Note: This blog post was originally written in Japanese for our Japanese website. We used our machine translation platform Translation Designer to translate it and post-edit the content in English. The original Japanese post can be found here.
If not familiar, you might be surprised by how some English words are used in Japanese. Some examples are skill up as in improving your skills, charge as in adding credit to your prepaid card, and handle for steering wheel.
Japanese people use many of these katakana words every day. (Note: katakana is a writing primarily used for words of foreign origin.) It is easy to think that they can be used the same way when talking in English, which make them a common mistake for English learners in Japan. There are two types of these English katakana words used in Japan: ones that are the exact same as the original English, and ones that were born in Japan called "Japanese English."
In this post, we will share this unique world of Japanese English, which is hidden in katakana words used on a daily basis in Japan.
What is Japanese English?
Japanese English looks like English but is not understood by English speakers outside of Japan.
In fact, Japanese English is made in Japan by borrowing foreign words, so there is a background that only Japanese speakers can understand.
Paying attention to these Japanese English words is important when translating. It may seem obvious, but it’s actually a common mistake. That is why assigning native speaking translators is significant in professional translation services.
Are you curious to see what kind of expressions are used in Japanese English? Let's take a look at some phrases.
Looks like English but only used in Japan
In English, high tension or increased tension mean high voltage or being in a state of tension. However, in Japan, people use the word tension when something is fun and exciting.
// My tension is rising. (In correct English: I’m getting excited.)
// I’m high tension today. (In correct English: I’m hyper today.)
In Japan, we often hear clichés such as "the first drink is a service." If said in correct English, it should be "the first drink is on the house" or "the first drink is complimentary" because a service means an intangible product or a serve in tennis. The original meaning of service is also used in Japanese, but somehow the localized version means free.
You might be asked to "bring your my bag." Japanese people use my as part of a noun to indicate something you own. For instance, a house you bought will be my home and a car you own will be my car.
// I finally bought a my home.
// I just paid off the loan on a my car.
In Japanese, people put up after a noun to refer to something rising, saying something like impression up and skill up. However, in correct English, "up" should come after a verb such as build up, or a single verb such as increase or improve should be used instead.
Japanese English that became English
Japanese English words only work in Japan. Although, surprisingly, sometimes this premise changes. There are words that were originally Japanese English but have become recognized in English-speaking countries.
Salaryman is one of the Japanese English words that has come to be recognized even outside of Japan. However, when it is used in an English context, its meaning is limited. Rather than collectively referring to office workers as used in Japan, it is used to specifically indicate Japanese office workers. If you tried to express salaryman literally in a Japanese way, it would be salaried worker. However, we all know that in English-speaking countries, it is common to specifically state the occupation name such as salesperson, engineer, and translator.
This expression seems to be used outside Japan among game players and younger generations. As mentioned earlier, in English, "up" is used following a verb. So, in this case, it is interesting to see how the Japanese English word transformed from a noun to a verb outside of Japan.
// I leveled up.
You might think that if you're a native English speaker, you won't get caught in the Japanese English trap when translating into English. That is not always the case. If you have lived in Japan for a long time and have been translating Japanese into English, you'll always have to deal with Japanese English. It's scary that as you become accustomed to living in Japan, Japanese English starts to gradually look like ordinary English. That is why both translators and reviewers need to be suspicious of katakana expressions.
Extra tip: Corner brackets and quotation marks
Japanese punctuation doesn't use spaces to separate words. For this reason, using corner brackets (which look like these:「」) to emphasize something is pretty much inevitable. These Japanese corner brackets are also used as an equivalent to quotation marks. However, we do not recommend to automatically replace these with English quotation marks due to the alternative usage explained above.
Communication and translation
Since language is used to establish communication between speakers of the same language, it cannot be said that using Japanese English words in English is absolutely useless. Ultimately, it's fine if your counterpart can understand you.
However, when it comes to translating, we have to look at a broader audience. Not everyone who reads the translation does not necessarily know Japanese English. When providing professional translation services, we always have to think about our target audience.
By the way, we have a series on Twitter sharing these Japanese English words in various categories. For those interested in learning more, check out our Twitter account @KawamuraIntl_US. What is your favorite Japanese English word? Feel free to message us if you have one!
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