear China when you say Japan.

Anyway, these people are still potential customers. They might enjoy exploring a game that was originally made for a Japanese audience if it’s made accessible to them. That’s what localization (as opposed to just translation) is. That’s what it’s for. There are also fans of Japanese things who aren’t going to make the sort of commitment required to learn all about Japan and its culture. And that’s okay.

As a translator, I want to keep the original intact as much as possible while still giving the new audience an enjoyable experience. So it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone knows what certain things are and not everyone is going to stop in the middle of gameplay to go look it up. If a game is not meant to be a Primer on Japanese Language and Culture, and if a localization choice makes the game more accessible to its new audience without causing conflicts within the storyline, then that localization choice is probably a good thing.

Personally, I have a general rule when I come across things that are unique to Japanese culture in something I’m translating. If I Google the thing in question in romaji and find the correct thing in the first page of results, then I will leave it in, but I will usually add a line or change another line so that I can naturally add an explanation of the thing in question so that even someone who doesn’t feel like Googling it can follow along. But sometimes, that’s impossible, either because it can’t be done without having the character say something extremely unnatural or obviously exposition-y, or because the original reference is so obscure there’s no information on it available in English for fans to even find. This leads me to the fans’ second complaint.

The other complaint that I found a bit odd in this rant was about the use of memes in the translation which were most certainly not in the original due to their nature as Memes Invented By Native English Speakers. As I haven’t played the game in question I can’t say this for sure, but I would not be surprised if the translator was merely substituting a Japanese meme that would be completely over most Western players’ heads with a meme they would actually understand and enjoy. I think memes fall under the same category as jokes; some jokes just don’t translate, and even when they do, they might require too much background knowledge to enjoy. Take this joke based on Chinese characters, for example:

木 means “tree.” Put two of them together and you get 林 meaning “woods.” Put three of them together and you get 森, “forest.” So what do you get when you put 6 trees together?

The first time someone told me this joke, I answered hesitantly, “Mori mori?” thinking 森森 but pretty sure that wasn’t really a thing. I also tried saying “Big forest,” thinking 大森, but that was also incorrect.

The answer is 六本木. *Rim shot*

Enjoying this joke requires that the listener know all the kanji involved and at least the place name Roppongi and the fact that it literally means “six trees”. Looking at the Western audience overall, how many people would get that?

If the original game made people laugh at a certain point, the translated game should make them laugh at that point too. That point is therefore not where you want to throw in a mini-lesson on kanji and Japanese place names. But at least that’s a fairly simple joke, and you could probably find it online in English. (Although Googling “What do you get when you put six trees together” didn’t yield results related to this joke, and I personally don’t like making people have to dig too far to get what their fun game is trying to do, namely make them laugh.)

A more obscure example: I once came across a line about putting tacks into someone’s pointe shoes as a prank. At first I thought it was a reference to something from the movie Black Swan. It apparently wasn’t. Then I thought it was a reference to ballet in general. I knew a professional ballerina once; she told me the world of ballet was absolutely ruthless. But after more digging, I found that the reference originated with a 1970’s drama called Akai Kutsu. But when you Google that in romaji, not only do you not get info about the drama, you get information about the nursery rhyme of the same name which is about a Japanese girl getting abducted by a foreigner and taken away from Japan. WTF?

But anyway, at that point I’d gone on probably a 30-minute exploratory tangent, and finding the info I found required fluency in Japanese. So I did the kind thing, and changed “tacks in pointe shoes” to “itching powder in underwear.” Both are old pranks. Had I left it as “tacks in pointe shoes,” the average English-speaker probably would have been confused about why a character who never mentioned ballet before suddenly had pointe shoes. But for a Japanese person, “tacks in pointe shoes” is understood as “an example of a mean prank.” Younger Japanese may not know the origin of the phrase, but they know the meaning because it’s just a part of pop culture now.

Sometimes translators make mistakes, and the editors don’t always catch every typo or mistake in what the translator wrote. But when people start virulently complaining about things like these, I wish they would take other fans into account. Just because you know what X thing from Japanese culture is doesn’t mean that others do too. Also, I wish people, especially people who aren’t bilingual, wouldn’t be so quick to get paranoid and assume the translator is cheating them somehow. That’s something that I also experienced a lot when I was working in a school, interpreting between Spanish and English. People have all sorts of misconceptions about languages and translation and they get angry at the interpreter/translator when what they deliver doesn’t match their personal misconceptions. (No, it doesn’t take twice as long to say the same thing in Spanish as it does in English. That might happen sometimes but it’s not a rule at all.)

Side note: So I was watching Jeopardy tonight and one of the clues was something like “This emperor had to renounce his divinity in 1946.” The reigning champion rings in and says “Who is Mao?” The correct answer was “Who is Hirohito?” Right when I was talking about people often confusing Japan for China!