Five Translating Issues Unique to Japanese-English Translation

Basic tips on how to handle translation issues that arise due to differences in Japanese and English, such as spoken lines ending right before where the verb should be, and furigana that are different from the standard kanji pronunciations.

There are issues particular to Japanese-English translation due to various differences between the two languages. Here’re some tips on how to handle some of those issues.

1. Nouns – Singular or Plural?

Japanese nouns don’t precisely distinguish between singular and plural forms.
Sometimes the context of the spoken lines will give you clues, in which case translating the expression would be a straightforward task. If there’s no way of telling (i.e. either singular or plural form would do), then the safe way would be to use the plural form.

2. Pronouns – Male or Female?

Certain expressions give no clues about the gender of the person the speaker is referring to. For example, if someone is referred to only as “that one”, that person could either be a male or a female.

If “that one” refers to a character who’s already appeared in the story, then translating the expression as a pronoun when necessary would be a straightforward task. If “that one” refers to a character the readers haven’t been introduced to yet, the speaker may be using this expression because (1) the gender of “that one” is irrelevant to the ongoing conversation, or (2) the mangaka is keeping the gender of “that one” secret as it is part of a foreshadowing of a later plot development.

In the first case, the safe way would be to use the plural form if possible. In the second case, one way to get around this issue would be to somehow translate the spoken line while avoiding the use of male and female pronouns. An alternative would be to keep using “that one” in all the spoken lines.

3. Supplementing Missing Verbs

Sentence structures are different in Japanese (subject-object-verb) and English (subject- verb-object). Because verbs come at the end of Japanese sentences, spoken lines sometimes end right before the verb, followed by ellipsis. A word-for-word translation wouldn’t quite work here, as a “subject-object” translation would sound awkward in English.

Manga is a combination of spoken words and drawings. Thus the accompanying drawings sometimes give clues as to what the actual verb is. In such cases, supplementing the missing verb would be a straightforward task.
But if the verb was left out because the spoken line is a foreshadowing of a later plot development, you’d need to somehow translate that line while avoiding the use of a verb. In this case, you may also need to edit your translation to minimize the “awkwardness” of the sentence structure.

4. Kanji and Their Furigana

Most furigana in manga tell the readers how each kanji expression is pronounced.
There are however cases in which a furigana of a kanji expression is completely different from the way the expression is usually pronounced. A common example is using kanji for a pronoun (e.g. “she”), and have the furinaga spell out her name (e.g. “Mika Suzuki”).
There are three ways to get around this issue. The first alternative would be to only use the pronoun in your translation. The second alternative would be instead to only use the name. The third alternative would be to use both, e.g. “she, Mika Suzuki”. If you can interpret the spoken lines correctly, the context of the ongoing conversation should give you clues about which of the three alternatives would be most appropriate in your translation.

5. Different Forms of Pronouns

Certain Japanese pronouns come in many forms. Some examples of first-person pronouns are “watashi”, “watakushi”, “boku” and “ore.” Some examples of second-person pronouns are “anata”, “anta”, “omae” and “kisama”.
Some pronouns are mostly used by one gender (e.g. “atashi” by females, “ore” by males), while some of them are used by both genders (e.g. “watashi”, “watakushi”).

English pronouns do not have such corresponding variations, so nuances can be lost in the English translation. To compensate for this loss of information, it may be necessary to modify your word choices in the rest of the spoken lines to better convey the male-ness or female-ness implied in the pronouns used in the Japanese original.
In some cases, it may be necessary to alter a character’s speaking style so the personality of the character reflected in the choice of pronouns is kept consistent throughout the story.

Tomo Kimura started translating manga in 2004 after a career in software engineering. Starting with Full Moon O Sagashite (Arina Tanemura), representative manga translations include Skip Beat! (Yoshiki Nakamura), Kamisama Kiss (Julietta Suzuki), Black Butler (Yana Toboso) and Pandora Hearts (Jun Mochizuki). She currently teaches a manga translation course at Fellow Academy, a translation school in Tokyo. The course teaches the basic rules of manga translation, with emphasis on translation issues for Japanese students whose native language is not English. Born in Kobe, Tomo lives in Tokyo.
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