Tone and Style in Translations

(I made a blog post about other aspects than "conservation of meaning" when it comes to translations. I hope it'll prompt something in you, or me, to strive for a better translation. I'll be open to any criticism or questions. Please do note, that considering other aspects than "conservations of meaning" does NOT MEAN that it's OK to fail to capture the entirety of the context and nuance, and then writing something else entirely for convenience, allthewhile labeling it "beauty" and "personal preference". The minimum requirement of expressing something beautifully, is obviously to capture it entirely, and this post shouldn't prompt half-hearted people to deter away from "accurate translations", but rather for striving for something that surpasses "accurate translations".)


Would you say that conservation of meaning is the most vital part of a translation? It’s not always the case. Translation and interpretation aren’t just one huge block of a subject, it has aspects and priorities that are unique to each phrase you are trying to translate. This should be fairly obvious, for example would you translate a romantic song, the same way you would translate a legal document?

Well the latter approach, is most of what I see when I browse others’ translations. Absolute conservation of meaning – I mean, if even a slight confusion in the definition would lead to legal reprehension – I would understand your concern. Technically being right, is of utmost importance.

But that’s not the case when it comes to literally anything else. Especially in literature or anything resembling art, being technically right is the wrong kind of right. So I would like to introduce you a new thing to keep out for when translating songs or poems, which is “tone” and “style”.

What is “tone” and “style”

Very simply put, it’s the way things are said. If meaning meant “what is said”, then in comparison, tone and style, is “how it’s being said” – if the words sound too fancy to you, just keep in mind the word “how”.

For example, let’s take the phrase “I’m going crazy”. How would you express this under different circumstances? If you want an extreme spectrum, imagine testifying in court on one hand, and doing a poetry homework in the other.

You can phrase what you want to say, in a thousand different ways.

You could say “I was under the erratic influence of my surroundings” in court, before that judge. You know, an apologetic tone, blame it on something else by saying “I was under the influence of…” and not being clear about your statement are the top three stereotypes of court testifying. It’s amazing to behold.

But on the other hand, if you were to express this poetically, you wouldn’t go “I’m going crazy”. You’d sound like a clueless five-year old. There is a same amount of examples as there are thoughts, but one can always whip up anything about angst with a thesaurus, like “Should lament besuit our accretion of reverie, let us, with heart, inscribe eschatologies” (I’m going crazy and sad, so I’ll kill myself lol) or you can revel in all the smart quotes of philosophers that embrace insanity.

Therefore you should adapt styles, to that of whatever the original text.

I went slightly off-topic, but I hope it’s understood that you can’t include Shakespearean idioms in teen-angsty rap, or more generally, use conversational English in songs that use traditional Japanese (or any traditional, archaic languages, ever).

“Why can’t I just put “Motivate yourself”, instead of your all-fancy   “Unchain your spirit”? It means the same thing, jeez, calm down”

To add to this, in songs where rhythm and melody sounds NICE, the translation should also sound NICE and flow smoothly, don’t sacrifice it for absolute conservation of the meaning. That conservation has a minimum requirement, yes, that almost all translators manage to do, but it’s really the same requirement as all the other beauties of the song. An extreme example would be, I saw one translator that phrased “踏んだり蹴ったり” (Nothing’s going my way) to “sorrows come not in single spies”. So how exactly does a generic idiom that’s rapped in four syllables by the singer, turns into an 8-syllable Shakespearean obscure monstrosity, I do not exactly know.

(Read the rest here, "sacrificing meaning, and examples" ; "conclusion, and what to look out for" )