The Challenges of Translating from English to Japanese and Vice Versa


“Words travel worlds. Translators do the driving” Anna Rusconi Over the last decade or so, the world has seen increased international investments between Japan (the world’s third-largest economy) and the Western world, the UK being one of the major players. Just as there are more Japanese companies taking root in the UK, so are many more British companies establishing themselves in Japan. This increased global interaction therefore requires effective international communication between the two countries, which is much more challenging than perhaps meets the eye. Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages for westerners to learn, particularly English speakers, and the same applies to Japanese speakers learning English, as the grammatical structure of both languages is very different. Below you will find various points that need to be taken into consideration when having a translation carried out between the two languages, English to Japanese and vice versa. Translation brief As with any language, it is important for the client to indicate what exactly it is they require from the translation. It is not just about transferring one word to another word in a different language, there is a lot more to take on board such as the target audience, the culture, the tone of voice, etc. This is where the translation brief comes into play, which is a list of requirements from the client to the translation company. However, the client may not be completely au fait with what it is that they need, which is where communication between the client and translation company is crucial. With reference to translation from English to Japanese and vice versa, communication with the client is particularly essential for the following reasons: -

a) To understand the tone the client wishes the document to portray - Semantics

With regards to Japanese and English, these two languages are worlds apart where linguistic origins are concerned. Many words in one language have no direct translation in the other. Let’s take the Japanese word ‘Otsukaresama’ for example; which literally translates as ‘you are tired’, but it does not mean you are sleep-deprived tired. The actual context of this Japanese word veers towards appreciating someone’s hard work, so would better translate as ‘I appreciate all your hard work’, usually expressed to a colleague at the end of a work day when saying goodbye. However, there is no single English word which captures the nuance of this expression.

The English language is much easier to portray the differences in formality and informality, whereas Japanese is much trickier in deciphering the nuances of tone, as this language has a different style of language for almost every social context. Depending on the person who is being addressed, Japanese will be adjusted to show due respect. For example, if an employee were reading a proposal written by a senior member of staff, and they conveyed to this senior person that ‘I have read your proposal’ (提案書を拝見しました), they would adjust the word ‘read’ to a more humble way of saying this word, to show humility: Kenjo-go (謙譲語).This is where it is essential to know the target audience, so that the correct use of language were to be applied in translation.

Choosing the correct tense is an art as there is no future tense in the Japanese language, nor do plural forms of words exist in Japanese. Verbs, like in the German language, are found at the end of a sentence, unlike in English where the verb gives direction to the sentence. These grammatical complications between the two languages require from the translator the gift of restructuring and finding special measures to communicate the English message.

Japanese written content also 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 (the adopted logographic Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system), makes for a real challenge for those who are translating from Japanese into English. This needs the artistry of a skilled translator with a strong understanding of both languages and their written forms to make sense of it all, and make sure nothing loses its meaning when transferring from Japanese to English, whilst still retaining the original Japanese meaning.

b) To be clear which target audience the client would like to attract - Localisation

As mentioned in the previous point, knowing the target audience is essential, especially as language changes within the context of various social situations. Making sure the correct formality or informality is used means that offence will be avoided (Japanese business culture holds much formality and politeness). This also applies to marketing and advertising within each country. It is important for the local culture to be understood, as well as the way marketing and advertising is approached within the country. Localisation of the text is therefore valuable, in other words, adapting the text to the target country language and culture, choosing a word or phrase that will best fit within the context of the sentence and be understood by locals.

c) To create a key term list and style guide to ensure consistency and to ensure particular company terms are relayed.

Companies often have their own in-house terms, which is important to relay to the translation company in order to ensure that the same levels of consistency appear in the other language. In this instance, a specialist would be fundamental to the project so that the correct terminology is used.

Taking all points into consideration, it is essential to note that translation between Japanese and English and vice versa not only requires the skills of a native translator who understands the local culture, but one that is continually up-to-date with the present culture and preferably lives in-country. Language is an ever-changing thing and what was acceptable a few months ago as a social convention, might not be pertinent today.

The translation would also require the native translator to be specialised in the subject matter as they will understand all the correct jargon that goes with that particular subject. You wouldn’t want a medical specialist working on your legal document, or an engineering translator to tackle your advertising campaign! An English sports product website for instance, being translated into Japanese, would require the skills of a marketing Japanese translator who specialises in localisation,, as they will be able to adapt your material to sound authentic, and speak directly to the target market.. Another clear example of where adaptation is absolutely necessary is in business. Business etiquette requires that you don’t directly say ‘no’ to something as this could cause offence. So if the English document says ‘we can’t do that’ the Japanese translation would be better to say ‘that will be difficult’, which although still means ‘no’, is much politer and will avoid being discourteous.

With the above in mind, it is also essential that the translator is completely fluent in both languages to achieve the best possible translation and in light of such complexities between the two languages, it is more than likely for the translation work to take longer than normal, especially depending on the complexity of the subject matter. For absolute accuracy and fluency of text, this is something to take on board where deadlines are concerned.

When all is said and done, it’s about understanding what your objective is when it comes to building that international relationship and how you can best achieve your goal through the written word.

By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, October 2018

Enquiry Form

More News

Happy New Year But Sorry We're

Happy New Year But Sorry We're

Chinese New Year (CNY) is the most significant festival in the Chinese calendar, typically celebrated between the 21st January and February 20th deter...

Read More
Lets Focus On Being More Environmentally Conscious. Let's Build A Better World For Our Future

Lets Focus On Being More Environmentally Conscious. Let's Build A Better World For Our Future

Lets Focus On Being More Environmentally Conscious. Let's Build A Better World For Our Future. In light of World Environment Day, an annual event he...

Read More


1) Numbers In the English language, numbers are written with decimal points, whereas in French a comma is used. Let us take the example in both the En...

Read More

Read More

Read More

List your business

Would you like to register your company on one of the UK's largest and most effective Trade websites?

Are you looking for a reliable and consistent source of enquiries from your industry sector? Would you like to see why Find the Needle clients come back year after year to use our service? If so then feel free to register using the link 'here'.

Office Address: