Translating Grammar, Nuances, and Cultural Differences into the Japanese Language

Often times, as I am translating documents into Japanese, I wish that things were a little more straightforward. Translating from English into Japanese is like rewriting a sentence entirely, sometimes a whole paragraph, to make the average Japanese person understand the intended meaning. The vast differences between the two languages are astounding.

Even though Japanese uses a set of letters and characters distinct from any other language, I regularly have to explain to my clients that translating from English to Japanese is not like translating between two Latin-based languages.

Many times I receive requests from clients to translate documents that may include a list of words and phrases in English in one column and Japanese in another. I tell them that I am able to translate word-for-word in those columns, but things will become messy, even inaccurate, if the client simply swaps an English word for the corresponding Japanese one but neglects the difference in sentence structure.

The same can happen between any set of languages. When I used to translate from English in my head while trying to speak my very, very limited Portuguese, at least they were both Latin-based languages and followed more similar sentence structures. For the most part, they both followed the subject-verb-object sequence, although the adjective-noun order could be switched around between them. On the other hand, the Japanese language follows an entirely different sentence structure: the subject-object-verb sequence. Because of this sequence, it is easy to see how confusion could arise when trying to translate a simple sentence like “I own a dog whose name is Pooch.”

To illustrate my point, I will do a word-for-word translation, similar to what my clients might request, only this time from Japanese to English. For the above sentence about my dog, it will show up English as: “I a Pooch named dog own,” or “Watashi wa Pochi to iu namae no inu o katte imasu” in Japanese. Because of the vast grammatical difference between the two languages, and the need for translating grammar, I have to translate sentence for sentence, whether written or orally. Although simultaneous oral interpretation keeps you on your toes as you have to memorize an entire sentence on the spot before translating from Japanese to English, because you wouldn’t be able to know the verb until the end of the sentence.

Technology has come a long way to assist translators by using software like Trados or even Google Translate. For a simple sentence like the example about my dog, even Google Translate does a decent job. When a compound sentence like, “I have a black dog, whose name is Pooch, that is a Chocolate Lab that was given to me by my Father when I was ten,” you can forget using machine translation. It is dreadful to translate run-on sentences. An English speaker is able to keep adding details to the end of each segment in a sentence, but it is a nightmare for a translator whose job is to translate it into Japanese. Speaking in concise and simple sentence structures allows for better job efficiency when interpreting and translating projects.

Nuances and the tone of the original texts. As a translator, I am mindful to preserve the general tone of the original sentences when re-writing them into Japanese. Is a man or a woman speaking? Are they younger or older? Speaking casually or formally? These are essential qualities to consider.

I’ve written another blog entry about the different dialects within the Japanese language where I illustrate this point further. I suppose this aspect of translation is not unique to the English-Japanese partnership, and it is certainly not as cumbersome as the grammatical differences between the two, as I mentioned earlier.

Often times I come across expressions in English that are “so American” or “so British” that I have to step back and think about how to properly convey its meaning to an average Japanese person. These cultural differences are the reasons why a translator must be creative and willing to go the extra mile to accurately communicate the meaning of an expression from one language to another. For example, we know that to “go the extra mile” does not mean someone has to physically walk or drive an extra mile to accomplish his or her task. It is an expression meaning that someone has to put extra effort into making something happen or complete. In this case, I might choose to translate it as “someone doing a complete work or a thorough job.” In my mind, expressions and idioms are the most fun aspect of translation work, as they exercise my creative writing skills in Japanese.

Jokes are also an aspect of translation that requires a degree of care, as this is where I see the most significant differences between the cultures of the United States and Japan. In the United States, I am used to jokes that have hidden meanings, innuendo, and sarcasm. In contrast, most Japanese don’t understand sarcasm, as it is simply not a part of Japanese culture. As a Japanese who has lived in the United States for almost 10 years, I have since had my share of awkward situations when attempting to be sarcastic in Japan. A story, perhaps, for another blog post!

About Kazumichi Hattori

I’m a native Japanese translator based in New York, USA. I’ve worked on everything from brochure translation to website translation, and even translations for medical journals and historical Japanese documents. I mostly focus on science and engineering.