The challenge of Japanese legal translations

June 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Featured Articles


In reviews of the most difficult languages to learn Japanese is often mentioned.

Of course, there is no real universal answer to this question: it all depends who is trying to learn the language.

Context is all.

However, when it comes to languages that present the biggest challenges for legal translators Japanese will pretty much always be there at the top.

And again context is all.

The Japanese language relies on its context for its meaning and this means that it presents unique challenges to anyone undertaking a legal translation.

Let’s review the key factors that mean legal translation projects require the greatest degree of care and the highest order of skill.

Japanese writing systems

There are three character sets used in written Japanese:

  • The kanji (adapted from Chinese)
  • The katakana (used as a phonetic representation of foreign words)
  • The hiragana (which contains the syllables that form Japanese words)

Throw into this mix a language whose sentences are usually written without spaces between words and there is already quite a heady brew.

Now add a splash of context-dependency, as many kanji can have multiple meanings depending on their context.

The result is a highly complex written system that relies on in-depth familiarity with the subject matter being written about and a native-level mastery of grammatical niceties if any legal translation is to have the precision and delicately nuanced expression that will be required.

Let’s imagine now a patent search.

If the search entails referring to printed documents it is highly likely the patent may be filed with small print or its writing will have become smudged or the document will be a poor quality photocopy.

It’s easy to see how the already high margin for error has just magnified.

Each kanji can contain dozens of small strokes and, where there is difficulty discerning them, the skill of a professional translator is needed to avoid potentially costly mistakes.

Japanese words

Japanese borrows heavily from other languages for its vocabulary. These come from a variety of sources (such as arubaito ?????, or part-time work, from the German arbeit).

Reading and writing non-Japanese words necessitates more than just an understanding of katakana: it calls for the ability to recognize words borrowed from languages other than English. This can usually only be found in native speakers who have grown up with these words.

Japanese grammar

For legal translations, though, the difficulties of Japanese writing systems and vocabulary are further compounded by its grammar.

Japanese sentences will often omit their subjects if the meaning is presumed to be clear from either the immediate context or the preceding sentences.  Legal documents, more than any other, rely on absolute clarity about exactly who is doing something and to whom they are doing it.

Another source of ambiguity can arise over the Japanese conjugations for verb tenses. Both present and future tense verbs can be the same.

In these examples legal translations will need not just a high level of fluency in Japanese but also a wide-ranging experience of interpreting legal documents themselves if the risk of mistranslation is to be minimised.

Japanese legal translations

The precision required for legal translation and the challenges posed by Japanese make your choice of a skilled, experienced translator essential. It could help to prevent costly misunderstandings and protects you against future litigation. After all, as they say in Japan:

(Experience is better than just books.)