There’s an old adage in real estate that the three most important things are location, location and location. In the same vein, the three most important things to keep in mind when translating from J-E are context, context and context.
Context is always important in translation, regardless of the languages involved: It’s important to know who wrote the source text (and for what purpose), who will be reading the translation, and to understand any items that are referenced in the source text.
If you’re an English speaker that has learned to speak Japanese, you probably feel perfectly comfortable dropping subjects and particles when doing so. It doesn’t mean that when you go back to speaking English you’re going to turn to your friend and say, “going park but, go together?”
Likewise, Japanese texts will assume things are understood by the reader in a way that English texts will never do. So when you’re translating from Japanese into English, you’ll find yourself having to add all of that information back in.
Now that we’ve determined that context is key in Japanese-English translation, let’s look at a few common problems translators encounter — and how to overcome them.
Japanese is a language of imagery, of expressive wording and context-dependent verbs. This creative foundation can make translating from Japanese into English difficult, because there are certain “set phrases” that, when translated literally, have little meaning or sound unnatural in English. These set phrases include common idioms and proverbs, as well as sayings that are used on a more everyday basis.
Common examples include:
How should you go about translating these? Google Translate and other automated translators won’t do much, but there are directories online — check out our Translation Resources sections for a comprehensive list — and browsing others’ examples and Googling them is always a good idea as well.
Remember what we said above, about Japanese being a creative language? This creativity is also demonstrative, as shown by the fact that pretty much every action in Japanese has a sound effect to go with it — something akin to the Roadrunner’s “mreep mreep”, if you’re a bit lost. These sounds are often demonstrated through the repetition of two characters:
Some of these exist in English — “thump thump” is the rough translation of ドキドキ, but others have meanings that are a bit more difficult to convey in English, or even more tricky, multiple meanings. Words like ガンガン either mean “hurt” or “hard” depending on the context they’re used in. Others, such as the sound of a dog — “woof woof” in English — have direct equivalents in Japanese: ワンワン.
One of the simplest and most commonly used ways to translating a Japanese mimetic is to use an adjective that fits the emotion that is emulated by the Japanese sound being made. A phrase like イライラしています could be roughly translated as "antsy" or "nervous" because it's used when the speaker feels some type of anxiety. The appropriate word usually differs with the context it's being used in, though, so it's good to have a degree of caution when translating.
While capturing the meaning of the text in a translation is essential, it isn’t necessary to attempt to translate the text directly. When you’re dealing with an unfamiliar onomatopoeia or mimetic, you should first take a step back and focus on the emotion that is being conveyed, rather than attempting to find a direct equivalent to the sound being made.
Photo Credit: Hiromy
When translating, conveying the meaning of the original text is essential, but so is doing it in a way that is readable and natural to native speakers. One way to do this is to use translators who are native in the target language. However, even understanding both languages may not be enough — you must be able to reword sentences as necessary without mangling the meaning of the text.
Japanese sentences are typically written in a Subject-Object-Verb format, sometimes omitting the Subject, while English usually follows the Subject-Verb-Object standard. This isn’t too difficult to decipher, simply flip them around to make the sentence make sense in English.
However, Japanese often deals with the passive voice, which is generally discouraged in good English writing. Translating something entirely in the passive voice can sound unnatural and even a bit awkward, especially when combined with the fact that the Japanese present tense is more or less the same as the future tense.
It’s important to make sure that your translated text sounds natural, and sometimes this means changing the sentences you’re given into the active voice. However, as with most issues related to translation, context is important: If the work you’re translating is literary, you may want to retain the passive voice for aesthetic purposes. It’s not a good idea to keep an entire document in the passive voice though, unless the client asks for it specifically or you have a solid, justifiable reason.
Denoting a plural in English is usually quite simple: We just add an "s" at the end of the word and call it a day. However, this isn't the case in Japanese. Sometimes people use counting words to indicate how many of a particular object there are, but other times, these words, known as "counters" are omitted, which can make translating the sentence confusing.
It is nearly impossible to tally up a total without using these counters, though there is a general set of counting words that people will accept. While most round objects are grouped under one set of counting words, this is not the case in English. We rarely say, "There are three round objects" — it sounds unnatural and is unclear. We substitute the "round objects" with the name of the item we are referring to. Depending on the context of the situation, you may also be able to drop the subject of the sentence and imply what exactly is being counted as well.
Counting is made even more difficult in Japanese when you consider the fact that the Japanese language has few plurals and uses them even more rarely. Though the kanji that indicates the repetition of the one before — think the second character of 人々 — does exist, it isn't used on an everyday basis and generally just indicates that there is a group of said objects — not an actual number.
In order to deal with this, translators usually refer to the context from which the text is given, in an effort to deduce the number of objects involved, or they omit the number altogether. When it’s not possible to determine how many things are being counted, there’s nothing wrong with asking the client — it’s better to get a correct answer first than find out you were wrong down the road.
Japanese speakers often use a form of polite speech known as 敬語, when addressing their elders and those whom they view with respect. There is no direct equivalent of this in English — perhaps a "Yes, sir" will do the trick, but you can only use those so many times — so how do you ensure that the person to whom the translation is addressed does not mistake the lack of honorifics for insults?
The truth is, you don’t really have to translate 敬語 into English, because there is no direct equivalent. In fact, translating the honorifics can even become somewhat insulting to the reader if read in the wrong context — think about business letters and how formal the Japanese used in them is.
While there are times when it is appropriate to maintain the polite speech, it can sometimes come across as sarcasm, so use your best judgment. Your goal is to convey the feeling of the situation, not the exact words.
Overcome language barriers today with myGengo's Japanese email translation services. We have thousands of translators ready to help you out now.
Human translation platform myGengo offers a wide variety of services to help you localize your app into Japanese quickly, affordably and efficiently.
The affordable, human translation agency myGengo explains how to go about translating Japanese words and phrases you are completely unfamiliar with.
Interesting video about becoming a Japanese interpreter.
A great pop-up style online dictionary to help with your translations.
A great site with a lot of resources concerning the Japanese Language. You can look up kanji, find other language tools, and find some great Japanese language learning resources.
A great online resource for vocabulary, sentences, and Chinese characters.
A page by Jack Hepburn on the history of Chinese characters in the Japanese language.
Get Professional Japanese Translation at myGengo.›Order Now
Photo Credit: Gustty
But other parts of the site are!›Go to the Gengo home page and explore
Andere Teile dieser Seite sind es jedoch!›Gehen Sie zur Gengo Startseite und gehen Sie auf Entdeckungsreise
¡Pero otras secciones de la página sí lo están!›Ve a la página inicial de Gengo y explora a tu gusto
사이트의 다른 부분은 영어로 되어 있습니다.›Gengo의 홈페이지를 둘러보세요.
但网站的其它页面均支持！›前往 Gengo 主页来探索更多