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05/10/18 10:53:pm

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult Part 2

In part 1 of this multi-part post, I provided an overview of some of the specific challenges associated with translating Japanese into English. I then covered the first two bullet points in more detail with some examples. Before we get into the other specific challenges, let’s review the list.

  • 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 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 の 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, now that we have jogged our memories, let’s move onto the next point!

Redundancy and needless grammatical structures

Japanese has an interesting characteristic in that redundancy (冗長性) seems to be an integral part of the language. I remember thinking this even when I first started studying Japanese with expressions like 「食べれば食べるほど太る」. This redundancy can occur because of grammatical structures, but it can also occur because of stylistic preferences. Let’s take a look at some examples.

1. XXXデータベースサービスは、お客様専有のサーバ上でDBを提供する、クラウド型のデータベースサービスです。

This pattern is fairly common and a perfectly valid sentence in Japanese. The redundancy is rather obvious and so not difficult to translate properly. For my readers who may be native Japanese speakers, please be aware that this kind of blatant repetition would be unnatural and unacceptable as proper written English.

2. ターゲットの一部が検出枠からはみ出している場合、はみ出した部分は検出しません。

3. ハードディスクドライブが新品でない場合は、物理フォーマットを行ってください。

This sentence pattern can be a bit trickier. The redundancy can be obvious as in the first example sentence of this pattern. The other example sentence is not exactly redundant, but translating these sentences too literally requires the English to have redundancy as follows:

If a hard disk is not new, physically format the hard disk.

This sentence is both redundant and verbose. The following translation is much better:

All used hard disks must be physically formatted.


This type of pattern in which the same thing is expressed as both a negative and a positive also occurs quite frequently. I hope it would be obvious that「保存されず」and 「破棄される」are basically the same thing.

5. XXXを利用するには、何かの動作をすることで、XXXを利用することができます。

Another pattern that occurs quite frequently. Again, do not translate this using the same basic grammatical structure of the Japanese.

Ok, while there are other types of redundancy often found in Japanese, let’s move on to the next challenge to translating Japanese.

Overused words

This was somewhat covered in the table in part 1 that listed various ways to translate the same Japanese sentence. Just some examples of extremely overused words with many different meanings and/or usage patterns include: 設定, 行う, 範囲, 項目, 確認, 動作, 作業, 処理, 測定, and others. 「確認」, for example, can be translated as check, confirm, verify, validate, ask, review, and so on. Yes, there are more specific terms for words like verify and validate. No, this does not mean that you should not use verify or validate to translate 「確認」 if that would fit the context and intention of the author. To the best of your ability, you must always translate these words using the most appropriate English word given the context and subject matter.

In addition to overused words, there are also plenty of words that are used quite differently from their dictionary meanings and so need to be translated appropriately. Make sure to notify your client as necessary when you do this. One example of this I see somewhat frequently is how 「権限」 is used as ‘role’, such as in this sentence 「工場出荷時のAdministrator権限による認証は次のとおりです。」. The word 「自動的」 is another strange one. I have seen many cases in which this is used to describe system behavior as the result of manual operation such as 「赤いボタンを押すと、本システムが自動的に停止します。」.

Complicated and unorthodox perspectives

The complicated and unorthodox perspectives from which Japanese sometimes word things are perhaps the aspect of the language that really demonstrates why you must have actual experience or at least some background knowledge on the subject of which you translate. This aspect of the language can be quite confusing and frustrating even when you do have such experience or knowledge. Translating these types of sentences properly certainly requires experience/knowledge in the subject and plenty of translation experience. You also need to have a relationship of trust with your client so that they don’t think you translated it incorrectly (誤訳) and/or end up changing it to a literal (直訳) translation without checking with you. So, let’s look at some examples of this interesting feature of Japanese.

6. センシング情報が保存できるのは、センシングモードを使用している場合のみです。表示モードを使用しているときは、センシング情報付きを選択してもセンシング情報は保存されません。

The problem with the structure (構成) of these sentences is the focus on the capability of saving sensing information. It may seem like a minor issue, but the point being made by the author has nothing to do with the capability of saving sensing information, but rather the system behavior of the two different modes. Describing this capability from the perspective of operating the UI instead of the system behavior does not accurately communicate what the author intends, especially given the intended audience of the document.

See, this Japanese implies that sensing information is still there when a non-sensing mode is used, it just cannot be saved. That isn't the reality. The reality is that you have take images or record video in a sensing mode in order to generate the sensing information. If you use a non-sensing mode, the information is simply not generated.

7. その場合、ラベル上のテキストが英字から始まっているものがシリアル番号となります。数字から始まっているテキストは、シリアル番号ではありません。

While this sentence is not technically inaccurate as was the first example, the structure is just too verbose and could be so much clearer and more concise if the serial number were the subject of both sentences as follows:

In this case, serial numbers always start with an English letter. They never start with a numeric character.

8. 複数の欠点が検索された場合には、スクロールバーで表示切替ができます。

This sentence is just technically inaccurate. Obviously, all data is processed when a user performs a search. Defects found by the search are then displayed on-screen. In this case, a scroll bar also appears when a particular search produces multiple defects as search results.

9. 側面(メタル側)を床面(下方向)に強いショックを与えるとファンモーターのシャフトがずれることにより、発生しやすい。

Yeah, so this sentence has two issues. One, despite the active verb and strange perspective, what this sentence is actually talking about is what happens when this object is dropped and the metal side hits the floor. Two, there is neither a subject nor a direct object for 「発生しやすい」. In this case, what was intended is that the fan motor is more likely to produce noise if the shaft is knocked out of alignment.

Ok, so only three challenges left to go over! However, I think we should take a break at this point and just go ahead and make this a 3-part post. Stay tuned for the conclusion of this mini-series!

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