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Useful tips for translating from Japanese to English

Interest in Japan and Japanese culture seems to be growing all around the world. This is not without reason: Japan has a very rich culture and a lot to offer to the rest of the world. Basically, if you are into gaming, handicraft, cooking or literature and you are not following Japanese media or techniques, you are missing out. More and more people seem to realize this. It is common to see many people who used to mainly consume American media pick up the habit of watching anime or reading manga. Lots of individuals have started taking Japanese cooking courses, practicing Japanese handcraft techniques such as sashiko or kintsugi and even trying to learn Japanese. On top of that, sometimes half of Steam's "New & Trending" list seems to be made up of Japanese visual novels. As a lover of Japanese literature who studied Japanese language for three years to little avail, it is safe to say that this trend will continue in the near future. When we add Japan's high GDP, large manufacturing sector and the overall success of the Japanese economy to this equation, we might start wondering whether it would be a good idea to brush up on your Japanese skills and enter a sector related to Japan or Japanese culture.

In this blog post we are going to focus on Japanese-English translation and discuss the intricacies of the Japanese language. We will explain common difficulties that translators may face, and discuss linguistic differences between Japanese and English. We will also touch on the subtleness and context-dependent nature of Japanese speech, and lastly explain some of the possible technical issues in Japanese translation. I believe this post will help you understand the basics of Japanese translation services with useful tips.

Linguistic differences between Japanese and English

Any English speaker who dabbled in Japanese would probably agree with me on this: Japanese and English could not be more different. First of all, word order is completely different which may take some getting used to. Secondly, there are not any plural forms but over 350 counters, which were the bane of my existence when I was still studying Japanese. For the uninitiated, Japanese numbers take different suffixes and are pronounced differently according to characteristics of the noun they precede. For example, if the object in question is long and narrow (e.g., pencils, eels, or trains) it takes hon (本) suffix and if it is flat (e.g., paper) it takes mai (枚) suffix. Another difference that I found interesting was using a different first-person singular pronoun ("I" or "me") according to your gender expression and level of formality. I personally thought that it was very clever. After all, English has gendered pronouns for third person (like she/her and he/him), why not use one when referring to yourself? Japanese is a fascinating language and I could stand here all day naming the peculiarities of it; however, as not to veer off of the topic too much, I am going to mostly focus on differences which may lead to difficulties during translation. If you would like to delve deeper into grammatical differences, I suggest reading the article named "Language Showdown: How different is Japanese from English?"

Directness and formality in Japanese vs. English

The English language is famous for its directness. When we compare English to sign languages, we can say that it is rather difficult to be as direct as a sign language. While signing you sometimes need to make exaggerated gestures, act out the verbs you are using, or point your finger to the person you are talking about. It’s as direct as it gets.

On the opposite spectrum, communicating in Japanese can be quite different from English as it is the one of the most indirect languages. Japanese people are typically known as very “polite” and there is some truth to that notion. Politeness is ingrained into Japanese grammar, sentence structure and speaking habits. Like many languages and cultures, Japanese speakers rely on indirectness and subtleness to achieve a high level of formality and politeness. In reality, this strategy is used in all languages. Even though English is one of the most direct languages, the same rule applies here as well. Let’s say that you see your best friend John looking rather terrible: he has bags under his eyes, his skin is pallid, he’s making a pained expression. In this situation you can probably say “Gosh, you look awful! Are you okay?” without offending him. However, you probably wouldn’t use these exact words when you are talking to your hangover boss. Instead of commenting on their looks you could, for example, ask if they slept well or had a fun time last night.

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Similarly, formality in Japanese is built on the same basic principle but it’s much more complex. Hierarchy is very important in Japanese culture and you can see its effect in Japanese grammar. In other languages, politeness is usually conveyed by choosing different words, using different forms of “you” (such as tú and usted in Spanish) or speaking more indirectly. In Japanese, however, verb conjugation changes according to the formality of the setting and the familiarity between speakers, and there are many levels of formality, not just formal and informal. A Japanese person would use a different sentence structure when they are speaking to a close friend, a co-worker, a higher-up they are closer with, and their boss. Japanese honorific system is very rich and fascinating. If you are interested in learning more about this subject, you can refer to the article that explains the formality in the Japanese language.

What to look for in English to Japanese translation

This vast difference of formality between Japanese and English turns Japanese translation into a balancing act. While translating, you will inevitably have to change the level of formality so that you wouldn’t offend your audience or appear too cold. This is true for all language pairs, even for seemingly similar languages such as English and German. However, when the languages are that different, you may end up sacrificing the intended tone of the source text. Let’s think for a moment that you are working in the marketing department of a tech company. Your products are innovative, your customer base is either young or middle-aged, and you would like your brand to appear young and friendly. The copywriters try very hard to keep this image: they use playful expressions, pop-culture references and sometimes even memes. However, when you send your copies to be translated into Japanese, their “Hey guys! Don’t forget to hit that like button and rate us on Google Play!” becomes “We would highly appreciate it if you could like us and rate us on Google Play. Thank you for your time.” You could try to talk to your translation agency to convince them to follow the source material as closely as possible but that would not be a good idea either as such direct and friendly speech would be considered rude in Japanese.

The best strategy when dealing with English to Japanese translation is to create a team of professional English to Japanese translators that you can trust and to give them more creative liberty compared to other languages you work with. When browsing English to Japanese translation memories, I noticed that Japanese translators tend to deviate from source text significantly more often compared to other translators. They usually do not try to keep particular words, phrases or even sentences but try to convey the gist of the source text. English to Japanese translations are a little dry and serious compared to English originals but not in a way that it sounds unfriendly in Japanese. I think if you are having your content translated into Japanese, it would be a good idea to accept that there are going to be significant changes and to make sure that these changes are the correct ones. In order to get accurate translations, your best bet would be to work with a translation agency that is experienced in translating from English to Japanese or vice versa and have professional reviewers who are native Japanese speakers.

One great example of Japanese translators is Hitoshi Igarashi, who was the first professional Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses. He was a Japanese expert of Arabic and Persian literature and history. To learn more about Hitoshi Igarashi's story and his work, you can read it on our blog.

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Subtleness and context-dependent nature of Japanese speech

Japanese is a very indirect and context dependent language. I believe this is due to both Japanese grammar and the high level of formality that is expected in Japanese culture. When it comes to grammar, the Japanese language lacks some common grammatical markers which give extra information that is not directly related to the subject at hand. For example in Spanish, if you are talking about your boss you need to state your boss’s gender even if it’s not related to what you are talking about. When you say that you “bought some apples” in English, you give information about whether you bought one or many apples even when this information is completely irrelevant. Or when you are talking to your friends about your boyfriend you need to keep using his name or his pronoun in every single sentence, even though your friends already know who you are referring to. This is not the same in Japanese; if you don’t want to give this kind of information, you don’t have to.

Is there a subject in Japanese grammar?

In Japanese subjects are commonly dropped from sentences and verbs are not conjugated according to the subject, it may sometimes be unclear who is doing a particular action if you do not have contextual clues. This is one of the difficulties Japanese to English translators may face is the missing grammatical subject. For example, if two Japanese people are talking about a particular person, they may just use that person's name in the first sentence and then leave it out entirely. A third person joining the conversation after the initial sentence would have no idea who they are referring to. They may be talking about a woman, a man, multiple people or even themselves; it's all the same in Japanese. Some expressions and hierarchical sentence structures may denote whether the speaker is referring to themselves or someone else but that's about it.

What to look for in Japanese to English translations

When it comes to Japanese to English translation, I believe the best approach would be to add personal information back if they are available as it would sound very odd in English to conceal the subject. If such information is not available, it can be a good idea to contact the content creator to ask for more contextual information. As the differences between English and Japanese languages are vast, translation agencies should put extra effort in facilitating communication between their clients and Japanese to English translators. With a little work, I believe most of the issues related to missing information can be resolved.

Japanese as a genderless language

Lack of contextual information in Japanese does not feel odd at all to Turkish speakers. Just like Japanese, Korean, Finnish or Chinese, Turkish lacks grammatical gender. As a result, you may talk about a person for hours on end without mentioning their gender. There are both advantages and disadvantages to grammatical gender. First of all, I still believe it causes people to give too much attention to gender. In order to be polite, you need to learn about everybody’s gender. For example, even if you do not care about an anonymous commenter’s gender, you either have to assume their gender or ask them about it. Or, when I want to talk about my friend’s dog in English, I sometimes realize that I can’t even start my sentence because I have no idea whether it’s a boy or a girl. Of course, I do not think that cultures which speak gender-neutral languages are pinnacles of gender equality. Considering that neither Turkey nor Japan are doing great when it comes to women’s rights, it seems that genderlessness of the languages has little to no positive effect on everyday lives of women. According to a study done by Friederike Braun, many Turkish people tend to assume other people’s gender and perpetuate gender stereotypes while doing so. For example, people may assume that nurses are women and police officers are men. It may even be possible that excluding gender-related information might be causing gender issues to go unnoticed or gender stereotypes go unchallenged. As an example, when I showed my graduation pictures to my primary school-aged niece, she looked confused and said “Wait, are your teachers male?” Even though I had talked about my school life before and she probably heard about her parent’s education, she had never realized that, in fact, men could be teachers, too.

What to look for in Japanese to English translations

As I have mentioned before, you may end up needing more contextual information when you are translating from Japanese. I think communication is key when it comes to translation of ambiguous texts and it is more so in Japanese translation. If you are a translator, you should not shy away from voicing your doubts and issues, and if you are a customer receiving translation service, you may need to do a little extra work when dealing with Japanese translation. Also, when you are translating into a gender-neutral language such as Japanese, it might be a good idea to sprinkle in some overtly gendered words like mother or boy. Even if you try to be as gender-neutral as possible, readers are going to have their own assumptions and it is always good to nudge them in the right direction.

Ambiguity due to politeness

Japanese polite speech may also lead to ambiguity. For example, as it is considered rude to directly say “No” when you are rejecting someone, Japanese people usually prefer more ambiguous phrases. If you are asking for a favor from a Japanese person and that person does not want to help you at all, they might say something along the lines of “それは、ちょっと…” (That is a little…). In other cultures this answer would probably be construed as “maybe” or “I am willing to negotiate”; however, that’s not what the speaker intended to say. Japanese people may also voice their wishes or opinions in a roundabout fashion, which can also cause communication issues. If you want to learn more about ambiguous phrases in Japanese you might enjoy reading this article titled "Is Japanese a Vague Language? Unraveling the Truth."

What to look for in Japanese to English translations

Again, it is a good practice to ask for or give more information when the source text is difficult to understand. When translating into Japanese, you also need to consider that keeping directness of English or culturally similar languages may not be well received by the Japanese audience. It is a good idea to keep cultural sensitivities in mind during the translation process and be open to making changes in order to receive accurate English to Japanese translations. As indirect and polite sentences tend to be longer, you can also expect having to allot more space for Japanese translations and doing more editing work.

Possible technical issues in Japanese translation

The Japanese language has three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana and kanji. As a result of this unique system, there are more technical considerations in English to Japanese translation compared to many other language pairs. Before examining these considerations, let’s quickly go over the Japanese writing system in order to better understand how to tackle possible technical issues.

How does the Japanese alphabet work?

While English speakers tend to call Japanese writing systems alphabets, technically speaking, it is not correct to call hiragana and katakana alphabets; they are syllabaries. In linguistics, syllabary refers to characters that represent a syllable. For example in English, we use two characters to write the first syllable of hiragana: “h” and “i”. If you are using hiragana instead, you would use only one character: “ひ”. In this case, only one character (ひ) represents the first syllable of the word. Katakana works on the same principle. Only difference between these two writing systems is that hiragana is used for Japanese words while katakana is used for loan words. The last writing system is called kanji and it is based on Chinese characters. Just like Chinese characters, they represent a word or a concept instead of a sound. Like hiragana, kanji are used for representing Japanese words.

You might be asking yourself how Japanese people decide which writing system to use. In everyday Japanese, these writing systems are used together and they complement each other. Usually, nouns and verb roots are written in kanji, suffixes are written in hiragana and foreign words are written in katakana. One of the effects of using three different writing systems in tandem is that the sentence length can vary significantly depending on the amount of kanji used. As kanji represent a whole noun, a Japanese word written using kanji generally takes less space than, let’s say, an English word written using katakana.

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Layout of Japanese texts and issues with translating PDF files

While some languages such as English are read from left to right and some languages such as Arabic are read from right to left, Japanese can be read in two different directions. If you are interested in Japanese literature you might have seen that haiku (short Japanese poems) are usually written vertically. However, that is not the only way to write in Japanese. Japanese sentences can be written both vertically and horizontally. Before the 20th century, writing vertically was more common. That is why it is very common to see vertical writing used for traditional Japanese arts such as haiku. However, vertical writing is far from being obsolete; it is still the preferred method for books and newspapers. Horizontal writing, on the other hand, is used for education and general everyday writing. On top of these differences, texts written vertically are read from right to left and texts written horizontally are read from left to right. If you would like to learn more about the horizontal and vertical writing methods, their history and use cases, I suggest reading this article named "Is Japanese Read From Right To Left Or Left To Right?"

What’s more confusing about this system is that Japanese people might use both vertical and horizontal writing on the same page for stylistic reasons. For example, headlines of the newspaper articles can be written using horizontal script while the rest of the article is written in vertical script. This is not an issue for the average Japanese speaker as it is pretty easy to tell which is which. For computers, however, it is a different story. When translators need to work on PDF files, they usually get some help from OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software. These types of software convert PDF files to other formats. As PDF files cannot be directly imported to translation tools, OCR software is absolutely essential for translators and translation agencies that work with PDF files.

Nowadays, OCR software rarely makes mistakes when used to convert PDF files written in English, and they keep on progressing. The situation is a little different for Japanese translation due to how Japanese is written. OCR software can sometimes think that a sentence is written horizontally when it is actually written vertically. As a result of this misinterpretation, the software can pair characters which do not actually go together.

I believe that OCR software will continue to get better with time. For now, it is a good practice to always send the source file to Japanese translators. As incorrectly laid out characters are not likely to make up coherent sentences, translators will probably realize that there are some issues. If they have access to PDF files, they can remedy the situation quite easily.

How to translate a Japanese pdf file to English?

There is a quick and easy way to translate your Japanese pdf files to English. As MotaWord, we have updated our language detection and OCR systems. Our translation quote engine is now 15x more accurate across all languages and it is 2x faster. No matter how skewed your scanned documents are; no matter what the background of your scan looks like, it will perform flawlessly. Feel free to give it a try on the quote page.

Furigana in Japanese texts for children

Unlike American or European school children, Japanese first graders are not expected to learn to write in just one year. After all, even if you are an adult, it is a herculean task to fully learn Japanese script in a year. According to the list the Japanese Ministry of Education created, 2,136 kanji are commonly used in Japanese. Around 1,000 of those characters are taught in elementary school. In order to help children understand the kanji they are not yet familiar with, people sometimes add transcriptions written in hiragana. These transcriptions are called furigana. Furigana is very commonly used in books and TV shows aimed at children. Furigana is also useful for Japanese learners and while I was studying Japanese, many people have recommended to me that I should try reading newspapers for children.

If the main audience of the content you are translating are children, furigana may need to be added after translation. It is usually not something that translators need to worry about but their client or the agency they are working with may ask them to keep the translation shorter to leave some space for furigana.

Japanese subtitles

There is always a character limit in subtitles. These limits are there to make sure the audience is able read all of the lines and has enough time left to actually look at the scene that is taking place. While this limit changes depending on the translation agency and the client, usually up to 42 characters are allowed for languages which use the Latin script. Even this seemingly high limit can pose a problem for subtitle translators. As translations almost always tend to be longer than the original text, subtitle translators often need to change the meaning of the source content to some degree or omit words that they deem less important. The limit for Japanese subtitles, however, is a little harsher. As Japanese characters are much wider than Latin letters, it would be almost impossible to fit 42 Japanese characters on the screen. In many Asian languages such as Chinese, Korean and Japanese, the limit is usually 16 or less characters. To give a more concrete and familiar example, Netflix’s character limit for English subtitles is 42 characters while the limit for Japanese subtitles is only 13 characters for horizontal and 11 characters for vertical subtitles. If the translated text mainly contains kanji characters, the translator will probably be able to follow the limit with little effort and won’t need to omit many words or make significant changes to the original text. Sentences with many hiragana and katakana characters, on the other hand, will prove to be more challenging. For example, it would be very difficult not to exceed this limit if the line contains many character names because character names are usually transliterated and transliterated words are written using katakana.

Even when you are translating regular texts from English to Japanese, it is very difficult to be very faithful to the original text. This is even more true for English to Japanese subtitle translation. I personally do not translate subtitles very often and being inexperienced in this field, I find it difficult to stay under the character limit. However, if you are working with a seasoned subtitler, I think that they will know how to deal with challenges that come their way. If you are a client, you just need to accept that the Japanese subtitles can sometimes omit some information or their tone can be a little different. The Japanese translator is most likely trying their best to be faithful to the source text but it is very difficult to write a whole sentence using only 13 or 11 characters.

In this blog post, we have looked into the intricacies of the Japanese language and common issues translators may face in Japanese to English and English to Japanese translation. We have gone over linguistic differences between Japanese and English languages. Japanese is a very subtle, indirect language and because of its context-dependent nature, a lot of elements might be lost in translation. We have explained how this might cause possible technical problems.

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We hope that you found this blog post helpful. Working with a professional translation company that has experience translating from English to Japanese or Japanese to English and has translators who are native Japanese speakers is your best chance for getting accurate translations, without running into issues mentioned above. Why not consider MotaWord if you're searching for a translation service that will provide you with all the support you need when dealing with Japanese translation jobs. MotaWord is the world’s fastest, lowest cost, cloud-based, collaborative business translation platform. You can get a quote here or you can directly contact MotaWord’s representatives by clicking the blue speech bubble button at the bottom right side of the page.

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Published on Apr 25, 2022 by AYLIN AKSOY

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