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Basic Facts about the Japanese Language, its Position in the Language Landscape, and Things Translation Consumers Should Learn

January 2, 2019

General Characteristics

Although the origin of the Japanese language and its relationship to other languages remain subjects of debate among scholars, on a practical level, it Japanese bears little resemblance to any other language that would make it easier to understand or learn by speakers of other languages. For example, aside from many words borrowed by Japanese from Western languages such as English, Dutch, and Portuguese, there are very few cognates to help native speakers of Western languages learn Japanese. And many of even the loanwords from other languages are often used with different meanings from their original language. Also, and more importantly, the structure of the language makes it particularly difficult to learn, even for Chinese, who share most of the characters used by the Japanese to write a language totally different from Chinese.


Japanese is written with a mixture of three sets of orthographic symbols, kanji characters, borrowed from the Chinese written language, and two home-grown syllabaries (hiragana and katakana), one used in combination with kanji characters to write Japanese and the other used to phonetically write borrowings from other languages.

Misconception of Kanji

Although some Westerners (particularly those who are enamored of kanji characters) have posited that the borrowed Chinese characters used to write Japanese are ideograms (representing ideas not necessarily linked to particular words in the language), this notion has been discredited. The current understanding treats kanji characters as representing particular words (and sometimes a plurality of words of totally different pronunciation, depending upon context), making them not ideograms, but rather logograms. Additionally, most kanji have at least two readings, one of which is a borrowed Chinese-like reading, although that reading is almost always quite different from the reading of the character in Chinese.

Japanese and Chinese Languages

Although the Japanese language uses thousands of kanji logograms borrowed from Chinese, the Japanese language itself bears little resemblance to Chinese, Chinese and Japanese differing so greatly that a Chinese reader or speaker might be able to tell what a Japanese text is about, but not actually what is says. The same applies in the reverse direction.

The Global Position of Japanese

In spite of its importance by virtue of the achievements of Japan in technology and commerce, the Japanese language has almost no use outside of Japan. This can be attributed to Japan’s never having had success in building and maintaining an overseas empire to foster Japanese as a world language.

Measuring the Importance of Japanese

If an index were to be devised to give points to a language for rarity and also for being an important vehicle for technology and commerce (for example, an index calculated by dividing a combined GNP-technology index by the population of native speakers), Japanese might come out at or near the top of the world’s languages, and certainly would be above Chinese.

Acquisition of Japanese Language

Even though many universities these days offer programs in Japanese, long-term residence in Japan is still extremely important in acquiring Japanese as a second language. Numerous Westerners have attained fairly good ability in Japanese; almost all of them have resided for long periods in Japan, many of them are still in Japan, and the ones who are exceptionally good at Japanese, both written and the spoken, are almost all living in Japan. Formal education in Japanese is not a negative factor; it is certainly useful in learning the language. But formal education alone is almost never sufficient in acquiring a high level of even reading ability in Japanese. It is unlikely that efforts to learn Japanese exclusively from outside of Japan will be very successful.

With globalization encouraging large numbers of people in places such as China and India to learn Japanese for the express purpose of becoming Japanese call-center operators and Japanese-to-English translators, the market is being flooded with people who will, many of them for political and economic reasons, never be able to experience the Japanese language outside of a learning environment in their homeland. Many of these—and certainly almost all of them in China—are “third-language” translators (TLTs) who translate from one foreign language to another and are simply not up to the task of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation. But in a demand segment in which a “good enough” translation is “good enough,” such translators (and translation brokers in China and India that use such translations) appear to have found a way to make a living. One such demand segment is provided by the need for cheap and quick (even if dirty) translations of Japanese discovery documents produced in US litigation.

But for high-quality translations, these TLTs have not and will never be able to replace translators who have native-level reading ability in Japanese, native writing ability in English, and subject-matter expertise. Ironically, the TLTs in India and China themselves might be on the verge of losing out to machine translation, which is quickly achieving “mediocrity singularity” with incompetent human translators, potentially at a price cheaper than available in even China or India. We will write more about this phenomenon on a different occasion.

The Path Forward

Even with the great interest shown by Westerners in Japanese popular culture, very few self-proclaimed Japanese-capable manga or anime fans break into, or wish to break into, professional commercial translation. And, as noted above, third-language translators are not the answer if high-quality translation is required.

For the Japanese-to-English translation consumer, it is important to realize the difference between third-language translators who, driven by the prospect of income many times the average in their homeland, have learned Japanese at a linguistic and cultural distance and a truly professional translators with a commitment to the language and its culture, ability to express the source-language message in the target language, and a deep understanding of the subject matter to be translated. These abilities are not commonly found, which is another way of saying that they can be found. But a website of a translation broker claiming to do anything and everything, cheaply, and quickly is not the solution. More effort is required to obtain translations having quality that does not leave the reader laughing or crying. More on this topic as well in an upcoming article.