Challenges in Translating Japanese into English

By Translator Thoughts
In Translation Techniques
Jan 13th, 2014

Translating Japanese into EnglishChallanges in translating Japanese into English

Although the early history of the Japanese language is unknown, it was already mentioned as early as 3rd century in some documents from China. Japanese is a language that the outside world did not study extensively before the economic bubble of Japan around the 1980s. The language is an interesting one and presents a challenge to average translators because of its unique sentence and grammar structure. This is compounded by Japanese words that are almost too difficult to translate into English and other rules based on its syntax and context. Let us explore some of these challenges.

Sentence structure

Japanese sentences normally follow a subject-object-verb word order whereas English follows the subject-verb-object order. The grammatical functions of the words are marked by particles (very important) and topic-comment is the way sentences are structured. In Japanese, the final particle in the sentence is how a speaker form questions or add a forceful or emotional impact. They are also indicators of female and male speech. There is no grammatical gender or number, and no articles are used. Verb conjugations are not used for persons but for voice and tense, although they conjugate adjectives. However, like Korean, the honorific system is quite complex and complicates the vocabulary and verb forms, as these correlate to the status of the speaker, the persons indicated in the sentence as well as to the listener.

Pitfalls in translation

Translating Japanese to English or any other language pair can be difficult and challenging not only because some of the Japanese words cannot be translated into single words in English while some have deeper meanings or different meanings depending on how words are used. What should be done then?

With languages such as Japanese, it is imperative that the content is captured rather than the document’s form. It is not always right to translate every Japanese word into the target language. For a better flow of sentences, it is also necessary to reverse the order of numbers and words at times, for example using Channel 1 instead of 1 channel, if the meaning is to use the first channel for a specific function, instead of implying that there is only one channel.

Understanding of Japanese culture

Aside from understanding the basic rules in translating Japanese into English, Japanese is one language where understanding the culture truly applies. Take the word “shakaijin.” It means a bona fide or veritable member of society. Looking at it, it does not make sense, for surely every citizen is a member of society. However, when you understand that in Japanese culture, the only time that a person is considered an adult and member of society is when he has gotten married or has joined a company or firm, you will then understand the deeper meaning of the word. Connotations and context are difficult to understand as well. In the sentence, “Koogakkoo no shiken bimkyoo shinakereba daigakkoo mo nani mo hechima mo nai,” the most likely translation is “If you don’t study for your high school exams, college will not be a loofa rag or anything.” However, the actual translation of this is, “If you don’t study for your high school exams, you can forget about going to college.”


Author bio:
Day Translations is a translations and interpreting services provider with headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and offices worldwide. Its experienced and dedicated interpreters and translators can satisfy your language needs in any specific field and in any language pair you may require. 

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