Common Japanese-English Translation Issues: 3. Counting

Quantification is a component of extreme importance in the field of technical translation. Numbers, in their many and varied guises, are responsible for a galaxy of translation mistakes. In English, small quantities are customarily counted in dozens; in Japanese, as tens, hence sūjū and jūsū, which are usually correctly, if not always appropriately, translated as “several tens” and “ten and several”, respectively. Although both are accurate in their expression of numerical value, both are alliteratively unnatural. A more effective translation would be “a few dozen” and “just over a dozen”, respectively. Just to confound things however, terms like sūman are usually translated appropriately, i.e. as "tens of thousands".

“Under”, “over”, and “from” are the most common translations of the following Japanese words (respectively): ika (以下), ijō (以上) , and i(以降).

Greater difficulty is encountered when correctly translating ika, ijō, and ikō (“under”, “over”, and “from”, albeit approximately). These words seldom correspond meaningfully to the English equivalents provided in dictionaries.

For example:

In device specificationss, translators commonly find expression such as:

100 V 以下 (up to 100 volts)

In technical documentation, what might otherwise appear as an apparently trivial distinction can be of extreme significance. For instance, when detailing amperes, volts, or other potentially safety-critical numbers, terms that indicate "up to" and "over" must be translated correctly.

Periods or events described as Muromachi jidai ikō and Shōwa gonen ikō are regularly translated as “beginning from the Muromachi period” and “from Shōwa 5”, but these are ambiguous statements. The reader cannot know if “from” means “after” or “in”/“during”. In most cases, “in” or “during” is correct, but this cannot be ascertained from ikō (以降) alone. In technical translations, such greyness is unacceptable.

Another quantification issue occurs when reporting time spans between years. Most translators and editors are careful when converting the Japanese reckoning of ages so would automatically correct a statement such as “the 54 years of the life of Dōgen (1200-1253)”. Nor would they would see problems with “the 15 years of Taishō (1912-1926)” or “the five years of World War I (1914-18)”. In Japanese reckoning, both the first and last years are counted in the total number between the dates; in Eurocentric reckoning, the first year is not included in the total: the Taishō era lasted 14 years and World War I four years and three and half months. Usually, in English, the number of years is not necessary, but in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, it is standard practice to include it, even if the dates are specified, particularly when aggrandizement is intended. Hence, when the Japanese insist these are included, the arithmetic should be checked. (Many Buddhists and Hindus also factor in an extra year when counting human age.)

Translators also need to be aware of the decade puzzle. Titles such as “The decade 1950-1960” although normal in Japanese textbooks, are unacceptably ambiguous: does this refer to the ten years between 1950 and 59 or 1951 to 60? Can the year 1960 occur in the 1950s? Such vagueness is common in Japanese technical writing, unless there is need to explicitly stress the exact time. Thus, this equates most safely to “the 50s”, as would be said in English.

“Each” or “every”?: kaku (各) and sho (諸)

The two prefixes kaku and sho also complicate enumeration. Dictionaries define kaku as “each”, but mechanical translators usually render it as “every”. Even worse, in most technical documentation, kaku means “various”! As you can imagine, such ambiguity can create serious mistakes, especially if the device is unfamiliar to the translator or editor.

For example:


Orimpikku ni wa sekai *kakkoku kara senshu ga atsumarimasu.

*kaku and koku are elided to form kakkoku.

This is the mechanical, word-swapping translation:

"Athletes from every country of the world are gathered for the Olympic Games."

This translation appears satisfactory, but it is technically inaccurate and therefore incorrect.

"The athletes of the world’s various countries are gathered for the Olympic Games."

This is truer to the writer’s intended meaning, despite lacking fidelity to the standard (alert!) translation of kakko.

Similarly, kakuchi (各地) is reliably mistranslated in Japanese government documents as “all districts”. It should be translated as “various districts”. Conversely, kakumin (各民) is routinely correctly translated as “all citizens”, possibly because this phrase is seldom encountered outside political rhetoric in citizenship and human rights debates. Hence, correctness appears to be critically dependent on context so is not easily to achieve through pure deduction.

Although dictionaries proclaim the prefix sho (諸) to mean “many”, “several”, and “various”, in most academic and commercial technical documents, this is always and usually wrongly rendered as “all”. This is ironic, considering the excessive faith that most Japanese seem to have in the infallibility of dictionaries. In this case, the dictionary is right, and the common usage wrong!

Thus, because of the mistranslation of sho (諸), related words such as shomondai (諸問題) and shokoku (諸国) become “all problems” and “all countries”, respectively. Most writers intend sho (諸) to indicate “most”, which is neither the commonest nor the standard definition. Quality-conscious translators need to remember that both sho and kaku are, according to the commonest usage, simply plural markers signifying “various”, “unspecified-quantities-of”, and “some-or-possibly-all”.

Another notable instance of the multiple vagaries of Japanese enumeration involves the English phrase “as many as”. This is, sadly more often than not, due to three Japanese terms that are superficially similar in meaning: hodo (程), teido (程度), and – in certain constructions – the less formal, non-technical mo (も). In Japanese, all three translate correctly, but rather obtusely, to “precisely” - as a modifier providing exclamation or denoting revelation; e.g. Nisenmannin hodo ga shinda (二千万人程が死んだ): "Exactly two million people died!"

Yaku (約): "on average" or "about"

This term is another typically over-zealously translated. Japanese authors use yaku (約) to mean “on average” or “approximately”. However, the most frequent English translation for this word is "about", which is rarely correct. Uncertain Japanese authors use yaku (約) to preempt critics armed with the precise number. Western technical writers have no such tolerance (or lenience!). In English language documentation, the responsibility for provision of accurate numbers rests on the shoulders of the author primarily, and fastidious, eagle-eyed editor secondarily. In high quality English technical writing, the number 9.5. for example, constitutes either requisite and sufficient user information, or a mistake. Japanese tolerates more slack.