Navigating picky Japanese grammatical preferences

Rie Fukuoka

Rie Fukuoka is the Japanese linguist of 1-StopAsia and an honorary member of Pi Delta Phi. She has been translating for 20 years. She holds post-doctoral degrees in social psychology and comparative literature from the University of Southern California.

Translating English into Japanese is not an easy task. The ordering of Japanese grammatical units makes it even worse. In English, each word has a specified place in a sentence, more or less. The verb comes right after the subject, and usually either an object or complimentary phrase follows them. But, in Japanese, it is different. The verb must always come at the end of a sentence. Other than that, subject/object/complement units can be placed anywhere. This means that a simple sentence like “I picked flowers for my mom today” can be translated into Japanese six ways. Tricky, right? So, how do Japanese translators pick the “best” from these six translations?

In technical writing, Japanese has a special rule for word order. However, I have never seen it written down in a localization style guide. The Japanese learn this by reading an abundant number of technical documents.

For sentences that are nontechnical in nature, Japanese pick the “best” based on their personal preference. Unless you know the preference of your Japanese customer, you will not be successful in the Japanese translation industry. So, start analyzing their preference! Sometimes, this can mean browsing their websites, if you don’t outright ask them.

Consider this sentence:

“① Today, | ② I | ③ went | ④ on a stroll | ⑤ with my father”

In English, the order is typically fixed. “With my father went today I on a stroll” does not make any sense. But let’s translate “Today, I went on a stroll with my father” in Japanese:

“①今日、②私は ④ 散歩を ⑤ お父さんと ③ しました。”

In Japanese, the first person pronoun “I” is usually omitted. So here, we remove ② 私は.

Unlike English, Japanese words can be placed in different orders, and yet the sentence can retain the same meaning. However, there is one exception: the verb must always come at the end. From this rule, we can make out six different ways to express “Today, I went on a stroll with my father” in Japanese.

①今日は |⑤ お父さんと | ④散歩を |③しました。
①今日は、| ④散歩を | ⑤お父さんと | ③しました。
⑤お父さんと | ①今日 | ④散歩を | ③しました。
⑤お父さんと | ④散歩を | ①今日 | ③しました。
④散歩を | ①今日 |⑤ お父さんと | ③しました。
④散歩を |⑤ お父さんと | ①今日 | ③しました

Every native Japanese speaker tends to have their own preference in terms of sequencing. This is one of the reasons why English to Japanese translations can be fairly complicated — especially when considering that Japanese clients often have a strong preference for a specific sequencing.