Translating to Japanese: The Top Challenges

by | Mar 12, 2020

Translating to Japanese is complex one reason being that Japanese has three character sets. Image shows a Japanese girl writing in kanji script.

Japan is one of the world’s leading industrial powers and a “must” market for any international company. Japan is home to 127 million citizens and the country offers a stable business market that encourages trade and foreign investment. However, success in Japan comes with the necessity to navigate the geographic, linguistic (translating to Japanese) and cultural diversity of Japanese society. With that said, International organisations can take full advantage of the many benefits of doing business in Japan, including:

  • A highly educated workforce.
  • Dedicated employees.
  • Strong work ethic.
  • Discerning Consumers.
  • High levels of household expenditure.

Translating to Japanese

Japanese is considered to be one of the most complicated languages in the world for a non-native speaker. It’s structurally quite different from English, has far fewer words, and is missing a definite future tense. The complexity of the Japanese language earns it a place on the list of the most difficult languages to learn and to translate. It doesn’t help with respect to translating to Japanese that Japanese has no relation to any other language and that it comes with three character sets called kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Because of this complexity, an accurate translation requires complete attention to detail. The following describes the major challenges faced by translators working with the Japanese language.

  • Kanji consists of more than 2,000 complex characters that originated from Chinese. Each character represents a concept.
  • Hiragana has 46 characters that are much simpler and take fewer strokes to write. Where kanji characters represent concepts, hiragana characters function in the same way as English letters. They don’t have intrinsic meaning buy just represent sounds. This means that any Japanese word that is written in kanji can also be written in hiragana.
  • Most Japanese sentences are made up of a combination of of kanji and hiragana. For example, when writing a verb, kanji is used for the basic concept, then hiragana changes the pronunciation and adds more meaning, such as a tense.
  • Katakana‘s main function is to transcribe “loanwords” (words coming from other languages), a great many of which come from the English language.

Kanji Is Complicated

Japanese has no less than three independent writing systems and each one comes with its own alphabet. Kanji, one of the primary writing styles, includes complex characters that are used to depict concepts. Instead of depending on words and phrases to represent meaning, Kanji relies on different strokes that get their sense from the way they are placed within a set of characters. What’s more, there are over 2,000 characters that are in everyday use plus another few thousand or so characters that are employed only occasionally. With this number of characters, it is essential that a translator who is a native to the Japanese language be involved in the Japanese translation process.

Cultural Nuances Add Further Challenges

Translation into any language requires translators to pay close attention to cultural nuances to ensure that the correct context is represented. This is especially true for translating to Japanese because sentences need to be broken down into smaller segments in order for cultural nuances to be represented in a natural-sounding way. For example, Japanese grammar expresses a sense of formality and politeness, which is something that is essential for a translation to capture. A translation that is too informal, especially if it is related to a high-end product or service, will sound strange to a Japanese reader.

When Translating to Japanese, Translations Can’t Be Literal

There are many words and phrases that are used in Japanese writing that do not correspond to words and phrases in English. This makes it quite difficult to translate from Japanese into English and vise-versa. As such, the translation of abstract concepts poses a unique challenge for translators. Here are some missteps made by Taco Bell.

  • Cheesy Chips was translated as Low-Quality Chips.
  • Crunchwrap Supreme – Beef was poorly translated as Supreme Court Beef.
  • We’ve got nothing to hide became What did we bring here to hide it.

Translating to Japanese: More Things to be Aware of

There Are No Plural Nouns

Japanese nouns do not differentiate between singular and plural forms. This means that translators have to go by the context of the words. However, difficulties arise because there is often no way to be sure whether the word is meant to be singular or plural.

Pronoun Choices Are Not Obvious

In English, choosing the right pronoun to use is simple, but that is often not the case in Japanese. Some Japanese expressions do not provide any clues about the gender of the person being referenced. This makes it difficult to figure out which gender-specific pronoun to use.

Verb Placement Is Different

In the English language, the subject and the verb are generally placed toward the beginning of the sentence; in Japanese, verbs are situated at the end. Furthermore, in Japanese, subjects are often understood, rather than being stated. This means that readers have to base their understanding of the subject on the context of the sentence.

Tenses Pose Difficulties

English grammar provides three tenses – past, present, and future. In contrast, the Japanese language uses only two tenses – past and non-past. When describing either the present or the future, the non-past tense is used.

No Spaces Between Words

Japanese writing doesn’t have any spaces between different words. Although you might think that this means every sentence in Japanese must be a confusing mass of language bits, written Japanese usually contains patterns with kanji and hiragana alternating. Kanji forms the basic vocabulary and hiragana provides the grammatical context.

Translating to Japanese – Final Thoughts

With the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics taking place in Tokyo, you might be taking the opportunity to increase your presence in the Japanese market. When working with Japanese, there are many grammar rules and nuances that are less intuitive than those of other languages. Because of the variety of challenges presented by translating to Japanese, the translator must be a native Japanese speaker. Not only that, the translator’s expertise in the subject matter is critical in order to avoid unintended mistakes. Using Localize, your Japanese translator can fully integrate with our translation and localization platform. Even though translating to Japanese is not easy, an expert translation will give you great access to the lucrative Japanese market Book a consultation with us to learn how we can help you succeed with a Japanese audience.