Skip to content

Tips for English to Japanese Translation

Country Specific, Language Translation Facts

Tips for English to Japanese Translation

Japanese is a complex language to master.  English to Japanese translation can be challenging due to the various differences between the two languages.

In addition to lingual differences, you may need to consider cultural differences for the Japanese market. The Japanese culture prefers a more visual manner of display. As you may notice, many Japanese websites are loaded with images, graphs and drawings. To capture Japanese audiences, you may want to consider redesigning your website to suit their preferences.

In this blog, I’d like to point out the language differences between English and Japanese.

Language Origin and Culture

Japanese and English come from completely different linguistic origins. Many words in one language have no direct translation in the other.

You may say to your co-workers, “bye, see you tomorrow,” as you leave from work in the U.S.  In Japan, 99% of the time, they say, “otsukaresamadeshita,” which literally means, “you are tired,” but in this context it means, “I appreciate all your hard work; rest well now.”  There is no English word or phrase that can capture the essence of “otsukaresamadeshita” in all of its potential meanings.

SOV in Japanese vs. SVO in English

Japanese sentences are structured in the order of subject, object and then verb. English is ordered as subject, verb and then object.

Example:

English: This flower is beautiful.
Japanese: This flower beautiful is.

When translating a sentence, the translator will have to look at the entire sentence and change the word order. Therefore, it is important to keep the entire sentence intact without any line breaks in the middle. For example, if you insert line breaks like below, it will not work well with a translation tool since it will recognize each line as a sentence and the translator will have a difficult time translating the sentence.

I went to Big Island with my sister,
Nancy, and had a wonderful lunch
at a café by the beach.

The Subject is Often Omitted in Japanese

In Japanese, the subject, or even object, is often omitted.

Example:

English: I love you.
Japanese: (I) You love.
(If the subject is “I,” the subject should be omitted to sound natural).
(I you) Love. (And the object is often omitted as well)

English: Do you go?  Are you going?
Japanese: Go?  (If the subject is “you,” the subject should be omitted to sound natural).

In these cases, keeping the subject and/or object in the translation is not incorrect, but it does not sound natural in Japanese.

No Singular or Plural in Japanese

On top of omitting the subject, there is no differentiation between plural and singular in Japanese, making translation quite difficult, especially from Japanese to English.

Example:

English: I/you/he/she/they received an apple/apples from Nancy.

Japanese: Nancy from apple received.

In this example, when reading the Japanese sentence, you do not know if the person (or persons) received one apple or multiple apples. Also, it is not clear who received the apple. These details must be taken from the context, but the context may not be enough to clarify.

Japanese Prefer an Indirect Way of Communication

Japanese try to avoid directness, preferring to use vague or ambiguous communication. A word or phrase often contains multiple meanings.

Example:

English: I don’t like it.
Japanese: It’s not my taste.

A direct translation is certainly not wrong, but it may be too strong or offensive in the Japanese culture. It is recommended to use translations that will be appealing within the culture.

Writing Styles in Japanese: Standard and Formal

For an English to Japanese translation project, the style should be decided before the project starts.

  • Standard/casual/informal form (da/dearu style): Commonly used in novels, news and official documents.
  • Polite/formal form (desu/masu style).

For websites, polite/formal form is more often used, but this needs to be decided at the beginning of the project.

Japanese uses different levels of honorific expressions (Keigo-敬語) depending on the situation. There are three main levels (categories) of honorifics in Japanese: sonkeigo, kenjōgo and teineigo.

English Dictionary word Respectful
(Sonkeigo尊敬語)
Humble
(Kenjōgo謙譲語)
Polite
(Teineigo丁寧語)
see / look 見る

miru

ご覧になる

goran ni naru

拝見する

haiken suru

見ます

mimasu

These need to be carefully considered during translation.

Japanese Uses Half-Width or Full-Width Characters for Alphanumeric Letters

Because of these variations, it is very important to establish the style guide and glossary at the beginning of the project.

Example:
BBC, CIA, USA
vs. BBC,CIA,USA.
2018
1225 vs. 2018年12月25日

Japanese Uses 3 Character Sets: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

Hiragana and Katakana are the Japanese phonetic alphabets. They contain 46 symbols each representing every sound in the Japanese language. Katakana is commonly used for words that have been borrowed or originated from foreign languages. Kanji are Chinese characters and each character represents a meaning. Often Japanese use Kanji and Hiragana together to form a word. Hiragana is also used wherever Kanji characters can’t be used.

Again, establishing the style guide and glossary becomes very important for Japanese because of all these variations.