Writing Technical Documentation for Japanese Readers

Carsten Mende explains how loan words are used in China and Japan. These are English words that are commonly used in everyday Chinese, (i.e. loaned) but may not translate correctly if taken literally. He looks at how the ‘Chinese and Japanese languages incorporate English terms and how they are used’ and gives suggestions on what to avoid when translating documentation into these languages.

Difference between English, Chinese and Japanese syllables

He starts by showing the different between how syllables are created in these languages. And as someone who has studied Chinese for a few years, it’s both fascinating and frustrating. Oranges and apples, so to speak.

Latin – allows ‘numerous variations for combining letters and the amount of syllables is extremely large. English has more than 11,000 syllables.

Chinese and Japanese is very different: Chinese (Mandarin) is written in characters; each reflects a syllable and not a single letter.

Adopting loan words in Chinese and Japanese

He shows three mechanisms for the adaptation of English words in both languages:

  • Phonemic way
  • Semantic way
  • Adaptation without any transformation

For example: Coffee 咖啡 ka fei


He cautions that when translating or transferring into a foreign language, ‘even obvious things may shape up as something completely different. So you should always treat your customer attentively, take him seriously and be prepared to communicate in his mother tongue.’

Read Carsten Mende here


The quality of technical documentation in China is often very poor. It’s not for lack of trying, rather they lack experience technical writers and have had little exposure to international audiences.

For foreigners this represents a huge opportunity. Technical writers who can come to China and test the waters could do very well. The pay is increasing all the time and the cost of living significantly lower than elsewhere.

Fancy moving?

2 thoughts on “Writing Technical Documentation for Japanese Readers

  1. Techquestioner says:

    That was an interesting article, especially what translation does to product names and the names of the soccer players. My daughter is studying Japanese, and she was trying to explain the uses of the different character sets to me. The article by Mende made snse of it.

  2. Ivan Walsh says:

    Re: branding and product development. Something else to note is that it’s very hard for Chinese to pronounce certain letters. R is very hard for them.
    They pronounce it W; Rooney becomes WooNee. V is also tricky. They call me iWan, which means 10000.
    Which is also interesting…
    In Chinese counting works like this
    10000 – iwan is one unit of ten thousand,
    So a millionaire has 100 x iwans.
    Something to consider when discussing payments with chinese business people. They/we often get confused when discussing how much of/how many of something when trying to convert iwans back into dollars. Sounds easy but you need to treble-check that you're both in agreement.
    Going back to branding. What this means is that if you want to launch a product here, choose a name that they can pronounce quite easily.
    And, for technical writers, make sure to avoid figures of speech and other expressions that will go over their head.

Comments are closed.