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Japanese to English Translation Tips: Avoiding False Cognates

4 min read
Unlike translating between languages from the same family, a pitfall in Japanese to English translation is false cognates, where the target word is unmoored from its original context.

by Olga Kuchuk | September 27, 2018

An image showing the English and Japanese interpretations of the "mansion".
Mansion = マンション


Unlike translating between languages from the same family, a pitfall in Japanese to English translation is false cognates, where the target word is unmoored from its original context.

Usually, when we think about false cognates within the same language family, such as in Indo-European languages, we are talking about words that come from the same root, but have evolved to mean something different. This is often the case between French and English, German and English, and Dutch and English, to name a few. Consider French ancien, which usually means “former,” but could be mistaken to mean “ancient” (which it also sometimes refers to) if we rely on the English term ancient as our point of reference.

Japanese, by contrast, has liberally adopted many loanwords from English and other languages and applied them to entirely different contexts, sometimes only retaining a trace of the original idea. We cannot use the English as a clue, as oftentimes there is no correspondence.

Consider the term ナイーブ, which at first blush seems to mean innocent or inexperienced. Surely a word as specific as naïve is being used in its original meaning, right? In fact, no — ナイーブ generally implies “sensitive,” as in overreacting to something. Take this sentence from the Tanaka Corpus:
JA: 昨日の喧嘩を気にしてるの?意外にナイーブなのね。
EN: Are you still letting last night’s fight bother you? You’re surprisingly sensitive.
Perhaps naïve was borrowed here to mean, “being so inexperienced as to get worked up about something,” but we cannot know. The usage has spun off on its own, or what Japanese would call 一人歩き.

A Japanese speaker is instantly familiar with this term, but a translator speaking English as a native language may have strong interference from English and not even notice that this is a loanword.

At first blush, translating the above as:

“Are you still letting last night’s fight bother you? You’re awfully naïve.”

would not seem wrong — in fact, this is a believable sentence, but it misses the point.

Another example is クレーム, meaning “complaint,” but seemingly derived from “insurance claim.” This often appears in day-to-day correspondence, and saying that “a customer has a claim” obscures the urgency of the fact that a complaint has in fact been raised.

One distinction is loanwords that deal with taxonomy and specify a category that does not exist in English. For example, employment regulations and labor documents often discuss categories of worker, such as 正社員 (full-time), 契約社員 (contract worker), 派遣社員 (temp worker), アルバイト (part-time), and パート (also part-time). Notice that the last two are seemingly synonyms — why make any distinction? In Japanese, アルバイト (from the German arbeit, meaning work) is seen as part-time workers of high school or college age who are not adult members of the workforce; パート is seen as adult workers working a side job on a part-time basis. We would refer to both of these workers as “part-time” in English, but the categories may be subject to different terms of employment, so you would have to further define what type of worker is being talked about due to liability issues. Outside of labor agreements, it would make sense to combine these two into one term for readability:
“Seeking part-time workers, all ages.”
Notice how we can capture the age distinction without having to specifically translate out both terms, as they are both, for the purposes of English, part-timers.

Another taxonomy issue that may be familiar to you is what the de facto name for something is in a given region. Users of the popular LINE chat app download expressive スタンプ and send these to each other, but on the English version of the app and other chat tools, these are called “stickers,” not “stamps.” Interestingly, ステッカー is seldom used to refer to stickers, be they on LINE or otherwise; stickers are usually referred to as シール.

A conservative approach would be to research every loanword you come across, no matter how familiar it may look — the results may surprise you.

However, as the above indicates, oftentimes the best solution is a real-world, spoken familiarity with Japanese in order to know these terms like the back of your hand. Japanese is fast-moving with respect to neologisms and loanwords, and they are constantly appearing and evolving. Serious translators keep their ears to the ground to stay abreast of these changes.