It’s a notoriously difficult task to translate from Japanese to English. Translation itself is an often laborious and anonymous job; the translator’s job is to reproduce a piece of text in a manner that is faithful to the original, but also pleasant to read and culturally relevant to the translation’s intended audience.

It is not merely the task of replacing words, but an art in itself. A delicate balancing act, wherein a translator must have not just a good understanding of both the source and target language, but also a knowledge of society and culture.

In the words of English poet and translator John Dryden: “What is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author’s words.”

So what happens with translation work wherein the languages are completely different from each other?

Japanese itself is a difficult language for a Westerner to master. Obstacles include a completely different alphabet, the context-heavy nature of Japanese, the use of honorifics, as well as the great differences in grammar and sentence structure. So it comes as no surprise that translating Japanese can take a translator double the time or more.

That’s why it is definitely not a good idea to use machine translations for Japanese to English. While machines have improved in leaps and bounds, with all the complexities involved in translating, you will end up with a completely unusable text.

Here are a few reasons why translating from Japanese to English is so difficult:

Listen to the TLDR(Too Long Didn’t Read) version of this article:

This post was updated in April 2021

Alphabet woes

Japanese and English originated from completely different places. Not only are there often no direct translations for words, the alphabet used is completely different as well.

As in Chinese, Japanese characters, known as kanji, are ideograms. Ideograms are complex graphic symbols. Meaning is derived from different strokes, the placing of the strokes within a character and different ways of interpreting each.

Add to that the fact that Japanese use three different character sets: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. Hiragana and Katakana are the Japanese phonetic alphabets, with 46 symbols each representing every sound in the Japanese language. Katakana is used for words that have been borrowed from other languages. Hiragana is used when Kanji characters can’t be used. Japanese often use Kanji and Hiragana together to form one word. Altogether, there are thousands of Kanji characters in the writing system.

To compound the difficulties, this difference also means that there is no English equivalent to how a Japanese writer lays out their sentence. There is no way to show meaning other than to understand completely what is said in Japanese, before thinking of a way to reproduce it in English.

Thus, to translate from Japanese to English, the translator will have to have a strong understanding of both languages, spoken and written, to be able to make sure the meaning is retained when translating. And that is truly no small task.

localizing japanese to english

Grammatical discrepancy

Another challenge is that English and Japanese do not share any similarities in grammar. Among some of the grammatical differences include:

1. No plural nouns – There is no differentiation between plural and singular in Japanese. The way of counting also changes all the time, even with adjectives and pronouns.

For example:

English: I/you/he/she/they received a sweet/sweets from Clara. 

Japanese: Clara from sweet received. 

If translated literally, it is not clear at all how many sweets were received, and by how many people. In fact we don’t even know who received the sweet. Further clarification would have to come from context.

There is also no difference between singular and plural in Japanese nouns. So the sentence: “There is a dog” and “There are a few dogs” are the same in Japanese.

2. SOV instead of SVO – English is ordered as subject, verb then object. Japanese sentences have the verb at the end. So when translating a sentence, the translator must understand the entire sentence before changing the order of words.

For example:

English: The sun is so bright.

Japanese: The sun so bright is. 

3. No subjects – In Japanese, the subject is frequently omitted. Sometimes the object is as well.

For example:

English: I love you.
Japanese: (I) You love. Or simply: (I you) Love.

4. No future tense

5. Pronouns are rare – In Japanese, pronouns like “I” or “you” or “me” are rarely required because the social position is marked by the grammar.

6. No definite or indefinite articles

7. No structural particles

8. Honorifics, known as keigo, has no equivalent in English and is thus, difficult to understand. We’ll delve deeper into this point below.

9. Abstract concepts are difficult to translate because many words and phrases simply cannot be translated literally.

Context is king

Because the Japanese language is a high-context one, it’s actually extremely efficient at conveying a great deal. One sentence can tell you a lot about the situation; anything from: the time of day, the season, the age, gender and social status of the speaker, the age, gender and social status of the person addressed, the age, gender and social status of a mentioned third party, the social connections between speaker, listener and third parties as well whether the situation is formal or casual.

For example, the most simple greeting in English actually has no direct translation in Japanese (other than the borrowed word harō):

English: Hello. 

Japanese: Ohayō (Hello in the morning)

Ohayō gozaimasu (Hello in a formal situation in the morning) 

Konnichi ha (Good day)

Konban ha (Good evening)  

However, English is the complete opposite. It’s a low-context language that has no markers of social hierarchy. Which leads us to…

how to translate japanese to english

The question of honorifics

There is definitely a more formal way to speak English; it’s unlikely you would speak to your boss the same way you speak to a friend or sibling. But in general, we typically care more about what is said, rather than the way what we are saying will make another person feel.

However, formality is deeply ingrained in Japanese society. There are many different levels of respect, and this is reflected in the Japanese language.

It is very important to mark the difference in social status through the use of language. The situation both speakers are in has to be taken into account as well. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges in Japanese to English translation is the use of honorifics, or keigo, in the Japanese language.

It is seen as very important not to cause offense or disrespect through language.

That’s why it may be at times that Japanese can be seen to be indirect. In Japanese, you wouldn’t say “I don’t like this”. You might instead say “This is not to my taste”. You could opt to say the former, but it might be perceived as overly direct or even rude.

In cases where you’re addressing someone senior to you, the language you choose should humble yourself and elevate the addressee. If you are the superior or elder, then you may have your choice on words to use.

You can find some fascinating examples here.

The medium matters as well. If you’re translating novels or news articles,  you may opt for the more casual informal style. If you’re translating official documents and websites, a polite or formal form is more often used.

In conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve shown a little of see how immensely complicated the Japanese language can be; and if you’re choosing a translator, you can see how imperative it is that they have a firm grasp of Japanese culture as it ties in closely with the language.

A great translator should have a keen grasp both on Japanese ideograms, a knowledge of its grammar, context rules and use of honorifics and in English with all its alphabets, rules, and idiosyncrasies.

As a client, it’s also important to remember that although fidelity to the original document is important, a good translation is rarely about matching words exactly, but more about staying true to the tone and spirit of the work.

If you need translators who can strike the right balance, submit a project with Bunny Studio today!