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Aspects of the Japanese language that pose challenges for quality machine translation Japanese English


While machine translation has undoubtedly come in leaps and bounds over the last several decades, there are no signs (thankfully) yet of Japanese to English (and vice versa) translators being forced out of a job.

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Politeness levels here refers not to adding specific endings to words and verb forms, but rather the roundabout way that a request is made to express humility in the Japanese language. For example, the expression “I will call you” (DENWA WO SASETE ITADAKIMASU) literally means “I will have you allow me to call you”, and this kind of expression that reveals the attitude of the speaker is hard for machines to grasp.

Another aspect that is difficult for machine translation with Japanese is subject ambiguity. It is often not clear from Japanese whether the subject is male or female, and in a long sentence the subject is often completely left to the inference of the reader. If you see samples of machine translation, they will often not include a subject at all when translating from Japanese to English and this is not only extremely confusing for the reader, but also leads to poor quality Japanese translation. A human translator will often need to confirm with the end user about the subject being referred to in the sentence. This creates major obstacles for machine translation.

The final aspect I would like to cover is inferred meaning. Another aspect of the Japanese language is the use of euphemisms and indirect meaning in expression to avoid confrontation. Case in point, when a Japanese person is requested to do something, they may answer that it is difficult when what they are actually saying is “No”. Judging whether the writer really means something is difficult or whether there is an implied meaning is hard enough for a human to judge but can be almost impossible for a machine translation.

In conclusion, deep learning and other technology has improved the quality of machine translation, but inherent aspects of Japanese still present some serious obstacles, such as politeness levels, subject ambiguity, and inferred meaning, for a fully working machine language translation system.



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

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