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 It feels a bit outdated.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…”).



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


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”.


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.