How we ensure quality of our most difficult Japanese and Italian translations

How is translation quality assessed?

No wonder that in the translation world too everyone talks about “quality”, translators and translation companies alike. It's actually a very overused word and, by the way, not everyone understands it exactly the same way. Indeed, perhaps with the exception of specialized domains whose evaluation criteria are generally more limited, translation quality is not always verifiable by standard methods and therefore can neither always nor universally be judged.

Of course, the main requirement is to make a translation substantially or formally correct, i.e. faithful in its reproduction of the “original message”, syntactically and orthographically unexceptionable, linguistically localized and responding to any additional specifications of the client. However, since it is a fundamentally creative activity, almost like an art, there is no tool to objectively evaluate it as it is the case of an artifact, a service or a tangible product, but it must also be judged according to more subjective canons such as readability, fluidity and idiomatic quality.

While substantial correctness contributes to making a translation unassailable when it is considered with arid technicality, this may not be sufficient for it to fully satisfy the user's need, i.e., also meeting the user's need for perceived quality or, rather, providing an added value which, while often taken for granted, is a rather rare commodity.

Translation quality is the most abused term among translators and translation agencies alike
Who determines the quality of a translation?
How is it assessed?

Two translators can create a substantially correct translation from the same source text, but they certainly differ in writing style and legibility. End users will judge them on the basis of individual preferences or compliance with specific requirements. They may judge both translations as being of good quality, but in the end they will prefer one because it's more appropriate for the type of intended use (subjectivity of translation quality). In practice, they will establish that one translator is better than the other, while another user will choose the other translator.

In general, Japanese clients (especially Japanese translation agencies) prefer literal translations that are uniform in construction as well—dots, commas, quotation marks that must appear in the same number between source and target, equal number and order of phrases or predicates even when the requirements of the target language suggest otherwise, absence of synonyms even when it would be preferable for reasons of reading fluency, and so on—a questionable requirement because it rests on the assumption that structurally different languages work in the same way. And questionable also because it requires from the Italian translator an effort of translational uniformity (統一 in Japanese) unjustified in the target language. It is also questionable because in most cases it leads to an anomalous final result in local usage and therefore indicates low localization quality, one of the requirements of translation quality.

Requests like these arise from the conviction that this is the only way to fully convey the original message, which shows a lack of sensitivity to other languages and, in general, a lack of professional preparation.



Greek physician of the Age of Pericles (Classical Greece)

The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.

It should also be said, perhaps with the aim of saving money, that clients do not always demand a “beautiful” translation, i.e. a particularly elaborate style of writing that invites reading. In fact, they may be content with a translation that is simply functional to the task it has to perform (this is generally the case with technical translations, which are often considered the lesser ones in the translation business and therefore often overlooked). Perhaps they will even impose a set of specifications that make it difficult to make translations particularly beautiful, for example by demanding a strictly literal translation, and despite this they will consider it of high quality even if for other users it may not be so.

Perfect understanding of the source text (Japanese, English or Italian)

Although Japanese grammar is much simpler than that found in many other languages such as Italian and English, the Japanese language poses its own unique difficulties. This is not so much a result of its logograms (kanji)—mastering the use of which is already a formidable task for those who have not studied the characters since childhood—as it is related to the intricacy, vagueness and the sometimes strongly inorganic/disjointed traits of its written forms, as well as its countless and ubiquitous idioms and the ever growing number of inappropriate English trasliterations.

For these reasons, translating from Japanese into Italian or English is generally more difficult than translating from other languages, in particular Romance/Neo-Latin languages.

Collaborative teamwork in translation
Collaboration! A team of Japanese-Italian mother-tongue translators for a higher translation quality.

Another hurdle (perhaps even taller) is the need to correctly decipher things such as personal names and places, names of institutions and governmental bodies, abbreviations and contractions, historical terms and names that generally do not appear in common dictionaries, certain transliterations from foreign words and names done with the katakana syllabary (an all-Japanese concept that contributes to make this language unique in the world), frequent singular-plural ambiguities, and many other troublesome terms, all of which can compel the Italian translator to conduct arduous, time-consuming researches which can lead to decreasing concentration and entice risky shortcuts with obvious impact on translation quality.

Even without considering the objective difficulty that follows the need to completely learn the Japanese language itself (several decades of study? one's entire life? certainly many years of living and work in Japan), the supervision of a native Japanese translator or an educated Japanese person who is also proficient in the Italian language can become a necessity for all the reasons mentioned above.

Similarly, because of the complex grammar, strong rhetorical traits, and convoluted written forms found in the Italian language, the correct understanding of certain types of texts for the Japanese translator may present insurmountable challenges as well—challenges which are frequently "surmounted" with simply a word-for-word, or too literal translation, one of the mortal enemies of translation quality. Texts in the legal, business, historical, and political fields, for example, are often too intricate even for Italians themselves.

In such cases, the supervision of a native Italian translator who is also proficient in the Japanese language can be indispensable, just as was true in the reverse situation described above.

Example of a difficult Japanese-Italian translation process to ensure quality

Above all, we are two mother tongue freelance translators—one Italian who translates from Japanese and English and one Japanese who translates from Italian and English.

In our respective language pairs we are normally independent, in the sense that we don't need the partner's help.

But when we receive particularly difficult/complex translation jobs such as Japanese history and art text could very well be, the fact that we can count on the partner to help us immediately recognize the reading of an uncommon ideogram, to understand a rare idiomatic expression, search for a term that otherwise could take long time, or even only for a suggestion, allows us to work faster and confidently accept a great variety of translation jobs while providing the translation quality that is expected from professional translators.

The following is an example of Italian translation from Japanese process of a particularly difficult or exacting text and how we ensure its translation quality. The same applies also in case of Italian to Japanese translations, though with inverted roles:

  1. The Italian translator briefly goes over the Japanese source text to acquire a general understanding of the subject matter and identify the parts that might require clarification from the client.
  2. The Italian translator researches any specialized terminology he may not be familiar with yet, if necessary with the help of the Japanese translator.
  3. The Italian translator starts translating, this time placing emphasis on the content rather than the writing style in order to obtain a first translation draft.
  4. The Italian translator sends the draft translation to the Japanese translator so that she may perform an initial content-related check, comparing the translation against the source text to discover any potential errors.
  5. Once the check of the draft translation is complete, the Italian translator conducts a pre-final translation check (the so-called check phase), this time concentrating on the proper usage of grammar and syntax in order to achieve what is essentially a final translation. During this stage of the translation process, he also verifies that the translation adheres to current writing style standards (as defined by The New Style Manual [Second Edition] by Roberto Lesina as well as applicable ISO standards).
  6. When delivery conditions allow, the Italian translator puts aside the translated text for a day or two before reviewing it again, this time with fresh eyes. This last stage of the translation quality process is very important when a particularly high level of expressive creativity is required, such as with content from art, business, or publishing fields, or for texts intended for a narrow audience (lawyers, engineers, etc.). It's also called the editing phase (or monolingual check), which serves the purpose of reviewing the target text again but now with a distinct and more critical approach, that is "freeing" oneself from the source text in order to avoid a too literal translation from Japanese and analyzing the target text in question as if it were not the product of a translation work but instead a completely new piece of writing.
  7. Then proofreading follows; this is the last phase of the translation process to find possible mistyping errors, wrong numbers or dates or layout problems.

This is essentially an example of our Japanese translation quality control carried out by two mother tongue translators (us) to particularly difficult translations or translations that require the utmost care due to their usage.

Please see also the translation experience.