How much is changed or lost in translating (say) an old Japanese text that's mainly written in kanji into hanzi? How does it compare to translating into a completely foreign language like English? I'm curious if I should pick up a Chinese translation instead of an English translation of an old work because it would be more faithful to the original, and I'd like to practice my Chinese. But really I'm just plain curious; I'm not even sure if I will find a complete translation, so it's just theoretical for now.

(I know close to nothing about Japanese, and the Dunning-Kruger effect is keeping me from knowing how ignorant this question is.)

  • 3
    How old? Do you have examples?
    – Axioplase
    Commented Sep 11, 2012 at 6:53
  • If important grammatical words like "not" are not expressed in kanji, then you may have a very hard time getting the right meaning out...
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Sep 11, 2012 at 9:26
  • Ideally, The Book of Five Rings. I found a pirated PDF translation on a site that serves only Chinese IPs, but haven't got a working proxy yet, and I'm lazy, and I don't think I could share it here. The Japanese text can be easily found. Or any kanbun written by Japanese if I can find any translations. FWIW, I have no preference for simplified over traditional characters. Anyway, I think it would take someone proficient with Japanese, Chinese, and English to answer this question -- which is almost entirely theoretical. I don't have a burning desire to read Japanese texts in Chinese.
    – Guy
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 0:45
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    So... you are saying "if you want to answer this question, go find the text online, but I won't really be interested in your answer anyway"?
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 13:59

2 Answers 2


In the olden days Japanese scholarly works were written in 漢文, which is basically Classical Chinese. Together with a set of annotation rules (e.g. "read the next two characters backwards", "insert a particle here", etc.) it was possible to translate/transcribe the resulting Chinese text into Japanese.

Nowadays, it would still be possible to render Japanese in 漢文, but would require an easy translation. As modern Chinese is quite different from Classical Chinese, finding a translation from 漢文 into Chinese is usually non-trivial.

If the text you are considering was indeed written in 漢文, then you just need to consider how close a modern Chinese translation would be to Classical Chinese, which you probably know better than me. (As Axioplase points out, if the text was written in 万葉仮名, then "kanji-heavy" means very little and the answer is less obvious.)

I have read 五輪書 in English and a good part of it in Japanese. Any bigger book store here in Tokyo will have a copy in contemporary Japanese and most also carry the traditional text. I find the contemporary text easier to read, but the traditional text is also quite readable. Although 五輪書 is not written in 漢文 itself, the text is very close to the Japanese that would have stemmed from a 漢文 "translation" into Japanese. That is to say, a translation into 漢文/Classical Chinese would be quite faithful to the original text. How close that is to modern Chinese, I cannot say.

Personally, I didn't really like the English translation, so if I were able to speak Chinese, I would give the Chinese translation a shot before trying to read the English translation again...

  • 1
    Most Chinese people who care about such an old book usually does read Classical Chinese (known in Chinese as 文言). In addition, Chinese has lost much grammatical features and gained much redundancy, the latter due to too much homophony (imagine cyan being みどりあおいいろ and good being たいへんとてもすばらしよい) and thus "translations" into Modern Chinese would be clumsy and unelegant. I hear Japanese does not seem to have an issue. At least the grammar system is mostly similar; only vocab and small points need to be updated.
    – ithisa
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 0:37
  • @EricDong Great, thank you for this comment. That is really interesting.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 2:08

It may be impossible to do with old texts written in 万葉仮名 (man'yôgana), which is to say that chinese characters where used only for their phonetic value, not their meaning…

Without proper boundaries to the question, the answer ranges from "kind of" as user1205935 said, to "not at all".

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