A 5-Step Process to Analyze and Translate Japanese Texts

how to translate from Japanese 1


Have you ever struggled to translate a text from Japanese? Do you follow a specific process?

During my coaching sessions with my students, I often notice that many of them start reading and translating straight away, without first having properly analyzed the sentence at hand.

This could be possible only if Japanese and English had exactly the same word order. However, this is not the case.

In this article, I will show you what method I used to learn how to translate from Japanese into another language.

It is a 5-step process.

Here below is the text we will be using for practice. It’s a text about ‘origami’ (paper folding art) taken from Wikipedia Japanese:

折り紙(おりがみ)とは、紙を折って動植物や生活道具などの形を作る日本伝統の遊びである。また、折り上げられた作品そのものや、折り紙用に作られた正方形の専用紙、千代紙などのことを指す。上級武家が和紙で物を包むために用いていた折形、折形礼法から礼法部分がなくなり、庶民へ遊戯用に広く発展・普及したもので、日本を代表する文化である。

Ready to get started? Let's get right into the first step:


STEP 1 – Get the Rōmaji Transcription

First of all, let’s transcribe the whole thing in rōmaji using Google Translate:

Origami (origami) to wa, kami o otte dō-shokubutsu ya seikatsu dōgu nado no katachi o tsukuru Nihon dentō no asobi dearu. Mata, oriagerareta sakuhin sono mono ya, origami-yō ni tsukurareta seihōkei no sen'yō-shi, chiyogami nado no koto o sasu. Jōkyū buke ga washi de mono o tsutsumu tame ni mochiiteita origata, origata reihō kara reihō bubun ga nakunari, shomin e yūgi-yō ni hiroku hatten fukyū shita mono de, Nihon o daihyō suru bunka dearu.

Generally, Google Translate’s transcripts are very reliable, but you should not trust them 100%. You may have to check the pronunciation of some words as you work through your translation.

 

STEP 2 - Break the Whole Text Down Into Individual Sentences

The text above is made of three sentences:

1 折り紙(おりがみ)とは、紙を折って動植物や生活道具などの形を作る日本伝統の遊びである。

Origami (origami) to wa, kami o otte dō-shokubutsu ya seikatsu dōgu nado no katachi o tsukuru Nihon dentō no asobi dearu.

2 また、折り上げられた作品そのものや、折り紙用に作られた正方形の専用紙、千代紙などのことを指す。

Mata, oriagerareta sakuhin sono mono ya, origami-yō ni tsukurareta seihōkei no sen'yō-shi, chiyogami nado no koto o sasu.

3 上級武家が和紙で物を包むために用いていた折形、折形礼法から礼法部分がなくなり、庶民へ遊戯用に広く発展・普及したもので、日本を代表する文化である。

Jōkyū buke ga washi de mono o tsutsumu tame ni mochiiteita origata, origata reihō kara reihō bubun ga nakunari, shomin e yūgi-yō ni hiroku hatten fukyū shita mono de, Nihon o daihyō suru bunka dearu.

Now, for each sentence, let’s go through the following steps:


STEP 3 – Create a Word-by-Word Translation

First of all, we need to know the meaning of all the words that make up each sentence.

If there are any words we don’t know, we can look them up in a dictionary such as Weblio. Alternatively, we can use a faster way: put the whole sentence into an automatic translator, such as Deepl.com or Mirai Translate.

DeepL does a better job than Mirai Translate, although I usually consider the results offered by both. In this post, I'll limit myself to translations from DeepL.

However, don’t have fall into the trap of blindly trusting what DeepL (or Mirai Translate) provides you with. Just use it as a means to further understand how the original sentence is structured.

Let’s work on our first sentence.

SENTENCE # 1

折り紙(おりがみ)とは、紙を折って動植物や生活道具などの形を作る日本伝統の遊びである。

Origami (origami) to wa, kami o otte dō-shokubutsu ya seikatsu dōgu nado no katachi o tsukuru Nihon dentō no asobi dearu.

Here’s DeepL’s translation:

Origami is a traditional Japanese game in which paper is folded to make shapes of animals, plants, and household utensils.

Based on this result, let’s create a chunk-by-chunk translation. During this step, you can also refer to the Weblio dictionary mentioned above, if you need direct translations.

Origami (origami) TO WA / paper-OBJ / folding-and / animals-plants / and-or / household utensils / such as / shapes-OBJ / make / Japan traditional form of entertainment / be //

 

STEP 4 – Focus on Sentence Structure and Embedded Clauses

In any language, sentences are made up of "chunks of meaning" arranged according to a precise order (syntax). To translate from Japanese, you need to be able to break down and reassemble sentences in the English order.

Japanese is a SOV (Subject Object Verb) language. So, look for these three elements right away.

If the sentence is a long one, try to figure out which is the main clause and which is the secondary clause.

Start by looking at the verbs. Then look for the subject (marked by the particle "ga" が) or the topic of the entire sentence (marked by "wa" は). Finally, look for the objects (marked by "o" を).

Many clauses are linked by two verbs in a row. In that case, the first verb appears in its "-te form" (to eat: taberu > tabete) or its literary counterpart, i.e., a syllable with an "i" or "e" sound (to eat: taberu > tabe; to make: tsukuru > tsukuri)

If you see a verb in its plain form (without the polite ending in "-masu") preceding a noun, then it means there is an embedded (or “relative”) clause attached to it.

Embedded (or “relative”) clauses serve to offer additional details about a noun.

Think about this English sentence. The relative clause is shown in square brackets:

I read the BOOK < [(that) you lent me]

In Japanese, relative clauses come BEFORE the noun they refer to. Also, there are no such words as “that”, “which”, “in which”, etc.

I-TOPIC / [ you-SBJ  / lent me-past ] > BOOK-OBJ / read-past

If you want to know more about how embedded clauses work, have a look at this article.

Now, let’s get back to our first sentence:

Origami (origami) to wa / kami o otte / dō-shokubutsu / ya / seikatsu dōgu nado no katachi o tsukuru Nihon dentō no asobi / dearu //

Origami (origami) TO WA / paper-OBJ / folding-and / animals-plants / and-or / household utensils / such as / shapes-OBJ / make / Japan traditional form of entertainment / be //

The structure of this sentence is “Origami to wa…. dearu” (“Origami is….”), so we have a definition here.

Before the last verb “to be”, we have “Japan traditional form of entertainment”. So, the translation here is: “Origami is a traditional Japanese form of entertainment…”.

If we now go backwards, we have “to make > shapes > such as > household utensils > and/or > animal and plants > folding-and > paper”.

This is a relative clause, i.e. an explanation of what kind of entertainment origami is.

I usually put relative clauses into square brackets and then underline them. I also add [ > ] before the noun they are attached to:

Origami (origami) TO WA / [ paper-OBJ / folding-and / animals-plants / and-or / household utensils / such as / shapes-OBJ / make ] > Japan traditional form of entertainment / be //

Relative clauses are best translated in order from left to right. This is because the actions expressed by the verbs within the relative clause also follow this order.

Just remember to reverse the order of objects and verbs.

In this case, we can translate the whole relative clause + attached noun as:

“[a] traditional Japanese form of entertainment [(in which/where) you  fold paper and make shapes such as animals, plants and household utensils]”.

 

STEP 5 – Translate the Sentence

Now that we understand the structure and the meaning of each part of the sentence, we can translate it by either confirming DeepL’s translation (if correct) or create our own.

In English, we need to follow the SVO (subject-verb-object) order. The embedded clause related to “Japanese traditional form of entertainment” will come AFTER the noun.

I’ll add numbers to each chunk of the sentence. Here it is again:

Origami (origami) TO WA… [ paper-OBJ / fold-and / animals-plants / and-or / household utensils / such as / shapes-OBJ / make ] > Japanese traditional form of entertainment … be //

We’ll start from the topic, then jump to the verb at the end of the sentence and keep adding chunks in a backward manner.

[1] Origami…

[2] be….

[3] Japanese traditional form of entertainment…  (where/in which)….

We now need to stop going backwards from the end of the sentence and start translating what’s inside the embedded clause from left to right order, except for object/verb chunks that need to be reversed:

[4] (you) fold …

[5] paper…. (and)

[6] make…

[7] shapes…

[8] such as….

[9] animals, plants,

[10] and-or

[11] household utensils.

Now, we can finally translate our sentence into plain English. We can either keep DeepL’s translation (if it’s correct), or create our own:

Origami is a traditional Japanese form of entertainment in which you fold paper to make shapes of animals, plants, or household utensils.

Let’s now apply the same steps to the rest of the sentences:

SENTENCE # 2

また、折り上げられた作品そのものや、折り紙用に作られた正方形の専用紙、千代紙などのことを指す。

Mata, oriagerareta sakuhin sono mono ya, origami-yō ni tsukurareta seihōkei no sen'yō-shi, chiyogami nado no koto o sasu.

DeepL’s translation:

It also refers to the folded work itself, the special square paper made for origami, and chiyogami.

Let’s divide the sentence into chunks of meaning, and then translate them word-by-word:

Mata, / oriagerareta / sakuhin / sono mono / ya /, origami-yō ni / tsukurareta / seihōkei no / sen'yō-shi /, chiyogami / nado no / koto o / sasu //

Also, / folded / work / itself / and-or /, origami-use-NI / made / square / special-paper, / chiyogami / such / things-OBJ / refer to //

Here, we find out that “chiyogami” is actually the name of the “special square paper” used for origami. The comma [ 、] after “special paper” indicates they are the same thing.

Now, let’s look at the whole structure and see if there are any embedded clauses.

Based on the translation we got from DeepL, it looks like the underlined part here below could actually be a relative clause in Japanese:

It also refers to the folded work itself, the special square paper made for origami, i.e. chiyogami.

So, we can say that the structure of this sentence is:

Mata, [...] nado no koto o sasu.

Also, (it) refers to such things as [….]

In fact, we can actually spot a larger embedded clause that contains smaller ones. We’ll use square brackets for the larger one, and round brackets for smaller ones:

Mata, / [  (oriagerareta ) > sakuhin / sono mono / ya /, ( origami-yō ni / tsukurareta ) > seihōkei no / sen'yō-shi = chiyogami ) > nado no / koto o / sasu //

Also, / [  ( folded  ) > work itself / and-or /, ( origami-use-NI / made ) > square / special-paper = chiyogami ] > such / things-O / refers to //

We now can start moving things around in the English word order. By adding numbers to each chunk, we’ll have:

[1] Also…

[2] (it) refers to…

[3] such things (as)…

[4] folded…

[5] work itself…

[6] and-or…

[7] “chiyogami”….

[8] (a) square…

[9] special paper…

[10] made…

[11] for origami-use.

So, our final (and refined) translation could be:

It also refers to either the folded work itself or “chiyogami”, namely the special square paper which is used for origami.

 

SENTENCE # 3  

上級武家が和紙で物を包むために用いていた折形、折形礼法から礼法部分がなくなり、庶民へ遊戯用に広く発展・普及したもので、日本を代表する文化である。

Jōkyū buke ga washi de mono o tsutsumu tame ni mochiite ita origata, origata reihō kara reihō bubun ga nakunari, shomin e yūgi-yō ni hiroku hatten - fukyū shita mono de, Nihon o daihyō suru bunka dearu.

This sentence is longer and more complex. Let’s apply the same steps and see what happens.

First, let’s automatically translate it using DeepL:

The origami, or folded form of Japanese paper used by upper class samurai families to wrap things, lost its ceremonial part and was widely developed and spread to the common people as a game.

By looking at the translation provided by DeepL or Weblio when needed, let’s now try to create a word-by-word translation and divide the sentence into chunks of meaning.

Here it is:

jōkyū / buke-SBJ / washi-DE / mono-OBJ / tsutsumu / tame ni / mochiite ita / origata, origata reihō_KARA / reihō bubun-SBJ / nakunari /, shomin-E / yūgi-yō NI / hiroku / hatten - fukyū shita / mono / de, Nihon-OBJ / daihyō suru / bunka / dearu //

upper class / samurai families-SBJ / Japanese paper-DE / things-OBJ / wrap / for / was used / origata…

I stopped here because I found out that DeepL translated “origata” as “origami”. By looking it up on Wikipedia, it seems that “orikata” (and not “origata”) is an ancient form of origami. In fact, it says that “orikata” is a “term used to refer to techniques of folding a sheet of paper to wrap a gift, which is one aspect of Japanese etiquette and rules”.

So, “orikata reihō” means “etiquette for paper folding”. The comma [ 、] after “orikata” shows that “orikata reihō” and “orikata” are the same thing.

Let’s keep translating our sentence. Here it is again:

jōkyū / buke-SBJ / washi-DE / mono-OBJ / tsutsumu / tame ni / mochiite ita / origata, origata reihō_KARA / reihō bubun-SBJ / nakunari /, shomin-E / yūgi-yō NI / hiroku / hatten - fukyū shita / mono / de, Nihon-OBJ / daihyō suru / bunka / dearu //

upper class / samurai families-SBJ / Japanese paper-DE / things-OBJ / wrap / for / were using / orikata (paper folding), = orikata reihō (etiquette for paper folding)-KARA / “reihō” (etiquette) part-SBJ / disappeared and / common people-E / game-use-NI / widely / developed and spread / thing / is and, / Japan-OBJ / represent / culture / be //

Now, the main structure of this sentence is:

[….] mono de, […] dearu

[…] is (a) thing (that) […], and is […]

So, what comes BEFORE “mono” (thing) is a large relative clause, which actually contains smaller ones.

Let’s use square and round brackets to mark them:

[ ( Upper class / samurai families-SBJ / Japanese paper-DE / things-OBJ / wrap / for / were using ) > orikata (paper folding) = orikata reihō-KARA / “reihō” (etiquette) part-SBJ / disappeared and / common people-E / game-use-NI / widely / developed and spread ]   >  (a) thing / is and, / [ Japan-OBJ / represents ] > culture / (it) is //

Before continuing, just a quick note about the word "bunka" (culture):

In Japanese, the word for “culture” can be used to describe one single “element” of culture. In English, to describe the smaller component elements that combine to create what we know as "culture", we more naturally use the term "custom", or "cultural tradition", or even just "tradition". We’ll use “cultural tradition” in our translation.

Cool! We can now order the chunks we got in our word-by-word translation following the English SVO order, so we’ll have:

[1] (it) is…

[2] (a) thing (that) 

+ the larger relative clause from here:

[3] from “orikata” (paper folding)

[4] or “orikata reihō” (lit. “etiquette for paper folding”), (that) 

+ smaller relative clause from here:

[5] upper class

[6] samurai families

[7] used

[8] for

[9] wrap(ping)

[10] things

[11] with Japanese paper…

[12] the “reihō” (etiquette) part

[13] disappeared and…

[14] widely

[15] developed and spread

[16] as a game / form of entertainment

[17] to common people

…and here the sentence goes on up to the end:

[18] [is]

[19] (a) culture/cultural tradition (that) represents Japan

 

Putting these pieces together, we get this draft translation:

(It) is… (a) thing (that)… from “orikata” (paper folding) or “orikata reihō” (lit. “paper folding etiquette”) (that)…  upper class… samurai families… used… for… wrapping… things… with Japanese paper…, the “reihō” (etiquette) part… disappeared, and… (it) widely… developed and spread… as a game/form of entertainment… to common people, and… is… a culture/cultural tradition (that)…. represents… Japan.

As you can see, it’s a bit messy.

With complex sentences like this, it's always best to break them up into multiple sentences first.

In this case, we can divide the sentence into four main ideas:

1 “Orikata” (paper folding) - also known as “orikata reihō” (paper folding etiquette) - was used by the upper class samurai families to wrap things in Japanese paper.

2 The “reihō” (etiquette) part disappeared from its original definition.

3 It developed and spread to the common people as a form of entertainment.

4 It is a cultural tradition that represents Japan.

Now we are free to decide how to connect these sentences to express the same concept in a more natural English. Antonyms can be used for certain words or new words can be added if needed.

This is my attempt:

Originally, origami was known as "orikata" (paper folding) - or "orikata reihō" (paper folding etiquette) - and was used by upper class samurai families to wrap things in Japanese paper. Later, the word "reihō" (etiquette) was abandoned, so origami developed and spread among ordinary people as a form of entertainment. Today, it has become a cultural tradition that represents Japan.


Conclusion

In this article, we have seen how you can translate sentences from Japanese by applying the following 5-step process:

STEP 1 – Get the rōmaji transcription

STEP 2 – Break the whole text down into individual sentences

STEP 3 – Create a word-by-word translation

STEP 4 – Focus on sentence structure and embedded clauses

STEP 5 – Translate the sentence


This process takes some time at first, but you will get faster and faster at it with practice.

DeepL is a great help in translating whole sentences or just small chunks, but it is still no substitute for a human-made translation.

I hope you found this article useful.

If you want to practice this translation method, try to analyze and translate the text below. Then, post your translation in the comments.

TEXT TO PRACTICE:

起源は定かでないが井原西鶴の「一昼夜独吟四千句」(1680年)が最古の文献とされている。ヨーロッパなどで独自に発達した折り紙もあるが、現代では日本語の発音を移した「ORIGAMI」という呼称が海外でも広く使われている。

If you find words or phrases that DeepL does not translate properly, look them up on Wikipedia Japan, Weblio, or other websites. I’ll leave it up to you.

Once you post your translation, I will give you my feedback by responding to your comment.

Talk to you soon –

Luca


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