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The Mysteries of Japanese Punctuation Explained for Professional Japanese Translation

Punctuation was not commonly used in Japan until the 19th Century, but is now an integral part of written Japanese. 

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In some instances, the usage is virtually the same, there are other “false friends” that are close but have significant differences in usage, and there is other punctuation for which there is no one clear equivalent.

 Full stops or periods “.”, parentheses “()”, and braces”{}” look very similar to, and can be replaced by their English equivalents in most cases. In other cases, such as the comma, the Japanese equivalent “?” faces the opposite way to its English counterpart, and its meaning is limited to one common usage with English – that of separating sentences.  As I mentioned there are also some false friends. A very common “rookie error”  for new translators of Japanese is to interpret “??” in Japanese as being square brackets. They are NOT. They are the equivalent of single quotes in US English (that is outside quotes). The Japanese equivalent of double quotes (quotes within quotes) is ?? .  There is also the wave dash “?“, which is like a lengthened tilde, and you may be tempted to convert this directly as a dash or hyphen. However, its usage is often closer to the English word “from” (indicating origin when placed after a country) or “from….to”.  It is also used to separate a subtitle from a title on the same line, where a colon would normally be used in English.

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 One particularly tricky customer is the so-called interpunct, or to give it its more descriptive name, the middle dot “?”. This looks like nothing found in English. It can be used to separate foreign words written in katakana (equivalent of space in English), listing items instead of a comma, or when separating titles, names and positions (where a forward leaning slash “/” might be used in English”.

 Rather than attempting a one-to-one conversion of Japanese with English punctuation, it is important to look at the context and judge the most appropriate English punctuation or word to use. Another thing that should be stressed here is that even when the punctuation looks similar and has the same usage as in English, don’t be tempted to just “translate around” the punctuation and leave it as is. Submitting translation with double-byte periods and commas gives the impression of carelessness. Following these two guidelines will greatly improve the professionalism of your Japanese translation.

About the Author
Simon Way is a contributing author to SAECULII YK, providers of Professional Translation for Japanese English Tokyo, Japan. Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news by Japanese Translation Services

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