JAPANESE: MISTERIES OF THE ORIENT
Official language of 127 million people, among them Japanese and inhabitants of Korea, Taiwan, parts of China and several islands of the Pacific, Japanese has been attracting the world at a growing pace.
Aspects of the culture and the features of the language itself may, however, render the translation job an impenetrable challenge.
All Tasks, a translation company specialized in large-scale technical translations, translation of technical standards, technical manuals and technical documentations, maintains a skilled and qualified staff to meet major demands for this language.
The expression, used globally to designate Japan due to its geographical position in comparison to China, comes from kanji—one of the five Japanese writing systems.
Among them are rōmaji (Latin characters), kanji (of Chinese origin), hiragana (phonetic characters
used for inflectional terminations of adjectives and verbs, grammatical particles and words for which there is no kanji), katakana (phonetic characters used in foreign words and names, in addition to onomatopoeias), and the Indo-Arabic numerals.
There is also a profusion of words incorporated to Japanese, adapted from other languages, owing to globalization, such as the case of “biru", from the English 'beer'; and “toire", from French “Toilette". The origin of the language is controversial.
Among the potential theories, one was broadly disseminated in 1730 by Swedish official Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, who placed Japanese in the family of the Altaic languages, from where Turkish, Mongol and Korean would have stemmed.
Another, shared by several historical Japanese linguists, suggests a “hybrid" theory that fits it into the Altaic family, with lexical influences from the languages of Oceania and southeast Asia, among them aboriginals from Taiwan, ethnic groups of East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia and others.
It was only upon the introduction of the Chinese writing system, 1,500 years ago, that the Japanese started recording their language by means of poetry and prose. Before that, Japanese was solely a spoken language.
Much has changed in the language since then. Referred to as Old Japanese at that time, it had eight vowels—although today it has only five. Written vertically by tradition, with lines starting from the right side of the page, there is already a Japanese version identical to the western languages, written in horizontal lines beginning from the left. In order to facilitate the dissemination of the language, in 1946 the Japanese government defined 1850 characters for daily use—increasing the list, in 1981, to 1945 characters.
Despite that, several dialects are spoken in Japan that differ in terms of tonal accent, morphology, vocabulary, use of particles and pronunciation.
More scarcely, some dialects even vary in the vowel repertoire.
And for that reason, it is common among the population to have people fluent in their local dialect and in official Japanese.
Facing the samurai
An agglutinative language, whose words are formed by the union of morphemes, Japanese is characterized by a complex system of honorific constructions that reflect the hierarchical nature of the Japanese society, with verbal forms and particular vocabularies that vary according to the relative status among speakers.
Not knowing this can cause severe and disrespectful blunders.
Ironically, the polite forms of the language are not very well known even by the Japanese, who take special training courses for its use in the work environment.
Its grammar is relatively simple and regular—which enables its learning process in a rather quick manner.
Verbs are conjugated in two tenses, technically called “past" and “not past" (which includes present and future).
There are no inflections for number and person.
In addition, nouns don't have genders, nor numbers and do not inflect.
The word hon, for instance, can mean “a book", “the book", “some books" and “the books".
Although seemingly easier than other languages, its peculiarities render the task of understanding the language and, thus, translating documents to and fro Japanese a challenge restricted to specialists.
Because it uses four different writing systems, the translation of Japanese document into any other language requires pictographic and ideographic knowledge, in addition to simple and readable compounds, at risk of committing interpretation errors.
That's why people say that, to learn Japanese, learning the several meanings of an isolated kanji by heart is not the best option.
One should rather learn the meanings of the kanji through words and phrases in Japanese, in a way to contextualize them in the text.
Although there is generic count in Japanese as in Korean, a different counting form is used for each type of thing: for people, for large animals, for small ones, for machines, fruit and so on.
Not exclusive to Japanese, the art of translating documents to any language requires specialized knowledge of the cultural differences that influence the reasoning in using words, phrasal constructions and pronunciation.
Despite being a language restricted to but a few countries, increasing job opportunities in Japanese companies that have entered the global market in recent years and the popularity of Japanese comic books and animations (mangas and animes) have stimulated more than 3 million people around the planet to learn the language of the land of the rising sun.
The task, however, is not simple and this article pointed out the motives that require a high level of specialization to translate documents in Japanese.