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2019.06.12

Why Japanese Can Be a Tricky Language to Translate

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I have been fascinated by the Japanese language since the moment I started studying it. At the beginning, it was mostly about the thrill of learning something completely new and exotic, but as I continued, I grew increasingly intrigued by some of the concepts I had never encountered in any other language before. I was somewhat surprised by the relative simplicity of the grammatical structures, and although internalizing all the intricacies of Japanese honorific expressions was by no means an easy task, it definitely helped me learn a lot about the way society functions in Japan. Having studied the highly contextual nature of Japanese for a number of years, I feel like I have improved my ability to read between the lines instead of just taking words at face value. Since the extremely complex Japanese writing system relies heavily on the use of Chinese characters, the road to becoming fully literate in this language can be very long. But once you get there, you realize it was all worth it.

When I started my career as a translator, I had the opportunity to get to know the language even better. I needed to learn how to interpret a large variety of texts in Japanese more accurately, which can be a very tricky task. For this blog post, I have decided to list a few characteristics of the Japanese language that can make a translator's job quite challenging.

1. Subject omission

Japanese is a high-context language. Although context dependency is a common characteristic observed in many different languages, it is particularly apparent in Japanese, especially when it comes to the issue of subject omission. As a translator, you will often come across sentences where the subject has been left out. If your target language is English, it means you will need to infer the subject from the context since most English sentences require one. To avoid any mistranslations, it is therefore very important never to lose the thread when reading a text in Japanese.

2. No gender or number markers

Subject omission also occurs in many other languages such as Italian or Spanish. What makes Japanese a bit more challenging, however, is the fact that there are (almost) no gender or number markers to speak of. The word "taberu" ("eat"), for instance, can mean "I eat," "she eats," or even "they will eat" when used in isolation. That, combined with the tendency to leave out the grammatical subject, is part of the reason why context is everything in Japanese, which takes some getting used to if you are not a native speaker.

3. Honorific expressions

In addition to its highly context-sensitive nature, the Japanese language is extremely rich in various honorific expressions, which reflect the characteristics of the social system in Japan. More often than not, these expressions have no clear counterparts in English or other European languages, so you are often faced with the same translation dilemma: should I translate a particular honorific expression for the sake of accuracy or should I just leave it out simply because it makes the translation sound too unnatural?
Such expressions can sometimes be entirely untranslatable, so you have no choice but to move away from the source text and make sure your translation follows the cultural conventions of the target language.

4. Japanese-made English words

The Japanese lexicon includes a plethora of English borrowings and English-based expressions. The former are actual loanwords from English, whereas the latter are English-based words coined in Japan. The words in the second group can be surprisingly tricky to translate simply because they usually have nothing to do with their English counterparts. For instance, the word "one meter" (pronounced "wan mētā" in Japanese) refers to the basic taxi fare, i.e. the fare you pay for the first stretch of the journey when you take a taxi (the exact amount and distance depend on the region and type of vehicle). Although context usually helps, such expressions can be rather difficult to decipher without a dictionary, and they should be treated as pure Japanese coinages.