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The top 3 Challenges when Translating from Japanese

Just as the Japanese culture is described as high-context culture in terms of Japanese language the context always plays an important role as often things that can be understood from the context are left out and need to be interpreted. Here we talk about 3 challenges this poses when translating from Japanese.

1. Japanese does not have Plural Form

In English or German texts, you can tell from the form of a noun whether we are talking about one or several. Whereas in Japanese there is a way to express a plural form it is rarely used and in most cases, you must deduce from the context.

Therefore, when translating Japanese, it might be necessary for the translator to interpret the context in order to decide whether to translate as plural or singular. Whereas often logical constraints or linguistic markers define the grammatical number in some cases an alternate interpretation may be possible.

In patent translations for example it can be vital whether we talk about one screw or two screws. When the number is of high importance it might be necessary to get a second opinion for a translation. If you are unsure about a translation you commissioned elsewhere feel free to contact us.

2. Japanese Words with several Meanings

Some words in Japanese have the same spelling but several meanings. In written text, it is usually easy to tell these apart because they use different Kanji (Chinese characters) for different meanings. However, in patent or technical texts it sometimes happens that Katakana or Hiragana (Characters from the Japanese syllable alphabets) are used instead. In that case, you can only use the context to determine the meaning. For example, the word Kami can mean hair (髪), paper (紙) or god (神) besides other meanings depending on the Chinese character that is used. If it is written like thisかみ in Hiragana you can only tell from the context which meaning applies. In this case, it might still be easy to interpret correctly but in more complex texts you need a translator with experience in the respective field to produce a correct translation. For more details about the Japanese writing systems, you can refer to this article.

3. Sentences in Japanese do not always need a Subject

In Japanese, the subject of a sentence can be omitted often because it is obvious from the context. Whereas most of the times it is possible to determine the subject from the context just as with the singular or plural issue sometimes it is up to several interpretations. For example, there are texts where you cannot say for sure whether they are to be translated into the first person or the third person because of the omitted subject. If we come upon such cases we will research for more context or directly contact our clients for further instructions.

As you realized from the three examples above the context is always very important when translating from Japanese so that translation from Japanese is still a very difficult task for machine translation.

To correctly understand the context a human translator with expertise in the subject matter is necessary. Our translators are experts in their respective fields, such as engineering, chemistry, medicine, and others. We will always choose a translator that is very familiar with the subject matter of the documents you entrust us with. If you are interested in our translation services, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can translate from English to Japanese as well as from German to Japanese and the other way around.

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