Can Google Translate be used to translate English into Japanese?

I have been translating Japanese and English texts for more than 5 years now. Most of us working in this field are receiving less projects and this decrease in demand is attributable to the widespread use of machine translation services. If you want to write an email in Japanese and the issue is of unimportant nature Google Translate will do the job for you in a few seconds. By saying “unimportant” I mean that you are the customer, so it is the recipient’s interest to understand your machine translated content and to fix the deal with you no matter what because you are paying money. But what happens when which switch roles? Is machine translation accurate enough when you have to translate from Japanese into English or the other way around?

Manual vs. machine translation of English into Japanese

Well, let’s see some interesting details. I suppose you understand some written Japanese so I will not explain the meaning of every single character, but still I think this will be a useful material for beginner learners as well. I will start with simple expressions in English. In the second half of the material I will show you some more advanced phrases and I will also try to demonstrate the inaccuracy of machine translation for this language pair.

Firstly, let’s begin with simple phrases prepared for tourists!

Most of the tourist land at Narita airport and if you have not arranged your transportation service from the airport you have to figure out the way to get to central Tokyo from the airport. In this case the following sentence can be used:

English: How to get from the airport to central Tokyo?

The Japanese lesson starts here. There are a handful of ways to translate this sentence into Japanese and to my knowledge Google Translate will only give you one option. You don’t have to worry too much about this if you are a tourist in Japan, because nobody will ever chide you for not speaking perfect Japanese.

In order to choose the best way of expressing even this simple English sentence you have to consider many things. First of all, your situation. You are a foreigner, this is your first time to the country and you will address this question to a stranger. This means that you will have to use polite structures. If you have done some preliminary preparations, you must know that polite Japanese starts with です and ます and ends with いただく. So in general, you would have to use these forms, but what if you are old enough to use simple forms, because the whole society ought to respect you only because of your age? In this case you don’t even have to think of です and ます. You can enjoy this privilege if the age difference between you and your partner is at least 30 years. I think Google Translate will not give you any directives on this.

If I were to translate this sentence into Japanese I would say something like:

Japanese: 空港から東京の都心部への行き方を教えてもらえますか?

Let me share with you the solution provided by Google Translate:

Japanese (machine translation): 空港から東京中心部への行き方は?

Machine translation of English into Japanese

Well, if you have a smartphone, you are connected to the Internet and you can use Google Translate on your phone and you are going to show this string of Kanji to someone helping desperate foreigners in the arrival hall you will most likely get the answer, but let’s analyze this solution a little bit.

While it’s much more convenient to use a machine to translate English into Japanese, this way of communication might have unexpected side effects. Why is that?

The devil is in the detail

The principal problem here is inaccuracy. Imagine it as if you were like saying something, but not really in a proper way. Have a look at the word-by-word breakdown of this question first!

  • 空港 → airport (perfect translation)
  • から → from (no problem)
  • 東京 → Tokyo (couldn’t be better)
  • 中心部 → center of something in general (this does not include city, whereas mine does)
  • への → to (perfect)
  • 行き方 → way of going (no problem here)
  • は → a particle (not the best here)
  • ? → question mark (as expected)

You might have noticed that I did not even translate it as a question. My Japanese sentence has an exclamation mark at the end. Okay, I admit that I cheated here a little bit. This was because I could imagine the situation when these tourists arrive in Japan and they are looking for directions to get from the airport to the city center. In this certain situation, while it would be perfectly fine to ask polite questions from the airport staff and that would be in accord with cultural norms, in Japan in this situation it is more adequate to give orders. This fact twisted my translation a little bit and I think that machine translation will prove to be unable to comprehend and incorporate these social, cultural and linguistic related factors unless something close to a miracle happens.

Also, if you are to use the Google Translate version without the polite 教えてもらえますか, you will sound terribly rude, which is not a big issue if you are a tourist, but I think it is good to be aware of what you are saying. I wouldn’t really say things I don’t fully understand even if I am in the soup.

Let’s see another example:

English: Please don’t sit next to me!

You can use this phrase if you are afraid of COVID-19 or you are just looking for some solitude while you are in Japan.

If I were to say this in Japanese I would say something like:

Japanese: 座らんといてよ!

Google Translate will give you the following output:

Machine translation of English into Japanese

Japanese (machine translation): 私の隣に座ってはいけません!

This one is awesome! There are so many things to learn here.

So my solution is a very casual form. Friends would use this phrase when they tease each other, therefore it would sound either very casual or extremely rude if you use it with somebody to whom you ought to show respect. But let’s be honest, when you are travelling on a train and someone who forgot to have a shower for a few weeks is not someone to be very much respected. If you feel like you don’t want to be too polite and you just want to warn someone of the consequences of sitting next to you confidently, my version shall be your choice. But in no situation you would ever use the machine translated 私の隣に座ってはいけません!because this means something like “It is not allowed to sit next to me!”. A funny way of expressing your thoughts. Not even mentioning the fact that if you are a guy, you hardly say “私”, you would rather say “僕” or ”俺”.

Finally, let’s see a hardcore English phrase and prepare for a huge laughter!

English: If they can do it, so can I.

This is not too complicated, but Google Translate seems to have similar problems to the ones mentioned above.

As an English-Japanese translator I have to be exact and effective, therefore I would translate this into Japanese as:

Japanese (manual): 彼らができるなら、俺もできるはず。

Machine translation of English into Japanese

And here is the solution from Google Translate:

Japanese (machine translation): 彼らがそれをすることができれば、私もそうすることができます。

What a lengthy sentence! Well the meaning of the machine translation is almost the same, but it is way too complicated. それをする is not common at all. It can be used to translate certain English phrases, but you can tell that a sentence with それをする was translated by a machine.

Finally, there is that はず at the end of the manual translation. It is not easy to translate it into English, but it will give a very similar meaning to the phrase to that of the English one. Although the English sentence doesn't say that the speaker is certain of the fact that “If they can do it, so can I” we all know this from the context. This level of self-consciousness can be expressed in Japanese using はず.

I hope I could shed some light on the inaccuracy of Google Translate when it comes to translating English into Japanese. It might work better the other way around, but I would dissuade you from using Google Translate to express things in Japanese or to use it as a source to learn the language.


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