Translating Japanese Names and Back-transliterating Non-Japanese Names Written in Japanese Phonetic OrthographyMuch more troublesome than Green/Greene and Smyth/Smythe

(January 4, 2019; updated April 22, 2024)

Translating Japanese Names

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 Latin orthography are totally different from each other.

Here are some examples of family names written precisely the same but pronounced and rendered in Latin orthography differently, without any clue given by the Japanese (kanji) orthography.

  • 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). But if the text was about neither, the translator would need to check the reading.
  • 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 Latin 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., both Satoh and Sato are used for one and the same Japanese family name).

Although a diligent translator will make efforts to research the reading of name, general dictionaries of names that give both options of Hata and Haneda, for example, are of little help or assurance of correctness. If the person bearing the name is still alive or is a verifiable individual, the translator must undertake to verify the reading, and sometimes this might involve tracking down the person and ask them directly. We recently translated some documents that required us to contact two police stations to verify the readings of police officers and prosecutors.

Without the ability to verify the name with someone who knows or with the person involved, the translator is often forced to make a guess. Guesses must be accompanied by a translator's note to flag the uncertainty regarding 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 registered and active, 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. Since most inventors are inventing things at companies here, checking with the employer or their website can be helpful.

In any event, a diligent translator will realize that, if certainty is not possible, rather than merely making an educated guess, it is best to do research and provide a suspected reading(s) and to apply a translator's note to alert the reader if doubt remains.

Back-transliterating Non-Japanese Names Written in Japanese Phonetic Orthography

Yet another name translation problem occurs when a non-Japanese name is rendered in phonetic Japanese script in a Japanese text. Common names such as Jones aside, many of the names cannot be restored to their original spelling with certainty. One cause of this is the corruption that occurs when such non-Japanese names are forced into the phonetic restraints of the Japanese writing system. For example, because there is no l sound, the name of our CEO is rendered phonetically as RIZE in Japanese katakana orthography. That is a very unusual family name, so one will not likely know that the original spelling is Lise.

Our policy is to make every effort to research original spellings, but there will be cases in which a translator's note will be appended to flag the uncertainty of spelling and also cases in which the translator will undertake to ask the client for verification of a name rendering.