Translators, don’t be afraid to reorder words in noun phrases

One of the most common mistakes beginning translators make is to slavishly reproduce the word order of the source language in the target language even when doing so is inappropriate.

This is particularly a problem when the source language is Japanese, which has relatively free word order, and the target language is English, which has relatively strict word order (historically related to the loss of the Old English case system).

Even the rules for ordering sequential adjectives in English (for example, tall, dark, and handsome) are notoriously complex, but when you get the order wrong (handsome, dark, and tall), it sounds awkward to a native speaker. You can improve the quality and readability of your translation significantly when you rearrange the order to match the expectations of the reader.

Here are five examples of Japanese noun phrases from recent projects and how we rearranged them to sound better in English:

  • 基本五味: basic five tastes → five basic tastes
  • 断面平均流速: cross-sectional average flow rate → average cross-sectional flow rate
  • 有益な追加機能: useful additional features → additional useful features
  • 目と手の協調性: eye-hand coordination → hand-eye coordination
  • 浅くて長い溝: shallow, long groove → long, shallow groove

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