us jp


06/14/18 07:20:pm

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult Part 3

Firstly, my apologies for taking over a month to finally get this finished and uploaded. I decided that when I have a lot of projects going on simultaneously and just don’t have the time to create posts, I will at least try to offer some content via Twitter in between. I have tweeted a few times using the hashtag #contextmatters. Follow me on Twitter to check out these and similar tweets. Now, let’s get started on the last installment of this series!

In part 1 and part 2 of this multi-part post, I provided an overview of some of the specific challenges associated with translating Japanese into English. I then covered all but the last three 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!


One thing that clients will expect from professional translators is consistency (統一性), and for good reason. Consistency in naming conventions, style, tone, labeling, data presentation, and so on are all critical to making the content easy to read and digest as well as ensuring the content is presented professionally and attractively. However, this becomes very difficult and quite a juggling act when translating Japanese because Japanese content is nearly always inconsistent with itself, unless you are lucky enough to be translating actual books or other professionally produced/edited content.

Unfortunately, your client usually is a bit short-sighted on this and simply wants you to be consistent with the Japanese while you, being the professional that you are, are trying to ensure consistency in your English content. And, unfortunately again, while some of the contradictory challenges (矛盾しているところ) between what the client (if a Japanese company) expects versus what needs to be done to make a proper translation, such as adding the necessary context and dealing with those unorthodox perspectives, can both be satisfied with some skillful dexterity, this one really cannot. You will have to make the hard choice, and you won’t make the same choice all the time. Your decision will vary significantly depending on the specific client and even project. I encourage you to develop your relationships with your clients so that you can gradually gain flexibility to maintain consistency with yourself and standards of professionalism within the English language.

So, what are these inconsistencies? Let’s go over some specific types of inconsistencies.

1. Inconsistency in data formatting – Japanese will often change the format of data, even when repeating the same data, in documentation. For example, they may take a serial number that includes alphabet characters and make these characters uppercase sometimes and lowercase at other times. They may also just arbitrarily cut off some of the serial number sometimes while including all of it at other times. Another example would be how they handle UI elements. The same button or type of button, for example, may be by itself (送信ボタン), may be enclosed in Japanese quotation marks (「送信」ボタン), may be enclosed in brackets ([送信]ボタン), or the button name and the word “button” may be enclosed in something (「送信ボタン」). I strongly suggest getting a copy of the Microsoft Manual of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style and using this style whenever possible. If your client demands that some type of symbol be used in place of Japanese quotation marks (「」) for UI elements, then I suggest using brackets. Only the on-screen portion is enclosed in brackets regardless of the Japanese formatting. 「送信ボタン」 would be [Send] button if using brackets.

2. Inconsistency in data itself – Japanese will often change the data itself or conditions represented by data. For example, on one page, there will be a warning stating that you must never use some device at temperatures over 100 degrees because it may damage internal components. Then, on the very next page or maybe several pages later, there will be some other descriptive bit of content telling you something like “Remember to wear safety gloves when using the device at temperatures over 100 degrees.”

3. Inconsistency in wording/sentence patterns – This happens a lot. Take a document that describes different but similar algorithm functions that calculate values from different inputs. Just to make it simple, let’s say a function that calculates the temperature in Celsius and one that calculates the temperature in Fahrenheit, but pretend there are more types of temperature than just these two. Don’t you think it would be better to make the description of how the function actually calculates temperature basically the same by only changing the parts that actually need to be changed (basically replacing the word Celsius with Fahrenheit)?

4. Inconsistency with table layouts – This also happens a lot. Content in the same table can be complete sentences with punctuation, complete sentences without punctuation, sentence fragments with punctuation, sentence fragments without punctuation, descriptions instead of instructions in one cell, instructions instead of descriptions in another cell, both descriptions and instructions in the same cell, cells with too much content including notes marked by asterisks instead of in parentheses, vice versa, or both notes marked by asterisks and in parentheses, and one or two cells with entirely too much detail defeating the purpose of having a table, etc.

5. Inconsistency with grammar/basic style – This also happens a lot. You could have three buttons, for example. They all basically do the same thing, meaning you click on them to execute some operation. Yet, the simple descriptive sentence introducing the button could be different for each button. Some example: 「XXXボタンをクリックすると、YYYをする。」, 「XXXボタンをクリックすると、YYYをします。」, 「XXXボタンをクリックすると、YYYがされます。」, 「YYYをするには、XXXボタンをクリックします。」, 「YYYをするには、XXXボタンをクリックしてください。」, 「XXXボタンをクリックすると、YYYが実行されます。」, 「YYYをしたい時、XXXをクリックすると、YYYをすることができる。」, and on and on. There really is no good reason to keep using different wording for such a simple and basic sentence pattern in documentation designed to instruct end users or system administrators how to use some software, system, or environment. It also confuses both the reader and translator when they switch back and forth between these different patterns because then you start second-guessing yourself when one sentence ends with する/します and another ends with してください because this implies that the ones ending in する/します indicate system behavior and the ones ending in してください indicate user operation. You cannot make this assumption. You have to be able to determine if a sentence ending in する/します describes system behavior or instructs the user to do something. I hope you can see the problem with translating everything literally without thinking about the context and what is really being said.

6. Inconsistency with actual titles – This happens a lot as well. In technical Japanese documentation, there will always be lots of references to other sections in the same document or other documents. They tend to just retitle chapters and sections as they see fit. For example, chapter 3 of some document may be titled “Chapter 3 Setting the Time on the Wristwatch” in the table of contents. Maybe the first time it is referenced, it will match the table of contents, such as “Refer to “Chapter 3 Setting the Time on the Wristwatch” for more information on setting the time.”, but then at some other point, it will say something like “Refer to “Chapter 3 Setting Time”, and then at some other point again, it will say something like “Refer to “Chapter 3 Time, Date, and Other Settings”, and so on. Another thing they tend to do is reverse the order of document number and title when referring to other documents. It could say “ASDF1234 Configuration Procedure” at one point, “Configuration Procedure ASDF1234” at another point, (ASDF1234) Configuration Procedure” at another point, and even “Configuration Procedure (ASDF1234)” at yet another point. The frequency of this inconsistency in particular baffles me.

Future posts will cover specific examples of this inconsistency including how to recognize typical patterns and how to deal with them.

English Loanwords in Katakana

Loanwords from English and other languages in Katakana is a relatively new feature of Japanese. The number of English words as well as completely made-up words that are loosely based on English that are injected into the Japanese language has increased drastically over the last couple of decades. You could almost say Japanese is a derivative of English at this point if you consider Japanese simply on the basis of vocabulary.

These words can actually sometimes be the most difficult words to translate. While you may think they should be the easiest, you must do your due diligence and verify the actual meaning of such words, how they are being used, and if completely different words are used for the same purpose in actual English. Some of these words can be just subtly different, completely different, or even completely made-up words. An example of a word that is subtly different is 「オーバーホール」. In all the times I have come across this term, it means periodic maintenanceーjust not periodic maintenance that is performed every week or month. In English, ‘overhaul’ means to completely rebuild a complex component, like an engine. An example of a word that means something completely different is 「テンション」. In Japanese, this is a good thing. 「テンションが高い人」 can mean something like someone who is the life of the party. In English, tension between people is most definitely not a good thing. Another example is the way they use 「キャンペーン」 as an advertising method to attract attention to special offers and such. In English, ‘promotion’ is the appropriate term to use. The word ‘campaign’ means the process of devising and executing a strategy to achieve some personal (i.e. selfish) goal. As such, translating 「キャンペーン」 as ‘campaign’ in public-facing advertising content is just poor form. Using it in internal documentation as basically a replacement for strategy might be acceptable.

It also seems that Japanese people don’t really know what a lot of these words are supposed to mean and so just use them how they see fit. I see this more than I care to admit in IT documentation. As a few examples, I often see 「リスト」 being used to refer to pull-down menus, 「チェックボックス」 being used to refer to radio buttons, and 「ダウンロード」 being used to refer to both downloading and uploading. I even see the word 「ボタン」 being used to refer to every single type of UI on a screen, from actual buttons to input fields, pull-down menus, check boxes, radio buttons, and even non-interactive elements such as display areas!

Another thing to be careful about is acronyms. You will see things like 「LCD表示」 and the like. To translate this properly, you need to know what LCD represents, which is liquid crystal display. As such, translating 「LCD表示」 as ‘LCD display’ is poor form because you are essentially saying ‘liquid crystal display display’. Don’t do this.

Ok, now onto the last challenge and then we can finish this series and move on to something else!

Noun Strings

At least in technical Japanese, phrases and even entire sentences can simply be strings of nouns with no grammatical ‘connective tissue’ to help you make any sense of the relationships between these nouns. While I think that the over-abbreviation/over-simplification is probably the most difficult aspect of translating Japanese, I think this just might be the second-most difficult aspect because you absolutely cannot simply translate the Japanese as it is. If you do, you might as well just let your cat walk all over your keyboard and call it a day. Anyway, the reason this is so difficult is because even if you have some understanding of the source, you must decide where and how you are going to break up all these nouns and what English grammatical elements you are going to use to actually make an English sentence that says something.

Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?


Here, we have a noun string that is five nouns long, and not only that, it does not represent what is actually going on. Look at my translation:

Check the information in the [Confirm pre-processing state before modifying settings for multiple users] section of the screen and then click [Apply].

What??? Yeah, I know.

The situation being described was the process to change settings for multiple users simultaneously by loading a configuration text file. First, the user (administrator in this case) selects and loads the text file. The system does not process the text file immediately. Instead, some information appears in this section of the screen to indicate the number of users for which settings can be changed and the number of users for which settings cannot be changed by continuing to process the text file. The user then decides to continue the processing by clicking on some button after confirming this information. Actually, I think I should have used this as an example for complicated and unorthodox perspectives!

So, anyway, just take a look at how I had to separate the nouns and actually use grammatical elements to connect the nouns together to say something, including transforming some of the nouns themselves into other types of words.

Here is another example from probably the same project:

2. グループ一括設定変更時のテキストファイル記述書式

Look at that! A noun string of 8 nouns that is basically ONE NOUN!

Just note how I broke this up so that it doesn’t give readers a headache:

Description format of text files used to change settings for multiple groups simultaneously

Did you make it this far? If you did, congratulations! That was a lot of content and probably difficult to fully take in if you don’t already have a few years of experience. If you are just getting started, these things will start to make more and more sense as long as you diligently try to become a true professional Japanese to English translator. I am sure you will gain an edge over most translators if you also keep reading this blog.

For the next post, I think I will introduce my preferred CAT tool and how to work with Trados projects in this tool. If anyone can recommend a tool to create screencast videos, please post in the comments!

Enjoyed reading this article? Sign up for our Newsletter to get all the latest news and updates:

Loading Conversation

Recent Posts

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult Part 2

Let's continue to go over some of the unique challenges associated with translating Japanese into English...

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult Part 3

Let's finish this three-part series and go over the rest of the unique challenges associated with translating…

Why Translating Japanese is so Difficult Part 1

Translating any language is difficult because first you have to truly understand what you are reading, not just the…