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Japanese Names: A Bit More Troublesome than Green or Greene

January 4, 2019

One annoying problem accompanying translation from Japanese to English is the occurrence of Japanese family and given names, because many names can be read in multiple ways, and very often the options for rendering them into Western orthography are totally different from each other.

Here are some examples of family names written precisely the same but pronounced and Romanized differently:

And there are countless other pitfalls in attempting to render Japanese names in Western orthography.

Although a diligent translator will make efforts to research the reading of name, a general dictionary of names that gives both options of Hata and Haneda is of little help. If the person bearing the name is still alive or is an identifiable individual, the translator might be able to pin down the reading, sometimes, however, by having to track down the person and ask them. Without that, the translator is forced to make a guess. Guesses should be accompanied by a translator’s note to indicate the uncertainty about the name.

For patent translators, names of inventors and names of Japanese patent attorneys are the most common problems. Japanese Patent attorneys, if they are still active and registered, can usually be found in the database on the Japanese website of the Japan Patent Attorneys Association.

For inventor names, there are a number of approaches. One is to find corresponding US patents or patent applications, which will list the inventors (applicants). It could be, however, that a particular inventor has never been listed as an inventor on a patent specification written in English. One approach in that case is to note the field of art of the patent and see if the inventor has published anything on which he is accredited as an author. This is sometimes the only way to discover the reading.

In any event, a diligent translator will realize that, if certainty is not possible, rather than making an educated guess, a better approach is to do research and provide a suspected reading with a translator’s note to alert the reader.