Uncovering the Challenges of Translating Japanese to English

by Drew Evans
4 Minute Read

Japanese is a notably difficult language to master for a non-native speaker. Aside from the completely different alphabet, the language is heavily contextual and is constructed to honor the country’s culture and social structure. On top of that, there are large differences in grammar and sentence structure compared to nearly all Western languages. For many speakers and translators, it’s not surprising that Japanese is often listed as one of the most difficult languages to translate. 

But what specifics make Japanese hard to master, and why is it such a difficult task to translate the language into English? Here are a few of the biggest reasons why Japanese is such a challenge for translators:

Alphabets - More than One

Japanese uses three character alphabets to write the language: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji is the logographic-based written language that is based off of Chinese characters and is commonly used in everyday Japanese. Hiragana and Katakana are both phonetic symbols, with Katakana used for all words borrowed from other languages. 

While the alphabets can work together, it requires an in-depth knowledge of the language and culture to understand how and when to use them. For instance, Hiragana is most commonly used for grammatical functions like particles, but can also be used to create words when Kanji characters don’t exist. Altogether, there are thousands of Kanji characters in the writing system, requiring that translators know the written language in full.

No Grammar Similarities

To make things even harder, there are very few similarities between the grammar structures in English and Japanese. While English is riddled with plural nouns, subjects, pronouns and articles, Japanese rarely (if ever) uses these structures. In Japanese, there is no distinction between singular and plural nouns - instead, there are character counters to indicate plurality.

Subjects and pronouns are usually not used - instead, they’re often omitted altogether. In the case of pronouns, Japanese grammar usually indicates the social position of the subjects.

Sentence Structure Differences

One sticking point that often comes up when translating between Japanese and English is the differing sentence structures between the two languages. In English, sentences are ordered subject - verb - object, while Japanese sentences are ordered subject - object - verb. 

When translators start to work between the two, the linguist needs to understand the sentence in full before translating, as important context clues in an English sentence may not appear until the end of a Japanese sentence. 


One of the most commonly referenced functions of Japanese grammar is called honorifics. There is no direct English equivalent, so it can be difficult for a non-native speaker to fully grasp. In English, there is often a more formal way of speaking - you don’t necessarily speak to your friends or family in the same way that you do when speaking to your boss. 

But in Japanese, formality is deeply entrenched in society and, as a result, in its language as well. For example, you use one honorific suffix when speaking to someone that you find endearing (-chan), like young children, close friends, and even grandparents. There’s a different suffix (-sensei) used to show respect for someone that’s mastered a specific field of study, like a teacher, doctor, lawyer, musician, or martial artist.

Because of the specificity of honorific suffixes, many times, English translators have to instead use adjectives or adjective phrases to ensure the meaning is translated as well. 

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While other languages have their difficulties and nuances, Japanese seems to be one of, if not the most difficult languages to translate to and from. If you want to learn how a human-in-the-loop approach to translation can improve the machine translation quality and help localization efforts, request a live demo of the Lilt platform today.