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How to overcome the unique challenges of Japanese translation

In our first blog post for this series, we have looked into the intricacies of the Japanese language and common issues translators may face in Japanese to English and English to Japanese translation. In this blog post, we will dive deeper into the Japanese translation market with job opportunities and average salaries for Japanese translators. Then we will explain how to utilize machine translation tools for translating to and from Japanese and lastly how to better use Google Translate when translating between English and Japanese.

Japanese translation market

Whether you are translating from Japanese to English or from English to Japanese, the Japanese translation market has a lot to offer. First, let’s discuss the job opportunities Japanese to English translators and translation agencies have. Then we can continue with English to Japanese translation.

I am going to start with a comparison. In Turkey, the translation market I work in, translations are usually done from other languages to Turkish. Translations made from Turkish to other languages are minuscule in comparison. There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. First of all, as Turkey’s manufacturing sector is not as large as, let’s say, Germany’s or Japan’s, texts related to this sector are not translated very frequently. These texts include user manuals, user interfaces, help articles, customer support instructions, educational materials, and many more. When electronics or consumer goods are not manufactured in a country or when they are manufactured in limited numbers but rarely exported to other markets, there is little need to translate all these materials I have mentioned. Another translation type that makes the bulk of translation work is media translation. Truth to be told, thanks to the popularity of Turkish soap operas in Arabic-speaking countries and Latin America, Turkey is not doing so badly in the media sector. However, when it comes to cultural exports, it is difficult to be as successful as the United States. As a result, no matter how popular Turkish TV shows are, media translators are mostly translating from English to Turkish.

The situation is very different in Japan. Japan manufactures a significant amount of electronics and consumer goods, which translates to (yes, pun intended) opportunities for Japanese technical translators. As we all probably know, Japan also exports a lot of media content such as anime, manga, games, and books. While, as I have said, it is hard to beat the U.S. in this regard, there are bound to be more job opportunities for Japanese to English translators compared to translators working from Turkish, Russian, Portuguese, and the like. For more information about the Japanese economy and insights about the Japanese Translation Market, please visit our blog post here.

The success of the Japanese manufacturing and media industries is particularly important for native English speakers who translate or would like to translate into Japanese. In the translation industry, translators usually translate from their secondary languages (the languages they learn later in life) to their primary languages (mother tongue or the languages they use most often). If you are a native English speaker who learned Japanese later, no matter how well you speak Japanese, you will most likely end up mainly translating from Japanese to English. If you are a native English speaker planning to learn a foreign language to become a translator or to add a new language to your translation arsenal, it is a good idea to check whether the countries which speak this foreign language are exporting many material or cultural goods. If you have concerns about job opportunities, I believe Japanese might be a good choice for you.

If your mother tongue is Japanese, you can’t go wrong with English. Unless you speak a very rarely spoken language that has less than 100k speakers, finding an English translation job will be relatively easy. After all, English-speaking countries are doing very well economically and they export many goods. Still, it may be a good idea to consider how well a country’s population speaks English.

Do a lot of Japanese speak English?

Even though the Japanese education system is quite successful in many areas, it is not doing as well when it comes to English education. Although English classes are compulsory in Japanese schools, the ratio of students who have actual English abilities is unusually low. China, Korea, and Japan are competing to have students with the best English, with Japan lagging far behind in the third position. Japanese translators are in luck when it comes to English literacy in Japan.

How many people speak Japanese?

More than 120 million people speak Japanese around the world. Japanese individuals who live in Japan account for more than 90% of all Japanese speakers. Japanese is the official language of Japan, and it is also spoken as a native tongue by a small percentage of the population in three other nations.

How many people speak Japanese?

How to translate with English as an intermediary language?

Even after mentioning all these opportunities in the Japanese translation market, we are yet to mention one: using English as an intermediary language. In translation, intermediary language refers to using a third language in between your source and target language. So, if you are planning to translate a text from A language to B language but you could not find a translator who works from A language to B language, you can instead work with two translators. In this situation, you would have your text translated into the intermediary C language and then have the resulting translation translated into B language. If you need to have your Japanese text translated into commonly spoken languages such as Chinese or German, you would have little trouble finding translators working in those language pairs. When it comes to languages with fewer speakers, however, you will probably need to have your text translated into English first. So, as a Japanese to English translator, you might end up translating texts whose main audience is not English speakers.

How much do Japanese to English translators make?

The estimated total pay for a Japanese Translator is $78,950 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $48,427 per year. The approximate total pay for a Japanese Translator is $78,950 per year, with an average wage of $48,427 per year. These estimations are based on Japanese translators in the United States. Japanese to English translators’ salaries are comparable to translators working in other languages such as French, German and Spanish according to Glassdoor. I believe it is also a good idea to check the minimum and median wage in countries where the language you are working with is spoken. While it is true that translation agencies and customers prefer that native speakers translate into their mother tongue only, they may still choose other translators if it means they can cut their costs significantly. As a translator, you are going to compete with other translators who speak your language pairs. According to OECD, the average yearly wage in Japan is 38,515 USD, which puts Japan between Israel and Spain. If you are worried about competition, Japanese is a safe choice.

Deep dive into Japanese translation

Now that we put linguistic difficulties and financial concerns out of the way, let’s focus on the fun part of the Japanese translation: what makes it unique and interesting. As an avid consumer of Japanese translation, I believe I am better equipped to tackle this subject compared to technical aspects of Japanese translation. First of all, if you are going to translate Japanese media into other languages, you will find that your target audience tends to be very into Japanese culture. For example, people who primarily watch American TV series usually watch them because they are widely available and popular. Most likely, this audience is not particularly interested in American cuisine, American history, or even the English language. On the other hand, people who watch Japanese TV shows tend to do it all. People who watch anime may also read manga, people who play Japanese video games may also be interested in Japanese history, or people who read Japanese novels may try their hand at traditional Japanese crafts. Unless you are translating child-oriented media, you have an audience who is knowledgeable about Japanese culture.

Interest in Japanese culture

Your target audience knowing Japanese culture has both advantages and disadvantages. First of all, it limits your freedom as a translator to some degree. When it comes to media translation, many translators prefer to use domestication as their translation strategy. Domestication in translation, as opposed to foreignization, means making the target text conform to the target culture. This strategy may include omitting cultural references or changing them. However, when your audience is interested in Japanese culture they will understand that you have made some changes to the original text. For example, if you translate pierogi as dumplings while translating a Polish movie, no one will probably bat an eye. However, when Brock from Pokémon talks about donuts while holding a plate of onigiri, the audience will most likely understand that the translator took some liberties during translation. In this case, anyone who has ever seen a donut in their lifetime would probably say “Wait, that’s not a donut.” but my point stands.

While it is necessary to keep the cultural references, there is of course a point where too much is too much. If your audience needs to consult Wikipedia or look at a Japanese dictionary to understand your translation, very few people will read it. Even if your audience could understand you, they might find it awkward that you decided to keep all those Japanese words when English equivalents would do. Let’s say you are localizing a game and decided to keep all of the honorifics in Japanese. What do these Japanese words add to your translation other than reminding the audience that they are playing a localized Japanese game? In the end, translating cultural elements is all about balance. If you change them too much you will look like you are trying to erase the source culture. If you keep too many of them the target audience will have trouble understanding the translation and will probably think you are a little too into Japanese culture.

Sub vs. dub debate

Last summer, while I was reminiscing about my childhood, I thought to myself: Hey, why don’t I watch Sailor Moon again? All that I could remember about that anime was that I was obsessed with it as a child and that they were using something that looked like a makeup palette to turn into magical girls. Also during last summer, I was dipping my toes into a new hobby: sewing. I thought that if I watched the dubbed version of Sailor Moon, I could follow the plot while I was sewing clothes. As I can speak some Japanese, I usually watch subtitled versions of anime but I decided to give it a shot. I had heard bad things about the English dub of Sailor Moon. The English translation team did not want to offend the American audience and removed many things that they thought were inappropriate. For the 90’s United States, that meant turning gay couples straight. Even at that time, removing gay couples probably made very little sense because this erasure causes one of the couples to look like cousins dating each other and one of the gay villains to seem like a cross-dressing woman.

I might have picked a rather extreme example; however, translations in dubbed movies indeed tend to be less faithful to the original content compared to translations done for subtitled movies. First of all, changes done to subtitled content will be more obvious. This is especially true for translations where the original content is written in a widely spoken language such as English. Nowadays, even people who cannot comfortably converse in English and have little interest in learning English have some basic understanding of the English language. This is even true for countries where foreign language education is not very good. English is so ubiquitous that even if you are actively trying to avoid learning English for some reason, you will pick up random words here and there. So if you are translating subtitles from English to Japanese, for example, your audience will probably understand some parts of the content and will rely on your translation to understand the rest. Because of that, if you deviate from the source text, people will realize it. Since people who have little to no experience in translation will most likely not understand the reasons why you might have decided to be less faithful to the source content, they may complain that your translation is “wrong” or “bad”, and even insinuate that you do not speak English very well. As a result, whether knowingly or otherwise, subtitle translators will not feel comfortable about changing the source content too much. Translators working on dubbed content do not have to worry about the audience as much because the audience will not be able to access the original text unless they are particularly curious and go out of their way to find the movie script and read it.

Another reason why translators of dubbed content tend to be less faithful to the original is the constraints of dubbing. Reading is always faster than speaking, so dub translators will have to keep the target text considerably shorter than subtitles. Also, if you are trying to create a more natural and seamless result, it might be a good idea to pay attention to lip movements. For example, a character going on speaking after their lips stopped moving might break the illusion or even confuse the viewer. When dubbing, even if you need to make significant changes to the source text, the audience will have a much better experience if the characters speak at a comfortable pace and the lip movements match the spoken words.

There are pros and cons to both subbing and dubbing. I do not think that it would be fair to say that one is better than the other. Their target audience is different. For example, no matter how hard they try, children and people with bad vision will not be able to enjoy subtitled shows. Dyslexic people or people with low literacy will find it tiring to try to keep up with the subtitles and will avoid subtitled content as much as possible. For example, I have a dyslexic friend who took Japanese at university. He told me that even though he studied Japanese for four years, he never watches anime because he has trouble keeping up with the subtitles. Even if you do not struggle with reading, you certainly need to pay more attention to the content you are watching when you decide to watch subtitled content. People do not always want to do that. Sometimes you want to watch something while you are talking to your friends or doing housework, for example. Although I prefer watching subtitled versions of Japanese content, I would probably prick my fingers if I tried to do that while sewing.

I think subtitled content, on the other hand, is better suited for people who are interested in the source culture. Dubbing almost always ends up being more domesticating than subtitling and some cultural elements will be lost. I think that sub vs. dub debate being so common in anime culture is due to anime being aimed at two different audiences: young children and adults who are interested in Japanese culture. Since children can’t read as fast as adults and since their attention span is shorter than adults, many people grow up watching dubbed anime. As they grow up and get better at reading, they start watching subtitled content and realize that they were missing out on the references to Japanese culture. Also, children do not watch anime because they are interested in Japanese culture. To them, anime is just like any other cartoon. For example, my generation grew up watching Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. However, looking at them now, I see that many could not care less about anime or Japanese culture. The ones that continue to watch anime, watch them with subtitles.

As we have discussed, whether subbing or dubbing is better suited for Japanese content, depends on the audience. However, what the content also plays a role in this debate. As an example, let’s take a look at this survey about games translated from English to Japanese. Surveyors asked Japanese gamers whether they prefer to play subtitled or dubbed games. Answers varied greatly depending on the game genre which was being asked. For example, while only about %32 of the participants preferred subtitles in first-person shooter games, this number rose to more than %54 when they were asked about role-playing games. This is to be expected; you need to act fast and be vigilant while you are playing first-person shooters. If you need to spend more time trying to understand the dialogues and look at a specific part of the screen, your enemy might use your distraction to their advantage and come to shoot you. On the other hand, as people play role-playing games mainly for the story, they most likely will not want to miss out on some of the content by playing the dubbed version of the game. In a similar vein, one of the reasons why I chose to watch the dubbed version of Sailor Moon was that it is a light-hearted anime aimed at young children. If it was a more serious anime or if it was crucial to understand the cultural references to enjoy the show, I would have watched the subtitled version.

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Cultural sensitivity

As translators, we tend to learn the languages of the cultures we are interested in. As a result, we sometimes want to change the original content as little as possible or portray the source culture in its purest form. However, that is rarely possible. When translating, you will need to pay attention to the norms of the target culture. First of all, although we have some freedom during the translation process, in the end, we are providing a professional translation service that our customers asked us and paid us to give. Even if the book we have translated, for example, is a literary masterpiece, its positive qualities will not matter if the publishing house decides that it will not be a good idea to publish the translation as it might offend some people. However silly it looks today, removing some content from Sailor Moon might have seemed like the right call at the time. Sure, it is nothing but censorship but, understandably, people airing the show would not want conservative parents to call them every day to complain about the show or to file a complaint to the FCC.

Sometimes content might need to be changed to avoid any misunderstandings. For example, using profanities is more common in some languages than in others. Let’s look at Japanese and English. When it comes to the use of vulgar language, the difference between the two languages is immense. Japanese has very few swear words and the ones they have are very tame compared to other languages. In English, however, vulgar words and expressions are very commonly used and they are not always meant to be insulting. For example, you can use the f-word to emphasize something and no one will think that you are being particularly rude or trying to insult the thing you are talking about. You can even use swear words to refer to your best friends in an endearing way. In these cases, an English to Japanese translator omitting profanities would not be censoring the original content. If swear words in English were translated using their Japanese equivalents, the Japanese audience would misinterpret the situation. In movies directed at English-speaking audiences, profane words are usually added to make the character using them seem more casual or playful. A Japanese person who is not very familiar with the source culture would not make that connection. They would probably think that the character in question is angry or rude. When translating, it is always important to think about the intended effect and the purpose of the original content. In this scenario, the best approach would be to find the intended effect (for example, making the character appear more casual) and to convey this information to the Japanese audience without using vulgar language.

Especially if you are translating non-literary content, I think it is a good idea to think about what the target society deems acceptable. Of course, this does not always mean that we should change the intended message of the source text or need to create overly conservative translations. However, we might need to soften the tone or choose our words more carefully. Since Japanese society tends to be hierarchical, formal and a little conservative in some areas, English to Japanese translators might need to tweak the tone of the English text so that it would not come across as rude or disrespectful. If the subject matter is very controversial we can also use more vague language. This is a very common practice, not only in translation but in content writing as well. We do not need to look too far. Let’s think about all the articles we have seen about the COVID-19 pandemic. It was and still is a very serious matter which disrupted our everyday lives, caused shortages all around the world, caused many businesses to go bankrupt, and most importantly, caused many people to die. However, if you were not living through the pandemic and only getting your information from blogs, news articles, or advertisements, you would not understand how serious this issue is. There is always this talk about “unprecedented times”, “the difficult situation we are in”, “the new normal”, or “frontline workers being heroes”. When we think about it, all these expressions are very vague and do not mean much. I believe this is intentional. This way, companies can seem like they feel for those who are struggling, while not alienating people who think everybody is exaggerating the situation.

As literary works are sometimes meant to disrupt or question current norms, the translators have more leeway when it comes to literary translation. However, while we might not have to censor ourselves, we still need to make sure that the content is received the way it was meant to be received. To correctly guess how the target audience will interpret the translated content, the translator needs to be very familiar with the target culture. For example, a Japanese translator who grew up in Japan and is currently living there probably will have a good idea about what an average Japanese person will find unacceptable or rude, and what parts of the translation they may misunderstand. This is one of the reasons why it is a good idea to always translate into our mother tongue: We are better at predicting how people who grew up in the same culture as we have might react to certain things. When it comes to cultural sensitivity, translation agencies and clients are better off choosing translators who are very familiar with the target culture. Sure, it may seem more convenient to choose, for example, a native English speaker who might understand you better than most Japanese people, or a third-generation immigrant who lives close to your office. However, especially if you are working with controversial or difficult to understand materials, translators who live in Japan and speak Japanese natively are a safer bet.

Using machine translation tools for translating to and from Japanese

Why is Google Translate so bad at Japanese?

Google Translate or any other machine translation tool is so bad at Japanese, especially when translating from English to Japanese because English and Japanese are from different language families. The second reason is that Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar. In addition, Japanese is a very contextual language, and often resulting translations can be unnatural or they would not make any sense. Lastly, Google Translate often transliterates English words even when there are perfectly fine Japanese equivalents. Let’s dive into these reasons and explain why you might have a difficult time trying to translate from English to Japanese using machine translation tools and examine the workarounds you can try when using Google Translate to translate into Japanese.

accurate translate japanese to english

English and Japanese are from different language families

Machine translation usually works better for languages with similar sentence structures such as German and English. Since Google Translate uses English as a mediary language no matter what your language pair is, as a general rule, it is better at translating between Indo-European languages such as English, German, French, or Spanish. Its accuracy is bound to be lower for languages from different language families. This means Google Translate tends to be less accurate when translating between languages such as Chinese, Finnish, Korean, or Japanese. Moreover, Google Translate does not work as well when it comes to texts that need more of a “human touch”, such as marketing copies or literary works. It is not advisable to use machine translation tools if one needs to translate such texts.

If you are working in the translation industry, it is hard not to realize that machine translation keeps getting better and better as time goes by. While many machine translation tools still are not very useful, some tools are so good that I sometimes do not change half of the sentences I am working on. While seeing how advanced machine translation is becoming is both exciting and terrifying for translators, we should not forget that the quality of the translations heavily depends on the language pair and the content. For example, if you are using Google Translate to translate a technical text from German into English, or vice versa, you are going to get a very serviceable translation unless the text you are translating is particularly difficult to understand.

Japanese grammar is very different

We have already discussed the differences between English and Japanese languages, the problems these differences may cause, and how Japanese translators can overcome them. Most of the solutions I have offered came down to paraphrasing the sentence instead of translating it word-for-word, focusing on the message rather than the sentence structure, and changing the sentence in a way that better fits the Japanese language and culture. While these solutions can be easily implemented by professional translators, machine translation tools can’t do that because they do not understand the text they are translating. These tools examine previously translated texts that people feed into them and use this data to guess what the current translation should be like. If these tools find a previous translation that is similar to the text they need to translate, they can tweak the old translation and be able to create an accurate and natural new translation. However, if they can’t find enough relevant data, they will translate the sentence literally. Currently, they cannot understand the context the way human translators can and therefore, cannot create very accurate translations when the sentence structure needs to be changed significantly for it to make sense in the target language.

Japanese is a very contextual language

As I have mentioned before, Japanese people tend to leave out significant information such as the subject of the sentence and the gender of the person they are speaking of. Moreover, they sometimes speak in a very indirect fashion to be polite. A Japanese-speaking person who is knowledgeable about Japanese culture would not have much trouble understanding these types of Japanese sentences. However, although artificial intelligence keeps getting improved, it is still not great at reading context clues and discerning the speaker’s intention. Even when the necessary context clues are not present, human translators will realize that the source text is too ambiguous to create an adequate translation and will ask the client to provide them with more information. Google Translate, on the other hand, will just make an educated guess about the true meaning of the given text. If the source text is a little too convoluted or if its meaning of it is unclear, the resulting translation will probably be inaccurate.

Japanese to English translation sounds very unnatural

Sure, Google Translator is not always accurate when translating from Japanese to English. For example, a friend of mine told me that he was trying to meet the deadline of a Japanese task but his Japanese colleagues were unavailable. He had used Google Translate to translate a short sentence into Japanese and asked me to check if the translation was accurate. It was not accurate as the tool translated “playing a game” as “playing an instrument.”

Of course, using the wrong equivalent for a word with multiple meanings is a very common error machine translation tools make regardless of the language pair they are working on. I think Google Translate’s biggest issue in Japanese to English translation is not its lack of accuracy but how unnatural and difficult to understand the resulting translation is. When the indirectness and politeness of Japanese sentences are directly translated into English, it sounds like you are actively trying to confuse the reader or want to obscure the true meaning of the sentence. If Japanese to English machine translation is going to be used in a professional setting, post-editing is a must. While having linguists check machine translations is always a good idea, I think using unedited machine translations is something you can get away with if you are working with similar languages and the content is rather simple. However, when it comes to Japanese to English translation, I believe every customer-facing machine-translated content should be checked by a professional translator.

Google Translate uses a lot of English words

While it is true that there are many English words in Japanese, they are not as common as Google Translate thinks. When I first started to learn Japanese, I tried using Google Translate to help me write my Japanese assignments. I have realized that it often transliterates English words even when there are perfectly fine Japanese equivalents. I feel like I can’t fault Google Translate too much on this because transliterating English words is a cheap trick I also use when I can’t remember Japanese words. I am not going to lie; I think Google Translate is currently much better at translating into Japanese and uses English words less often. I think it will continue to improve with time but I would personally still not feel comfortable depending on machine translation when I need professional Japanese translation.

How to better use Google Translate when translating between English and Japanese

While Google Translate has its shortcomings, it can be a very useful tool if you know how to use it and are aware of its limitations. Sure, its translation quality between English and Japanese is a little lackluster when compared to other languages but I am definitely not suggesting that you should never use Google Translate to translate Japanese texts. However, some tricks will help you achieve more accurate results and avoid the common pitfalls of machine translation. Here are some tips to help you make better use of Google Translate or other machine translation tools:

Use it only for personal use

When it comes to Japanese translation, I do not think that Google Translate is good enough for professional use. Using machine-translated Japanese content in a professional context might make you seem unprofessional and rude or sometimes your audience might not understand you at all. However, if you are going to use Google Translate when you are talking to a Japanese friend or when you are trying to order food in Japan, I do not think you will have much trouble. Many people are familiar with machine translation nowadays. If you say something wrong, people will understand that you are not trying to be rude. Even if they do not understand you at all, they can ask clarifying questions. It may take some time but with enough patience, I think you will be able to get your point across.

Use simple sentences with clear meanings

If you are writing the source text yourself, you can improve the translation quality by choosing simple, short sentences and commonly used expressions. As machine translation depends on previously translated texts to suggest a translation, using common expressions greatly raises the chance of the tool finding a similar sentence that was translated by human translators. While Google Translate is getting better at detecting idioms and finding fitting equivalents for them, it is still a good idea to avoid using too many idioms as Google Translate sometimes translates them literally.

Back translation

Back translation means translating an already translated text back to its original language. It is normally done to detect errors and ambiguities in translations done by human translators. As this process takes a significant amount of time and investment, it is not done very frequently. However, if you retranslate the already translated text using Google Translate, it will take only a couple of seconds at most. For example, if you are using Google Translate to translate an English text to Japanese and if you do not speak any Japanese, you can simply copy the resulting Japanese translation and paste it to Google Translate. The English back translation and the original English text will probably not be 100% the same and that is to be expected. However, if the meaning is completely different, you will understand that the Japanese translation probably is not very accurate. Then, you can try to tweak the source text (for example by substituting ambiguous words with clearer ones) until you get an accurate back translation.

Let’s get you started!

We hope that you found this blog post helpful. Working with a professional translation company that has experience translating from English to Japanese or Japanese to English and has translators who are native Japanese speakers is your best chance of getting accurate translations, without running into the issues mentioned above. Why not consider MotaWord if you're searching for a translation service that will provide you with all the support you need when dealing with Japanese translation jobs. MotaWord is the world’s fastest, lowest cost, cloud-based, collaborative business translation platform. You can get a quote here or you can directly contact MotaWord’s representatives by clicking the blue speech bubble button at the bottom right side of the page.

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Published on May 29, 2022 by AYLIN AKSOY

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