What’s the difference between a 翻訳者 (‘honyakusha’) and 翻訳家 (‘honyakuka’)?

By | March 5, 2019

In recent years I’ve gradually transitioned from simply learning Japanese to becoming deeply interested in Japanese to English translation. Besides actually doing a lot of translations myself, I have been trying to understand how to talk about translation in Japanese, in particular understanding the nuances of various terms related to translation.

As you may already know, one of the most common ways to express translation in Japanese is the word 翻訳 (honyaku), which can be used either as a noun or as a verb together with suru.

Describing a translator––someone who does translation––is also pretty straightforward: honyakusha (翻訳者). At least this is what I thought for some time until I saw several professional translators calling themselves 翻訳家 (honyakuka). One place I saw this in a translation-related magazine that I reviewed a little while ago.

Let’s look at the way these words are spelled and see if it gives a clue to their difference.

The kanji 者 in “honyakusha” generally means “person”, and is also pronounced “mono” in some words (ex: 怠け者, namakemono). By the way, “mono” can also mean “thing” or “object”, however that meaning is written with either hiragana (もの) or the kanji 物 (ex: 食べ物, tabemono). So 翻訳者 is basically “a person who translates”.

The kanji 家 in “honyakuka” has a variety of meanings including “house” and “home”, but in this case the most relevant meaning is “an expert or someone skilled in a certain area”. An example of another word that uses this as a suffix is 音楽家 (ongakuka) which means “musician”.

Based on the above, it seems like “honyakuka” is emphasizing the “expert” or “professional” aspect, whereas “honyakusha” is more of a general term. But I decided to do some research and make sure this understanding was correct.

I found this article (Japanese) which specifically addresses the difference between these two terms. As expected, it mentions how “honyakuka” has more of a “professional” nuance to it, and “honyakusha” more of a amateur feel.

But there was another, this time unexpected, difference: “honyakusha” was more about translating from an objective point of view (客観的な立場での翻訳) and “honyakuka” is more about doing translations where subjective opinion is more relevant (翻訳をする人の主観が強く反映された翻訳). Accordingly, “honyakusha” deals with more business translation (for example, a majority of the work on Gengo) and “honyakuka” more with translation of things like movie subtitles and literature. (I should also point out that the article also mentions that there is no official definition for these, and ultimately it is up to the translator to decide what they want to call him- or herself.)

After going through this exercise, I made the decision to stop calling myself a 翻訳者 (honyakusha) and instead use the term 翻訳家 (honyakuka), hoping that this will more easily convey to authors the type of work I specialize in (mainly fiction).

As a final note, I should point out that writing words like 翻訳 is sometimes done with an apostrophe (ex: hon’yaku) in order to show that the “n” is a separate character and not forming a “nya” sound. In this post (and others) I generally omit such hyphens to keep things simple. (When typing on a Western-style keyboard in Japanese you can hit the “n” key twice to make it clear you want a single-character “n”, however generally the word candidates shown will guess you want to say, for example, ほんやく not ほにゃく)

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5 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a 翻訳者 (‘honyakusha’) and 翻訳家 (‘honyakuka’)?

  1. Fargok

    My Japanese teacher told me that 者 is a suffix associated with jobs that define a person, so a 医者 is a doctor and being a doctor is part of his identity, even when he’s at home or in any non professional situation (this contrasts, for example, with 会社員, whose identity is not being an employee, that’s just an activity he performs at certain times). On the other hand, 家 is a suffix associated with jobs that can be done from home. For example, a 漫画家 can draw manga in his home, he doesn’t have to go to an office or to a hospital or any other work space. Do you think that this ideas would help explain the nuance between 翻訳者 and 翻訳家? This is something I was told by my Japanese teacher, who is a native speaker, so I trust her.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the interesting insight on the differences between 者 and 家 as prefixes.

      I think that will help understand the difference between 翻訳家 and 翻訳者 to a certain extent. Having said that, I think there may be a certain nuance for these words that is unique to them.

  2. Julius Jacobsen

    There is a typo in the title (honyausha).
    Also, you call the ‘ character a hyphen, but it’s an apostrophe. A hyphen is this: –

    1. locksleyu Post author


  3. Honyakusha Ken-chan

    According to TNT Japan, 一般的に、ビジネスシーンで使用する文書の翻訳(実務翻訳、産業翻訳、ビジネス翻訳などと呼ばれます)に携わる人は翻訳者と呼ばれ、映画の字幕の翻訳(字幕翻訳、映像翻訳)や、本などの出版物の翻訳(出版翻訳、文芸翻訳)に携わる人は翻訳家と呼ばれる傾向があるようです。

    Therefore, a 翻訳者 renders practical, industrial, and business translations, while a 翻訳家 provides more creative translations, such as subtitle, book, and literary translations.

    I’ve always wanted to do the latter, but necessity forced me to do only the former (financial, legal, technical, medical, pharmaceutical) from 1991 to 2009. Eventually, the brain-numbing dryness of the content forced me finally to switch to tutoring English literature and academic writing, in which I make more use of my Mandarin than of the Japanese that I’d worked so hard for decades to master. At least I still get to edit my Chinese Canadian students’ literary analyses, which is more interesting than tediously translating and editing technical patents that too often were for chemical formulas.


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