A Window Into Cayce's Process
How translation works, step-by-step
by Cayce, March 2012

This article was originally published on
The Blog-Tick Phenomenon, companion blog 
of This is NOT Greatest Site.

When I said I did a whole new set of translations for NOT Greatest Site, Version 3.0, many readers asked me if the translations were really new.  The answer is yes, they are really new. For those of you who archived the old translations, there may be some overlap between the new ones and the old ones but I think I can safely say there is not a single one that I left entirely unchanged from the previous version of the site. Many, perhaps as many as 50%, I rewrote entirely. Every word may be different.

So if they're all new, are they accurate?

In a word, yes. They are accurate. In fact I think I can safely say they are more accurate than the previous versions...which is not to say that the previous versions were inaccurate, exactly. Translation is an art, not a science, and there's almost never one single right answer. But I've been thinking about these lyrics for a long time now, and talked them over with a lot of Japanese fans, so I have a lot of new insights to offer on lyrics that I originally found difficult and ambiguous. Also, my philosophy of translating has evolved over the years that I've been working as a professional (when NOT Greatest Site was born, I was still very much an amateur.) Anyhow, at this point, I'm now no longer really interested in the literal words insofar as being bound by the literal words makes it difficult to express the original "feel." The fact is, a lot of times the dictionary definition of a word is not the best translation of that word in the context of a song lyric (or any given sentence, for that matter.) And if the dictionary definition isn't the best word, I'll throw the dictionary definition in the garbage and search for a different word that works better.

Let me give an example so you can see how this works.

The second line of "Romance" goes, 

hikaru ubuge ni tada mitoreteita

When you look up the word "ubuge" [産毛] in the dictionary, it's translated as "soft, downy hair, such as on one's cheek." But when you consider I'm translating something here that sounded all kinds of gothic, romantic, and poetic in the original Japanese, is translating "ubuge" as "downy hair" really very accurate?

If I translated that line literally based on the dictionary, I'd get something like 

I was just secretly looking at your shining downy hair

For one thing, that's a mouthful, to say and to read. The wording is clunky, whereas the original was silky-smooth. For another thing, anyone who reads that sentence is going to think, "what the fuck is up with this shining downy hair, eh?" And their little fangirl minds will go straight into the gutter. When in fact, I'll have you know that the word for "pubic hair" is "andaahea" [アンダーヘア] (yes it's a katakana loan word) and "ubuge" actually refers to those tiny, near-invisible hairs on smooth-seeming parts of the body (get your damn mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about body parts like faces, the backs of hands, etc.)

So, in short, the literal, dictionary-approved translation of this line sucks. It doesn't sound good, it doesn't convey the feel of the original, and furthermore, it doesn't even convey the meaning accurately. It doesn't express what Sakurai was trying to express. Translation epic fail!

So what did I do here to solve the problem?

Epic fails like these pop up all the time, and what I do when I encounter them is take a step back and carefully think about how I can make each line express the spirit of the original lyrics more. I want it to be accurate in meaning, in the sense that the image that springs to mind for the readers of the translation is the same as the image that springs to mind in the readers of the original Japanese. I also want it to roll off the tongue like the original Japanese did, and in the case of this song, I want it to have that mournful, sensual elegance so characteristic of Sakurai's lyrics that is what makes them so good.

To achieve a translation that has all the above qualities, I think carefully about each of my word choices: the nuances of meaning behind each word, what kind of images each word conjures, how each word sounds, both by itself and grouped together with other words. I think about the order of words. I think, what is Sakurai trying to emphasize here? How can I make sure that the English version maintains that emphasis? I think, which word order will be the smoothest and easiest to read, not too long and clunky and full of three-syllable adverbs (or even worse, complex modifiers)? I think about all this stuff in my head, write down a couple possibilities. Assess how the words look on the page. Speak them out loud to see how they sound out loud. And eventually, I arrive at a final translation.

So back to "Romance." In the end I translated this line as

Here secretly gazing at your luminous velvet skin 

Luminous velvet skin, mmm...now that's some gothic sensuality, makes you want to take a nice big chunk out of someone's neck, right?

But why did I pick "luminous" and not "shining"? Well, "shining," when applied to a physical thing, implies that the thing in question is actually giving off light. But "luminous" is a little more versatile..."luminous" can mean that the thing in question merely appears to be giving off light, perhaps in a metaphorical sense. I think it's safe to say that whoever Sakurai is singing about in this song, her skin is not literally shining...but the light of the moon is shining on her, and perhaps she is so beautiful that she seems to glow anyway. Also, "shining" seems kind of bright and happy, you know, like, "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!" "Luminous" is a little softer, a little subtler, a little more mysterious and seductive. Thus, I felt "luminous" was a more appropriate word to use here.

Same thing with "gazing" versus "looking." "Looking" is just a simple act, and it's kind of abrupt, or it can be. Someone who is "looking" could be staring open-mouthed like a slack-jawed yokel at the sparkly vampire who just walked in the room, or giving the hairy eyeball to some ridiculously attired goth chick on the Yokohama subway. "Gazing" is like "luminous." It implies something softer, gentler, perhaps more intense but not in a confrontational, combative way, more in a fascinated or lovestruck way. It also implies a long, lingering look. "Looking" could just be for a second. "Gazing" takes more time, it means something else. It means: I can't take my eyes off you. It means: these lyrics are gonna melt some fangirl pixies into gelatinous mushballs of solaris if I translate them this way. So "gazing" it is.

Also, why did I translate "tada" as "here," when it actually means "just" or "only"? First, "just" is harder to say than "here," and in general a weaker word than the other words in the line, and "only" put in this context sounds a little too ambiguous to my ears.

So once again, I ask myself, what does Sakurai mean here? When Sakurai uses "tada," he implies two things: first, the singer of the song has been staring at this lady's shining downy hair and doing nothing else, probably for a decent (or perhaps indecent) length of time. He's transfixed. Second, the singer hasn't done anything else to said lady...yet.

When I write

Only secretly gazing at your luminous velvet skin

it sounds to me like he's got his hand down his pants. I don't know, it just doesn't have the right ring.

When I write

Just secretly gazing at your luminous velvet skin

first of all, I don't like the phonological pattern of "just secretly"...it's hard to say, too many sibilants in a row. Ick. I wouldn't want to have to sing that. Second of all, like I said, the word "just" seems kind of weak to me. Like he's just standing there staring cuz he doesn't have anything better to do.

So, after thinking for a while, I changed "just" to "here." By using "here," I avoid the hard-to-pronounce sibilant combination, and I've also firmly grounded the singer in the scene. 

When I write

Here secretly gazing at your luminous velvet skin

the singer is taking responsibility, saying, hell yes I am here and I am totally checking out this lady and her shiny downy hair...in fact that may be all I'm doing (no guys my hand is not in my pants so chill k?) If I write it this way, the singer is not just loitering, he's really into it.

Since in the original Japanese, it was obvious he was really into it, I decide, "here" is a better translation of "tada" in this context. It makes the line stronger and conveys the meaning better. Is it literal? No. But you just got Acchan mojo you totally wouldn't have gotten otherwise, and the Japanese fans get it for free every time.

Now, I've done this sort of thing for all the songs, including the ones that are light and simple, or even crass and vulgar, rather than sensual and gothic. I know some fans find this jarring. They don't like it when I use words like "shit" and "fuck," or phrases like "oh baby." I blame this on the fact that the other English translations of Buck-Tick lyrics that I've seen out there have been very literal and out-of-the-dictionary. I know the other translators out there work very hard, but as I already demonstrated, if you let the dictionary speak for you it will generally put words in your mouth that are excessively polite.

For instance, let's look at one of Sakurai's favorite words, "kuruu" [狂う]. The dictionary says it means, "to go mad, to get out of order." Well yes, that's technically correct. But in practical Japanese spoken usage, the word "kuruu" is a very strong word, bordering on something like profanity. If it doesn't quite mean "fucked up," it definitely means "effed up" (though there are cases where I would translate it as "fucked up.") In literary writing (that is, written down, not spoken), it can have a much more high-tone sound to it, and in this context translating it as "going mad" works just fine. I translated "kuruu" as "going mad" in the lyrics that sound more like written poems than spoken dialogue. But in the songs that sound like spoken dialogue, songs where the rest of the lyrics are informal or even border on slang, I might translate "kuruu" differently, in a way that better conveys what it sounds like when you speak this word aloud. In "Cream Soda," for this reason, I translated it as "fucking crazy."

The fact is, Japanese doesn't have profanity in the sense that English does. Japanese has a whole different system of politeness that revolves around the use of different sets of verb conjugations, pronouns, and vocabulary in general when speaking to people who are at different levels of status relative to you. In Japanese, you would use a completely different set of verbs when speaking to your boss at work than you would if you were speaking to your child at home. Because of this, Japanese doesn't so much achieve rudeness through specific cuss words (though there are a few), but more by using words that are inappropriately informal or brusque given the context. Using familiar verb forms or pronouns to someone who is higher status than you, or not close enough to you to merit them, can be taken as very, very rude. So for example, "kuruu" isn't a word you'd ever use at a company meeting, unless you were talking about something widely acknowledged to be really deranged.

It's true that lately the Japanese government has been under a lot of stress, but if you read, for example, the Daily Yomiuri, you're going to see a lot of articles popping up about politicians being forced to resign over some stupid comment they made, often where they used excessively strong words. Describing the towns in the no-entry zone around Fukushima #1 (let's call it OneFuku for short) as "towns of death"? Implying that the US military has "violated" the Okinawan islands? Forget it, Mr. Japanese politician, you're out of a job. In Japanese, strong words are a serious deal.

But sometimes specific words aren't even at fault, sometimes it's just the overall phrasing that's rude. In "Katte ni Shiyagare," I translated the line 

Honmono sa, daiyamondo tada no ishikoro sa


Here's a diamond, a real one - it's just a fucking rock

Well there is surely no word "fucking" in the original Japanese, but given the larger context of the song and its overall terse, pissed-off tone, I want to make it hit you like a slap in the face. The guy in this song is angry and he's not mincing words much. I added the profanity to make you feel that in English, because if I'd written something more literal, like, 

Here's a diamond, a real one - it's just a rock

that could end up sounding morose. The Japanese lyrics don't sound morose, they sound like the defensive, swaggering pronouncements of a guy who is trying to hide his insecurity under a cloak of machismo. I added the profanity to emphasize that. It's easily readable in the Japanese text, but in the English text, without adding a cue like "fucking" to set the mood of the song, I think it's a lot harder to pick up on. I have done this in a lot of songs. Once again, it's not literal, but I think it improves the accuracy, by bringing your experience closer to that of the Japanese reader.

Now to be able to pick up on the connotations of the "Katte ni Shiyagare" lyrics, you kind of have to have spent some time listening to Japanese guys talk this way. Learning to pick up all these nuances in Japanese as a non-native speaker pretty much requires living in Japan in a complete immersion environment. You need to be exposed to a language a LOT to get to know it at that level. So if non-native speakers living outside Japan, with maybe only a few years of Japanese experience under their belts, are translating Buck-Tick while poring over a dictionary and they don't get quite as far as being able to pick up on the nuances of diction, well, I can't say I blame them. They are trying their best, but I notice that their innate limitations often cause them to end up missing part of the meaning. I'm not trying to trash, here, but I've gotten a number of complaints over the years about my translations being "vulgar," and I wanted to explain to you why that is.

Please do not doubt my accuracy. I have honed my translation process over the course of years of working as a translator, of seminars on translation theory, of living in Japan, of studying word usage, Japanese poetry and idioms, etc. As a classroom exercise, translation is a really great way to practice grammar and vocabulary of a new language you are learning, but for what I do, it's more like a marriage of literary analysis and creative writing than anything else. To get to this point you must already be fluent in both your languages. The grammar and dictionary definitions of vocabulary are just the jumping-off point.

When I translate, I start with the text, then I go to the Japanese-English dictionary, and from there I go to the thesaurus, and from the thesaurus I go to the regular English dictionary. Yes, it's a subjective process, and I put a lot of myself into it, by necessity. But even if my new translations seem more removed from the original text in some places, I still argue that they're more accurate. If they've taken you further from the actual characters on the page, they've taken you closer to the heart of the song.

It's true, sometimes I change my mind about an interpretation of a line, or get new ideas, and I'll edit a translation. But I stand by everything I've written, and if you have a specific question about something, feel free to email me and ask me and I will explain it to you. I might even make it into a blog post, since it seems that a lot of people are interested in this.

Now two last issues to address: the translation notes, and the singable translations.

Are the translation notes as new as the translations? Yes and no. In some places I left in the previous translation notes because they were already perfectly adequate. In other places I deleted notes I felt were irrelevant. I also wrote a lot of new notes. If I get requests to write more notes, I'll write more notes, but I honestly can't remember at this point which songs have notes and of those songs, which of the notes are new, so you can just go and have the pleasure of looking for them and discovering them on your own.

Now, why did I write the singable translations? I know most of you readers only care about the meaning of the song, and don't give a crap about being able to sing it in English. Don't worry. In 95% of cases, the singable translations I wrote are every bit as accurate as a non-singable version would have been, they just happen to be singable. In that last 5% of cases, I stretched the meaning a little bit, mainly in situations where I had the whole song working perfectly except for one line. Unlike those atrocious English versions of Utada Hikaru and L'arc en Ciel songs, however, I NEVER pulled random shit out of my ass, so don't worry about that. When I say "stretched," I mean, I chose something that was maybe a little farther away from what I would have normally picked, because I wanted to make the singable translation work. Mostly, to avoid having to do this, I repeated phrases or added syllables like "yeah" or "ah." Where I added them, I tried to keep the repetitions and added syllables within the spirit of the original lyrics. If you don't like them, I'm sorry.

But before you write me a bitchy email about it, consider for a moment: is part of the reason why you like listening to Japanese music the fact that not being able to directly understand the lyrics makes them sound cooler than lyrics in your native language? Because if that's the case, and the reason you don't like my singable lyrics is because they sound too direct or straightforward, I'm actually going to congratulate myself, because it means I just succeeded as a translator. Japanese people hear Japanese lyrics just as directly and forcefully as you hear your native language. If I gave you that direct feeling and it made you uncomfortable, it means I did my job well.

I know a lot of you are curious, why I wrote the singable translations if no one asked for them. I did it because it was a real challenge, and it was a lot of fun. I did it because I enjoy it. For me, making my English translations singable is taking them to the next level. Also, I am a singer and lyricist myself, and I really enjoy singing these English versions at karaoke (so, too, do some of my Japanese Buck-Tick fan friends). I'm quite pleased with how a lot of the singable versions came out, but I think "Solaris," "Yougetsu," "Miu," "Snow White," "Rain," "Bolero," "Memento Mori," "Gekka Reijin," "Django," "Razzle Dazzle," and "Motel 13" came out especially well. Go ahead and sing them if you dare.

So now you got a good look into my creative process, I hope that made things clearer for you. If you have any other questions just shoot me an email and I'll be happy to elaborate.

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