I am asking about translation of written conversations between two or more persons in Japanese language, that we can find in books, novels, manga, etc. As we know, in Japanese language there are polite forms such as 丁寧語、敬語 and so on. In a conversation, from how the speakers speak/converse, we can guess the speakers's personalities and how good their relationship are with each other.

Since English language probably does not have the polite forms to the level of the Japanese's, what do translators keep in mind during translating as not to lose the original nuance?

  • Unlike other questions recently that recently appeared here, which were about incorporating a tiny fraction of Japanese inside an English text, I find this one 100% off topic for Japanese SE.
    – macraf
    Oct 16, 2015 at 5:43
  • Sorry. I read the tag description that "we dont offer translation but you can ask about translating" something like that. I guess stack exchange's scope is somehow limiting. Thank you for the comment.
    – kate
    Oct 16, 2015 at 11:38
  • The problem is that you ask about the usage of the English language. It has its own set of modes to describe different levels of politeness, but how you express respect, for example, remains the same regardless if you were translating from Persian, Japanese, or Polish. It is a question for English SE.
    – macraf
    Oct 16, 2015 at 11:59
  • 1
    I don't think that translating Japanese texts is particularly suited for English.SE, because I think it requires a particular expertise in Japanese. The largest community of Japanese-to-English translators is probably found here on Japanese.SE. Although it's unlike the usual questions we get here about understanding Japanese text, I vote "Leave Open".
    – Earthliŋ
    Oct 16, 2015 at 12:08
  • I see.. thank you very much all for your advices.
    – kate
    Oct 17, 2015 at 0:48

1 Answer 1


I've worked on and off for a number of years as a freelance JPN-ENG translator, and I'm well-read in both Japanese and English. I also have plenty of friends who have been through the service economy in the US ;)

On that basis, I'm compelled to say that English absolutely has the degree of politeness required to match Japanese pragmatics in its corpus. James Clavell in the novel Shogun highlights this with different forms, most notably "thou" and "you"--dubious Orientalism in the storyline aside, the grammar he chooses to make this clear bears out in academic examinations of early modern English.

You don't even need to dig that deep, even. Compare:

A: Yeah? You need something? うん?なんか用?

A: May I help you? はい、ご用は?/どうぞ。

A: How may I assist you today? なにかお力になれることがございますでしょうか?

(Apologies for the clumsiness of the above examples; I'm a little tired at the moment.)

When my Japanese friends ask me about keigo in English, my stock answer is that English doesn't have systematized grammatical forms that constitute an equivalent, but we most definitely have pragmatics that match up.

In other words, the short answer is to look for the language that matches the usage and the situation when translating. It may be instructive to note that "pragmatics" as a linguistic term, is 語用 (the use of words) in Japanese.


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