The Semantix

When I’m translating I constantly get trapped by the surface features of the text instead of digging out the semantic context and trying to materialize it.

Here I’m using the phrase ‘surface features’ not in a technical Chomsky way but  things you (or maybe just me) tend to notice or that can be derived from texts readily, such as styles, pronunciations, word choices, and even grammatical roles of words and phrases.

Onomatopoeia is a good example. In English words like ‘ding dong’, ‘thud’, ‘beep’, or ‘click’ would come to mind. To pick a couple of examples from Hakkenden there’s ‘kitt to miru (look in a ‘kitt’ way, i.e., sharply)’ or ‘konata yori hishihishi to (in a ‘hishihishi’ way from over here, i.e., bustling in numbers from over here)’.

As you can see from the English examples these words (called onomatopes) usually originate in sound a certain subject makes, but in Japanese there are even cases when they derive from general feel you get from movements or states of a subject, as you can see in the above Hakkenden examples. English has no vocabulary to accurately describe this kind of ‘onomatopoeia’, and its frequent use is one of the things people notice about Japanese. As expected, you’d find plenty more in Hakkenden too. So how do you translate them?


The Semantrix, to be released in cinemas near you this summer, not.


Often onomatopes work like adverbs in a sentence so the temptation is to simply change them into English adverbs, by doing so maintaining the syntactic structures of the original sentences.

However, this is completely wrong because the point of translation is transferring meaning, not syntax, in a new package. It’s semantic integrity that matters.

This takes me back to the pitfall I keep letting myself fall in as mentioned at the beginning of this post: Sticking to syntactic integrity instead of semantic one.  I’ve noticed English expresses such combination of an onomatopoeic adverb and a verb more simply as a single verb, so violating this rule tends to result in unnatural English.

Interestingly enough, my on-and-off editor and friend Alan Hauk spotted it every time, which amazed me because all that syntax-semantics battle was happening only in the matrix in my head.

However, the recent long blank I’ve had on this blog endowed me with a gift; it’s become somewhat easier not to get trapped by that same pitfall. It feels like, I know kung fu. (Dramatic drum rolls)

Well, I said at the end of my last post on writers’ conferences I’d discuss my writing approach a bit more. That’ll be another time.


… In case you’re wondering I created that image too in this post! 🙂


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