Avoid unnatural Japanese – Don’t blindly accept Google Translate results!

nagatomi-blog-2-2017Online translation tools can be really helpful while learning Japanese – but don’t rely on them too much! Ayumi Nagatomi, one of JCMU’s Japanese language instructors in Hikone, discusses why over-reliance on these resources can lead to students producing very unnatural Japanese.

(Many thanks to Melville-sensei and Eric Jutila-san, Summer – Fall 2016 JCMU alum, who helped me write this post!)

Many of you may have probably been utilizing online tools while studying Japanese. Such resources are excellent in that you can work on your learning anytime and anywhere. Are you more confident writing in Japanese now that you have these tools?

However, consider how your Google-translated text would look to a native speaker. What if what you have written in Japanese looked like this?

My parents got hitched in 1984 and since that time they’d been cohabitating, and they are super happy. I envy them their jubilation and their affinity. Upon the day of which I wed, I wanna be like them. They are super analogous in some ways like physique, personality, and stuff they like to do. I postulate that because of these similarities they get on very well. (Please note that the original essay written by a non-native speaker of English is very good)

As a native/near native speaker of English, what are your thoughts on this short piece? It sounds quite unnatural, right? What would you suggest the author do to fix their writing?

Suppose the writer is a Japanese student who has been studying English. Here is the student’s internal cry (one that many of you might relate to!):

I have to write about my parents in English. Okay, I’m going to write it in Japanese first. Done. Let’s translate this to English. I can’t remember how to say this word in English – I know! Let’s use this app! Here it is. Wait, there are so many options, which word should I choose? This one sounds more intelligent…

Translation from the target language (Japanese) to your native language is relatively easy using online tools – NOT the other way around, though. Although the word may technically be correct, it is your job as a language learner to choose the appropriate expression in context as well. For instance, when translating “I gave a speech at an elementary school in Japan,” your online tools provide you with several options for the word “speech,” including 演説(enzetsu)、講演(kouen)、and 言葉づかい(kotobazukai). Our dear friend, Google Translate, suggests the following translation:

Watashi wa nihon no shougakkou de enzetsu o shimashita.
I gave an address at an elementary school in Japan.

… Did you give an inauguration speech? The use of the word “enzetsu” here is unnatural and far too formal. You could have just written this:

Nihon no shougakkou de supiichi o shimashita.
I gave a speech at an elementary school in Japan.

Despite your good intentions, your work may sound awkward (or even worse, hinder communication) if you rely on translation tools too much. You are still more than welcome to use the words that come up using these resources, but make sure to do a quick Google search of the word in Japanese to see how it is used in context. If the context does not match what you are trying to say, then don’t use it!

While writing in Japanese may sometimes be overwhelming, make the most of what you already know before blindly accepting what comes up on Google Translate and the like! It may work better for you to start with simple words and move on to a plainer outline in Japanese instead of writing the whole thing in your native/near native language. Though you may assume that you are unable to write without the help of online resources, never underestimate your own language skills!


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