May 15

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Why are Japanese translations of English so weird?

By Charles Hoshino

May 15, 2021

Japanese learning, Translation

Someone on Quora asked a question about why Japanese translations of English are so weird (or poor quality). Here is my off-the-cuff-answer.

Hey, this is a trick question! It’s like asking, “When did you beat your wife?”

The truth is that professional Japanese-to-English translators do a wonderful job. But amateurs do not. Why?

Some possibilities:

  • English education in Japan is bad. The Japanese system does a terrible job with English education. Compare to China, where you sometimes cannot even tell if the person is native or not.
  • Japanese is very different from English. Japanese is quite distant from English, so they have a harder time than someone translating from French or Spanish. For example, the basic sentence structure is different. There are also few words that share a common ancestry.
  • Confirmation bias. “Japanese people stuck rearry bad at English” is a bit of a meme… So we tend to see more bad examples than good ones, which creates the impression that Japanese are worse at translating to English than they really are.

Another way to frame the question might be, “Is the problem with the Japanese language or with the Japanese system?” Because of how well China does in comparison, I think it has more to do with the system—the institutions and incentives are probably not there.

Japan is prosperous, and being good at English—or investing the thousands of hours it takes to be good at it—isn’t worth it for many.

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