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Language family: Japonic
Number of speakers: 125 million native speakers
Writing system: Chinese characters (kanji) and kana (hiragana and katakana)
Official language in: Japan
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
Japanese is one of those enigmatic languages whose origins are rather mysterious…
Over the years, linguists have proposed many hypotheses on where Japanese came from, trying to pair it up with Indo-European, Altaic or Uralic languages – without much supporting evidence for any of these. Also, Japanese has some similarities with Chinese and Korean, however, these are most probably due to more modern influences rather than a common ancestry.
The Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters, so called “kanji”. Depending on context, these often have different pronunciations. There are also two more sets of characters: “hiragana” and “katakana” that are syllable-based. All these three sets are used together in Japanese scripts.
Despite the writing system that might seem intimidating at first to language learners, Japanese is becoming increasingly popular among foreigners: statistics show that the standardised Japanese proficiency test (JLPT) was taken in 80 countries last year by more than 887 thousand candidates!
Hello! こんにちは (konnichiwa)
My name is… 私は…です。(watashiwa…desu)
Yes はい (hai)
No いいえ (iie)
Please お願いします (onegaishimasu)
Thank you ありがとうございます (arigatougozaimasu)
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
You may have heard Japanese spoken in one of the ever so popular anime or Japanese drama series. It’s an easily distinguishable, fast-spoken language, that, according to Motoko, one of our Japanese translators, “might sound a bit flat [to foreign ears] as stress is not as strong as in other languages.” In Matthew’s opinion, who works as a Japanese to English translator, “Japanese can sound elegant and mellifluous, with only slight variations in pitch for the most part. But it can also sound clipped and somewhat alarming in slang-heavy language (such as in ‘yakuza’ movies!).” Hideaki, who translates into Japanese, tells us that “spoken Japanese consists of 50 ‘sounds’ (五十音 or ‘gojuuon’), which are mostly pairs of a consonant and a vowel. This results in a clear and flowing sound. This is why non-Japanese speakers oftentimes find the Japanese dubbed version of certain songs beautiful.”
Makiko, another one of our Japanese translators is from Tokyo and “apparently, Japanese spoken there sounds very fast to non-speakers of the language. It can also sound high-pitched…Just like English, there are different accents and dialects depending on the region. People from Kyoto, for example, speak slowly while people in nearby Osaka talk even faster than Tokyoites.”
According to Hideaki, “Japanese is a language of sensation”. As he explains, “emotions are often expressed by metaphors inspired by Japan’s four seasons and its unique culture.” And it’s not just emotions that sound poetic in Japanese! For example, Makiko’s favourite expression is 月の雫 (“tsuki no shizuku”), which literally means “droplet of the Moon” – or simply “dewdrop” in English. “There is a wide range of beautiful words and phrases in Japanese,” adds Makiko, “most of which are related to nature, since we used to have a very strong connection to our natural environment. Unfortunately, nowadays many of these expressions appear more often in novels and in poems (haiku and tanka) and less so in spoken Japanese.” Motoko also finds phrases which draw on nature and the four distinct seasons of Japan particularly beautiful: one of her beloved expressions is 花吹雪 (“hana fubuki”), a seasonal word which means “shower of falling cherry blossom petals”. She likes it “as the beautiful scene is expressed in one evocative word!”
Matthew points out that “some Japanese expressions are laden with meaning and difficult to translate succinctly, such as ‘natsukashii’ (懐かしい), said when you are remembering something fondly, and ‘omoiyari’ (思いやり), which loosely means having empathy and consideration for others but is also important to harmonious social relations.”
As Japanese is from an entirely different language family than English, it’s no surprise that when I ask our translators about the differences between the two languages, they come up with several examples.
Matthew approaches the question from the translator’s point of view: “Personal and place names are a bugbear for translators, due to the multiple ‘readings’ (pronunciations) of characters. While it might seem simple, translating a list of Japanese personal names is actually far from straightforward and usually entails guesswork and/or extensive footnotes!”
Motoko’s comment also concerns the writing system: “Japanese writing involves both ideograms (kanji characters) and phonograms (kana alphabets), unlike phonogram only English. So, [in Japanese] there is a visual element too.”
For Makiko, it’s all about the word order and the logic on which sentences are built: “In Japanese, verbs come at the end of the sentence, so that makes it technically challenging for simultaneous interpreting. In addition, the main clause in a sentence tends to come second. For example, in English we would say ‘I don’t want to go out because it is raining’, while in Japanese the sentence would be constructed like this: ‘Because it is raining, I don’t want to go out’.”
In Japanese, there are various levels of formality which are governed by the relationship between the speakers and their social status. While you probably wouldn’t call out to your boss with an “oy, mate” in English, you might be able to get away with it if you did.
However, as Matthew explains, “the different levels of politeness are a key feature of the Japanese language. Japanese verbs change according to whether the speech is colloquial, polite, humble or respectful, and for the more common verbs, there can be a completely different form. So for example, the verb “iku” (行く) (“to go”) becomes “ikimasu” (行きます) in the standard polite form, but “irrashaimasu” (いらっしゃいます) in the respectful form. In this sense, the language is closely bound up with the social hierarchy.”
There are certain no-nos, however, that speakers (and translators of the language!) need to bear in mind, regardless of the situation or social hierarchy if they don’t want to step on any toes. “It is often considered rude to address someone by the word ‘you’ (あなた, ‘anata’)”, says Hideaki. “It is considered too audacious to call someone by such a plain word. This poses a lot of challenges for English to Japanese translators, as ‘you’ is such a common word in English.”
As a language learner still tackling the basics of Japanese, it never ceases to amaze me how inventive the Japanese language is when it comes to vocabulary. My favourite words are the so-called onomatopoeic expressions ( オノマトペ – “onomatope” in Japanese) which are words that imitate a sound. For example, I find that ぽいする (“poi suru”, meaning “to toss away”) is just the perfect verb to describe the action of throwing something away, and my all-time favourite is ゴロゴロ (“gorogoro”, “idleness, laziness”), which for me evokes that sweet feeling of a late Sunday morning when you just roll around in pyjamas, doing nothing productive and still feeling good about yourself!
Unfortunately, we don’t often have time for ゴロゴロ, as in today’s modern, rushing world we can regularly find ourselves in a pickle, trying to carry out more than one task at the same time. But doing too many things might not always be the best solution and we might end up falling between two stools. On those days when we don’t even know where to start, maybe we should just keep Hideaki’s favourite saying in mind: 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず (nitowo ou monowa ittomo ezu) or “he who hunts two hares loses both”, and slow down a bit, focus on one task to achieve our goals. We might even get to have both hares in the end!
If you have any questions about Japanese or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at email@example.com or by telephone on 01223 356 733.