You know, university really opens your mind. Now that I've stepped into the mindset of a possible future translator, I started taking more notice of some problems and asking myself questions. I already had my little experiences of translating from English to Italian and vice versa, so I already know that the translation process can be one whiny bitch: it's not just about knowing the language, it's about being able to convey sayings, cultural references, language register, connotations, even accents at times. And this is between two languages that are not that far, geographically and culturally, from each other. Imagine just how difficult it can be to translate from japanese, expression of a culture so distant from ours. There's always the huge risk of something getting lost in translation.
Anyone will agree that, when translating, the most important thing is to keep the MEANING unaltered: "douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" means "nice to meet you", and that's OK. Of course, it does keep the meaning, but not the cultural connotation: it is a POLITE way of saying "nice to meet you". Japanese is a language in which formality is of extreme importance, to the point where you use two different verbs for the meaning "to give". "Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" can literally mean something along the lines of "here, I entrust myself to you, let's make it so that we have good relations". This was a small example, and one of the cases in which really you wouldn't lose very much, but it was just to say that in general a professional translator has to find a decent middle ground between losing something from the source and avoiding awkwardness in the destination language.
I'll give another example: honorifics. Most of you are familiar with them enough to know that "san" does not simply mean "mister/miss", "chan" does not simply mean "little", "oneesama" does not simply mean "big sister", so translating them as such is simply wrong and can become in many situations awkward. On the other hand though, not translating them at all means losing A LOT, because in the moment in which we hear or read a character using "kun" rather than "san" rather than no honorific at all when relating to another character, we already learn a HUGE LOT about the nature of their relationship, and when we hear/read them changing the way of addressing we instantly understand that something BIG has happened between them. Now, of course in a fansub or scanlation it is perfectly acceptable (and, the way I see it, encouraged) to just keep the honorific in, unaltered, not only because it's something non-professional, not only because fansubs and scanlations are aimed at a fanbase already familiar with them, but also because we watch fansubs over dubs also because we want to see it as close to the original as possible so, goddamnit, I want to know what they're ACTUALLY saying. But what about a professional translation, or a dub, or even a book of japanese literature for that matter? We could go on try to figure out ways of conveying the honorifics (for example, nicknames for "chan", addressing through surname only for "san" or "senpai", a quite awkward sounding "big brother"/"brother" when "oniisan"/"niisan" is used...), but it can be difficult to not sound unnatural doing that. The best but most complex way would be working wisely on the choice of words, on sintax, on colloquialisms in the WHOLE dialogue, in order to avoid translating the honorific itself while keeping the politeness level, but wouldn't that risk losing some cultural aspect in the process? Up to what point is using a "translator's note" (explaining what the meaning of a senpai-kohai relationship is, or what importance the usage of "oneesama" towards an admired older person has) acceptable and not cheap-sounding?
Yet another example. When some character refers to himself as "ore" (let's make it a male, because a woman using "ore" would raise even more problems) instead of "watashi" or "boku" in a formal situation he's being very rude, even if all three of them simply mean "I". When someone uses "omae" or, God help us, "kisama", when refering to the interlocutor, he's being insulting and/or arrogant as hell, even though they both kind of mean "you". And so on for such details like the use of "ore-sama" ("the great me"? How stupid would that sound?), of the gentle or plain form of verbs, of the "-ze" emotive particle...and let's not forget to take the gender and age of the speaker in consideration, because while a 14-years-old girl using "atashi" (="I" used by females) is perfectly natural, when used by a 50-years-old lady it sounds childish and immature, and when used by a 16-years-old BOY it would probably mean he's gay (and it's just.The first.Personal.Pronoun.). How to convey THIS? Oh, well, good fucking luck with that! As we say in Italian, "è una bella merda". Expecially considering that our way of expressing rudeness is the use of "bad words", like the ones I filled this shit of an article with: it may be the best way to convey that character X is rude, but it is not what that character is saying.
Now, another thing that can be tricky is the presence of accents or dialects. Now, I realise there's not many people like me who consider extremely interesting the various accents and dialects of a language (be it Italian, English, French...), but it's a fact that they're present in fiction. An Austrialian accent rather than a New Zealand accent, Kansai-ben rather than a Tokyo accent, Sicily pronunciation rather than Tuscany pronunciacion, Prussian rather than Swiss, and so on. In any language and culture, there are stereotypes associated with the population of a certain area, and thus with its accent. This means that if, in a work of fiction, someone speaks differently from the others, this trait is most probably part of their character type or wants to evoke a stereotype or something. Of course, it can't be kept tel quel in a translation; on the other hand though when I played "Uncharted 2" I found it annoying that the Italian dub did not take into consideration AT ALL the different English accents of the original characters. But how can you avoid this loss? Well, a nice idea would be to take a look into what the stereotype associated with a particular dialect of the original language is, then search an area of the destination language associated with a similar stereotype, and giving the character the dialect of that area, but...let's face it, there's the risk of awkwardness: how credible would a Japanese or German person speaking in thick Newcastle accent, or an American speaking Genovese, be? We must also consider that not always it is possible to find a 100% Italian equivalent of a German or Chinese stereotype. Again, would a "translator's note" be smart or cheap?
Sometimes we make the mistake of interpreting another culture by analysing it through our mindset, and thus translate words with the closest direct equivalent, forgetting that "equivalent" may not mean "equal". For example, the word "satori" is often translated with "enlightment"; while this is probably the closest word in English to "satori", there is an important cultural difference that gets lost: "enlightment", in Christianity, means something from above, the light of God coming upon us and giving us wisdom and understanding, while "satori" is wisdom and understanding coming from inside the individual and from their strain. Now, this is just a one-word example, but culture-heavy works of fiction may be full of such words, and in such a scenario translating every one of them with something that carries, in the destination language, a very or even slightly different connotation may result, via Sorites paradox, in a total trainwreck, in giving a wrong impression of that culture. Translating with the closest one-word equivalent can also cause awkwardness, as you miss synonims or connotantions of a word. As anime fans, we all know here the embarassing horror of the expression "Yurusanai! - This is unforgivable/I will never forgive him!". Just read the TV Tropes page about it, it's quite short. It's a great example of how translating is something that can't be done right with just a bilingual dictionary at hand.
The last problem is the problem of jokes, pun, misunderstandings...it's clear enough, anything based exclusively on the language to be effective, WILL be lost. Oh, that was funny, he said "Ho sonno. Mi sa che andrò a studiare RUSSO."! Of course you don't get it, it's Italian, if I translated it it wouldn't make any sense.
"How are you?" "I'm well, thank you" "You're a well? I'll try not to fall into you then". This completely unfunnily stupid exchange is something I just made up, but no Italian will EVER laugh (or feel pain at its horribleness) at that pun, because in Italian "bene" and "pozzo" are two completely different words. This kind of thing WILL be lost (unless the words used are similar in the original and destination language and in that case thank God): it's up to the translator to find a way around the problem, to come up with a pun in the destination language appropriate for the situation, or to decide whether to just let that joke be lost in translation because creating a new one would mean changing too drastically the rest of the dialogue.
Scanlators and fansubbers have it easy, about this: everything is solved with a cute little translator's note in a corner. Of course, it still won't make you laugh.
Now, to wrap it up, of course I realise that this is not the biggest problem anime translations face (I'm mentioning specifically anime because, well, this website is Anime-planet. Duh.). When your average dub buttrapes the original to the point of downtoning it for kids, of deleting homosexual relationships in it, of censoring blood and violence, of cutting and pasting different works to create another completely unrelated one, and so on, really we can't complain about a missing dialect. What I mean is: in the end, if you really can't avoid sacrificing something, what should be regarded as most important? A natural-sounding destination language, or the content of the original language? I'm one of those idealists who still considers works of fiction as ART, expression of a culture and of human creativity before anything else, so I think we should try to keep the actual content as intact as humanly possible: how the author(s) conceived it, how the actors and creators realised it, so should we see it; what was being said and what themes where explored, we should see; but also, the emotions it was supposed to cause, we should experience. We must understand, but also feel. Something must be sacrificed for a purpose, something must be sacrificed for the other...and the mark of a good translation is how well are the two aspects balanced, and how little is sacrificed to the Tower of Babel. Knowing the language is not enough, having the dialogue in front of you is not enough: you have to know the culture, the stereotypes, the various levels of the language, you have to sit, study the whole story to catch the subtleties (like foreshadowing and subtext), cross reference, study and research to make sure you're not missing something or misinterpreting an ambiguous term...
To sum it up, being a translator sucks. The only reason a sane person would study Languages are madochism or desire to not ever see mathematics again. I'm the latter.