Japanese is challenging for a variety of factors, most stemming from the different way the Japanese approach communication in the first place.
Japanese is one of those languages that people tend to be intimidated by. On the one hand, I understand: For Westerners, not only is it a foreign language, but it’s a foreign language using a character system different from theirs, and Japan has a unique and challenging culture. Japan was, in fact, closed off to much of the world until the 19th Century, and the results of that self-imposed isolation are still quite visible.
And that’s reflected, I think, in the language itself, which is conceptually challenging as well as linguistically challenging. Japanese doesn’t work the way most other languages work, and this means that even when you master some of the vocabulary and grammar you can still be at a loss – and it also means that even if you’re ‘fluent’ in Japanese the local folks in Japan may still titter and mock you a bit when you open your mouth. Japanese is challenging for a lot of different reasons.
Japanese Mechanical Peculiarities
Beyond simple grammar and the writing system, Japanese takes a unique approach to written communication that flummoxes people. For one thing, subjects are frequently omitted entirely from sentences, leaving the reader – and the poor, suffering translation professional – to guess the subject from context. This can be the single biggest challenge for non-Japanese when learning the language, because most Westerners and other cultures are used to being more specific. Another challenge? There are no plurals or singulars, just words. Again, context is key. In many ways, Japanese is a language of subtlety.
As a translation professional one of the aspects of Japanese that would leave me in a sweat is the fact that verbs always come at the end of sentences, which makes shifting sentences from another language into Japanese a bit of a sticky wicket. But at least that’s not entirely unique to Japanese, so there’s plenty of examples out there to draw on.
Japanese Cultural Challenges
Language and culture can’t be totally separated, of course. One of the aspects of Japanese that can drive foreign students mad is the fact that a lot of Japanese communication is what I’d term ‘sensibility-based’ as opposed to literal or factual. This is why Westerners sometimes watch Japanese television programs or films and scratch their heads, completely confused as to what’s going on. The Japanese simply don’t expect – or want – literal depictions. They like imagery and an almost surreal approach that can then be interpreted accurately. It works just fine when you’re immersed in the culture, but can be incredibly challenging when you come from, say, English, where in general people say exactly what they mean.
From a translation point of view, this is an ideal example of why you would want to hire a professional to do your Japanese translation work. While the new kid in cubicle five might be technically fluent in Japanese from his school days, it’s doubtful he’s immersed in Japanese culture – so his translations will be pretty bad.
Image courtesy japanesedegree.com