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)