Lost in Translation

Along with a lot of other people, I am a huge fan of Bad Apple, the one Touhou song that you've probably already heard about if you know anything about Touhou at all. And if you don't know anything about Touhou, well, that's what Wikipedia is for. It doesn't really matter for the rest of this post, but it's certainly interesting in its own right.

Needless to say, given the popularity of this song (sure, it's no Gangnam Style, but three million views is still a lot), numerous different translations have been made. There's a good example of that if you look at the full version of the song; the subtitles there are noticeably different in places, aren't they?

As it stands, I prefer listening to the full version of the song, but I tend not to notice the translations, because oddly enough there was actually a point to me spending years studying Japanese. I have no real interest in throwing my hat into this particular ring - to be fair, the prior existence of other translations hasn't necessarily stopped me before, but I simply don't have the interest in trying to translate Bad Apple. Not when I can understand it myself and can point other people that need the translations to the already-existing ones.

But, as long as I'm thinking about it I might as well share my opinion of the existing translations. And on that note, there's one more "translation" of the song that I'd like to take a moment to highlight: the semi-official (mostly by virtue of Internet acclaim) English version of the song, sung by Cristina Vee.

It's a very different translation when compared to the other options. I mean, it's clear (or at least it should be) that the dry questions "Is there a future for someone like this? / Do I belong in this world?" creates a very different effect when compared to "Will tomorrow ever come? Will I make it through the night? / Will there ever be a place for the broken in the light?"

This does set up one question, though: which translation is "better"?

The answer is complicated and definitely depends on what the translation is intended for. There's a great deal to be said for the value of being as literal as possible; there are several points in the English version that just have no analogue in the original song, and adding details that didn't exist in the original seems to defeat the purpose of translating that song. At the same time, while the more literal translation works as a subtitle displayed on-screen to help people who don't speak Japanese, trying to communicate it verbally causes it to lose a great deal. I've tried to essentially "read" some of the translations I've created for songs, but that always seems entirely insufficient and indeed very awkward.

In short, I think the former option is the superior choice for a subtitle, but the latter is preferable if you're reading or singing out loud in time with the music. Attempting to read the former out loud highlights its total lack of the poetic or metrical elements of song lyrics, while simply printing the latter as text on a screen makes the differences between it and the source text obvious.

If there's a broader take-away point, try this: it's important, when translating, to have a clear idea of what you're trying to accomplish and how your translation will be conveyed to others. Failing to do so means you lose that much more in translation, and we usually lose entirely too much as it is.

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