The Top 8 Challenges in Japanese Translation


Considered to be one of the most complex languages worldwide, Japanese can also be one of the most difficult languages to translate. With three character sets and no relation to any other language, Japanese requires complete attention to detail to be accurately translated. Here are the top eight challenges that translators face when working with the language.

1. Kanji is a Complicated Writing Style

One of the primary writing styles of Japan is Kanji, which includes complex characters that depict concepts.  Instead of relying on words and phrases to represent meaning, Kanji depends on different strokes that indicate their meaning from their placement within a set of characters. There are more than 2,000 characters that are commonly used in Kanji, with another few thousand characters that are occasionally used. With so many characters, it is critical that a translator who is a native to the language be involved in the translation process.

2. Cultural Nuances Add Challenges

When embarking on any translation, linguists have to pay close attention to cultural nuances to ensure that the translation is accurate and that the correct context is represented. This is especially true with Japanese since the language necessitates that translators break down sentences into smaller pieces to truly represent the cultural nuances in a natural-sounding way. For example, the Japanese language system of grammar expresses a sense of formality and politeness, which is something that is essential for the translator to capture.

3. Translations are not Literal

Numerous words and phrases that are used in Japanese writing do not have corresponding words in English, making it difficult to translate from Japanese to English. The primary challenge is writing something that makes sense in English while retaining the intended Japanese meaning. As such, translating abstract concepts can pose unique challenges for translators.

Consider the mistakes that were made when Taco Bell created its Japanese website. “Cheesy chips” was mistakenly translated as “low-quality chips,” while “Crunchwrap Supreme – Beef” became “Supreme Court Beef.” In addition, the slogan, “We’ve got nothing to hide,” was poorly translated to read, “What did we bring here to hide it.”

4. Plural Nouns are not Distinguishable

Because Japanese nouns do not differentiate between singular and plural forms, translators must rely on the context of the words. However, there is often no way to be certain whether the word is meant to be singular or plural, which makes the translation that much more difficult. Additionally, because there are no clear plural nouns, the way of counting regularly changes, even when using pronouns and adjectives.

5. Pronoun Choices are Often not Obvious

In the English language, choosing the correct pronoun is simple to do, but that is frequently not the case in Japanese. Since some expressions do not give context clues about the gender of the person being referenced, it is difficult to determine which gender-specific pronoun to use in translation. As an example, if a person in a novel is referred to in a generic way, that person could either be a female or a male, and it would be difficult to figure out which gender is being portrayed.

6. The Placements of Subjects and Verbs are Different

When working with Japanese, there are many grammar rules or nuances that might seem less intuitive than with other languages; this is the case with the use of subjects and verbs in Japanese as compared to English. In English, the subject and the verb are usually given toward the beginning of the sentence, whereas, in Japanese, verbs are placed at the end of the sentence. Furthermore, in Japanese, subjects are frequently understood, rather than stated, meaning that readers have to base their understanding of the subject on the context of the sentence.

7. Tenses Pose Difficulties

In the Japanese language, there are two tenses – past and non-past. To describe either the present or the future, one would use the non-past tense. This can be confusing when translating to English, which has three clear tenses – past, present, and future.

8. The Translator’s Subject Matter Expertise is Vital

Because of the variety of challenges that are associated with Japanese translations, the translator’s subject matter expertise is critical to ensuring a successful translation. If the translators do not have the same level of knowledge as the readers of the translated text, they will not be able to understand if the document is meeting its intended goal. Additionally, the audience of the content will clearly know whether the word choices accurately represent the information being translated.


With the 2020 Summer Olympics coming to Tokyo, companies might need to increase their presence in the Japanese market. To successfully achieve this goal, precise translations are necessary. At Ulatus, we can help you reach new markets with our Japanese translation services.

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