Japanese To English Translation Tips

Here are some thoughts that I have had while translating documents from Japanese to English. Language is not absolute, so feel free to disagree with my ideas.

False Friends

バックナンバー –> Back Number

We say “back issue”, not “back number”. If you do an internet search for the words “back number”, you will see back issues for a lot of Japanese publications.

調和 –> Harmony

The word “harmony” is over-used in translations from Japanese to English. The translation is not incorrect, but the word “harmony” is not used very much in English, so when it shows up in translated documents, it can make the reader think there is something strange about the translation. (It seems like too direct a translation, like the translator didn’t take the time to find the right word.) Also, when we do use this word in English, it is to convey a kind of unattainable ideal, so the word is too strong or too “sweet” for mosts contexts. The meaning of 「調和」 and “harmony” match, but the usage and the nuance do not.

趣味 –> Hobby

In English, a hobby is something that you have worked on for a long time, something you have acquired specialized knowledge about, and it generally involves actively making or doing something. Also, the word “hobby” is not really used by young people. It feels a bit outdated. Rather than saying, “What are your hobbies?”, it is better to ask “What are you interested in?” or “What do you enjoy doing?”

推進、促進、宣伝、奨励、振興 –> Promotion

One of the most beloved words in official documents (especially proposals) is a word that roughly translates as “promotion”. However, there are very few cases in which the use of the word “promotion” is a good word choice in English. One of the best options is to omit the word from the English translation. This is particularly true when the word occurs as a part of an office name, e.g. “Office for the Promotion of Recycling”. Unless there is an office somewhere in your building that is trying to discourage people from recycling, and you want to distinguish yourself from them, you can probably just use “Recycling Office”.

テーマ –> Theme

The word “theme” exists in English, but it is used differently from the way テーマ is used in Japanese. A better translation for テーマ is “topic” (or “subject”).

中 –> Medium

In Japan, you might see a menu where you are offered something in small (小) and medium (中) sizes, but not in large (大) size. In English, the terms small, medium, and large come as a trio that cannot be split up. If you only have two sizes of something, you have small and large. You cannot only have small and medium sizes because “medium” means “middle” and in this case, there is no “middle”. Also, in Japanese, it is possible to have a 中期計画, which can be translated as a medium-term plan, perhaps lasting about 5 years. However, an English person will want to know about your short-term and long-term plans if you tell them about your medium-term plan. If you don’t have specific short- and long-term plans, it is better to translate 中期計画 as “five-year plan” or something else that indicates how long it will take.

特に –> Especially

特に is often used at the beginning of sentences in Japanese. “in particular” is usually a better choice in this case than “especially”. However, it is possible to use “especially” as an adverb.
× I like cars. Especially I like Ferraris.
○ I like cars. In particular, I like Ferraris.
○ I like cars. I especially like Ferraris.

目的、目標 –> Aims To

The expression “aims to” is often used in headlines:
e.g. UN Aims To Set Example in Carbon Offsetting
However, this expression is not a good choice as a translation of 「目的」 or 「目標」 in the context of normal writing (e.g. “This project aims to…). A workaround should be used (e.g. “The objective of the project is to…”).

Formatting

Brackets

It is common to see headings and titles in Japanese surrounded by brackets.
e.g. [Article 1]
This is the text of article 1 about something…
In English, brackets indicate something you are allowing the reader to ignore. Since it is not likely that you want the reader to ignore your headings, you should not put your headings in brackets in English.

Tricky Words

Grid

A grid is a network of horizontal and vertical lines that divide something into sections, so this word refers to the whole network, not to a single spot within it. To refer to the sections of a grid, you can use “squares” or “sections”.

Switcheroo

Acronyms in Text

In Japanese, it is common to list the acronym first and then include the full name in brackets.
e.g. WHO (World Health Organization)
In English, it is more common to list the full name first and the put the acronym in brackets.
e.g. World Health Organization (WHO)

Translate the Sense not the Structure

One Japanese Sentence = Multiple English Sentences

There is a very bad trend in JapaneseEnglish translation to translate one single sentence from the base language into another single sentence in the target language. This is common practice, but it usually means that the resulting document is stilted. Japanese usually tolerates longer and more complicated sentence structure. English usually demands clarity above intricacy. It’s okay to make one Japanese sentence into more than one English sentence. If it improves the reader’s experience and the likelihood that the content will be understood, it should (in theory) be done without hesitation. However, some clients want to be able to do line-by-line comparisons of the translation with the original document, so they may insist that you stick to one-to-one translation. Be sure to inform them that their preference in this matter may affect the readability of the translated document.

6 thoughts on “Japanese To English Translation Tips

  1. Meconium

    Nice summary. As far as テーマ goes, I always assumed it was an import from German, rather than English – German has the noun Thema, which has exactly the same nuance (issue, matter, question, subject, topic) as the Japanese loanword.

  2. Shaney

    Oh, that would make sense. I always wondered where it came from as it is really not a good fit with English. Thanks for the information!

  3. Mariko

    You picked up the words I always had question marks on when translating Japanese to English.
    Thanks!
    By the way, I always feel よろしくお願いします,すみません,お疲れ様ですare the 3 big words that are used widely in Japanese in various situations, but do not exist in English. These words are very convenient but are one of the hardest words to translate. I know the translation will differ according to the context, but could you give me some examples of how you would translate these words?

  4. Shaney

    Hi Mariko,

    Great question!

    I think that those three expressions can be used in a very wide variety of situations in Japanese. There is no direct translation that works perfectly in all of the same situations in English, and in some cases, there is no equivalent at all. What I mean is that there will be some situations where 「よろしくお願いします」 is used in Japanese, but if the same situation took place in English, nothing would be said, or something completely different might be said.

    For example, as you know, 「よろしくお願いします」 can be used as a general salutation when you are saying goodbye to someone to whom you are indebted in some way. That debt may be a specific favour that you have asked that person or it could be something quite general, for example, in the case of a parent saying goodbye to a teacher or a doctor who is caring for her child. In that case, in English, there is no good way to convey the same sentiment that 「よろしくお願いします」automatically conveys in Japanese. The sentiment embedded in 「よろしくお願いします」is something like, “I have asked you for something and I recognize that I am now indebted to you and I hope that you will help me — and continue to help me in the future”. Of course, no one would actually say all of those things in English, and furthermore, the same feeling of indebtedness might not occur to the English speaker. So, if the same exchange were to happen in English, the parent might say “Thank you” (if she feels some sort of indebtedness), or just “Goodbye”, or even say nothing at all if she feels that she has said what she needs to say.

    I think that this is a very important difference between Japanese and English because there are a lot expressions in Japanese that are the exact right thing to say in specific situations and almost all Japanese people will recognize that THAT EXACT EXPRESSION is the correct and acceptable thing to say in that situation. For example, 「お大事に」is what you say as a departing salutation when you are talking to someone who is sick. There are, of course, other ways to say goodbye to sick people, but most Japanese people will (in my experience) generally stick with the standard 「お大事に」. In English, we have the expression “get well soon”, but I would say that that is more of a thing that you write in a greeting card, and not so much something that you would say out loud to a sick person. Other native English speakers might disagree with me — but that is exactly the point. There is no one completely acceptable way to say goodbye to a sick person in English. You might say, “I hope you are feeling better soon” or “I hope you can get over that cold soon” or “Get lots of rest” or you might not address the illness at all. Every person will probably have a different opinion on what would be the best thing to say in this situation, and every person will probably say different things to different people at different times of the day, or at different times in their own lives.

    This poses a serious challenge to people who translate and interpret between Japanese and English, and even more of a problem for people who are studying the languages. There are a lot of set expressions in Japanese, so if you are a learner of Japanese, you are quite lucky because you can just try to learn what the right expression is for the particular situation you are in. English, however, has fewer expressions, so the English language learner is left to her own devices in trying to figure out what to say when going to a funeral or a wedding, talking to a sick person, or asking for a favour.

    So, to summarize, I agree completely that the expressions that you mentioned are extremely convenient. Unfortunately, they are also completely impossible to translate without knowing the context that they are being used in. Furthermore, the translation will depend on my understanding of the context rather than a steadfast rule that “this expression in Japanese” is equivalent to “this expression in English”. Translation is tricky, isn’t it!

  5. Mariko

    Hi Shaney,

    Thanks so much for such a detailed reply regarding my question about J to E translations. I caught your blog while I was searching for tips for J to E translation- a part of my current job. I found your blog to be very intersting since the topics you talk about are stuff that come into my mind while living in Tokyo.
    Oh, to breifly introduce myself, I am Mariko Ishida, 24, working in Tokyo at a American consulting company as a executive assistant. I love dancing and music (perfom occasionally) and would love to spread true love and peace through this form of art. I lived in NY during elementary school and spent my high school days in Melbourne, Australia. I have visited Canada twice- Niagara falls and the Rocky Mountains (family trip with a camping car, was great!). Since I went to Sophia University my educational background is more Western than Japanese, although I am fully Japanese by blood.
    It would be great if you could tell me about your background, are you a freelance translator? Would love to go freelance one day when I get more experience in this field. Do you live in Japan or in Canada?
    Ok, don’t wanna load you too much with my questions, so anyway thanks so much for your kind responce regarding my question, and hope to hear from you soon!
    Have a great evening! (if you are in Japan)

    Regards,

    Mariko

  6. Chhaya

    Hi Shaney,

    Thanks so much for the above information!

    日本の庭木を代表する樹木です。暖かい地方に生息します。お庭の景観に日本風の趣を加えながら、周りの雰囲気と調和します. I translated as-These trees represent Japanese woods. These are widely cultivated in warm regions. They attune to their surrounding ambience while adding a grace of Japanese style to the garden scenery.
    Here can you please explain how to translate “ながら” and also the use of 調和 here?

    One more thing, can you briefly explain the usage of the word “行う” which is often used by Japanese people.

    Best regards,
    chhaya

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