Why Japanese Can Be a Tricky Language to Translate


I have been fascinated by the Japanese language since the moment I started studying it. At the beginning, it was mostly about the thrill of learning something completely new and exotic, but as I continued, I grew increasingly intrigued by some of the concepts I had never encountered in any other language before. I was somewhat surprised by the relative simplicity of the grammatical structures, and although internalizing all the intricacies of Japanese honorific expressions was by no means an easy task, it definitely helped me learn a lot about the way society functions in Japan. Having studied the highly contextual nature of Japanese for a number of years, I feel like I have improved my ability to read between the lines instead of just taking words at face value. Since the extremely complex Japanese writing system relies heavily on the use of Chinese characters, the road to becoming fully literate in this language can be very long. But once you get there, you realize it was all worth it.

When I started my career as a translator, I had the opportunity to get to know the language even better. I needed to learn how to interpret a large variety of texts in Japanese more accurately, which can be a very tricky task. For this blog post, I have decided to list a few characteristics of the Japanese language that can make a translator's job quite challenging.

1. Subject omission

Japanese is a high-context language. Although context dependency is a common characteristic observed in many different languages, it is particularly apparent in Japanese, especially when it comes to the issue of subject omission. As a translator, you will often come across sentences where the subject has been left out. If your target language is English, it means you will need to infer the subject from the context since most English sentences require one. To avoid any mistranslations, it is therefore very important never to lose the thread when reading a text in Japanese.

2. No gender or number markers

Subject omission also occurs in many other languages such as Italian or Spanish. What makes Japanese a bit more challenging, however, is the fact that there are (almost) no gender or number markers to speak of. The word "taberu" ("eat"), for instance, can mean "I eat," "she eats," or even "they will eat" when used in isolation. That, combined with the tendency to leave out the grammatical subject, is part of the reason why context is everything in Japanese, which takes some getting used to if you are not a native speaker.

3. Honorific expressions

In addition to its highly context-sensitive nature, the Japanese language is extremely rich in various honorific expressions, which reflect the characteristics of the social system in Japan. More often than not, these expressions have no clear counterparts in English or other European languages, so you are often faced with the same translation dilemma: should I translate a particular honorific expression for the sake of accuracy or should I just leave it out simply because it makes the translation sound too unnatural?
Such expressions can sometimes be entirely untranslatable, so you have no choice but to move away from the source text and make sure your translation follows the cultural conventions of the target language.

4. Japanese-made English words

The Japanese lexicon includes a plethora of English borrowings and English-based expressions. The former are actual loanwords from English, whereas the latter are English-based words coined in Japan. The words in the second group can be surprisingly tricky to translate simply because they usually have nothing to do with their English counterparts. For instance, the word "one meter" (pronounced "wan mētā" in Japanese) refers to the basic taxi fare, i.e. the fare you pay for the first stretch of the journey when you take a taxi (the exact amount and distance depend on the region and type of vehicle). Although context usually helps, such expressions can be rather difficult to decipher without a dictionary, and they should be treated as pure Japanese coinages.


Non-English Loanwords in Japanese


It is safe to say that most loanwords have been introduced into the Japanese language via English. This is partly due to Japan's close historical ties with countries like the United States and partly due to the rapid spread of globalization we have witnessed over the past couple of decades. The Japanese language is now still absorbing more and more English expressions to denote (relatively) new concepts such as "sumātofon" ("smartphone") or "kuraudo" ("cloud" as in "cloud storage").
But this diffusion of foreign words in Japanese did not start in the 20th century and it has not always been limited to English. More than a millennium ago, the Japanese language had no writing system to speak of, so it had to rely entirely on Chinese characters. Chinese borrowings represent a large part of the modern Japanese lexicon as a result of the economic and cultural exchange between the two entities over the centuries.
In 1542, the first Europeans reached the shores of Japan. They came all the way from Portugal and brought weapons, Christianity, as well as some new Portuguese words. In 1600, a Dutch ship arrived in Kyushu, marking the beginning of the Japanese-Dutch relations. In the decades that followed, foreigners had very limited or no access to Japan, but that all changed drastically in the Meiji period in the 19th century when the country opened its doors to foreign influences. During that era, various specialists came from Germany and contributed greatly to Japan's modernization in a number of fields, including politics, education, and medicine. (Sources: See items 2 to 5 listed below.)
All the trade and intellectual exchange with foreign countries inevitably left a mark on the Japanese language. In one of my previous posts, I discussed Japanese loanwords used in English. This time I am going to do the opposite and have a look at some of the non-English borrowings that are commonly used in the Japanese language. However, I am not going to include expressions that are limited to a particular culture, country, or region such as "spaghetti," "tango," or "sari" since those tend to be used in their original forms in almost any language.

Pan (パン) - Portuguese

The word "pan" ("bread") came from Portuguese. It is arguably one of the most frequently used non-English loanwords in Japanese.

Randoseru (ランドセル) - Dutch

In Dutch, the word "ransel" originally denoted a type of rucksack. In Japanese, on the other hand, it is a type of schoolbag used by elementary school children.

Meruhenchikku (メルヘンチック) - German/English

"Meruhenchikku" is an interesting example of a non-English loanword because it is actually a hybrid between the German noun "Märchen," meaning "fairy-tale," and the English adjectival suffix "-tic." In Japanese, "meruhenchikku" is used to describe something that resembles or has the qualities of a fairy-tale.

Arubaito (アルバイト) - German

The German word "arbeit" means "work," whereas its phonetically altered Japanese version "arubaito" is slightly more specific as it is only used to denote "part-time work."

Ankēto (アンケート) - French

This expression has preserved the original connotation of the French word "enquête," which means "survey."

Kuranke (クランケ - German

As I mentioned above, the Meiji era in Japan was marked by modernization in various fields. Medicine was one of them, and German specialists who visited Japan during that period played an essential role.
The word "Kranke" means "sick person" in German. The related Japanese expression "kuranke," on the other hand, is only used by doctors and nurses to refer to their patients.

Ikura (イクラ) - Russian

Salmon roe represents one of the essential ingredients in Japanese cuisine. The word for salmon roe in modern Japanese is "ikura," a phonetically altered version of the Russian expression "ikra," which also means "roe."

Tabako (タバコ) - Portuguese

To conclude this list, I have chosen another commonly used borrowing from Portuguese. In Japanese, the word "tabako" is used to refer to "cigarettes" or "tobacco" in general.


1. List of gairaigo and wasei-eigo terms. Retrieved from:
2. The First Europeans in Japan. Retrieved from: from:
3. Christianity. Retreived from:
4. Dutch Trading Post on "Dejima". Retrieved from:
5. Saaler, S. (2012, Aug 14) The German Doctor in Meiji Japan. Retrieved from:
6. Kotobank


How to Describe Rain in Japanese


Onomatopoeia normally refers to "the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named" (Source: Oxford Living Dictionaries). The English word beep, for instance, imitates the sound it denotes, and the word roar recreates the cry of a lion or a similar large wild animal.

There is a plethora of onomatopoeic words in the Japanese language. What makes these expressions so special, however, is their ability to convey a lot more than just sounds and noises. In fact, they can be divided into two large groups: giongo, i.e. words that mimic sounds, and gitaigo, i.e. words that mimic states of the external world. The latter group includes expressions that describe the way people laugh (e.g. nikoniko "to smile"), the way they sleep (e.g. utouto "to nod off"), or even the way they feel (e.g. gakkari "to be disappointed"). Gitaigo expressions are also used to depict natural phenomena (e.g kankan "scorching heat"), shapes of objects (e.g. dekoboko "uneven surface"), or movement (e.g. yochiyochi "to toddle").

For this blog post, I have decided to focus on a rather narrow category of onomatopoeic expressions that describe rain. Most of the words listed below can be classified as giongo, i.e. words that mimic sounds or noises. The list serves to demonstrate just how differently a particular sound can be perceived and reproduced in a different linguistic environment. (Also, the rainy season is just around the corner in Japan, so I think this topic is quite appropriate.)

1. Potsupotsu

This expression is used to describe the sporadic raindrops that you see (or feel) when it is just about to start raining.

2. Shitoshito

"Shitoshito" denotes a gentle rain, heavier than a drizzle but not quite as intense as a downpour.

3. Botabota

When rain falls in large drops, it rains "botabota." This word mostly refers to the repeated sounds the heavy raindrops make as they hit a surface.

4. Parapara

This onomatopoeic expression is used to describe raindrops that fall in scattered, irregular patterns.

5. Zāzā

As its sound may suggest, the word "zāzā" denotes continuous heavy rain.

Oxford Living Dictionaries


Six Essential Japanese-Made English Words ("Wasei-Eigo")


The lexicon of the Japanese language is quite diverse. There is a colorful mixture of Chinese loanwords, borrowings from European languages (mostly from English and Portuguese), and also the so-called "wasei-eigo," which literally means "Japanese-made English words." This is a large category of commonly used expressions that were coined from English and only exist in Japanese. They are not to be confused with loanwords such as "pen" ペン (from the English word "pen") or "pan" パン (meaning "bread," from the Portuguese word "pão"), and they must be carefully distinguished from their "real" English equivalents. Japanese native speakers with no proficiency in English will most probably not understand you if you replace a Japanese-made English word with an original English expression when speaking Japanese. Also, if you happen to be a Japanese-to-English translator, you need to be careful not to fall into the trap of simply transcribing a "wasei-eigo" word in English, since that will most probably result in a confusing and/or unnatural translation.
The list below provides a few typical examples you are very likely to come across in your day-to-day interactions with people in Japan.

1. Claim (クレーム, kurēmu) = complaint

In Japan, you do not make a complaint - you "make a claim." In English, the noun "claim" refers to "an assertion of the truth of something" or "a demand or request for something considered one's due" (source: Oxford Dictionary). While the "wasei-eigo" counterpart preserves the original form (and pronunciation to some extent) of the English word, it conveys an entirely different meaning.

2. Baby car (ベビーカー, bebīkā) = baby carriage

In Japan, baby carriages are referred to as "baby cars." Although this particular "wasei-eigo" expression may strike a native English speaker as unnatural, its meaning should not be too difficult to guess even if you have just started learning the language.

3. Cunning (カンニング, kaningu) = cheating (on a test)

The English adjective "cunning" can mean "having or showing skill in achieving one's ends by deceit or evasion" or also "ingenious" (source: Oxford Dictionary). The Japanese-made English expression "cunning," on the other hand, is used as a noun to denote the act of cheating on a test. Although the shift in meaning is quite drastic, it can be said that the "wasei-eigo" expression keeps some of the original undertone.

4. Salary man (サラリーマン, sararīman) = white-collar worker

This is arguably one of the most commonly used "wasei-eigo" expressions in modern Japanese. At first glance, it may seem like it refers to "a man who earns a salary," but it is in fact used specifically to denote a white-collar male worker. There is also a related expression, "office lady" or "OL," which refers to a female office worker.

5. Mansion (マンション, manshon) = apartment, flat

This expression can be a little confusing when you hear it for the first time, but if a Japanese person tells you they live in a "mansion," they are simply trying to say they live in an apartment.

6. Sharp pencil (シャープペンシル, shāpu penshiru) = mechanical pencil

In Japanese, "sharp pencil" is a term used to refer to a mechanical pencil.

Oxford English Dictionary (
Kotobank (


Five Reasons to Become a Translator


Foreign languages have always played a very important role in my life. When I was in my late 20s, I decided to move to Japan, which made it necessary for me to speak and think in a foreign language on a daily basis. At first, the whole situation was a little stressful and quite surreal, but I got used to it eventually and even began to like it. Japanese can be a tricky language to learn, but I never got tired of it, and I did not do it merely out of necessity. It was also the excitement of trying to master a whole new language that pushed me forward.
I eventually decided to enroll in a graduate course in Japanese linguistics to analyze the language and get a better understanding of its structure and history. After graduation, working as a language expert felt like the most natural way to build my career, which is how I ended up becoming a translator. It has now been four years since I started, and I have decided to sum up my experience by analyzing five good reasons to consider starting a career path in translation.

Reason No. 1: To Capitalize on Your Language Skills

Learning a foreign language for its own sake is always fun, but why not put that knowledge to good use while you are at it? Although it is true that the AI used in machine translation is developing at an astonishing pace, it will take a while before human translators and (maybe even more so) interpreters become obsolete.
Needless to say, it all depends on your level, but you can always work on that. Also, there are other careers that require language skills (international sales, journalism, and diplomacy, to name just a few), but if working with the language itself is what fascinates you the most, becoming a translator is probably the way to go.

Reason No. 2: To Maintain Your Language Skills

Learning a language is a never-ending process. As a translator, you always need to keep track of the way your source language changes. You are constantly forced to look up new words and learn how to use them. You need to be able to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable linguistic resources in order to make sure the knowledge you possess is accurate enough.
In other words, the best side effect of becoming a translator is non-stop language training. Foreign languages are easy to forget (at least to some extent) if one does not actively use them, which is very unlikely to happen to a professional translator.

Reason No. 3: To Get a Better Understanding of Your Own Mother Tongue

This is partly related to the second reason I discussed above. Being a native speaker gives you a natural feel for the way your language works, but it does not automatically make you a language expert. It is very important for you as a translator to stay current on the trends that continue to shape your mother tongue. You always have to look for new and more innovative ways to express your thoughts. You also need to learn from more experienced language professionals to maintain the quality of your translations.
That is why working as a translator is a good way to learn more about your native language and take your writing skills to a whole new level.

Reason No. 4: To Learn More about the World

Unfortunately, translators are not omniscient. Thus, if you decide to work in this field, you will probably spend a good chunk of your time doing research. On machinery. Chemistry. Mathematics. Cars. Art. Geography. Music. Cultures. Law. You name it. Unless you specialize in one particular field, you will need to tackle a large spectrum of different texts, which will require you to look for information quickly and efficiently.
And while this may seem like a daunting task, it can in fact be quite rewarding. Every new text represents a challenge and demands a new approach. And (almost) every time you finish a translation, you feel like you have gotten to know the world around you just a little bit better.

Reason No. 5: To Get a Closer Look at a Different Culture

Describing the role of a translator as a bridge between different cultures may sound like an old cliché, but there is more than a hint of truth in it. Cultural sensitivity is of paramount importance if one wishes to evolve into a translator that the world will trust. Mastering the language you are translating from is a pre-condition that allows you to even start your career, but you cannot disregard the cultural context in which that language developed.
You will bump into expressions, figures of speech, and even text formats that only make sense in the environment where the language in question is used. This will encourage you to think outside the box and convey the notions hidden behind the words as seamlessly as possible.