Tokyo 2020: Tips for Japanese Interpretation

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2020 is just around the corner and so is the Tokyo Olympics! In preparation for the expected 40 million tourists to arrive next year, the Japanese government has stepped up its plans to revise Japanese-English signs, invest in translation technology, and train more interpreters.

In this blog, we will define interpretation, how it is different from translation, and share some of our top tips to keep in mind for Japanese-English interpretation. Hopefully this will help our friends in Japan with English interpretation and also inform travelers more about Japanese language and culture.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

Language Interpretation: Simultaneous vs Consecutive

Translation is the conversion of a source language to a target language, particularly in written or text form. For example, text on signs, books, press releases– any written word being rendered from one language into another is considered translation.

Interpretation, however, deals with the spoken word and falls under two categories: simultaneous and consecutive. If you look at a United Nations meeting, you can see members wearing ear pieces. You may also notice that they laugh and clap at roughly the same time. The reason is because the UN members are listening to simultaneous interpretation: interpreters translate on the spot what is being spoken in the meeting (source language) and speak their target language with only a few seconds delay.

Simultaneous interpretation is generally for conferences and large live events when speakers speak for long periods of time without pause. This type of interpretation usually requires much more preparation (meeting materials, prepared speeches) as well as a small team (2-3 people) working together for each target language.

Consecutive interpretation, on the other hand, is when the interpreter listens to the speaker and waits for them to complete a thought or to pause before sharing the message in the target language. This type of interpretation can typically be seen at film festival Q&A sessions or small meetings and there is generally only one interpreter per language.

Interpreters that work in either format generally have professional knowledge of a particular subject matter such as law (court interpreters), medicine (medical interpreters), or the Olympics (sports interpreters).

Ahead of the Olympics, Japanese officials have already raised concerns about the shortage of Japanese-English medical interpreters. These interpreters provide consecutive interpretation and have specialized knowledge in medical terminology to facilitate communication between Japanese hospital staff and English-speaking patients. Demand for their services will inevitably increase with the expected influx of tourists and the likely rise of medical emergencies as the Olympics approach.

Things to Remember for Japanese Interpretation

Interpretation itself is like a sport, it’s very demanding mentally and physically. The interpreter has to listen closely to what is being said in the moment in the source language and then speak simultaneously or consecutively in the target language. What makes Japanese to English interpretation especially difficult is that Japanese is a SubjectObjectVerb language and English is a SubjectVerb-Object language

For example, let’s take the English sentence: “She won the gold medal” with the subject as red, the verb as green, and the object as blue (ignoring the article “the”).

In Japanese it would be (ignoring the particles): 彼女(は)金メダル(を)獲得しましたShe (the) gold medal won.

Because of this sentence structure, when simultaneously interpreting from Japanese to English, one would have to wait to hear the verb at the end of the Japanese sentence in order to accurately interpret into English.

This is why interpretation devices have struggled with long delay times (5 seconds or more) when doing Japanese to English simultaneous interpretation. Professional human interpreters, who have trained to listen in one language and speak in another, are able to start the spoken English interpretation earlier than artificial intelligence. Humans also have an understanding of the context of the situation that can assist in their processing of the spoken language to another language.

Though human interpretation is still king, a new Japanese interpretation device is set to launch at the 2020 Olympics that is said to reduce the typical device interpretation lag time from 5 secs to 2 seconds. This would be similar to human interpretation delay times and if accurate, will prove to be an incredible technological achievement.

Interpreting Loan Words and Accents

Japanese has a large number of loan words from other languages known as gairaigo. These loan words (mostly from English but also Dutch, Portuguese, German, French and others) are written in Japanese with the katakana script. Here’s a katakana example: ビジネス. Written in Latin script it would be “bijinesu.” Sound familiar? If you sound it out, bi-ji-ne-su, sounds similar to “business” which is what that word means.

It’s estimated that 10% of Japanese vocabulary is derived from English words. Here are just a few examples: “smart” (スマート = sumaato),  “TV drama” (ドラマ = dorama), “idol/popstar” (アイドル aidoru). The words when sounded out may sound similar to English but have their own distinctly Japanese sounds. When interpreting or recording voice-over, it’s important to sound out the loan word with the correct pronunciation and accent as the target language.

Students from Japan have a hard time with English pronunciation since many of them mix up English words with their Japanese loan word counterpart. In order to pronounce English words correctly, Japanese students have to learn how to sound out the words in English and not be influenced by the Japanese pronunciation. English speakers learning Japanese have a similar struggle, they will have to relearn these English transliterated terms in the Japanese pronunciation in order to be understood in Japan.

Also note, the usage for English loan words may be different in Japanese. The word “dorama” (ドラマ), which sounds like drama, refers mainly to “TV dramas”. It would not be used in the same sense as we use drama in “his life is full of drama” where the connotation is his life is full of trouble and bad relationships.


Japanese-English interpretation is a challenging yet essential job when it comes to effective communication at live events and as a quick, cost-effective form of audio/video localization. Interpreters should have an expert understanding of the structural differences between the two languages, pronunciation/accents, as well as the subject matter. As the world gathers together next summer in Tokyo, it will be exciting to see not only the sports competitions, but also how the country has prepared to meet and greet their international guests.

Even if you don’t speak Japanese fluently, we can at least help you speak voice-over/dubbing fluently! Just click the link below for your free download of localization terms and to help you get accurate quotes for your upcoming voice-over and dubbing projects.

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