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05/01/18 01:34:am

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult

Why Japanese People

Translating any language is difficult because first you have to truly understand what you are reading, not just the words themselves, but what the author is actually trying to communicate. Then, you have to devise a sentence in your target language that communicates this intention while at the same time can function as a sentence in the target language on its own. While this sounds simple, satisfying both criteria is actually very difficult, requiring significant reading comprehension skills in addition to the ability to create sentences having the correct structure to communicate what you actually intend. This can actually cause a lot of headache for native speakers of the target language because of the rather significant gap between what native speakers intend to say versus what they actually say in daily conversation. This gap between what is said vs intended is almost never an issue in conversation between two native speakers, so bad habits can go unchecked indefinitely.

Back to the subject of translating Japanese specifically, comprehending and translating Japanese most definitely has its own unique set of challenges.

First, let’s take a look at this bullet list, and then I will provide some examples of these challenges.

  • Japanese is a context-based language – Translating Japanese requires the ability to understand what is really being said through context as well as the skill and confidence to include that context into the English translation. This is even more the case with technical Japanese, business Japanese, and internal documentation.
  • Over-abbreviated and over-simplified Japanese content – A particular sentence pattern can and often is used in different areas of a document that must be translated differently each time.
  • Redundancy and needless grammatical structures – Keeping this redundancy in your English, at best, ruins conciseness (簡潔性 ) and, at worst, makes the English difficult and confusing, which renders the content completely unusable.
  • Overused words – At least in business and technical Japanese, which is most of the content being translated, Japanese tend to overuse a small subset of words. Because of this overuse, the actual meaning, scope, and situations in which these words are used are vast and must be translated as appropriate given the context for each and every instance of these words.
  • Complicated and unorthodox perspectives – Native speakers of Japanese can and often do word things from overly complicated or unorthodox perspectives. Sometimes it can feel like they are intentionally trying to be confusing.
  • Consistency – As much as clients will insist that you are consistent with the words and patterns you use (統一性 ), the Japanese will almost never be consistent with itself. It is difficult and frustrating to try and translate their inconsistency consistently while also ensuring that your English is consistent with itself. This is often a diametrically opposing goal, and so you will have to choose one or the other. Always make sure your English is consistent with itself if you have that flexibility with your client.
  • English loanwords in katakana – You must never assume that you can use the word as it is. You must always perform due diligence on these words to verify and validate what they mean in Japanese versus what they mean and/or how they are typically used in English.
  • Noun strings – Japanese sentences can and often do contain noun strings of 3 or more nouns. With the ability to make any noun a verb with する (suru) and the over-abbreviated nature of Japanese (bullet 2), entire sentences can be nothing but noun strings with just two or three particles, which could all just be and just a period at the end of the last noun. Obviously, the Japanese noun strings must be separated and the English sentence must contain grammatical elements besides nouns to form a complete sentence. This is very difficult and tricky to do well.

Ok, while creating the rest of this post, I realized it was going to become unbearably long, so I decided to end this post after going over the first two bullet points together.

The rest of the bullet points will be covered over at least 1 or 2 more posts, depending on how long they end up being. So, let’s at least cover these two bullet points!

Japanese is a context-based language

This is certainly no surprise to anyone who has ever studied Japanese! Yet, it is one thing to try and passively read content in Japanese and achieve some level of understanding that satisfies you personally, and it is entirely another thing to fully understand some Japanese content such that you can then communicate this message into some other language. When translating Japanese into English and probably most other languages, key components of sentences like subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, verbs, and so on simply cannot be left out. For example, you cannot just simply use the passive tense in every single sentence of English. You cannot leave out direct objects when using verbs that require them. While this might sound like common sense and easy to do, trust me, it can sometimes be very difficult and challenging to pinpoint these elements. Including the required context into your English translations takes a lot of skill, experience, and confidence to do well.

Let’s take a look at some example sentences of this.

1. 感電・火災の原因になります。

This pattern occurs very frequently. The very first time I had to deal with this pattern, I really had no idea what to do with it because it seems like an incomplete thought. It certainly is a great and easy way to illustrate bullet point 1.

This sentence pattern occurs most frequently in the precautions section at the beginning of a manual. The sentence or sentences before this pattern describe the precaution, and this sentence pattern indicates the result of ignoring the precaution. The precautionary sentence(s) that come before this pattern may be telling you to do something or they may be telling you not to do something, basically, a 'do this' sentence or a 'do not do this' sentence. This context must be added to complete this seemingly incomplete pattern for the result sentence. As if that was not enough, this sentence can also appear elsewhere in the document in some other context. Just remember to translate this pattern differently depending on what type of precautionary sentence come before it and, if necessary, in a different manner altogether when it appears somewhere else in another context. Also, because this actual sentence can be repeated in other sections of a document as a 100% match after both types of precautionary sentences (do or do not constructions) or at some other area under a different context, you cannot just let the auto-propagate feature in your CAT tool populate these segments for you and then forget about them.

Over-abbreviated and over-simplified Japanese

The next example sentence is another simple example sentence pattern that you will see over and over again if you translate manuals and similar documentation. With this sentence, we can see Japanese as a context-based language in action while also exploring the over-abbreviated/over-simplified nature of the language.

2. メールサーバー設定を行います。

At first glance, this sentence seems simple and innocent enough. However, the exact meaning of this sentence can vary wildly simply by where it is placed in a document, and so presenting some examples of this better illustrates the challenges listed in the first two bullet points. In addition to location in a document, the meaning can also change depending on the context. The following table lists a few examples of where in a document this sentence would likely appear along with what it could mean in that particular position. I will also add an example or two of a suitable or possible translation. If you pay attention, you can also see how this one sentence also serves as an example of overused words ( 設定) and noun strings.

Trust me, this is not an exhaustive listing of where this sentence may appear and what it could mean.

Location in Document

Meaning and Purpose of Sentence

Example Translation

Name of a chapter, section, or heading

This sentence simply serves as a title.

Configuring Email Servers

The first sentence of a new procedure in a manual. Sentence is under a heading.

This sentence is an introductory sentence describing what this new section is going to cover.

This section describes the procedures to configure email servers.

The first sentence of a sub-procedure under a main procedure. Sentence is under a heading.

This sentence is an introductory sentence describing what this new sub-section is going to cover. Because it is a sub-procedure under a main procedure, the context of the main procedure and whatever other sub-procedures exist must be included.

This section describes the procedure to configure an email server in the XXX environment.

The first sentence of series of steps necessary to complete a portion of a procedure.

This sentence conveys the objective of the next several steps in a procedure. In this case, the scope of the configuration is much, much smaller than were this a full procedure or sub-procedure.

Configuring the email server


Configure the email server

A step in a procedure, sub-procedure, or series of steps.

This sentence is a specific instruction.

Configure the email server.

The first sentence of a paragraph in a section describing a tab in the settings of some software.

This sentence is an introductory sentence describing a tab in the settings of some software.

The Email Server Settings tab contains the settings used to configure email servers.

A sentence in a 2-column table in which the names of Settings tabs are listed on the left, and summaries of the tabs are listed on the right.

This sentence provides a summary of the tab.

Settings used to configure email servers

A descriptive sentence of some software UI element

This sentence provides a description of some software UI element. Let’s say a button that, when clicked, displays a pop-up window that contains some settings.

The Configure Email Server button is used to access key email server settings.

A sentence in a 2-column table in which the names of software UI elements on a particular screen or page are listed on the left, and summaries of the UI elements are listed on the right.

This sentence provides a summary of a software UI element. Let’s keep the button example from directly above.

Button used to access key email server settings


Accesses key email server settings

An instructional sentence somewhere in a paragraph or table.

This sentence is a specific instruction.

Create an email server configuration.


Configure the email server to enable XXX service.

As you can see, because Japanese is a context-based language with the characteristics as described in the bullet points, translating Japanese into English requires an ability to truly comprehend the full context and then communicate that full context into the target language. This example sentence also illustrates the importance of having a background in the subject matter. As sentences are more complex or technically inaccurate, the need to have this background becomes ever more important.

Also, as I mentioned with the first example sentence, you really have to be careful with the auto-propagate feature in CAT tools. I know it creates more work, and your client probably pays either very little or nothing for 100% matches, but it really is your duty as a professional translator to make sure the content you produce is understandable and, therefore, actually usable. How confusing would it be for a user if the first sentence of a new chapter is “Accesses key email server settings” or the short description of a button was “This section describes the procedures to configure email servers in a cloud-based email service.”?

Let’s take a break here. Stay tuned for the next post to cover the other bullet points!

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