Six Interesting Notes about Japanese Translation

Japanese is spoken by slightly less than 200 million people around the world. The vast majority of the speakers live in Japan with the next two regions being Brazil and the United States. Since World War II, Japan has become an economic and technological powerhouse. As such, millions of documents get translated into and from Japanese every year. Consider these interesting facts about Japanese translation:

1. Japanese has three different types of writing: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. It is often considered the most complex system of written language in the world. To write Japanese, you need to memorize all of the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets. Then, you will need to learn several hundred of the many thousand Kanji symbols. The Japanese ministry of Education has required nearly 2,000 Kanji to be learned by Japanese students prior to graduating from high school.

2. While the system of writing may take some time to learn, Japanese itself is a fairly simple language. There are no verb conjugations, no articles, and the nouns are non-gendered. It is far easier to speak Japanese than it is to write it. This goes to strengthen the argument that not every bilingual speaker makes a good translator.

3. One tricky part of Japanese sentence construction comes from the verb placement: in Japanese, verbs fall at the end of the sentence. This means you have to listen politely to the whole sentence before you can understand what is being said. In English, the subject and verb are typically given at the front end of a sentence. Complicating matters, in Japanese, subjects are often understood. You not only have to wait until the end of the sentence to learn the verb, but then you have to decide what the subject was based on context. When translating Japanese, long sentences can often be confusing because of the verb placement. It is best to keep sentences short and direct.

4. Honorifics play a very important role in the Japanese language. There are several levels of honorifics which must be learned if you are to avoid looking foolish or causing offense. Honorific usage is often determined by a person’s position, but may also be influenced by age or experience. It is always wise to err on the side of giving honor. Texts that do not present the appropriate honorifics will stand out as cheap translations.

5. The Japanese do not like to be rude or openly confrontational, even in written language. This can cause their texts to skirt issues and remain vague on the subject matter. Often a simple phrase will take a paragraph or more to explain, if it is explained at all. This can lead to difficulty when translating contracts between Western countries who are typically very blunt with their contract language and the much more evasive and polite language of the Japanese.

6. For a very long time Japan submitted the most patent applications to the United States for translation. Since 2011, China has taken over the number one spot, but Japan remains a firm second with tens of thousands of patent application submitted each year. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of the patent applications in the United States each year are from Japanese individuals or firms, far more than Americans in their own country.

Japanese is a fascinating language, and it is one of the main languages of international commerce. While it is not an official language of the United Nations, it is an essential language within the field of technology and is a great stepping stone language for anyone interested in tackling Korean.

Because of the complexities of the Japanese writing system and the deep cultural impacts upon the language, it is essential that your translator is fully fluent in both the source and target languages as well as the cultures of both languages. Anything less than full fluency will make your translations appear cheap and unprofessional.

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