Closeup of a Japanese letter, being written in a traditional way with ink and brush.

If there is any one major language that we at MTM LinguaSoft have found to be especially “stimulating” it has to be Japanese. Japanese customers, reviewers, translators—all may disagree on the quality of a translation from English to Japanese—even the translation of what seems like a simple phrase. Mediating these conflicting viewpoints can take up a larger amount of project management time than with any other language.

In this article we look at three reasons why Japanese poses such unique difficulties: writing system, grammar, and tone.

Japanese writing system

examples of kanji characters

Examples of some of the 2230 kanji most frequently used in modern Japanese (click on image to see entire chart)

Japanese doesn’t so much have a writing system as two very different major writing systems. Writing originally came to Japan from China and resulted in the first major writing system, kanji. Like Chinese, kanji is a system of ideograms (or ideographs), characters that represent ideas. The second system is phonetic: hiragana and katakana, collectively known as kana. In general Japanese sentences are made up of a mixture of both. Kana is often used for words borrowed from Western languages and the borrowing of modern words is extensive. The translation of some English concepts may involve choices between words from each writing system.

There are, in fact, quite often no real equivalents for English words in Japanese, particularly for abstract concepts. Creativity is needed to capture the meaning.

At the same time, Japanese often preserves the English spelling of such things as brand and company names unless there are well-established Japanese equivalents. However, the choices translators and reviewers make between preserving words and transliterating can also vary.

Japanese grammar

Hiragana and katakana characters and pronunciations with hiragana shaded in red and katakana in blue (click to enlarge)

The uniqueness of Japanese grammar is a big reason that translation can be difficult and idiosyncratic. While Japanese may seem like Chinese to many Westerners, grammatically it is a language of its own. The grammar is totally different from English. As one Japanese translator put it:

Translating from English into Japanese is like rewriting a sentence entirely, sometimes a whole paragraph, to make the average Japanese person understand the intended meaning. The vast differences between the two languages are astounding.

hiragana and katakana characters

Hiragana and katakana characters and pronunciations with hiragana shaded in red and katakana in blue (click on image to enlarge)

Enumerating all of the ways that Japanese grammar is different from English would take its own article, but here are some of the major differences:

  1. Word order in Japanese is usually subject-object-verb rather than the English standard of subject-verb-object.
  2. Japanese does not have definite or indefinite articles (a, an, the).
  3. There are no plural forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives in Japanese.
  4. Particles, or suffixes attached to the ends of words, are often used to indicate the grammatical function of words. For instance there are no prepositions (of, by, with) in Japanese; instead particles perform this function.
  5. There is no future tense in Japanese (possibly why they tend to plan more for the future).
  6. Japanese sentences do not require a subject.

As this partial list shows, translating into Japanese is almost always an exercise in what we call “transcreation,” a total rewriting of the English content to suit Japanese grammar, usages, and customs. (The same creativity may be needed in translation from Japanese into English.)

Japanese tone of voice

The intricacies of Japanese tones of voice are possibly most difficult for Westerners to understand, and they cause many disagreements among different translators and reviewers. A Japanese translator once told me that in order to do full justice even to a small translation job he should know the exact relationship between the writer and the reader. In a translation meant for a more general audience, the usual dispute is about exactly how formal the tone should be. And this is a very complicated matter. As the Wikipedia article on the Japanese language puts it: “Japanese has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned.”

These are particularly important in personal interaction but are also important in written contexts, particularly if the subject matter isn’t strictly technical. Generally speaking, the higher the status of the audience is, the longer the sentence.

The choices a Japanese translator has to make are endless. What we would normally consider mere differences in style, a Japanese person may see as the difference between a good and a bad translation. A project manager often has to facilitate tactful negotiation between the translator and the editor in order to resolve differences of opinion to arrive at the best result. If you find that you pay more for translation from English into Japanese than for any other major language, this article should have explained some of the reasons.

See some of our past projects involving Japanese translation »

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