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1. Introduction

Tomoko Inaba photoAccording to Toury, translation is nearly always conducted within a certain cultural environment, and consequently, translators “operate first and foremost in the interest of the culture into which they are translating” (1995: 12). Culture can be defined as “the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organisation of a particular country or group” (Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary of Current English, 6th ed.) and since culture is so deeply connected to language, it is also reflected accordingly in the language. Moreover, Wardhaugh suggests that “the structure of a given language determines the way in which the speakers of that language view the world” (1986: 212). In other words, different languages reflect different cultures and values, therefore when one language is translated into another language of different culture and values, the translator faces various constraints. In this paper, I will investigate the constraints involved in the act of translation of an English text into Japanese, a very different language of unique yet aesthetic culture.

1.1. Source Text

The source text I translated for this translation project is an article carried in the January 2008 issue of The Graphic SGI published by the Seikyo Shimbun, one of major newspaper companies in Japan. The Graphic SGI is a bilingual monthly magazine of English and Japanese which introduces various activities and campaigns initiated by the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Buddhist association with over 12 million members in 190 countries and territories. The SGI is an organisation committed to the promotion of peace, culture and education rooted in the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism.

The article is a congratulatory message on the 80th birthday of the association’s president, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, who is a world renowned philosopher, educator and peace activist. The message is written by Dr. Sarah Ann Wider, president of Ralph Waldo Emerson Society and professor at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York.

1.2. Research method

I will examine the shifts in the translation text in order to examine the constraints I faced in the course of translating the source text (ST) into Japanese. In doing so, I will apply Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) approach to conduct a parallel analysis of the ST and the target text (TT) sentence by sentence. I will also highlight the main problem areas and explain my decision-making process based on the findings on what prompted the shifts, how the shifts occur, and their effect.

To investigate translators’ decision–making process, Toury recognises the validity of extra-textual sources such as ‘thinking-aloud protocols’ which assign translators “to say aloud whatever comes into their minds while they are working” (Toury, 1995: 234). However, I personally find it distracting and intrusive to constantly verbalise everything that comes into my mind while engaging in the translation activity, therefore I will use introspective/retrospective self-report information instead as Krings (1987) explains that introspection does not pressure translators to verbalise everything so the data are more valid than in the think-aloud approach (in Fraser, 1996: 73).

I will use introspective self-report information to explain the shifts which appear in my translation. Based on the findings about the shifts, I will also attempt to discuss the norms that constrain my translation behaviour. In addition, I will compare my translation with the published translation in the attempt to generalise the norms and beliefs governing in English-Japanese translation in a given context and environment.

2. Shifts from the original text

According to Toury, the occurrence of shifts is a true universal of translation as translation is a kind of activity which inevitably involves at least two languages and two cultural traditions (1995: 56-57). He further explains that there are two kinds of shifts: ‘obligatory shifts’, which are “caused by the different grammatical structures of the source and target languages” (Laviosa, 2001: 38), and ‘non-obligatory shifts’, which are “motivated by literary, stylistic or cultural considerations” (ibid).

2.1. Obligatory shifts

“Language…gives structure to experience, and helps to determine our way of looking at things” (Halliday, 1970 in Baker, 1992: 82). The structure is not universal however, each language follows a certain structure, and that given structure governs the way people see and express the world. In the attempt to translate from one language into another, translators have to bear in mind what that given structure implies in the source language (SL) and the target language (TL).

As I conducted parallel analysis of the TT and its source by each sentence, I observed a number of ‘obligatory shifts’ which are prompted by structural differences. Amongst them, I will focus on problematic areas which caused the ‘obligatory shifts’ in the course of translating into the TL of Japanese. For example:

ST: they have followed the earnest responsibility of their own lives

TT: shimeini chujitsuni ikiru okuno yomitenitotte

BTT (back translation of the TT): for many readers who earnestly live out (their) missions

While many lexical shifts are evident in the above examples, I will focus only on the tense for my analysis of the ‘obligatory shift’. While the ST expresses the experience with the present perfect, the TT changes the tense to the simple present. It does not mean that the TL lacks the structure to express events in the present perfect. In Japanese, the present perfect tense is normally used to state things that are based on facts. So if the tenses were also duplicated in the TT, the meaning would be different from what the ST actually implies.

The whole ST sentence which includes the above clause suggests that the original writer’s statement about ‘they’ is not based on solid evidence as to whether ‘they’ have actually followed the earnest responsibility of their lives or not. Rather, the above ST clause is a statement only based on the ST writer’s personal assumption about ‘they’—the readers of Dr. Ikeda’s poetry. In Japanese, personal judgements are often expressed with the ‘non-past forms’ (the simple present or the present continuous) to differentiate from statements based on facts (Baker, 1992: 101). The translator of the published translation also renders the tense as shown below:

ST: they have followed the earnest responsibility of their own lives

Published translation:  shimeini chujitsuni ikiru okuno dokushano

BTT: many readers who earnestly live out (their) missions

Both the translator of the published translation and I shifted the tense to the simple present to signify that the ST clause is based on the original writer’s personal judgement. The application of the present tense in the published translation and my TT is due to the translators’ carefully considered rendition of the original message while making the translation text conform to the TL conventions in accordance with how the speakers of the TL view and express the world around them.

2.2. Non-obligatory shifts

Non-obligatory shifts are usually initiated by literary, cultural or ideological considerations and they “occur everywhere and tend to constitute the majority of shifting in any single act of human translation” (Toury, 1995: 57). I have personally faced a number of difficulties in the course of rendering the ST into Japanese and consequently, I had to resort to ‘non-obligatory shifts’. Such non-obligatory shifts are caused by various reasons which can be categorised into three groups:

a) the shifts caused by ideological manipulation;

b) the shifts motivated by cultural differences; and

c) the shifts prompted by stylistic differences.

In the following sections, I will discuss each category with sets of examples based on my introspective report on what caused such shifts and how they were dealt in the course of translating into Japanese.

2.3. The shifts caused by ideological manipulation

Translators often face constraints in rendering the original to adapt to a certain expectation or ideology of the target audience. Considering the fact that the ST is a congratulatory message for an individual who is highly respected amongst the target audience as a dedicated peace activist and humanist, I attempted to represent the individual with a more suitable image in the TT than that of the ST as follows:

ST: his own unceasing efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons

TT: Kaicho gojishinno kakuheikinonai sekai kochikuni muketeno tayuminai doryoku

BTT: (the) President’s own unceasing efforts towards building (a) nuclear weapon-free world

The shift is not due to mechanism default. The equivalent of ‘to rid’ does exist in the TL. However, ‘to rid’ connotes a certain level of forcefulness and extremism and it may project a slightly negative image on the actor’s strenuous efforts for peace. Hence I shifted the process initiated by the actor’s efforts (President Ikeda’s) from ‘rid’ to ‘build’ in the TT. By this transportation, the nuance of ‘someone forcefully eradicating the world of nuclear weapons’ is eliminated. Instead, the TT projects a more soft and positive image of the actor than that of the ST.

The translator of the published translation also shifts the ST process ‘to rid’ to ‘building’ and it is exactly the same as the way I translated. According to Lefevere (1992), translation is produced on the basis of an original text with the intention of adapting the original to a certain ideology of the target audience, and it is an activity performed under ideological constraints initiated by the target systems, as such it is an act of ‘rewriting’ an original text to conform to certain purposes initiated by the receiving system.

Both the published translation and my own translation indicate traces of translators’ attempt to elevate the image of Dr. Ikeda from an individual who ‘rids the world of nuclear weapons’ to a person who ‘builds a nuclear weapon-free world’. By this transportation, a more positive and soft-power approach is implied. Indeed, Dr. Ikeda is well-known as a strong proponent of the power of dialogue (‘soft power’) who has conducted talks with countless world leaders. Taking into account of Dr. Ikeda’s profile and achievements, his endeavours are better explained in the published translation and the TT than the ST. Moreover, they project Dr. Ikeda with a more acceptable image for the target readers who respect him very highly as a peace maker. In this sense, the translators adapt or manipulate the original text to make it conform to the target readers’ ideology.

2.4. The shifts motivated by cultural differences

In the target culture, when one refers to someone of a higher or respected social status, it is customary to use honorifics such as sonkeigo, a form of speech or writing to emphasise respect; kenjogo, to express humbleness or modesty; and teineigo, to show politeness. Each type of speech or writing has its own vocabulary and verb endings. One must carefully apply the appropriate degree of honorifics because if it is used in the wrong context, it can be insulting to the recipient or to those who are referred to. Inappropriate usage of honorics may also denote a lack of culture or intelligence on the speaker’s or writer’s part.

The target audience who has no direct access to the original text totally depends on the translation to project an image of the original work and its writer. Indeed, translation is influential in projecting a certain image of the writer and his or her work. Therefore, translators inevitably attempt to use the most appropriate degree of honorifics in the TT to present the original writer as a ‘well-educated’ and ‘well-mannered’ individual, as well as to project an acceptable image of the original work.

Throughout the ST, the writer expresses her respect for Dr. Ikeda as she commends the influential power of his poetry and his commitment for the causes of peace. And it is the translator’s responsibility to convey the ST writer’s respect for Dr. Ikeda appropriately and present the work and the writer with an acceptable image in the TT. In this respect, I as translator had to carefully apply the most appropriate kind and level of honorifics in the TT.

In the TT, there are several instances where the sonkeigo (a form to express one’s respect and admiration for a social superior) is applied. In this form of writing or speaking, nouns and verbs are replaced by their polite equivalents which usually have no resemblance in their spelling (characters) or sound. Whenever the ST writer states about, addresses or writes something related to Dr. Ikeda, I decided to apply the sonkeigo in the TT to express a sense of respect. For example:

ST: He calls us to practical action

TT: Kaichowa watashitachini gutaitekina kodowo yobikakete irasshaimasu

BTT: (The) President is kindly calling us to practical action

The Japanese equivalent of ‘to call’ is ‘yobu’ but this is only socially acceptable for statements about one’s family members or close friends. When one referrers to or addresses a person of a high social status, one has to apply either the teineigo (polite form) or the sonkeigo (a form to emphasise respect). The teineigo equivalent of ‘to call’ is ‘yobikakeru’ which expresses a certain degree of politeness, but when the addressee is in a considerably high or respectful status like Dr. Ikeda, one has to use the sonkeigo by adding ‘irassharu’ (to kindly/generously call). Since the tense is shifted to the present continuous in the TT, it becomes ‘yobikakete irasshaimasu’ (is kindly/generously calling). The application of the sonkeigo in the TT is to conform to the social protocols of the target culture as well as to the target audience’s admiration for Dr. Ikeda.

In every culture, the sense of modesty and respect can be expressed linguistically, but in the target culture, those protocols are more strict and specific when the addressee is older or in a higher social status than the speaker or writer. The kenjogo is a form of speech or writing which places the speaker or writer in a lower status to express one’s modesty or humbleness towards the addressee. In the TT, I decided to apply the kenjogo to express the original writer’s modesty when she conveys a message for Dr. Ikeda. For example:

ST: we celebrate this beautiful number of 80

TT: utsukushiki suji 80saiwo kokoroyori oiwai moushiagemasu

BTT: (we) humbly offer (our) sincere congratulations on (the celebration of the) beautiful number of ‘80 years-of-age’

By the application of the kenjogo, the TT projects the original writer as a very humble, well-cultured and mannered individual. And at the same time, this application also expresses a high level of the original writer’s respect for her addressee.

In order to apply the most appropriate level of modesty or humbleness, the translator has to know the interpersonal relationship between the ST writer and Dr. Ikeda. From the ST, it can be understood that “Dr. Ikeda has spent 80 years with the people he heartily treasures” (The Graphic SGI, Jan. 2008: 9). The number ‘80’ could be either his age or the years since he assumed the presidency of the organisation. In other words, he is either 80 years of age or older than 80. However, the translator cannot immediately assume that Dr. Ikeda is older than the original writer. In such a case, the translator always has to conduct some research to find the original writer’s interpersonal relation with his or her addressee in order to apply the most appropriate level of honorifics and express the correct level of intimacy or distance between them since the target culture highly values the appropriate use of honorifics.

Seniority is not the only factor to discern the interpersonal relation. The social status or position of each party (addresser and addressee) is also another decisive factor in applying an appropriate level of respect and modesty. Therefore, the translator has to have enough reference on the writer’s position as well as the one of his or her addressee’s. In addition, the translator also has to find out the level of intimacy between the two parties. Such information is not usually embedded in the ST alone. Therefore, the translator has to ask the sponsor who assigns the translation task or those who have the information. In my case, I personally had an opportunity to meet the writer in person therefore I knew that she was much younger than her addressee; I also established that she highly respected Dr. Ikeda. Hence, I decided to apply the greatest level of modesty and respect throughout the TT by using a high level of honorifics (the sonkeigo and kenjogo) to represent the ST writer and her work most appropriately in the TT.

The original writer’s admiration for the addressee can also be expressed in the TT by applying honorific titles for the addressee. Whereas in the ST, the addressee is referred to as ‘President Ikeda’, ‘he’ or ‘Daisaku Ikeda’, the TT always addresses Dr. Ikeda with his title and never uses ‘he’ or ‘Daisaku Ikeda’. In the target culture, the person system also features distinctions in social status and level of intimacy. Based on the fact that Dr. Ikeda is much older than the original writer and while also taking into account of the fact that the original writer admires Dr. Ikeda very highly, the use of ‘he’ or simply his name will be extremely rude and inappropriate in the target culture. Therefore, I as the translator decided to apply Dr. Ikeda’s official title: ‘SGI President Ikeda’ or ‘President’ throughout the TT in order to make the TT conform to the target culture protocols.

The translator of the published text also applies the same level of honorifics and more less the same way of addressing Dr. Ikeda. Therefore, I may assume that these shifts are compulsory in the course of translating from English into Japanese as the translators want to “re-present the original message in the appropriate dominant cultural form in order to give it the greatest chance of success” (Coulthard 1992: 13).

2.5. The shifts prompted by stylistic differences

There are some cases where I had to omit a whole sentence or combine one with another in the course of translating Such shifts are caused due to stylistic differences. Although the TL tolerates repetition of same nouns or verbs, repetitious statements are not usually accepted. Hence several ST clauses are omitted or combined with another in the TT to avoid repetitious statements. For example:

ST: We each know our own responsibility and must act fully on that. Each person has her or his own gift or action.

TT: Watashitachiwa sorezore jibunishika dekinai shimeiwomochi, sonoshimeiwo mattou senebanaranai

BTT: We each have (a) unique mission and must fulfil that mission.

The second ST sentence has been omitted entirely in the TT for several reasons. One of the reasons is due to the fact that when the two ST sentences are translated into the TL, they become almost identical. In Japanese, the word ‘shimei’ (mission) entails various meanings including ‘responsibility’ and ‘one’s own unique gift or action’. ‘Shimei’ is commonly and widely used amongst the speakers of the TL as it is a very familiar concept deeply rooted in Buddhist values. Buddhism teaches that each person is born with one’s unique beauty (‘gift’) and mission to fulfil (‘responsibility’ and ‘action’) in one’s lifetime. Moreover, in the TL, ‘shimei’ does not collocate with ‘to know’ as it is already inherent in the lives of individuals and we already ‘have’ it. Consequently, when the above two ST sentences are translated into the TL by applying ‘shimei’ for ‘responsibility’ and ‘gift or action’, the two sentences become identical and repetitious as shown below:

Literal translation of the above ST: Watashitachiwa sorezore jibunnishika dekinai shimeiwomochi, sonoshimeiwo mattou senebanaranai. Hitorihitoriga kanojoya kare dokujino shimeiwo motteiru.

Back translation: We each have (a) unique mission and must fulfil that mission. Each person has her or his mission.

Moreover, the second TT sentence is peculiar because the TL speakers hardly refer to or address individuals with pronouns. The ST writer uses ‘marked’ expression of ‘her or his’ which suggests her personal belief or ideology about gender issues as this expression is in the reversed order of what is widely considered as a fixed expression (‘he or she’). Although I attempted to retain the original writer’s ‘marked’ expression, I had to omit it because in Japanese, “pronouns are hardly ever used and, once a participant is introduced, continuity of reference is signalled by omitting the subjects of following clauses” (Baker, 1992: 185). ‘Her or his’ can be retained lexically in the TL, but if they are, the TT will impart strangeness or foreignness. And it is even more so if the order of those pronouns are retained as it never appears in the TL conventions since the target society still values the ‘traditional male chauvinism’. Hence the ST writer’s unique yet expressive expression is omitted in the TT.

When the pronouns are omitted in the translation, the only difference between the two sentences is the subject or the point of departure. In fact, these sentences do not conform to the TL’s stylistic conventions because of their repetitious nature. Moreover, the subject of the first sentence ‘we’ entails the second subject ‘each person’. As a result, the second ST sentence is omitted entirely in the TT although I wanted to retain the original writer’s marked expression as it shows her personal ideology.

The translator of the published translation also omits the second sentence completely. I am not in the position to assume what exactly prompted the translator to omit it, but I can say that there are some expressions or even ideologies which cannot be rendered into the TL as the stylistic norms of the TL limit the way in which the speakers of that language express the world. Consequently, both the translator of the published translation and I are unable to provide an equivalent translation.

3. Adequacy or acceptability

Based on a view of translation as part of a complex and dynamic cultural and social system, Toury claims that translation is a “norm-governed activity” (1995: 56). He also states that the norms or function determines the very textual make-up of the product and governs the process of translating (ibid: 12). He further explains that if the TT is adherent to source norms, the TT will be “adequate”, and if the target culture norms prevail in the TT, then the TT will be “acceptable” (ibid: 56-57).

After examining my own decision making process through observing the shifts in the TT, one can conclude that I as the translator mostly subscribe to the norms originating in the target culture and that the constraints that I faced are mostly due to the attempt to make the TT ‘acceptable’ rather than ‘adequate’.

Venuti argues that in terms of faithfulness, good translation incorporates foreignisation tendencies while bad translation domesticates the foreign culture (1998: 81). I agree with Venuti to the extent that translators should value fidelity and preserve the same level of information in the TT. However, I believe that translations are products of the target culture and system as they are “designed to meet certain needs of, and/or occupy certain 'slots' in it” (Toury, 1995: 12). I would also stress that translations need to be considered as independent products of the target culture. And since translations are independent products of the target culture and system, translators are under various constraints to make the TT conform to the target language, culture and system.

Moreover, I agree with Toury that translations are never totally adequate or totally acceptable as “the poles of adequacy and acceptability are on a continuum” (Munday, 2001: 114). Different languages reflect different values and cultures, therefore in an attempt to mediate different languages, translations “nearly always contain attempts to naturalise the different culture to make it conform more to what the reader of the translation is used to” (Lefevere, 1999: 237). As a result, translations are hardly ever equivalent to the original. After all, translations are not just simple representations of their ST, but rather, they ultimately belong to the target culture.

4. Conclusion

The role of a translator is first to identify the underlying intentions and messages of the ST writer that are embedded in the ST before re-encoding them into the TT by choosing the words and language structures appropriate to the target values, culture and system. In other words, “the translator is initially a reader of texts but also a ‘re-writer’ in his or her act of translation” (Lantaigne: 2001, 22). Lefevere (1992) also argues that translation is a form of rewriting as it reflects a certain ideology and poetics of the target culture and system.

In this paper, I have illustrated that translation involves cultural and ideological transportation and that translations are often produced under certain cultural and linguistic constrains as they are constituents of a complex system of the target culture. In this respect, translation takes the form of rewriting that is carried out within the framework of the target language, culture and ideology. Although translators are usually meticulous, hard-working, well-read and as honest as is humanly possible, complete equivalent or ‘adequate’ translation may be impossible due to such constraints. Hence the translators resort to the technique of rewriting the original as they have no other choice as long as they remain within the boundaries of the target culture (Lefevere, 1992: 13).


Baker, M. (1992) In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London: Routledge.

Coulthard, M. (1992) ‘Linguistic Constraints on Translation’. Studies in Translation/Estudos da Traducao, Ilha do Desterro. 28: 9-23.

Fraser, J. (1996) ‘The Translator Investigated Learning from Translation Process Analysis’. The Translator. 2/1: 65-79.

Lantaigne, G. (2001) ‘The Translator: Mediator or Initiator’. Socio-Translation. The University of Birmingham, Centre for English Language Studies.

Laviosa, S. (2001) ‘The Methodology of Descriptive Translation’. Translation Research Method. The University of Birmingham, Centre for English Language Studies.

Lefevere, A. (1992) Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London: Routledge.

Lefevere, A. (1999) ‘Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature’. In Venuti, L. (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Munday, J. (2001) Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. London: Routledge.

Toury, G. (1995) Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. Amsterdam: John Benjamin

Venuti, L. (1998) Scandals of Translation: Towards and Ethics of Difference. London: Routledge.

Wardhaugh, R. (1986) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: Basil Backwell.

Published - February 2009

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