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The Hidden Art of English to Japanese Translation


Some people think that translation is like this; take one sentence...translate it...take another sentence...translate it...keep doing it until the end, and—Voila! The work is done. This, however, is not how translation works. 

I understand where that misconception comes from. At a meeting, simultaneous interpreters process the spoken words in one go without ever going back to fix their interpretations. But you need to know that, given the time constraint, conference interpreters can typically convert 80% or less.


Document translators must clear a higher bar—our conversion rate should be close to 100%. To achieve that near-perfection, I take at least the following five steps.

  1. Take a look at the whole document

  2. Translate

  3. Compare the original text and the translation

  4. Review the translation

  5. Read the translation again

I will briefly explain those steps below. 


Take a look at the whole document


When I get the document I read it through and find out who wrote for whom, and for what purpose. This helps me find out the tone and the Japanese writing style I should choose. There are two Japanese styles, Desumasu and Dearu.

Desumasu writing style is polite, engaging, and soft. Dearu writing style is definitive, simple, and dignified. Here are some examples:

Japanese writing styles


Desumasu (polite)




Dearu (dignified or decisive)

Typically used in business for:

Presentation material


Contractual agreement
Board meeting minutes
Scientific paper




In this step, I pay attention to the definition of each word. Some  words look easy to translate, but actually, they are not. 


A good example is how to translate “investment adviser” into Japanese. 

If you simply put investment (toshi) and adviser (jogengyosha) together, you end up with toshi jogengyosha.

This is wrong!

Investment advisers often have the discretion to invest for their clients without having to obtain formal permission before executing a transaction. But if you used the word, toshi jogengyosha, its role will be restricted to the giving of advice only.

A more accurate translation should be toshi komongyosha.


Compare the original text and the translation


After creating a draft translation, I check and revise it by tracing every word to see if anything is missing. It’s rather complicated because the word order in Japanese is quite different from that of English.


The following chart illustrates how each English word of a sentence matches its equivalent in Japanese. 

投資プログラムが         成功するためには         法人顧客と外部の運用会社の         間の         オープンで正直な関係が         必要である










clients and

external money managers.



The above is a short sentence and yet it is already complicated. Imagine what will happen when the sentence gets very long. It will look like spaghetti!


Review the translation again


I read through the translation, this time, without looking at the original text. At this stage, the translation sounds horrible. That is partly because the Japanese language is so different from English. For instance, the Japanese don’t use pronouns (he, she, they, we, etc.) When a Japanese text is mechanically translated into English, it sounds redundant. Conversely, when an English text is translated into Japanese, it doesn’t seem to repeat key words enough to be clear.


Furthermore, I check if the right amount of emphasis is put in the right place to make the message clear, make it sound professional, and importantly, polite enough for Japanese people. 

Lastly I focus on how it sounds to the ear. Why do I care about how it sounds? Scientists say that even if you are reading the text in silence, part of your brain is converting the text into sound. In that respect, Japanese and English are different in how they use rhythm.


I mean, English is like:


where Dum is louder. For example:

         I went to the park to walk my dog.

In contrast, Japanese sounds like ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, where each syllable is even. I have to think about how smoothly it flows. 


Read the translation, yet again, after a break


Reading the same text over and over is mind-numbing. At this stage, there are usually still some phrases I am not happy about. But I leave any unresolved problems and take a break. The break can be as long as the deadline allows. 


I may go to a gym, or take a day off. When I’m not thinking about work, my subconscious mind seems to be still at it, because sometimes I have those Eureka moments during the break or the next morning. It's not that I'm a genius or anything. It can happen to all of us.


So I thank my subconscious mind and make some improvement. Then I take a final look at the document, pretending to be someone who reads it for the first time. If anything sounds strange, I make changes. When I’m satisfied, I check the spelling and send the document to the client. 

So, this is the whole process. I hope you now have a good understanding of how translation is done.

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