Nine Japanese words that beginners often mistranslate

The number one mistake beginning translators make is to translate too literally by relying on the one “standard” translation of a word found in a bilingual dictionary. This is especially true of translation from Japanese into English, where the correspondence between word meanings can be quite weak.

Below are nine common Japanese words that often mistranslated in this way. Each Japanese word in the list is followed by the “standard” English translation in parentheses, followed by better alternatives.

  1. 登録 (register): This is often better translated as submit (for example, on a browser button) or add (for example, add data to the database).
  2. 任意 (arbitrary): This should almost never be translated as arbitrary. Better to use any, a, or the desired (for example, enter a name for the folder).
  3. 反映 (reflect): This is usually better translated as apply, implement, or take effect.
  4. 見直す (review): Don’t forget the 直す part! This verb is often better translated as something like check and, if necessary, revise.
  5. 機能 (function): This very common noun is often better translated as feature or capability.
  6. 可視化 (visualize): Often the more direct show or reveal is better.
  7. 記述 (describe): Usually write, enter, or list is better, for example in the context of computer code.
  8. 対象 (target): This is often better translated as subject to, eligible, or covered.
  9. 実現 (realize): In English, realize is rarely used to mean “make real,” which is what 実現 means, so usually achieve or implement is better.

1 comment

  1. Robert

    Nice list. I would also recommend reviewing all the English words given in a J-E dictionary for a particular Japanese term. This helps to 1) gain a better understanding of the sense of and meaning behind the Japanese word and 2) provide more terms for you to choose from in addition to the “standard” or first appearing translation (a thesaurus helps with #2 as well).

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