Let’s look at the difference “context” can make in Japanese-to-English translation! (feat. inabakumori’s “Loneliness of Spring”)

Taking context into account when translating is important regardless of language, but it’s especially important when translating from a high-context language like Japanese to a low-context one like English. English has much stricter requirements on what needs to be specified in a sentence to flow naturally and make sense, but in Japanese, you can essentially drop any information or words that the listener is likely to already know.

For instance, let’s say you’re going to school. Instead of saying an entire sentence of “I’m going to school” (watashi wa gakkou ni ikimasu), if it’s obvious you’re the only one who’d be going to school, you could just say “going to school” (gakkou ni ikimasu), or you could even just say “going” (ikimasu) depending on the situation if the other person already knows you’ll be going to school anyway.

As you can probably imagine, this property of the language is used a lot in song lyrics, where phrases are often intentionally vague. In general, a translator’s many responsibilities include analyzing context and filling in context when applicable.

An interesting situation came up recently with inabakumori’s song “Loneliness of Spring” (ハルノ寂寞), which at first seems to be a song that uses some rather violent imagery, but was recently revealed in a Real Sound interview (which I translated earlier here) to actually be about a school bag, not a human. Since this information changes the context behind the song completely, I thought it would be interesting to use the song as a case study of how much “context” alone can change a translation.


The information inabakumori gave in the interview is paraphrased as follows:

  • The song is themed around “a worn-out school bag” being used as a hand-me-down
  • “Spring” refers to the season when school grades change in Japan, and thus being a time when a school bag would be thrown away and replaced with a new one
  • The overall theme of the song conveys “maybe it was okay, because I was still cherished”

Here are two translations of the song (both done by myself). The one on the left was done before I knew about the info above, and the one on the right was done with the added context, along with the official English translyric cover version as a reference.

Without contextWith context
I’ve been hurt so many times over
and left with a wide, gaping hole
I took a needle and pulled it closed
I’ve been wounded so many times over
and left with a wide, gaping hole
So you took a needle and pulled it closed
Spending so many days holding on
Bearing the heavy load, with mouth shut
I tried enduring until I fell apart
Protecting me dearly for so many days
Closing my heavy mouth shut
You tried holding me together until I burst
I’ve been hurt so many times over
Sewing together the hole and hiding it
I want to be with you as long as I can
I’ve been wounded so many times over
with a hole sewn shut that you tried to hide
I want to be with you as long as I can
Spending so many days holding on
Wanting to throw it all up, but clenching my teeth
I’m trying to bear it all for you, but it hurts
Protecting me dearly for so many days
Just clenching my teeth down when I try to spit it all out
Even embracing me causes pain
But even with my mouth forced shut, I didn’t mindBut I don’t mind when you force my mouth shut
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
I’d hoped I could still be useful
But I’ll say farewell to you, who never noticed my kindness, before I’m torn apart
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
I’d wanted to be useful to you a bit longer
So before I’m ripped to shreds, our feelings slip past each other and we say farewell
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
The traces of your scent are still here
But I’ll say farewell to you, even if I’ll regret it a little, before I’m torn apart
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
The traces of your scent are still here
So before I’m ripped to shreds, we’ll still have some regrets as we say farewell
Even if they’ve been hurt so many times over, my face and body are still of use
So don’t throw me away, don’t give me to someone else, that’s all I want
Even if they’re wounded so many times over, my face and body are still of use
So don’t throw me out, don’t give me away, that’s all I want
I’m too worn out to be good enough for youI’m too worn out to be good enough for you
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
I’m stuck on the idea that you needed me
I’m nothing compared to myself from when I was as good as new, before I was torn apart
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
I’m still clinging to the fact you relied on me
But compared to a version of me that’s not ripped to shreds yet, I don’t stand a chance
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
The more my colors fade, the more I remember
But I’ll say farewell to you, even if I’ll regret it a little, before I’m torn apart
I’m too worn out to be good enough for you
My colors have faded, but I still remember well
So before I’m ripped to shreds, we’ll still have some regrets as we say farewell

As you can see, the result is very different!

Since inabakumori said that the song was “themed” around a school bag, I tried to write the second translation so that an interpretation of it being about a human could still apply. But the most significant difference is that now that I had the knowledge of the song being about “being cherished”, I was able to approach the translation knowing that it wasn’t intended to be about spite or an abusive one-sided relationship, but actually the opposite. Every decision from tone to ambiguous wording to usage of “you” and “I” was influenced by the added context. That approach changed the entire tone of the translation!

On a more subtle level, you can also see that the second version of the translation is a lot more cohesive and clear, and that’s because the added context (and especially the official translyric version) made me feel much more confident about the direction to take it in and what nuances to lean harder on.

This is the sheer difference knowing only a small bit of context can make. The more you know, the better!

One thought on “Let’s look at the difference “context” can make in Japanese-to-English translation! (feat. inabakumori’s “Loneliness of Spring”)

  1. This was incredibly interesting! Both translations looked fantastic but seeing how context really shapes a translator’s entire work is fascinating. Wonderful!

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