A rant against non-literal translation of Japanese

I’ve got a card in one of my review decks that says 友達と一緒に宿題をした, and translates this as “I did my homework with a friend.”

But that’s not what the Japanese says. It says, “did homework with a friend.” I know they’re trying to make the English sound more natural, but if this were the answer to the question, “What did Mary do yesterday,” then the natural translation would be “She did her homework with a friend.” We simply don’t know.

But what’s worse, I think these natural translations get in the way of learning to think in a Japanesy way. It leads to us inserting subjects in sentences that don’t need them, etc.

So, I think we’d be better off if we quit trying to translate Japanese into natural-sounding English, at least for our own study purposes. This sentence says “Did homework with a friend,” period. Sure, in English you end up sounding a bit like a caveman, but that’s how Japanese rolls. We may as well embrace it.

What do y’all think?


No, the purpose of translation is to convey the nuances of meaning as closely as possible in the target language. In English, you basically always need a subject, and in Japanese the context will supply it, very often, if it is not explicit. In the absence of any other context, the subject is the speaker, for a simple statement.


I don’t believe it is necessary to dumb down the English translation. When I learned English, sometimes the literal translation from French didn’t make sense. Literal translations aren’t that helpful, honestly, except to learn pure vocabulary.

ETA: plus it creates a bad habit as far as speaking/writing English goes. You don’t want to end up inadvertently talking like a caveman to your boss because that’s how you translate Japanese.


I think I’m using the same deck as you :slight_smile: I don’t think it’s helpful to have “natural english” translations in a learning context like that. I know Tae Kim thinks this way, for one, although I’m sure plenty of people disagree. I’m using Japanese the Manga Way and it provides one (and sometimes two) intermediate translations before the “natural English” translation in order to show you how the Japanese sentence structure works. Maybe people who are more advanced don’t need that, but Japanese sentence structure is SO different from English that I find it extremely useful because I am just starting out learning Japanese grammar.

Edit: Also I seriously doubt I’m going to start talking like a caveman just because I’m using an intermediate English translation. I’m a native English speaker though, so ymmv.


Re. creating a bad English habit: Haha — that’s a funny thought, but one I’m not buying. I’ve been speaking fluent English for 45 years, it’s unlikely I’m going to suddenly start dropping subjects now. (Unless that becomes a cool thing to do — don’t the yoots all speak in abbrevs these days anyway?:wink:)

However, creating bad Japanese habits is very much more likely. And it seems to me that these non-literal translations tend to do exactly that, or at least, add more steps in the process when trying to convert meaning to and from Japanese.

I think there are patterns to what is commonly omitted and what is not. We need to learn those patterns if we’re going to sound natural. The non-literal translations just obscure these patterns; a literal translation makes them explicit (and maybe even a little easier to notice/remember because it “sounds funny” in English).

I dunno… maybe it shouldn’t matter, since we shouldn’t really be translating to/from English anyway; we should be striving to understand Japanese in Japanese. But since, as learners, we do translate to/from English, it just seems like it may as well be English that is as close as possible to the Japanese.


Well, I’m liable to do it. I’ve already slipped a few times with words/sentence structure that weren’t correct (either Japanese literal translations or using the odd words I use at home… my family and I have our own dialect/inside jokes).

I’ve gotten weird looks more than once for using the wrong sentence structure in the wrong language. Even in French, which is my first language, I have a tendency to misspeak.

Ah, you’re one of those trilingual (or more?) people. I’m jealous. :slight_smile:

Well you might be right… or more likely, the true answer is “it depends.”


I have the same book, and it is great. And those intermediate translations serve a purpose - when you cannot understand the Japanese in the first place. That doesn’t mean you should translate Japanese that way, as a rule.

It’s simply making explicit the steps you would need to perform yourself, if struggling with the Japanese.


My French is an hilarious mix of low and high register, and I occasionally go into a Midi accent, too. Sometimes deliberately, for laughs, sometimes because I got used to using it to annoy my teachers.

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Maybe people using this deck are assumed to understand all the grammar points used already, but as I mentioned I’m just starting out and so I think it would be super useful to have an intermediate translation. You could still include the “real” translation I guess. I guess they don’t since the deck is for vocab. But my point stands - I think it is extremely helpful to have a literal translation first to help you get to the natural translation. I never suggested that Japanese should be translated literally when the purpose is not learning but actual translation. That would just be silly.


Context is key. Anytime the subject is dropped and there is no context specified beforehand, you always assume the speaker is referring to themselves because you have no reason to believe otherwise.

If you already know that the person is asking about Mary, then yeah, you’d assume that it is Mary that did her homework with a friend. But in that case, you already have that context understood. In the case of your card, you should assume that the translation is “I did homework with a friend” because you have no context indicating otherwise.

So no, I don’t see the point in translating into “caveman english”.


@ryouki is correct. The translation is “I did my homework with a friend,” whether you translate it literally or not.


I think I use pretty much the same register for French and Japanese, and a much lower one for English and German (back when I studied that, I forgot most of it). But I struggle to speak in French properly now. I keep mixing it with English words and grammar because I can’t remember words in French but I remember them in other languages.

The point is, the context is not present in the card. So why should it be present in the translation?

I get that in some (most?) contexts, you actually need a natural translation. This can often depart from what’s actually in the other language quite a bit. Watching anime for example, you see dozens of instances where a simple はい is translated as “Yes Sir” or “okay” or “got it” or “understood” or “here!” or any number of other things, because in English we would naturally use all these different phrases depending on the context.

That’s fine and a mark of a good translator, because the point in this case isn’t to teach Japanese; it’s to give English readers/viewers a chance to enjoy the story as it would be if it had been written in English.

But for us Japanese learners, it’s actually really interesting and useful to notice that in all these situations, the word はい is used. I’m going to think of this as “Yes,” and embrace the way Japanese can make this one word mean so many different things. And then when I’m speaking with somebody and in a context where in English I would say “got it,” I hopefully won’t trip over trying to translate that (持っています?!?) and will instead remember to just say “Yes,” because that’s how I’ve been thinking of it in such situations all along.

The omitted bits are the same thing. If I’m translating a manga or anime or otherwise producing content that (1) has actual context, and (2) is meant for consumption by ordinary English speakers, then of course I would do my best to write natural English, regardless of how closely it matches the original Japanese.

But if it’s for my own purposes, what’s the point? I don’t need to become a better English writer; I need to become a better Japanese reader. If I can (1) eliminate steps, so that it’s faster, and (2) more quickly learn Japanese speech patterns by using English that’s as close to it as possible, then why the heck not?


The context is there: lack of a topic that would indicate a different subject means the speaker is talking about themself. It’s that simple, and that is the proper translation absent anything else.


My husband’s first language is French but we speak mostly English at home, and I notice sometimes he uses English words in French now. Actually his mom was scolding him that he’s losing his French. The struggle is real. I should probably speak more French with him but I’m too embarrassed to :frowning:

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@ryouki is correct. The translation is “I did my homework with a friend,” whether you translate it literally or not.

No it’s not. That is assuming things. You’re arguing that, faced with a context-free review card, this is what Japanese would assume. But it’s still an assumption, and if you translate it into English that way, you have turned that assumption into explicit fact.

To me, a review card is a sentence extracted from some larger context. This was part of some conversation, letter, blog post, or whatever. After all, that’s what we’re trying to learn — how to understand conversations, letters, blog posts, etc. We’re not trying to learn how to understand review cards.

So there is some context, it’s just that we don’t know what it is. So we don’t know what the correct natural translation, in its original context, might be. But so what? Why should we care? Just note it as “did homework with a friend,” and you’ve perfectly captured what the Japanese actually said. What’s wrong with that?


The context is there: lack of a topic that would indicate a different subject means the speaker is talking about themself. It’s that simple, and that is the proper translation absent anything else.

What? Do you actually mean, lack of a topic in this sentence means that the speaker is automatically talking about himself?

So this would not be correct Japanese?

A: 昨日、メーリさんは何をしたか。
B: 友達と一緒に宿題をした。

Is this what you’re saying? Because if so, one of us is confused about how Japanese works.

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I already answered that. If there is no previous context, you always assume the speaker is referring to themselves when the subject is dropped.


That’s no answer at all. I’m saying, Why should it be that way? And you’re saying, because it should be that way.

You’re also ignoring my point that there is previous context, it’s just that (because it’s just a review card) we don’t know what it is.

I guess we just agree to disagree at this point.