Here is my question: how do you choose the correct level of politeness in Japanese, when translating foreign material that may not follow Japanese rules? Let's say we have a formal setting, e.g. a shop clerk and a customer. The shop clerk was a former collegue of the customer's mother, so she speaks in a very casual way (let's say the equivalent of plain form), and actually ask "do you mind if I speak like this?" Although she knew his mother, it's still the first time they meet, moreover he is a customer, so I guess in Japanese she would at least use the polite (-masu) form, but I was wondering if that would be a faithful translation and, on the contrary, if her speaking in plain form would be perceived as rude (it's only meant to convey intimacy). What do you think?

  • Rather than try to figure out how to preserve the level of politeness of the situation, I would try to translate the situation in relation to the cultural norm. It also depends on the kind of store, such as a family run business vs. a department store (Cf. "いらっしゃい" vs "いらっしゃいませ"). Is the speech typical for that situation? If so, I would try to translate the gestalt rather than the exact interpersonal and sociolinguistic parameters. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 3:00
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    I think this question is fundamentally unanswerable as is, because how best to translate depends on both (a) the source material and (b) the purpose of the translation in question. Without both being well defined, it's hard to say what is "the correct level" of anything one can vary in translating (obvious there's an infinite number of ways to translate wrongly).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 12:26

1 Answer 1


It would be natural to first think of the social position and standing of the people involved in the conversations so that it is easier for Japanese readers to imagine the mood and relationship of the characters.

If, for example, there is a homestay family welcoming a foreigner into their home you might pose the family speak politely if they are unfamiliar with the guest or casually if they wanted said guest to feel more at ease. The guest can then, in turn, be framed to speak politely if he/she intends to show good manners or be a rare visitor to the country, or casually if totally unaware of the norms or be familiar with the hosting family.

In other words, it is best to keep the constructs of Japanese society in mind when framing your sentences and choosing the proper form, because you aim for the Japanese readership after all.

  • I have no idea what is actually the most common here, but I would say there are two different schools: Either you adjust the speech to what it would have been had the speakers been Japanese living in Japan. OR, you keep the social constructs of the society that is being enacted, which in my opinion would better keep the spirit of the book. Japanese readers are already aware that it's being played out in another country. You are saying that the first method is "best", but I would say this is very subjective. Do you know for certain which method is preferred in general?
    – a20
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 12:35
  • I see your point. I was just offering that advice because of the target demographic. It wouldn't hurt to frame things from the viewpoint of your readers to help them understand.
    – keithmaxx
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 3:25

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