An unsung tool of the Japanese-English translation trade – the calculator

Because of the need to convert uniquely Japanese number concepts, a surprisingly valuable tool for the Japanese to English translator is a humble calculator.

For example, the floor area of a hotel room or apartment is often given in 畳 () or tatami mats, the size for which actually varies from place to place, but for rough and ready purposes can be considered to be 1.653 meters squared. Meanwhile, the area of a temple garden might be given in 坪 (tsubo), which is considered equal to two tatami mats or 3.306 meters squared.

Of course, how one handles such measurements also depends on the context of the material you are working on. In a tourism brochure, one would probably convert these straight through to meters (or feet, etc., if exclusively for a US audience), cutting off any needlessly long decimal points or even rounding to the nearest thousand, etc., if a particularly large number. Meanwhile if you were working on a historical novel, you might purposefully keep things in  and tsubo, possibly with an explanatory footnote the first time they were mentioned, to add an exotic flair.

Another numerical concept requiring frequent translation is the Japanese imperial year system. Traditionally, in Japan, years are dated based on the number of years which have passed since the emperor reigning during a given time period took the throne. This system is still widely used in official documents today and also frequently pops up in all manner of other materials. Interestingly, this is only used for years – days and months are the same as for the Gregorian calendar used in the vast majority of the world (so at least those don’t require any arithmetic).

Some people probably get this system right away, but I struggled with it for quite awhile and always had to look up online converters to switch Japanese years into Gregorian years, until I finally figured out the trick (and felt pretty stupid when I did). Because the year in which an imperial reign starts is counted as year 1, to convert a Japanese imperial year to a Gregorian year, all you have to do is subtract one from the Japanese year and then add that to the Gregorian year the particular emperor’s reign started. I know that sounds a little tricky, but if you’re working with modern and not historical materials, generally you only need to remember the starts of four consecutive imperial eras – 明治/Meiji (1868), 大正/Taisho (1912), 昭和/Showa (1926), and 平成/Heisei (1989). So, for example, 平成13 = 13 -1 + 1989 = 12 + 1989 = 2001.

Like with our  and tsubo, example, it depends on the context, but in most situations one would probably avoid noting the era name and just convert the date to standard Gregorian. Of course, the date format itself (mm/dd/yy? dd/mm/yy? yyyy/mm/dd?) is a whole other can of worms. And next year, in 2019, the current emperor will be stepping down, necessitating the creation of a new era name and start year for translators to remember. Better keep that calculator handy!

Basic Japanese translation lingo: 银联

In your translator travails, you may come across the term 银联, particularly if you’re translating documents for stores, malls, and the like, and it may make you nearly tear your hair out in frustration trying to look up the kanji. That’s because 银联 is not kanji but in fact full-on Chinese. The funny-looking (for a person who studies Japanese) shape of the characters are a big tip off. 银联 is actually UnionPay, China’s home-grown bank card, which more and more Japanese retailers are beginning to accept. Now you should have no problem if they pop up.

Quick translation tip: Felix won’t register a translation

At some later date I’d like to go a bit more into Felix and why I think it’s a great CAT tool, but for now I’ll just share a little point about using Felix.

Are you using Felix with multiple documents and now suddenly Felix isn’t registering translations? Apparently, as I’ve just discovered, if you’re switching between different programs (say, Excel and PowerPoint) and you switch Felix into Review Mode while in one program and, without switching back to Translation Mode in that program, attempt to use Felix in Translation Mode in another program, Felix gets stuck in Review Mode (which can’t register translations – the root of your problem). To fix things, you have to go back to the program you switched Felix into Review Mode and, in that program, switch Felix back to Translation Mode, after which it should register translations in that other program just fine.

For example, I was working on an Excel document and a PowerPoint presentation at the same time with Felix open. While editing the Excel document, I switched Felix into review mode. Then I close the document (and Excel itself) and tried to register a new translation in the PowerPoint presentation (which was still on Translation Mode). However, none of my translations would register and when I tried to switch Felix from Translation Mode to Review Mode and then back again, all I got were error messages. By opening up Excel again and switching Felix back to Translation Mode in Excel, I was also once again able to register translations in PowerPoint (and switch between Review Mode and Translation Mode without getting error messages, after shutting all the programs down and reopening them again).

Quick translation tip: mysterious acronym

Got an acronym that you just can’t find no matter how much you Google it? If you’re working on a document for a company, take another look at who you’re working for – that acronym may just be the company’s name. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-learn this lesson (including just a few moments ago). In translation, sometimes the answer is right in front of your face.

Deleting that pesky comment field from your WordPress pages

How about a little WordPress tip for today? If you’re using a WordPress to run your site like I am and want to remove the comment field from the pages other than your blog, just do the following.

On your WordPress admin page, click on “Appearance,” then “Editor”. In the Editor page, click on the “Page Template” from among the templates listed on the right-hand side. You are now editing the basic template used to make the pages on your WordPress site. Find the code that reads:

<?php comments_template( ”, true ); ?>

and change it to this:

<?php// comments_template( ”, true ); ?>

Do you see the difference? You just add two forward slashes after “<?php”. That’s the line of code that adds comment fields to your pages. Putting those two slashes in turns that code into a comment (not the comment field we were just talking about; a comment in the code instead of the actual code itself), which WordPress then doesn’t use when building the page, effectively turning comment fields “off” for regular pages. Comments on your blog posts, however, will still remain. After you add those two slashes, make sure to click the “Update File” button below the Editor window. If you ever want those comment fields back (though I don’t know why you’d want to enable people to comment on your welcome page, etc.), just go back to the Page Template in the Editor and delete those two slashes.

Basic Japanese translation tips: Titles, names, “法律”

Needless to say, Japanese is a difficult language to translate into English. Just one of the many reasons for this difficulty is that generally there’s nothing to indicate that the title of a book, document, etc. is actually a title in a written Japanese text. Occasionally, titles are encased in quotes (「」), but this is usually only the case of book titles or other media, and even then not only is this rare, but quotes are also often used just to add emphasis.

Documents from large companies are often littered with references to other official documents, manuals, and applications. Often, these documents will already have an official English title. If you are in doubt as to where a particular block of text is a title or not, it’s best just to contact the client or agency you received the document from. At the very least, leave a translator’s note in the form of a comment in Word, etc., indicating your uncertainty and providing two separate translations (one that can be used if the highlighted text is an official title and one that can be used if it’s just a general phrase).

One type of title that is particularly easy to overlook if you haven’t encountered them before is the name of laws. Take, for example, “資源の有効な利用の促進に関する法律.” At first glance, this may look like a general phrase about “laws concerning the promotion of the effective utilization of resources,” but actually, it’s the name of a law which would be more properly translated as the “Act on the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources.” (part of the tip off that this is the name of a law could be the stiffness of the phrase, but sometimes the style of the document is just as stiff).

The official source for “unofficial” English translations of Japanese law names is theJapanese Law Translation website operated by the Japanese government (from which the above translation comes). Any time you see the word “法律,” treat it with a modicum of caution and plug it and the phrase proceeding it into the site. Often, however, laws are referred to by common names shorter than the full, official title used by Japanese Law Translation, which frequently fails to recognize the shorter version. Even if you don’t get a hit on that site, it’s often a good idea to also try the excellent dictionary composite site Weblio or even just do a regular Google search to be safe.

As you should be well aware if you are a current or aspiring Japanese translator, Japanese personal names are simply impossible to translate without help. Even the characters used in common names can be pronounced multiple ways, never mind the increasingly creative pronunciations and character combinations given to the names of members of younger generations. Further, even if you are verbally told the pronunciation, you still need to know the correct romanization, since several romanization systems are currently in use. In a best case scenario, your client will provide you with a list of all personal names appearing in the document as well as their proper romanization before the project starts. If you didn’t get such a list in advance and run into a name you didn’t notice before accepting the assignment, email the client. If the client is difficult to reach or has specified so, you could also leave personal names untranslated with translator’s notes attached to each indicating the need to fill in its romanization. If you are working with a big company and they have a website that is available in both English and Japanese, you can try searching for pages on their site that contain the Japanese name and then look for the matching English page. If the site itself does not have a search engine, you can search their site from Google by first searching for the term you are looking for, clicking the gear button on the right side of the search results page and selecting “Advanced search,” and then typing the address of the site you wish to search in the “site or domain” field on the advanced search page.

Unfortunately, however, most Japanese companies do not translate every page on their website, instead offering a sort of mini version of their site in English. In that case, you can try searching their site for the Japanese name and looking for other relevant information about the person such as their job title or projects they worked on. Then search the English site using probable pronunciations of the person’s name, taking care to match any hits you find with the information you discovered about the person when searching the Japanese site. Even if this method yields results, always attach a translator’s note. Especially in the case of personal names, there’s nothing wrong with asking the client to check your information; as mentioned above, it’s simply impossible to know the pronunciation or preferred romanization of personal names without being explicitly informed of them.

Possible pronunciations of names can be found by searching with Weblio, but I find usingFirefox with the Rikaichan add-on and a blank text entry field such as this one is much more flexible and faster as well.