Translation and the Japanese Language


One part of history that I find fascinating is the development of languages. They are constantly shifting and evolving over time, and languages will never be seen as ‘completed’. Translation is one way that languages can evolve, with terms often being borrowed from other languages. But the history of the Japanese language is especially interesting for the translator. When we look at how the Japanese language has developed, we can see just how much power translation has on the languages we speak.

Translation in Japan began with the importation of Chinese classics in the 4th Century. By the 6th Century, scholars had established a technique known as kanbun-kundoku (Semizu 2006: 284, 288). This allowed scholars to read Chinese texts just by learning the meaning of each kanji character, followed by writing glosses on the texts to mark which character was to be ‘read’ according to the order of Japanese syntax.

Japan had no writing system prior to the importation of Chinese characters, and so the foreignness of kanbun-kundoku could not have been exposed. Besides, Chinese classics were an intellectual hobby for the upper class, meaning the translator and reader were the same person. This gave the translations no obvious purpose, and no need to disguise their foreignness.

By the Tokugawa period, translation had become a way of gaining information on Western advances, and after Japan opened its borders to the West during the Meiji period in 1853, kanbun-kundoku was the quickest translation method. Speed was necessary if Japan was to catch up with the rest of the world after secluding itself for over two centuries.

The translational language actually helped the Japanese language to evolve, and writer Futabatei Shimei’s translation style had a huge impact on the language used in modern Japanese literature (Levy 2010: 365). Translational language has now become an integral part of the Japanese language, and no longer evokes the strangeness that it once did.

There are dangers in using this kind of translation approach, such as the ‘cassette effect’ which I’ll come back to at a later date, but for now let’s appreciate the evolution of the Japanese language and the role that translation had to play!


Levy, Indra (2010) ‘Endangered by Translation: Modern Japanese literature, vernacular style and the westernesque femme fatale’, in Mona Baker (ed.) Critical Readings in Translation Studies, London & New York: Routledge, 359-380.

Semizu, Yukino (2006) ‘Invisible Translation: Reading Chinese texts in ancient Japan’ in Theo Hermans (ed.) Translating Others: Volume II, Manchester: St Jerome, 283-295.


What is a ‘good’ translation?


Translation Approaches

What surprised me when I first started translating is the difference in expectations. While I was an undergraduate, translation was simply expressing the meaning of the source text using target language ‘equivalents’, and it always had to sound as fluent as possible. This emphasis on fluency and domestication has long been the norm for translations into the English language, and while Venuti (1995) is known for promoting a more foreignising approach to translation, these sorts of approaches are often condemned.

Yet when I began translating commercially, different clients had different expectations, and it was clear that translation isn’t as simple as it seems. Most wanted the freer approach, naturalising the target text to the target language and culture, but there were others who wanted a literal, word for word translation. With Japanese being so different to English, a literal translation often resulted in a very awkward sentence which can render the meaning unclear. Why would anyone want this? Yet to those clients, a closer rendition was considered the best translation.

So what exactly is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ translation? There are a wide variety of approaches available to a translator, and just like any other type of writing, it is not only subjective but also dependent on the actual purpose of the text. Sometimes it is even necessary to step away from the original content and localise it to the new target audience in order to achieve the goals that prompted the translation.

In the end, a ‘good’ translation depends on the unique factors surrounding the project, including target audience, aims and text type. This is why I will always discuss my translation approach with the client, so we can tailor the translation approach to each specific project and achieve the best results.

Venuti, Lawrence (1995) Translator’s Invisibility: A history of translation, London: Routledge.