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)
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. Also, and more importantly, the structure of the Japanese language makes it particularly difficult to learn, even for Chinese, who share a subset of the logogram characters used by the Japanese to write a language totally different from Chinese. Another problem for learners and translators as well is the high dependency on context shared between a writer and an intended reader.
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), one used in combination with kanji characters to write Japanese and the other used chiefly 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, the other being one or more native Japanese readings, which are applications of the logogram to one or more Japanese words
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 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 users 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. Japan's attempts to force people in its occupied or annexed countries before and during WW2 to learn and use Japanese was 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 a language's rarity and also its importance as a vehicle for technology and commerce, Japanese might come out at or near the top of the world’s languages, and certainly would 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 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 of its own weight, enabling and encouraging Chinese-language discourse with anglophone countries.
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 for use in the real world outside of academic pursuits. 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 spoken, appear to be almost all living in Japan. Although formal education in Japanese is not a negative factor, it is almost never sufficient in acquiring a high level of even reading ability in Japanese. There is an undeniable learning synergy between reading and speaking, and it is unlikely that efforts to learn Japanese exclusively from outside of Japan 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 commercial translators, the translation 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 simply not up to the task of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation. We see the results of their work on a regular basis. But in a demand segment in which a “good enough” translation is “good enough,” such translation sellers (including translation brokers in China that use TLTs, and US brokers using those Chinese brokers) appear to have found a way to make a living. One such demand segment is 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 have 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, potentially at a price cheaper than available in even China. 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, 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 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 seldom 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.