Some Basic Facts about the Japanese LanguageThe Position of Japanese in the Language Landscape, and a Few Things Translation Consumers Should Learn

(Published January 2, 2019; edited March 10, 2021)

General Characteristics

Although the origin of the Japanese language and its relationship to other languages remain subjects of some debate among scholars, on a practical level, the Japanese language bears little resemblance to any other language that would make it easier to understand or learn by speakers of other specific languages. For example, aside from many words incorporated into 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 used with meanings different from their meanings in their original language.

More importantly, however, the structure of the Japanese language, being radically different from most major languages, makes it particularly difficult to learn, even for Chinese, who share a subset of the logogram characters kanji used in Japanese to write a language totally different from Chinese. The Chinese language is simply not related to the Japanese language, for example, regardless of a partial commonality of orthography.

Another problem for learners and translators of Japanese is a higher dependency on context shared between a writer and an intended reader than in other languages.

Writing System

Perhaps uniquely among written languages, Japanese is written with a mixture of three sets of orthographic symbols, kanji characters, almost all borrowed from the Chinese written language, and two syllabaries developed in Japan, hiragana and katakana, the former used in combination with kanji characters to write Japanese, and the latter used chiefly to phonetically write borrowings from other languages. This are added to by occasional expressions written in Latin orthography, these often being logograms for Japanese words.

Misconception Regarding Kanji

Although some Westerners (particularly those who are enamored of kanji characters) enjoy asserting that the borrowed Chinese characters used to write Japanese are ideograms [sic] represent 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, and the other being one or more native Japanese readings, which assign the logogram to one or more native Japanese words.

Japanese and Chinese Languages

Although the Japanese language uses thousands of kanji characters borrowed from Chinese, the Japanese language itself bears little similarity to Chinese. Chinese and Japanese differ 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 active users outside of Japan, save for first-generation Japanese dispora. 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. Japan's attempts to coerce people in its occupied or annexed countries before and during WW2 to learn and use Japanese was largely unsuccessful. When the Japanese left in August of 1945, they basically took the language with them.

Measuring the Importance of Japanese

If an index were to be devised to reflect

  • the number of people using a language their native language;
  • the importance of a language as a vehicle for commerce;
  • the importance technology expressed using a language, and
  • the opportunities and desire for non-natives to interact with native speakers of a language,

Japanese might come out at or near the top of the world's languages, and would probably be above Chinese, regardless of the number of native speakers Chinese has. This will not spark joy in the hearts of people who were fired up about the coming expected dominance of China to the extent that they learned Chinese. As joy-free as that situation might be, it remains true, at least until the system in China opens up or falls down of its own weight, enabling and/or requiring large a large volume discourse with English speakers.

Acquisition of Japanese Language

Even though many universities in English-speaking countries these days offer programs in Japanese, long-term residence in Japan is still extremely important in acquiring Japanese as a second language for use in the real world outside of academic pursuits or enjoying anime. Numerous Westerners have attained 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 spoken, appear to be mostly living in Japan.

Additionally, there is an undeniable learning synergy between reading and speaking, and it is unlikely that efforts to learn Japanese exclusively from outside of Japan with little emphasis on or opportunity to learn spoken Japanese will be very successful.

The Chinese Disconnection

With globalization encouraging large numbers of people in places such as China to learn Japanese for the express purpose of becoming Japanese-to-English translators, the translation labor market is being flooded with people who will, mostly for political and economic reasons, never be able to experience the Japanese language outside of a learning environment in their homeland. These people form a universe of “third-language” translators (TLTs) who translate from one foreign language to another and are rarely up to the task of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation.

We see the results of translations by TLTs on a regular basis in translations of Japanese discovery documents done in China. In demand segments in which a “good enough” translation is “good enough,” such translators (including TLTs used by brokers in China and indirectly used by the US translation broker-agencies using those Chinese brokers) appear to have found a way to make a living. One such demand segment is represented by the need for cheap and quick (even if poorly done) translations of Japanese discovery documents produced in US litigation.

But for high-quality translations, these TLTs have not been able to and are highly unlikely to ever be able to replace translators who possess native-level reading ability in Japanese, native writing ability in English, and subject-matter expertise. Ironically, the TLTs themselves might be on the verge of losing out to machine translation, which is quickly achieving "mediocrity singularity" with incompetent human translators, at a price cheaper than available from even human translators in China, even when you add the cost of post-editing rescue work. 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, on the one hand, TLTs who, driven by the prospect of income many times the average in their homeland, have learned Japanese at a geographic, linguistic, and cultural distance from Japan, and truly professional translators with a commitment to the language and its culture, the ability to express the source-language message in the target language, and a deep understanding of the subject matter to be translated.

All three of these abilities are not commonly found even in translators with either English or Japanese as their native language, which is another way of saying that they can be found, but care is required.