Not lost in translation | Work of Arts
Not lost in translation | Work of Arts

Not lost in translation

Arts alumna Yukari Meldrum bridges Japanese and Western cultures through her translation work.

Thanks to online programs like Google Translate, it’s possible to have a chunk of text translated into another language with just a click of a button. However, word-for-word translations don’t capture the context and tone of the original text, which can result in garbled, disjointed translations. That’s where certified translators like Arts alumna Yukari Meldrum (’03 MSc, ’09 PhD) come in.

“Translation is not like you’re a machine, spitting out a different language based on the other language. You really have to think about what is happening with the language and make decisions according to that,” explains Meldrum, who started working as a Japanese-English translator in 2000 and was certified in 2004.

Meldrum received her MSc in linguistics from the Faculty of Arts, and she notes that her linguistics background comes particularly in handy: “Linguistics knowledge totally helped me be aware of how language works and just overall made it easier to grasp what I’m dealing with.”

Will not forget both laughter and tears


The University of Alberta Press recently published Will not forget both laughter and tears, a book of short stories written by Japanese author Tomoko Mitani and translated into English by Meldrum. She jumped at the opportunity to help share Mitani’s stories with a wider audience, in part because Mitani is Meldrum’s former Kumon teacher who taught her from 4th grade to 9th grade. Kumon is the world’s largest after-school math and reading program, and Meldrum credits the program and Mitani for her basic English grammar education.

The book has been praised for its depiction of everyday life in Japan from the point of view of a middle-class married woman. “Tomoko says it’s fiction based on true stories, but for me, it reads like fiction…. I had a great time translating a fun text like this,” says Meldrum.

Meldrum strove to represent the original text as accurately as possible, but admits that the biggest challenge was trying to convey cultural differences. For example, the Japanese language employs different “politeness” levels depending on the person speaking or the person being spoken to. “In English, I could ask you to pass me the salt. I could say, ‘Pass me the salt,’ or I could say ‘Please, pass me the salt,’ which makes it a little bit more polite. But I could also say, ‘Can you please pass me the salt?’ which is even more polite. In English you have those few variations, but in Japanese, there are more layers,” explains Meldrum.

“Men and women tend to have different languages and different word choices — different choices that one makes depending on what your social status is,” she adds.

Translation spectrum

There is a spectrum when it comes to translating, says Meldrum. On one end is domestication, which she likens to adaptation. Domestication refers to translated works that read as if they were written in the target language; in other words, a reader would never be able to tell that it was originally in a foreign language.

“But there has been a movement against [domestication], because that loses the goodness of the original, the foreignness of it,” says Meldrum. Foreignization is the other end of the spectrum. “Some people believe that translation should sound like translation, it should carry the foreignness of the original text, but the problem with [foreignization] is that it’s hard to read. It carries a lot of foreignness in the target language.”

“If the translation is too much like Japanese and doesn’t sound natural in English at all, then readers may think it awkward and label the translator incompetent. I don’t want to be that translator,” jokes Meldrum.


That’s why Meldrum aims to produce translated works that sit in the middle of the spectrum. “You want the best of both ends…. You don’t want to completely lose the good foreignness of the original, yet you want to make it easier to read for the readers,” she explains.

Helping to build communication bridges

The tagline of Meldrum’s translation company is “Helping build bridges, one word at a time,” because she views herself as a communicator, above all else. “I translate documents, I translate spoken words. In both cases, I think I help people communicate with each other without them thinking too much about their lack of English or their lack of Japanese. In essence, I think translators are basically communicators for people from different language backgrounds.”

Riding on the euphoria from the release of her first translated literary work, Meldrum is keen to be more involved with other literary translations. She’s currently writing her own Japanese novel, as well as translating poetry from a Japanese poet who died in the 1930s (a collaboration with local poet Alice Major). “I’d also love to get those poems out so that people can appreciate how good [they] are.”

Anyone interested in purchasing Will not forget both laughter and tears can get a copy at the University of Alberta Bookstore and Audreys Books in Edmonton, as well as order it through the University of Alberta Press website and other online bookstores.

Related links:

Yukari Meldrum’s website

MSc program from the Department of Linguistics

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