Translating Japanese NamesA Bit More Troublesome than Green or Greene and Smyth or Smythe

(Published January 4, 2019; edited March 9, 2021)

One annoying problem accompanying translation from Japanese to English is the occurrence of Japanese family and given names. The trouble occurs 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:

  • Nakashima/Nakajima (family names)
  • Habu/Hanyu (羽生) (family names, the former the name of a famous shogi player, the latter that of a famous figure skater)
  • Yoshida/Yoshita (吉田) (family names, and almost all people pronounce the name Yoshida, but there are people for whom only Yoshita would be correct)
  • Haneda/Hata (羽田) (family names)

And there are countless other pitfalls in attempting to render Japanese names in Western orthography. These include the issue of what system of Romanization to use (e.g., Yoshida or Yosida, although the former is almost universal) and the treatment of long vowels (e.g., Satoh and Sato are both used for one and the same Japanese name).

Although a diligent translator will make efforts to research the reading of name, the several general dictionary of names that give both options of Hata and Haneda, for example, are of little help. If the person bearing the name is still alive or is an verifiable individual, the translator should undertake to verify the reading, and sometimes this might require tracking down the person and ask them directly. Without that, the translator is forced to make a guess. Guesses must 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 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. In such cases, one strategy is to note the field of art of the patent and see if the inventor has published anything on which he is cited 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, it is best to do research and provide a suspected reading(s) and a translator's note to alert the reader.