Tactics

It’s a Bad Idea to Translate from English to Japanese. Here’s Why:

First off, let me start by saying that this post has nothing to do with professionals who translate from English to Japanese every day for their work – in other words, people who know exactly what their doing are exempt from this post.

The people I’m talking about are those who are learning Japanese and fall into either the beginner or lower-intermediate skill range. It’s a bad idea for them to translate from their native language of English into their target language of Japanese when they try to say something new.

There are a couple of reasons for this that I will go over, and I will also give you the solutions/alternatives to this situation so that you can continue to improve your communication skills in Japanese.

Let’s start at the beginning, or how students typically “translate” their English thoughts into Japanese words.

A Typical (Bad) Translation Example

Generally speaking, a new student will think of the complete sentence in English first, and then start converting the words one by one into their Japanese equivalent until they’ve got the whole sentence.

This process works well for languages that are similarly structured to one another, but it really falls apart with English and Japanese because, not only is the grammar very different, but they also express things differently.

For example, the Japanese language is very context dependent, meaning that a surprisingly large amount of words get left out of sentences when the context is able to provide that information instead.

The classic example is the word “I” when speaking about yourself. In English, you always have to say “I” so people know you’re talking about yourself, but in Japanese you would only say “I” if it was unclear who the sentence was about, or if you really wanted to emphasize it.

Google Translate also runs into the same problem as beginner students.

It does a lot of cool things, but as for translating English into Japanese (or vice versa)… they’ve still got a ways to go.

Here’s a common scenario: a student has an English phrase in their mind that they want to know how to say in Japanese, so they go to Google Translate and plug it in.

Google Translate craps out a Japanese sentence, and the student has no idea that it’s a bad translation. They then use it when communicating with Japanese people, and the natives aren’t really sure what the student is trying to say.

locksleyu over at SelfTaughtJapanese.com actually did an entire post on it where someone wanted to say “I’m lost, can you help?” in Japanese and the result from Google Translate was very awkward and a bit confusing.

Google Translate came back with: 「わたしまよっています。おてつだいできますか?」

Whereas a more Japanese (natural) way to say it would be: 「みちまよってるんですけど、ちょっとおしえてもらえますか?」

You see how different those two phrases are? If you’re not sure, check out the post linked to above in order to understand exactly why you would choose the second phrase instead of the first.

Now it seems like I’m hating on Google Translate in particular, which I don’t want to do. I actually think that Google Translate is useful when you need to look up individual words, or how to pronounce something.

It’s just when it comes to translating entire phrases or sentences that all machine translators seem to struggle. I’m sure as time goes on, it will get better and better. But as of right now, it’s not so good.

What’s the Problem?

When you think of the purpose of a language, you realize that it is a tangible representation of an intangible substance: your thoughts!

You have a thought in your mind, then you convert that thought into a language so that you can send those words to another person and from those words you sent them, they can recreate the same thought in their own mind.

It’s kind of a cool process when you think about it!

The problem occurs when you have a thought and first convert it to English words, before then converting it again into Japanese words.

Japanese people don’t always use the same words that we (English-speaking natives) do to represent their thoughts.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Let’s say that you and a friend want to make dinner. You friend starts to boil some water on your gas powered stove top, but they put the fire on low for some reason.

After a while, you notice that nothing’s really happening and you’d like to speed up the process. So naturally you tell them to “turn up the gas” so that there’s more fire and it boils quicker.

Now how would you say that in Japanese?

Would you try to use the equivalent Japanese words?

Gas = ガス

Turn up = がる

Turn up the gas = ガスをがる???

Not really.

How about you drop that phrase into Google Translate and see what you get?

Google-Sensei says: Turn up the gas = ガスを

Still not quite right.

Try this little experiment with Google Translate:

  1. Enter the English phrase you want translated into Japanese
  2. Press the “swap languages” button (it looks like two arrows ↔)
  3. Press it again. And again. And again!

You see how distorted that phrase gets each time you “swap languages” and Google re-translates it? You would think that it would stay the same each time.

Here’s the point: you can’t trust Google Translate for Japanese.

Here’s the other point: the natural way that Japanese people would say “turn up the gas” is actually 「ガスのつよくする」 which has a more literal English meaning of “make the gas fire strong.”

You see how the same thought (increasing the amount of fire on the gas stove top) uses very different words to express it in each language?

That’s one of the reasons why you shouldn’t use your English words to speak in Japanese. Here are some other examples of the same thought being expressed with (slightly) different words in each language. Pay attention to the underlined parts.

English: I have to go to the bathroom

Japanese: トイレにきたい (I want to go to the bathroom)

English: Let’s study hard!

Japanese: しっかり勉強べんきょうしましょう! (Let’s study tightly)

English: Run away!

Japanese: げろ! (Escape!)

Look at that last example. “Run away” and “Escape” basically mean the same thing (they are same thought) but in English, if you and your friend run into a hoard of 1,000 angry rats that are on a rampage through town, you’re not going to turn to you friend and yell “escaaaaaaaaaape!” in English. You’re going to yell “run awaaaaaaaaay!!!!!!”

But in Japanese you would yell 「げろぉぉぉぉぉぉ!!!!!」 when you turned to flee.

Bottom line is this:

  1. Language is all about sharing your thoughts and understanding the thoughts of others.
  2. The English language and the Japanese language tend to express the same thoughts with different words.

So how can you overcome this challenge?

How Use the Correct Words

There is a quote I like, but can’t remember who said it. I searched the internet, and found nothing (I’m just as shocked as you are). I am probably paraphrasing what was said, but here it goes anyway:

“If you don’t already know how to say something in another language, then you don’t know it.”

-Some person

Now at first glance, this looks like a “no duh” kind of statement. But upon further reflection it is actually quite deep.

What it’s saying is that, if at this moment you don’t know the correct way to say something in the language you are learning, then don’t make something up because the way they say it might not be the same way you say it in your native tongue. Rather, find out how that thing is said in the target language and then use that.

This encapsulates what I was talking about earlier. If you don’t know how Japanese people say “let’s study hard” in their native language, don’t go try to guess what it is. Look it up!

Now I think there are certain circumstances where you actually can guess, or anticipate, how to say something in Japanese when you haven’t learned it quite yet.

It has to do with changing a single word or two within a sentence pattern, but keeping the overall pattern the same.

So if you know the pattern “please give me a BLANK” in Japanese, you can swap out “BLANK” for pretty much anything without really needing to look it up.

  • リンゴをください = Please give me an apple

You can swap out 「リンゴ」 for just about any noun.

  • かれつよいです = He is strong

Adjectives like つよい」 are easy to swap out as well.

The things I’m saying you’ll have to look up are set-phrases since they almost never translate into Japanese cleanly.

  • Let’s eat! = いただきます !

These two phrases are not the same thing for each language. But they are (for the most part) used in the same way in both English and Japanese.

  • Aha! I knew it! = あぁ! やっぱり!

Again, this is not a direct translation of words, but rather what each language uses to convey the same thing. In this last case, it’s the fact that “you already suspected something to be true, and then you confirmed that it was so.”

Recommended Resources

For these types of situations, you’re just gonna have to learn what Japanese people say. You can find a list of common one liners similar to やっぱり by clicking here and reading this post.

How would you say “kill two birds with one stone” in Japanese? That falls under the category of idioms or proverbs. You can read about common Japanese 四字熟語よじじゅくご and ことわざ by clicking here and reading this article.

But for the majority of situations where you want to say a phrase or sentence in Japanese, but you’re not exactly sure how to do so, you’ll need to look them up.

You can get help from native Japanese people (FREE) here and ask them questions such as “how would you say ‘blah-blah-blah’ in Japanese?” and they should be able to provide you with good, natural sounding phrases.

If you’re more of the self-study type, then I think you’d really enjoy this book that provides 142 sentence patterns which, when memorized, will become invaluable to you.

Knowing these patterns will allow you to make those minor substitutes I talked about earlier (like the word “apple” for “orange,” and so on) to exponentially increase what you know how to say in Japanese, in a way that is natural for the language.

And of course you can always expose yourself to lots and lots of native material in order to see and hear what gets used so that you can then mimic it yourself.

And a good resource that I think is a great way to find “Japanese ways to say Japanese things” can be found in small, cheap, and useful Japanese Phrasebooks that no learner of Japanese should be without.

Now I’m Saying you CAN Translate???

I say it’s a bad idea to straight up translate English to Japanese (unless you’re already really good), but I didn’t say that it was taboo.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to play with the language and use it a lot, even if you end up making some mistakes and sounding awkward. In fact, you’re probably going to suck at Japanese for at least a little while until you get good at it.

The reason I wrote this post was to give you some advice to reduce to number of future mistakes you make and to help you to get into the (good) habit of learning the Japanese language they way it’s used by natives.

So when you’re not sure how to say something in Japanese, look it up!

But if you can’t look it up, just go ahead and guess what it is and be sure to verify it at a later time when you can.

What do you guys think?

Are you constantly looking up new ways to say things in Japanese? Do you tend to wing it and just go with the flow?

Join the discussion with a comment below! Thanks!

2 Comments

  • Beth

    Great point! One of the most important parts about learning a language is learning to think in that language! Google translate is fantastic for some things, but really can’t replace learning a language on your own. Another problem with GT is that sometimes it doesn’t know where a certain character should go, so it translates things incorrectly because it mistakes which word a character is part of.

    Learning set phrases is an incredible learning technique! Great post!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, that’s a great point! It’s okay to use your native language to get yourself starting learning an other one, but at some point you want to put that crutch away and be totally involved in the target language.

      -Thinking in the language.
      -Reading in the language.
      -Speaking in the language.

      The sooner that you can act like the language you are learning is the only one you know, the faster you’re going to increase your abilities with it.

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