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The challenges associated with translating Japanese into English

The challenges associated with translating Japanese into English [Photo: iStock]
in Retail and Ecommerce

Earlier this year, it was famously reported that translators in Japan were having particular difficulty when it came to translating speeches by US president Donald Trump. From his unique turns of phrase to his contrasting style to previous president Barack Obama, Japanese translators were reportedly 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 those tasked with transcribing his speeches for a Japanese audience to do so in a way that was easy to understand. 

Even with this comedy example excluded, translations between Japanese and English, in either direction, are difficult to execute perfectly. However, it's something that 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 viewers in North America, to the extent that Takaaki Kidani, founder and owner of the company's parent company Bushiroad estimates that 55 per cent of its streaming audience now comes from outside the US, and primarily North America. 

Such a swell in audience can present a challenge for Japanese companies, who need to update their communications and websites to meet the needs of an English speaking audience. There are a number of particular challenges associated with such translations that need to be overcome. Here, we have a look at just a few of these. 

The complex style of kanji

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 for a real challenge for those who are translating from Japanese into English. 

Kanji differs from written English in a number of ways. Rather than using various words and clauses to show meanings and structure, kanji relies on different strokes on complex character sets that show their meaning from stroke placement, their placing within a set of characters and different ways of interpreting each. 

The simple problem this causes is that there is just 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 practitioner with a strong understanding of both languages and their written forms to make sure nothing loses its meaning when moving from Japanese to English. 

Non literal translations

Japanese has 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 can take a skilled translator to make sure they are able to put something on paper that makes sense in English, but still retains the 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. 

Differences in grammar

Another major challenge that can emerge when going from Japanese to English with translation services is that the grammar used in the two languages is often completely different, with no equivalents shared between the two. This creates yet another headache for the translator, who needs to be highly skilled in both languages just to ensure content is translated in a way that is close enough to the original, even when exact translations may not be possible. 

Some of the biggest grammatical differences between the two languages include the fact that there are no definite and indefinite articles in Japanese, and there are no plurals used in the Japanese language, which means that the way of measuring numbers in written Japanese can change in every case depending on what's being counted. 

Other difficult hurdles to overcome include the fact that a lot of the 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. 

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages in the world for translators to deal with thanks to its complexity, and the fact that many aspects of the language are completely alien to English speakers. It means that those who are having to translate from Japanese into English need to have not only an understanding of both languages, but also an in-depth knowledge of what makes them different, and how to handle things that don't exist in each language to make sure the text retains as much of its meaning as possible when translated. 

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