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English titles

Blog entry for September 2009

I've been attacking the backlog of new puzzles at last: of course there are older puzzles going out of stock all the time, but the number currently available has just reached 670. As well as this "off-the-shelf" count, we have a couple of hundred on special order, and this number should keep rising too.

Anyway, what's involved in adding a new puzzle? Quite a lot of the nitty-gritty information, such as the number of pieces, special features and so on, we can read automatically from the manufacturer's website, so it's not all manual work. But in the end I have to look at the picture and the Japanese title, and decide an English title. This ranges from easy - "Tokyo tower" - to near-impossible, but the change from when we started seven years ago is incredible. Then, it was often not possible to find anything on the web about an artist, a temple name, a dance character, or an anime series, even in Japanese. In the old days I was often completely stuck over the readings of names, for which there are simply no rules, so unless they appear in reference works, the only definitive answer comes from asking the individual concerned. But now, in many cases there is an English Wikipedia article with at least a plausible spelling and some basic data. And the amount of information available in Japanese has exploded too, so that it's extremely rare not to be able to find any reference at all to a subject.

But in between the easy and the genuinely hard to research, there are other problems. Customers may sometimes have wondered why there are occasional changes in our English titles, or why the English title printed on the box is different. Usually I translate the title from the catalog, so I have just the Japanese title and the picture, and I do my best. If the box has a different title, it may just be another possibility, in which case I often change to match it, or it may be the original title of a western artist such as Thomas McKnight: his "Riverside Drive" is not practically translateable into Japanese, since it's just the name of a road (fictional or real, I don't know), so they called it ieroo kauchi ("yello couch") -- but I couldn't know that until the puzzle box arrived.

Meanwhile there are works by Japanese artists, which either have English translated titles on the box, or have titles in Japanese which are made from transliterated English words, but unfortunately using the grammatical and connotational rules of Japanese not English. Yesterday's three new puzzles from Kentaro Nishino are a case in point: I have my titles, and when the boxes arrive, every one is different. "Spring breeze" has been rendered "Spring wind": "Winter wind" definitely, but spring brings a softer touch. The original harukaze is literally "a wind that blows in the spring", but as the dictionary says, this usually refers to a soft, warm wind, which is what we call a breeze. My "Conversation" has become "Chat", which simply has the wrong register to match the Japanese word katarai of the title. Then "Pulse of the savannah" turns up as "Heartbeat of savanna", missing an article (it is genuinely very difficult to learn natural use of articles in English, or any language that has them, which Japanese doesn't). The 'h' in savanna(h) seems to be genuinely optional. Apart from the article error, none of these need be marked "wrong" in a school exercise, but I think mine are all better.

There's no indication where the translations came from, of course; and there is no reason to imagine that they might have been seen at any stage by a person of native speaker ability. Most English (of one sort or another) printed on Japanese products for local use is entirely for decorative purposes, so it doesn't really matter what it says. (Actually the Epoch boxes do have a tiny bit of information which is probably intended to help English readers -- "Panel not included", except that "panel" means frame, and "Paste included", except that "paste" means glue.)

So that's why! I'll stop before this turns into the megaessay on translation.

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