January 20, 2021

The challenges of translating Japanese into English

Back in 2017 when Donald Trump became president, it was reported that Japanese translators were struggling to translate his speeches. From his unique turns of phrase to his contrasting style to previous president Barack Obama, translators were facing nightmarish difficulties in translating what they called ‘Trumpese’ language into Japanese.
One translator even told the Independent that his perceived lack of any logic, combined with a seemingly misplaced confidence in everything he said, made it difficult for interpreters to make their Japanese transcriptions make any sense at all. 
But all comedy aside, translations between Japanese and English (and vice versa) are difficult to execute perfectly. Although it's something companies from Japan are increasingly having to do, with their products and services becoming more popular with Western English-speaking audiences. 
One example of this is the professional wrestling streaming service New Japan World, the channel for showcasing the events of Japanese company New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). In recent years, the company has seen a swell of demand from international viewers, particularly in North America. As recently as February 2021 NJPW announced a partnership with The Roku Channel in Canada, the UK and North America to cater for the increased overseas demand.
As a result, Japanese companies are under pressure to update their communications and websites to meet the needs of an English speaking audience. And this certainly comes with its challenges, including these three facts you may not know about the process.  

1. Kanji is complicated
Japanese written content varies incredibly from English. Not using the alphabet as we know it, and instead making use of a very complex style of writing called kanji, makes translation from Japanese into English extremely challenging. 
Kanji differs from written English in a number of ways. Rather than using various words and clauses to show meanings and structure, it relies on different strokes on complex character sets. Meaning comes from stroke placement and positioning within a set of characters – as well as different ways of interpreting each. 
The fact is, there is no English equivalent to how Japanese content writers lay out their sentences and show meaning. For translators, this causes issues as direct translations are not always possible. So it takes a skilled interpreter with a strong understanding of both languages and their written forms to make sure nothing gets lost in translation. 

2. There are non-literal translations
Japanese poses another big problem for translators when it comes to complex sentences and sayings. Because many of the words and phrases that are used by those writing in Japanese have no English equivalent, it takes a skilled translator to put something on paper that makes sense in English while still retaining its original Japanese meaning. 
This makes the translation of concepts and sayings that don't exist in English very hard, and it can take more than one round of translation to make sure everything is done right. 

3. Grammar is vastly different 
Another major challenge translating from Japanese to English is that the grammar used in the two languages is often completely different. With no common ground shared between the two, translators need to be highly skilled in both languages to ensure content is translated close enough to the original – even when exact translations may not be possible. 
Some of the biggest grammatical differences between the two languages stem from the fact there are no plurals or definite and indefinite articles in Japanese. This means measuring numbers in written Japanese can change in every case depending on what's being counted. 
Other tricky hurdle is that meaning in Japanese writing, particularly when it comes to adding to a verb, comes from structural ‘particles’. Once again, these have no equivalent in English, but are important for adding a bit of nuance to sentences in Japanese, so they have to be retained in some way by the translator. 
So, it’s easy to see how the complexity of Japanese makes it one of the most difficult languages in the world for translators to work with. Anyone who translates from Japanese into English has to have an understanding of both languages, as well as an in-depth knowledge of what makes them different. Only then can they make sure their translations retain as much meaning as possible. 
At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing translation services to businesses for more than 17 years. In that time, we’ve grown to service businesses in over 160 languages and over 400 language combinations. We’ve learned what it takes to give brands the linguistic and localisation support they need to break into new international markets and do it well. So if you’d like to learn more about how we can support your business, feel free to get in touch.


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