Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Or: Why Japanese Is Particularly Difficult to Translate
Unlike European languages like Spanish or French, Japanese is obviously quite unrelated to English. This makes for a number of notable differences between them, and some of these differences are factors which make translation between them difficult.
1. Number (singular vs. plural)
Singular and plural nouns and pronouns are very rarely distinguished in Japanese, and singular and plural verbs are never distinguished. While this is one feature that makes it easy for English speakers to learn the language, it plays hob with Japanese-to English translators. (There are obviously many other headaches for learners, including the completely foreign and quite complex writing system, a totally foreign vocabulary, except for some borrowed English words that are usually extensively changed during the transfer, and some very interesting idiosyncrasies in the basic ways the language is used in communication.)
One simply has to know, starting out on a Japanese sentence, whether all the nouns, pronouns, and verbs are meant to be singular or plural. If one is translating a patent application, for example, it is often necessary to look at the drawings provided in it to see whether there is one screw or more than one in the device.
2. Sentence structure
In every Japanese sentence, the main clause comes at the end, with all subordinate clauses ahead of it. The verb of every clause comes at the end of it, and what would be relative clauses in English, for example:
"the man who telephoned me yesterday was a complete stranger"
are simply placed in front of the nouns they modify
"yesterday me-to telephoned man complete stranger was"
(note that there are no words exactly corresponding to "the" and "a," either).
This means that long, complex Japanese sentences, such as those often encountered in patents and scientific journal articles, often require some thought, before they are translated, to determine how the corresponding English sentence needs to be constructed.
The fact that there is nothing in Japanese corresponding to the genders and cases in many European languages can also add to the difficulty of translation, although it makes the job of learning the language somewhat easier than when an English speaker is tackling French, German, or Russian, for example.
I like to compare the job of translating such Japanese sentences to writing each word or phrase on a separate index card, tossing the cards into the air, and sorting the pile of cards on the floor into proper English order. With practice, this becomes easier and faster to do, but especially long, complex sentences still often take some trouble.
3. Omission of words that English speakers would expect to see
It might appear that a basic principle that Japanese speakers and writers use is to omit everything in a sentence that the listener or reader would be expected to know. I think that this may be a way of showing respect to the listener's or reader's intelligence. Putting in "useless" words would give the impression that the other person is of substandard brain power. However, these omissions can be quite confusing to non-Japanese persons who are actually quite intelligent. "Who is speaking in this sentence?" "What are they talking about?" "And what is the point of it, after all?" These are some of the questions that puzzle you until you have spent a considerable time as a learner of the language.
Also, first-person pronouns––"I" and "we"––almost never appear in spoken or written Japanese sentences, perhaps because of Japanese ingrained modesty. For example, a novice learner of Japanese, working from a bilingual dictionary, might express the sentiment "I love you" as
"Watashi ["I," polite form] wa [a particle marking the topic the sentence is about] "anata" ["you"] wo [particle marking the object of the verb] aishimasu ["love," polite form––the learner hasn't yet learned intimate verb forms].
But the Japanese lover would probably say
"Kimi ["you"––familiar form] ga [particle marking the subject of the sentence] daisuke ["very fond of"] da ["am"––familiar form] yo [roughly, "you know"]
or something similar (assuming that a man is talking; a woman would end with "wa," assuming that she is comfortable with traditional women's speech. And probably even just
"Daisuke da yo"
using the principle mentioned above of omitting "useless" words.
When two Japanese people who are well acquainted with each other, or who belong to the same group of professionals, hobbyists, etc., are communicating, this principle means that everything that each person would reasonably expect the other to be familiar with is omitted. The result is what English speakers would consider a stripped-down sentence, that would take them some effort to decode until they became familiar with the language.
This is why I am very reluctant to accept jobs of translating emails between employees of the same company, because, not being one of their colleagues, I simply can't guess, very often, what they are writing about. Of course, this is often true in written or spoken communication between English speakers who know each other, but the Japanese usually go still farther with these omissions.
4. Ambiguities and culture gaps
Translators of all languages have to deal constantly with words in the "source" language, the language they are translating, that might have several different meanings in the one they are translating into, the "target" language. But the fact that the Japanese have developed their culture entirely separately from English-speaking cultures obviously compounds this translating problem, compared with languages in the same family, such as Indo-European languages.
These are only a few of the disparities between Japanese and English that translators must wrestle with every day. A comprehensive collection of problems faced by translators of Japanese to English can be found in Japanese-English Translation by Judy Wakabayashi (Routledge, 2021). The examples in it are mostly written in Japanese, since it is aimed at professional translators, but skimming through it will show you the wide range of subjects translators must constantly deal with.