Common Japanese-English Translation Issues: 1. Introduction

Let's open with an illustrative, if hackneyed phrase (my cynical voice would call it a cliché):

Shihoumi ni kakomareta shimaguni no Nihon.


“Japan, an island nation (1) surrounded on all sides by the sea (2).”

Variants the above are often found in introductions to historical articles. Its frequency is such that it reflects the Japanese preference for redundancy and convention above factuality. In the case of this phrase, a double redundancy occurs: Japan is a nation, by definition (1); its islands are surrounded by sea, also by definition (2). The facts in question concern “island nation”. Japan is not an island nation. Japan is an archipelago that has for many centuries functioned as a politically unified entity, i.e. a nation.

For Japanese words, English correspondences are provided in dictionaries or learnt in school. Yet, such fidelity, or translation by word-swapping, produces infelicities that create mechanical translation faults and generate a new, false language that I call “Translatese” or Yaku-go (訳語).

One basic but persistent translation issue is prevalence of the much-hated, commonly abused, passive voice. Translators and editors must keep in mind that passive voice writing renders longer, inflexible, aurally awkward sentences. Typically, these lack the colour and life of active voice writing. Many, probably most, Japanese passive-voice sentences can be reworked into the usually superior active voice in English.