Ginstrom IT Solutions (GITS)

Japanese-to-English Translation Pitfalls


The task of translating Japanese into English abounds with pitfalls. The structures of the language are so different, that unthinkingly transferring word order/terminology from Japanese into English can lead to a translation that is awkward at best, and just plain wrong at worst.

A big problem is that often, it is hard to point to one particular sentence and say, "This is wrong." But taken in their totality, these kinds of errors make a translation read like, well, a translation.

Capture the content, not the form

Translators often feel like they have to carry over every word in the Japanese into the English. This is especially true of newer translators who are still unsure of themselves. For this reason, lots of Japanese-like bits in a translation is a pretty good sign of a "scrub" translator.

For example, Japanese uses a lot of "classifying" endings. The most typical of these are the counters (人、個、本, etc.), but there are lots of others, such as 型, タイプ, and the like. Translators are often nervous about leaving these words out of their translations, so you end up with odd-sounding English like:

Awkward Better
New waterproof-type gizmo  New waterproof gizmo
Populations of Tiny Towns
Tinyburg: 4 people
Smallsville: 16 people
Populations of Tiny Towns
Tinyburg: 4
Smallsville: 16

Combined with the dreaded 単位 on a graph axis, this can get awkward indeed:

Awkward Better
Unit: million people  millions
(It will usually be obvious that we are talking about people)
Unit: ¥10,000 thousands of yen
(I tend to want to revise the numbers when I get units of 万 or 億. Clients can be resistant to this, however.)

Another common pair of words that can and often should be written around is 元/先:

Japanese Awkward translation Better translation
転送元と転送先を指定して、「OK」ボタンを押す。 Specify a transfer source and transfer destination, then press the "OK" button. Specify a sender and recipient, then click OK.
コピー先 Copy destination Copy to:

Correctly order letters and numbers

Often, the order of letters/numbers will need to be reversed in the English translation. Getting the order wrong is just plain wrong, yet is pretty common when a sloppy translator is combined with a clueless client.

Japanese Bad translation Good translation
B社 B Company Company B
1チャンネル 1 channel Channel 1

Verbify your nouns

Japanese likes to use nouns, and English likes to use verbs. This is a big generalization, but like many generalizations, holds some truth (in general!). Whenever I see 行う, 実施, or other such "verbifiers" in Japanese, I start thinking about how to squeeze an active verb out of the sentence.

Japanese Awkward translation Better translation


Research relating to the issue was carried out. The company researched the issue.
(Don't be afraid to stick in a subject)
お客様に本ソフトウェアの提供が行われた以降は、... Since the provision of the software to the customer was carried out... Since we began offering the software...
(Customer is understood)

Don't bury modifiers

A typical Japanese sentence pattern will be to have a topic, sentence modifier, then the meat of the sentence. Preserving this order in English often leads to stilted, unnatural English. Here are some examples:

Japanese Awkward translation Better translation


Company A, in March 2003, launched sales of a new product. In March 2003, Company A launched sales of a new product.
A社は、致命的なバグのため、発売直後製品を回収した。 Company A, due to a fatal bug, recalled the product immediately after launching sales. Due to a critical bug, Company A recalled the product immediately after launching sales.

Which ties in to the next topic:

Don't be a slave to the topic structure of Japanese discourse

The typical topic-subject pattern of Japanese discourse has little place in English texts. When I see a topical は, において, or the like, I try to figure out the grammatical role of the topic and put it into its proper place in the English sentence. A translation full of "As for X ...," and "In relation to Y, ..." is just painful to read. Even worse are things like "As for Japan, there are recently many translators in Japan." Just say no!

Here are some examples:

Japanese Awkward translation Better translation


As for the apple, Taro ate it.  Taro ate the apple.


As for elephants, their noses are long.  Elephants have long trunks.
(The reader will need to forgive my geeky linguistics background creeping in.)
この本は貴重な本である。 This book is an invaluable book
(The song plays in my head: Our house, is a very very very fine house...)
This is an invaluable book.

Use active voice

The passive can be a good way to handle a Japanese sentence without an overt subject – especially when you (and the author!) don't know what the subject is. Overuse of the passive, however, makes for bad English. Heck, this is something that even the MS Word grammar checker knows. And you're smarter than some dumb grammar checker, right?

As a general rule, where Japanese drops the subject or object of a verb (sometimes referred to as the "null pronoun"), English uses a pronoun. Pronouns are your friends – use them liberally! Let the structure of the English discourse guide you on whether to use a full noun, pronoun, or passive, not whether the subject is overt in the Japanese.

Be succinct

Be as concise as possible. Don't say in three words what you can say in two. Don't repeat the same thought over and over. Don't drag on and on... you get the point.

As I translate, I am looking for ways to say things with fewer words. And I set a goal for myself to shorten my translations with every review. Before the review, I get a word count of the document, then after the review, do another one. If the word count hasn't gone down significantly, I start looking for excess verbiage.

Reality check: Is this how it is said in English?

Finally, after you have translated a chunk of text, you have to ask yourself a question: Is this how it is said in English? Or is this translationese? The ability to answer this question depends critically on being able to write convincingly in the target language and subject, which is arguably the most difficult skill for the translator to master. The ability to perform a reality check on your translations, however, could spell the difference between a mediocre and great translation.