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7 Questions to Ask Yourself When Translating from Japanese to English

I’ve been living and working in Japan for more than ten years. Based on personal experience and talking with friends, I found out that when you are one of the few foreign assets in a Japanese company, and your Japanese level is fair, translating may be one of your unexpected jobs. Companies often overlook that translation is a job in itself, and from their point of view, why outsource translation when someone can do it inside the company?

That is why, although I am not a professional translator, each company I have worked for has required me to do some translation. Whether from Japanese to English or French, I have translated and proofread product names, copywriting, social media posts, descriptions for travel activities, websites, user guides, schedules, various corporate documents, and more. Luckily, I took some translation classes at university, where I learned some basic skills. Still, much experience is needed to become a good translator: like writing, it is an art you forge with time.

Here are seven questions I make sure to ask myself during each translation. They are based on personal experience and hard-learned lessons, and I hope they will be helpful if you find yourself in a similar situation.

1. What is this translation for, and what tone should I adopt?

Sometimes, you will be asked to translate text, video captions, or category titles thrown in an Excel or Word file without access to the original material and very little information. Do not hesitate to ask for more information regarding how and where your translation will be used so that you can adapt your tone accordingly.

For example, websites written in English tend to use a more casual, friendly language, while websites written in Japanese often keep a very formal way of writing. Make sure you understand who the main target will be. If you write on the internet for a younger audience, you will want to write something like “Make sure to hit the subscribe button!” and not something like “We would be very grateful if you could please subscribe to our official account.” I am exaggerating on purpose, but you get the idea.

2. What elements should I clarify?

I will probably not teach you anything new if I say that the Japanese language is highly context-dependent. As I explained, chances are you will lack a lot of crucial information, so do not hesitate to clarify anything that can have several meanings.

 That includes mainly:

  • Subjects and pronouns

The Japanese language often omits pronouns, but we cannot do that in English. Are you sure you correctly understand who is talking and to whom? Who are they talking of? These questions are helpful in dialogues, but they are also important when translating speeches or corporate documents, so do not overlook them!

  • Anything that looks vague without context

If any word or expression has several meanings, such as “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” or “daijobu,” ensure you get the context right to avoid mistranslations.

  • Jargon

You may have to translate a document full of acronyms, business jargon, or vocabulary related to ancient pottery techniques. Research, understand the topic, and look for any established conventions on how to translate complex terms.

3. Does my translation sound natural?

A common trap in translation is to translate things too literally. Nowadays, online translation tools and artificial intelligence can produce good grammatical translations, but human translators beat them because they know the language’s culture. Reading your text aloud is a good trick for finding sentences that need to be corrected.

While translating, make sure you translate the sentence’s intent rather than its words.

For example, if the answer to a request is “chotto muzukashii desu,” and you translate it as “it is a little difficult” (a euphemism for “no”), you are going to mislead the English-language reader.

4. Is there an official name already?

Companies, official organizations, projects, events, technologies, etc., may already have an official English denomination or a specific way to write their name in English. Japanese surnames and places may have several readings too. Always double-check them.

5. Are there loan words or slang?

Many katakana words look like English or other languages but have different meanings. If you encounter a word you think you know but have never used personally, it is worth opening a dictionary.

 In some cases, strange-looking words or elements that look a bit off in context may be slang you’ve never heard. For example, I have recently encountered this tweet about a mistranslation in the manga “Inu Yasha,” in which the word “yankii” has been translated into “American.” However, it is slang that refers to delinquents.

A dictionary, a notebook, and a pen are on a tabke

6. Is the original material overlooking some aspects?

It is important that you do not hesitate to voice your concerns. For example, if you notice any inconsistencies or mistakes in the source material, let the people in charge know.

If you notice something in the text that will be a complete mystery to your target readers (for example, a Japanese historical figure, an era name, or an obscure place), suggest adding an explanation or replacing it with something else if the context allows.

Also, Japanese companies are often attached to product names or slogans that sound awkward in English, such as “for your just.”. Suggest something more natural (see point 3.) Changing a whole slogan is a primary practice in marketing called transcreation. If marketing is not your strong point, it is always worth looking at material from similar companies to get the right tone.

Honestly, changing a slogan is a battle that is hard to win. An excellent way to push your case is to find examples that show that a slogan not adapted to the target culture can result in a drop in sales. Backing up your claim with numbers is crucial. Take it as an opportunity to show that your role as a translator does not stop with language and includes culture, target habits, and more.

Finally, do not hesitate to explain what effect a font or a way of writing a word will have on a reader of your target language. For example, I recently had the following conversation:

– Our clients are in the process of choosing a name for their event, and they would like to write it “PROJECT name” because they would like to insist on the “PROJECT” aspect. What do you think? Will it look strange?

– Yes. Although the Japanese audience is used to mixing upper and lower case, it will look a little strange from a Western perspective.

– What if they write “PROJECT NAME?”

– It’s a little better, but from an English speaker’s perspective, using all caps like that, especially if you use it in the middle of a sentence or paragraph, will look like you are shouting these two words.

– I see! Do you have any suggestions on the most natural way to write it?

7. Is this really ready to send?

Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Even if your grammar and vocabulary are rock solid, you are not safe from the occasional typo. So, if possible, get someone to proofread your translation. If that’s not possible, correction tools will help you avoid the biggest mistakes. Recommended tools are Antidote, Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and LanguageTool (which is free).

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.