Did you realize that the Japanese language has four different alphabets, or sets of writing symbols? They are hiragana, katakana, kanji, as well as romaji, which is simply the Latin alphabet used for phonetic spelling of Japanese words. No wonder companies report that Japanese patent translations have one of the highest error rates, according to a study by the Steinbeis Transfer Institute of Stuttgart, Germany.
In fact, not only are there three principle alphabets, but almost all Japanese sentences contain bothhiragana and kanji, while some additionally use katakana, particularly for foreign words and scientific terms. Because of this mixture of scripts and the large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is often considered to be the most complicated in use anywhere in the world.
Here are some of the characteristics of each set:
- Hiragana is a phonetic-based character set and therefore more properly called a syllabary than an alphabet. It is the basis of the Japanese writing system and is usually the first alphabet to master when learning Japanese. Each of the 46 symbols stands for a sound or syllable and when combined they are pronounced to create words. Hiragana was originally influenced by Chinese calligraphy and was mainly used by women who did not have the same access to education as men in order to learn kanji. Female authors used the script in literature and hiragana gradually became popular as a less formal form of communication. Today, hiragana is used, along with kanji, for native Japanese words and grammatical elements.
- Katakana is another syllabary that was developed a little later than hiragana and originated as a kind of shorthand for Chinese characters because Chinese was still a major form of communication in Japan at the time. Katakana was used for official communication but has given way to hiragana as the main alphabet for writing. Katakana characters are still used for transcribing foreign words and names into Japanese, as well onomatopoeia, scientific names and sometimes to replace kanji or hiragana for emphasis.
- Kanji is actually a set of Chinese ideographic characters that are still used in modern Japanese, and therefore it is the oldest written alphabet in Japan. Because kanji isn’t phonetic, it is considered the most confusing alphabet when learning Japanese. Each ideographic kanji character represents a whole word or idea, often nouns, verbs and adjectives. There are more than a thousand characters that are used in everyday communications, and many more that are used less frequently.
- Romaji is simply the Latin alphabet used to phonetically spell Japanese words. It is used in modern written Japanese for acronyms from languages that use the Latin alphabet and is also frequently used by foreign students of Japanese who have not yet mastered the three main scripts. Native speakers also will use romaji for computer input.
In English we have many different words to choose from to communicate a precise meaning and we can also add extra descriptive words. In Japanese, however, a combination of alphabets is used to accomplish the same goal. This accounts for a lot of the difficulty in English-to-Japanese translations. Most Japanese text will have hiraganasyllables interspersed with kanji to represent some nouns and katakana for foreign or scientific words.
MultiLing can provide Japanese patent translations that will meet the highest levels of accuracy and specificity. As you would expect from a patent translation service provider, MultiLing has highly qualified native translators, expert team members and organized project managers. With the expertise of advanced linguistic and technical degrees, MultiLing translators can create a Japanese patent translation that will protect your enterprise’s intellectual property.