The Top Challenges in Japanese Translation


Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate. The language has three different character sets and has no relation to any other language. Japanese also requires complete attention to detail in order to be translated accurately. Japanese translators face the following challenges when translating the language:

  • Kanji is a complex writing style. Kanji is one of the primary writing styles in Japan, and it includes some complex characters that actually depict concepts. Rather than using words and phrases to represent meaning, the writing style uses different strokes to indicate the meaning of their placement within a set of characters. There are more than 2,000 different common characters used in Kanji, as well as a few thousand characters that are only occasionally used. Since the writing style involves so many different characters, it is super important that there is a translator who is native to the language involved in the translation process.
  • Cultural nuances add challenges. When translating anything, linguists and translators need to pay extra attention to the cultural nuances to make sure that the translation is accurate and that the context is represented correctly. This is definitely the case with Japanese since the language requires that translators break down sentences into smaller pieces to represent the cultural nuances in the text in a way that sounds natural. The Japanese language system of grammar expresses a sense of politeness and formality, which is super important for the translator to capture as accurately as possible.
  • Translations are not literal. There are a number of different words and phrases used in Japanese writing that do not have similar or corresponding words in the English language, so it can be super difficult to translate from Japanese to English. One of the biggest challenges of Japanese translation is writing something that makes sense in English while retaining the intended meaning in Japanese. Translating abstract concepts can be very difficult for Japanese translators. 
  • Plural nouns are not distinguishable. The Japanese language does not differentiate between singular and plural nouns, so translators really need to focus on the context of the words in order to accurately translate them to another language. Sometimes, there is no way to be sure of whether a word is intended to be in singular or plural form, which makes translation very difficult. Since there are no clear plural nouns, the way of counting often changes, even when using adjectives and pronouns.
  • Pronoun choices are often not obvious. Choosing the correct pronoun in the English language is usually a fairly simple and easy process, but that is usually not the case with the Japanese language. Because there are some expressions in Japanese that don’t give any context clues about the gender of the person being referenced, it can be difficult to figure out which gender-specific pronoun to use in the target language. For example, if someone in a story is referred to in a generic, non-gender-specific way, it can be difficult to know what the person’s gender is and how the gender should be portrayed in the target language.
  • The placements of subjects and verbs are different. When translating and working with the Japanese language, there are a number of grammar rules and nuances that seem less intuitive than with other languages. This is definitely the case with the placements of verbs and subjects in Japanese, especially when compared to English. In the English language, the subject and the verb are usually written towards the beginning of a sentence or phrase, but in the Japanese language, verbs are usually placed at the end of a sentence. Additionally, subjects are often understood rather than stated in Japanese, which means that readers need to use the context of the sentence to determine who or what the subject is.
  • Tenses pose some difficulties. There are two different tenses in the Japanese language, including past and non-past. Writers use the non-past tense to describe both the present and the future. This can be very difficult and confusing when a Japanese translator is translating from Japanese to English, since the English language has three very clear tenses, including past, present and future.
  • The translator’s subject matter expertise is essential. Since there are a number of different challenges associated with translating in Japanese, the translator’s subject matter expertise is super important to make sure that the translation is successful. It is usually recommended that the Japanese translator’s native language is Japanese since native Japanese speakers have the best understanding of the language. If the translators do not have the same level of knowledge as the readers of the translated text, then they will not know whether or not the document met its intended goal. The audience of the content will usually know whether or not the word choices represent the information being translated accurately.