Monthly Archives: January 2015

Thoughts on translation as a profession and a hobby

Translation of text from one language into another, in particular of a novel or short story, has been an interest of mine for quite a long time.

It’s my belief that to be a superb translator, one has to have been brought up speaking both languages, or at least spent 5-10 years in a country where that language is commonly used. On top of that, getting a bachelors, if not a masters related to linguistics would be preferred. Finally, extra training and experience may be required depending on the field of the content to be translated. For example, in order to translate scientific publications just having been brought up with both languages would not be sufficient. There is a host of field-specific terms to be learned and writing styles particular to that domain. When compared to other jobs which would only require a bachelors degree (or similar), or just a few months of training, translation has a pretty high barrier to entry.

On the other hand, one interesting thing about translation is that it’s not black-or-white. Assuming the target language is one’s mother tongue, as long as the final translated text sounds natural and self-consistent, it would be easy to fool many of the readers to thinking it is a great translation. To put it another way, even if the translation doesn’t carry every little nuance of the source text, the reader may very well enjoy the experience without knowing any better. One example of this is “fan subs” of Japanese anime (cartoons), where sometimes people with relatively little experience in Japanese will attempt to make English subtitles of a series they want to be seen by a broader audience, and so support it by doing a free translation. I’d say that a majority of the consumers who watch such low-quality translations won’t know the difference, and applaud the effort of these people (legal issues aside).

With my Japanese ability I occasionally get the itch to try and translate something into my native English, but until now have only done very small passages, nothing more than a page. Though my background and experience is far short of what I mentioned above for an ideal translator, the reason I feel I would have a chance to do a reasonable translation is that I try to maintain a perfectionist mindset regarding understanding of any Japanese text I read. I make sure to understand each and every word, and sometimes stop to think about various nuances of what the passage is trying to say. Above all, I try to avoid skimming over things without really understanding them completely, a habit I have in my native language. (To be fair, there are times when such skimming is very useful, see an older post of mine about this topic).

I’ve met several people who where brought up speaking a language other than English, and when I asked them to translate some phrase into English they just stopped and said “I understand what it means, but I can’t really explain it”. Clearly, there are phrases in any language that do not directly map to some simple phrase in another language, but it’s my belief that if one understands the original phrase completely, making a best effort translation to a language they are fluent in should be possible. It may take time and effort, but I can’t believe that it would be impossible for anyone.

If I decided on pursuing transition as a hobby, I could start with translating some of my own writings, and then move onto slightly more advanced things like newspaper articles. I could then move on to small portions of my favorite Fantasy novels or short stories (originally in English), but of course due to copyright laws I couldn’t legally post that anywhere. I haven’t actually tried this, but I feel that without the proper credentials the author would never accept my translation enough to sell or even put online somewhere, unless that writer was in such desperate need to be noticed that he or she would accept a risky translation. Of course, this categorically removes any famous writer that I would want to translate.

But as long as I keep it to a hobby, I could surely find an author who would appreciate my free translations, and grow my abilities over time with a series of translations. How satisfying that would be is hard to say until I actually try it out, though I have a feeling it might keep my interest for some time, since I’ve had an interest in writing ever since I was a child, but have trouble with the part of thinking of a plot that is worthwhile.

One of my concerns is my speed of translation. Possibly because of my perfectionist attitude or a lack of experience, when I have tried to translate in the past it typically has taken several minutes for a few short sentences. Usually I can understand the source text pretty quickly, but finding the right phrasing which keeps that meaning intact while fulfilling the requirements of proper English grammar and natural phrasing takes quite a bit of calculation for me. I’m fairly certain it would improve with practice, however.

There is a reason that translation is pretty unfamiliar to me, despite many years studying Japanese. Thats because I actively avoid translating between languages in my head whenever possible, in an effort to think in the language I am reading in. I wanted to avoid creating the bad habit of rephrasing a Japanese sentence in English, then thinking about that in English. Now that I am comfortable without having to switch to English constantly, maybe I can safely play around with some longer translations.

You may have caught on the fact I haven’t mentioned translating away from my native English to Japanese, which is a purposeful omission. From what little I’ve tried, it’s very difficult to find phrasing that sounds natural in Japanese, and without spending a massive amount of time pre-researching (by reading about the relevant domain), it would be nearly impossible for me to make a translation that I’d be satisfied with, especially if it’s from a novel where the vocabulary level is typically much higher than everyday language. There is always a large gap between the number of words one understands enough to get the big picture of what a passage is trying to say, and the words that one understands well enough to be adept at using them.




Japanese intonation changes in two-word compounds

Japanese pitch accent (something I’ve written about before) is tricky because each word has a different combination of up and down pitches, and sometimes the accent of one word can affect a word immediately after it. To make things even more complicated, different regional dialects of Japanese have very different patterns of accents – for example Kyoto accent is often opposite to the standard Tokyo accent. (See the featured image for a detailed breakdown of different accent types.

For these reasons, as a beginner or even intermediate student it’s easy to glaze over this topic, and in fact many of the textbooks I’ve looked at either deemphasize it or ignore it completely. To a certain extent, I agree that having a student try to memorize the correct pattern of pitches for every single word is a pretty daunting task, and certain things like proper grammar are more important, at least initially. Ultimately, if you are going to have any change of matching native pitches you’ll have to speak Japanese on a day-to-day basis for months if not years.

But regardless of your level, I think it’s good to be aware of the basic patterns of Japanese intonation. For some the basics, you can check out the post I just referred to above (here).

In this article I wanted to discuss something I accidentally discovered when listening to a podcast sometime back, and then I later researched and confirmed it is a common occurrence.

What I noticed was that often the pitch of a set of words changed when used in a compound word (複合語, ふくごうご).

Let’s start with the word for photograph, which is 写真(しゃしん), and the word for blue, which is 青(あお). These words have the following pitch accents:  (H = high pitch, L = low pitch)

  • しゃしん        (写真)
  • L      H H  (H)
  • あお                (青)
  • H  L

[Note: I’ve written the final “(H)” in しゃしん to indicate the pitch stays up for the following word]

So  しゃしん rises on the second syllable, while あお falls on the same syllable.

Now let’s look at the word for ‘blueprint’, which is a compound of these two words (青写真)

  • あおじゃしん  (青写真)
  • L H  H     L  L

If you compare this with the above words, you’ll see the pitches have totally reversed. あお is now rising instead of falling, and しゃしん (pronounced じゃしん in this compound) is now falling!

This is a bit confusing at first but the reason I am introducing it is because the pattern is actually quite common. Here are the rules for what tends to happen in compound words:


1) The first word in the compound changes so that it’s pitch rises on the second syllable, regardless of what it was before.

2) If the second word had a ‘rising/falling’ pitch pattern (like たまご which is L H L), the beginning of the word stays high but the fall is unchanged (H H L).

3) If the second word is a different pitch pattern, it now changes so that it’s pitch falls at the second syllable (H L, H L L, H L L L, etc.)


Though there are some exceptions to these rules, you can assume this occurs for most two word compounds. This actually makes pronouncing compound words correctly much easier. An added bonus is that if you listen for this type of pattern, you can pick out where compound words are present in a dialog.


(Featured image reference:日本語の方言のアクセント#mediaviewer/File:Japanese_pitch_accent_map-ja.png)

Japanese expression 「ならではの」(nara de wa no) – a lump of particles with an interesting meaning

Being really into the grammar aspect of languages, when I first began studying Japanese I read any grammar-related book I could get my hands on. Particles, little words that pack a great deal of meaning, are integral to Japanese and also alot of fun to learn.

Usually one starts with something simple like “を” (‘wo’, pronounced ‘o’) which is used to describe direct objects and one of the easiest particles to grasp, and eventually moves onto more complex ones like “は” (‘ha’, pronounced ‘wa’).

One of the cool things about Japanese particles is they can be used in certain combinations. In some cases like “には”, it is pretty easy to figure out the meaning since it’s (for the most part) a sum of each particle’s individual meaning.

The phrase for this blog’s post, “ならではの” is pretty unique in that it contains four particles clumped together with no other words between. I can’t think of any other examples of this.

Let’s start with the meaning of each of these particles and build up to the expression’s full meaning.

“では” is itself is a particle combination that is used pretty commonly. It can be used to talk about the situation of something in a certain location.

  • 東京では土地が高いです。
  • In Tokyo, land is expensive.

Part of the nuance of “は” is that this situation may not apply to other places (for example, land in Australia may be inexpensive).

The particle “なら” is similar to “は”, but has a more explicit feeling of ‘if’, for example:

  • あなたなら出来ると思います。
  • I think you would be able to do it.

There is a pretty strong indication here that there is something special about ‘you’, and another person might not be able to do whatever was being discussed.

Finally, の has many meanings but for our purposes we just need to know if can link two words to allow description of something:

  • 緑の本
  • a green book

Now, I’ll give an example sentence using ”ならではの” and see if you can guess what it means:

  • この店には, アメリカならではのお菓子が色々あります。

The particles なら, で and は are used to talk about something specific to a place, with the connotation that said state or condition may not be the same at other places, and の is used to turn “アメリカならでは” into a modifier which applies to お菓子 (candy).

We end up with candy that is only available in America, or has some unique taste or property only found in America.

  • この店には, アメリカならではのお菓子が色々あります。
  • In this store, there are many types of Candy unique to America.

I should note that this expression is somewhat formal and I have never heard it used in casual conversation. You would be more likely to see it in an travel magazine or similar source, though it’s usage isn’t only limited to places (you could say ”あなたならではの” to talk about something unique to a person).


Japanese magazine review: 「子供の科学」 (Science for kids)

In the age of the internet, anyone studying a foreign language can access nearly limitless content in the language of their choice if they search hard enough (though I have read that know some languages are more represented than others online).

Having said that, I feel there is something special about using magazines for foreign language study. Besides the fact you know the quality of the writing and stories will be good (assuming you pick a well-known publication), there is also the easy readability of a book made out of physical paper and the ability to quickly flip through pages. Another advantage is that while online you may get the urge to look up every word when you are reading something in a foreign language online (see my post here about that), whereas when using a magazine you can peruse it away from computers, dictionaries, and even your phone. And if you profession requires you to be staring at a computer screen from morning to evening, your eyes will welcome a media where you don’t have to stare at something that is directly emitting light.

I received “子供の科学” magazine from my wife for Christmas (who knows I enjoy reading about science), and it turned out to be an excellent gift. The articles are written at a level below what an adult science magazine would have, which means easier sentence structure, easier vocabulary, and complete Furigana (kanji readings about the characters) for most article’s main text. Having said that, even though its for ‘kids’ you’ll probably need a few years of Japanese under your belt you appreciate the content. Of course if you are feeling adventurous you can try it at any level.

The magazine, nicknamed ‘Koka’ (from “Kodomo no Kagaku”) amazingly enough just reached it’s 90th anniversary, which must be pretty rare for any magazine of this type. Though some English-language magazines like National Geographic have been around for over 100 years, I don’t know of any children’s magazines (at least not science-related) that have been around for 90 years.

The topics covered are very wide ranging, so there will be likely at least a few that coincide with your interests: ecology, astronomy, life science, physics, electronics, chemistry, food science, and even robotics. The issue I received (Dec 2014) had a neat article about the CG technology behind the Anime “Space Battleship Yamato 2199” and another interesting one about how to efficiently decorate your Christmas tree with an even distribution of different types of ornaments (Yes, very nerdy but a great application of math). There was also a section on how to build your own mechanical toy, and how to do a science experiment to illustrate the unique properties of rubber.

One of the only disappointing areas was the photography contest, where both the winning photo and the professional’s demonstrative photo were very sub-par, but I guess I’m a bit biased having done photography as a hobby for some time and have read many photo magazines.

In magazines I generally expect a huge number of advertisements, but Koka has a good content to ad ratio. Although, to be honest I usually find the advertisements as interesting as the actual articles.

The standard price of it is 648 Yen (plus tax) which translates to around $6 dollars – pretty cheap (at least by American magazine standards) for a magazine with over 100 pages, and some of them color. Of course if you import from Japan you’ll have to pay a higher price with shipping and all.

Overall, if you are into science and intermediate level or greater in Japanese, I think this is a great read – even if you just skim it and read a few articles.

If you are interested, check out their website which allows you to 立ち読み (tachiyomi – ‘stand and read’, i.e. read without buying) several pages of the latest edition.

Update: I found out that the most common age group reading this magazine (according to their surveys) is from elementary school 4th grade through middle school, the former which starts at around age 9 or 10. It’s pretty amazing that kids that young can understand this level of content!


Japanese vocabulary list: Science terms

For this post I’ve decided to create a vocabulary list for scientific terms in Japanese.

I’m personally interested in science and enjoy trying to read Japanese magazines and books written about science, and I hope this list inspires some of you to try out the same.

I will try to stay to pretty general terms without spending too much time in any one specific field.

Many of the following words be used in both verb form and noun form (like 発明 (noun) vs 発明する(verb) ), and in cases like that I’ll just give the noun form instead of both.

  • 科学(かがく) science
  • 化学(かがく)chemistry  (can be differentiated against ‘Science’ by saying ‘ばけがく’ (化け学))
  • 物理学(ぶつりがく)physical science
  • 調べる(しらべる)research (verb)
  • 研究   (けんきゅう)research
  • 研究所 (けんきゅうしょ)  laboratory, research institute  (I’ve also seen ラボ used for this)
  • 研究者 (けんきゅうしゃ) researcher
  • 調査 (ちょうさ)investigation/inquiry
  • アンケート survey/questionnaire
  • 結果 (けっか)result
  • 研究結果 (けんきゅうけっか) research result
  • 原因(げんいん)cause
  • 結論(けつろん)conclusion
  • 解明する (かいめいする)to clarify
  • 実験 (じっけん) experiment
  • 実験レポート (じっけんれぽーと)experiment report (contains the results of the experiment and analysis, etc.)
  • 証拠 (しょうこ)evidence
  • 証明 (しょうめい)proof  (often used as a noun (as in 証明する) to mean something has been proven scientifically)
  • 成功 (せいこう)success
  • 失敗 (しっぱい)failure
  • 物質 (ぶっしつ)matter
  • 分子 (ぶんし)particle
  • 素粒子 (そりゅうし) elementary particle
  • 原子(げんし)atom
  • 原子核 (げんしかく)nucleus of an atom (or just 核)
  • 図(ず)diagram
  • 表(ひょう)chart
  • 電気(でんき)electricity (also can mean a light)
  • 静電気(せいでんき)static electricity
  • 重力(じゅうりょく) force of gravity
  • 磁石(じしゃく)magnet
  • 磁力(じりょく) magnetic force
  • 磁場(じば)magnetic field
  • 電磁波 (でんじは)electromagnetic wave
  • 電波  (でんぱ)electronic wave
  • 電流(でんりゅう)electric current
  • 電池(でんち)battery
  • 発明  (はつめい)invention
  • 発明家 (はつめいか)inventor
  • 無線 (むせん) wireless
  • 送信機(そうしんき)transmitter
  • 受信機(じゅしんき)receiver
  • 説明(せつめい)explanation
  • 技術(ぎじゅつ)technology
  • 動物(どうぶつ)animal
  • 植物(しょくぶつ)plant
  • 生物(せいぶつ) living thing
  • 生命体(せいめいたい)life form (more of a technical term than the previous word)
  • 微生物(びせいぶつ)microorganism
  • 細胞(さいぼう)cell
  • 顕微鏡(けんびきょう)microscope
  • 望遠鏡(ぼうえんきょう)telescope
  • 双眼鏡 (そうがんきょう)binoculars
  • 回路(かいろ)(electrical) circuit
  • 信号(しんごう)(electrical) signal
  • 陽子(ようし)proton
  • 電子(でんし)electron (or can be used as a prefix to mean something is electronic as well)
  • 電子レンジ(でんしれんじ)microwave (machine used to heat food in the kitchen)
  • 博士(はかせ or はかし)doctor (i.e. holder of a PHD)
  • 教授 (きょうじゅ) professor (that teaches at a college, etc.)
  • 活動(かつどう)activity (can be used to describe someone active in a certain scientific field)
  • 素材 (そざい)material (like that used in an experiment)

Survey: What is your level of advancement in Japanese?

I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone and best of luck with whatever foreign language(s) you are studying, if any.

I’m always curious to learn more about those who read my blog, and it helps me customize the content to fit my audience.

With that, I’ve created a poll that focuses on level of advancement in Japanese.

Please consider taking it (even if you aren’t into Japanese).


Distinguishing between 〜う words and ~お words in Japanese

Japanese, unlike English, has the convenience of a pretty direct mapping between writing and sounds, at least where Hiragana and Katakana are concerned. In other words, if you see a word in writing it’s pretty easy to guess how it should sound and vice versa.

However, there are some cases where things are pronounced a bit different than you would expect (ex: “そう言う” which sounds like “ソウユウ”). There are also a few times when figuring out how to write a word is tricky, given that you know how it sounds.

One of these is words which have う after a “O” ending character (お、こ、そ、と, etc.) vs. words which use お for this purpose. The reason this is a bit tricky is because often う is pronounced like お (or close to it) in words like 東京 (とうきょう). So if you hear an elongated sound like “とお” it can be written as either “とう” or “とお”.

Fortunately, the number of words written with a お for this type of sound are very few.

Up until recently, I had just memorized these, but when watching an education DVD for children, I discovered there is a list of the commonly used words in this category, and even a little phrase that helps to memorize them.

  • とおい  (遠い)   <far>
  • おおきい(大きい)<big>
  • こおり (氷)       <ice>
  • おおい (多い)   <many>
  • おおかみ (狼)   <wolf>
  • とお (十)          <ten>
  • とおる (通る)   <pass through>

The phrase mnemonic goes like this:

  • 遠く大きの上を多く狼十ずつ通る

A rough english translation would go something like this:

  • Many wolves pass above the distant, large ice, ten at a time.

I have never seen this little trick mentioned in a Japanese textbook written in English, and was glad to discover this watching a Japanese-language educational DVD for children. It’s always a fresh perspective to learn Japanese the way native children learn it.


(学習幼稚園2014冬号付録 入学前のさきどりおけいこDVD)