Translation is a service provided to convey the information in a document to somebody not able to understand it in its original language. Translation of each word often leads to a mish-mash of incomprehensible text that conveys nothing at all or, even worse, gives the wrong impression. This is becoming more common as machine translation is being used increasingly, and as more and more inexperienced amateurs enter the translation profession. Translation should be of the meaning, not the words; but, that is a story for another day . . .

Recently I have come across more and more places where somebody has “translated” an address into another language. For example, an address in Germany is rendered in Japanese characters (katakana). I can’t imagine any reason for anybody doing this. It doesn’t really help anyone to be able to correctly pronounce the address and, even if it did, what use would that be? It can’t be used to send a letter as the German Post Office is unlikely to be able to decipher the Japanese characters and rebuild the correct German address. It can’t even be shown to a taxi driver in Germany, unless of course he can read Japanese, and even then it would be difficult to reconstruct the original German spelling.

So, what about other combinations or directions? A Japanese address translated into English: this isn’t really translation as such, as the best that can be done is to transliterate the address into English letters (romaji). This is understandable by the average Japanese person, and the Japanese Post Office has no problem with it. There are going to be problems reversing the process, however, as any name in romaji has several possible kanji combinations (Japanese characters) that might correspond to it. Still, it is sufficient for sending a letter or for showing a taxi driver, and that’s about as much as I can imagine an address being used for.

So, while I always advocate translating the meaning of a sentence or paragraph as opposed to translating each word into its counterpart in another language, addresses would be a definite exception. The general rule hasn’t changed though: think about why you are translating the text, and then provide the most useful translation.