Equivalence and Its Practical Application in Japanese to English Translation | October 2016 | Translation Journal

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Equivalence and Its Practical Application in Japanese to English Translation

Any discussion of the word Equivalence in the context of translation is, at least initially, fraught with uncertainty, and requires a good deal of disambiguation before any profitable communication can take place. Equivalence is an umbrella term given to a number of related theories that all start with the basic premise that, while languages are dissimilar, it is possible for the value of what can be said in one, to be reproduced in another. The term is particularly difficult to pin down, as many theorists have proffered their own definitions of what it might involve, as well as their own methods of how to achieve it. What can be said about Equivalence, however, is that despite drawing much criticism with regard to its theoretical robustness, it remains a central concept in Translation Studies, perhaps owing to its strong practical application, which will be a focus of this essay. As a central concept, Equivalence appeared in the latter half of the twentieth century, although early iterations of the notion appear as far back as 46CE in the writings of Cicero (Pym, 2014, p. 30). This essay will first briefly introduce a few of the more visible theories of Equivalence, and then, through the analysis of numerous practical examples, demonstrate how this notion can be employed when translating from Japanese to English.

A great number of theorists have contributed to the discussion of Equivalence, approximately from halfway though the twentieth century. In fact, in Pym’s Exploring translation studies (2014) the names of over 20 theorists are mentioned in relation to Equivalence, in a thorough and sweeping twin chapter introduction to the concept. It would make little sense to explore each and every contribution here, and so, in the interests of space, I will limit my focus to a few of the more important theories, and how they can be practically applied to Japanese to English translation.

1. Nida: Formal vs Dynamic equivalence

Nida’s (1964) much debated theory of Formal Vs Dynamic Equivalence proposes two respective approaches to achieving Equivalence, and was an attempt to move away from looking at translations as either ‘faithful’, ‘literal’ or ‘free’. In place of these terms, he posits his dichotomy:

1. “Formal equivalence: Formal equivalence focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content … One is concerned that the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different elements in the source language.” (Nida, 1964, p. 159)

2. “Dynamic equivalence: Dynamic, later ‘functional’, equivalence is based on what Nida calls ‘the principle of equivalent effect’, the ‘the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message’”. (Nida, 1964, p. 159)

The above definition of Formal equivalence, with its focus on how the source text is ‘put together’ is comparable with the notion of a word-for-word translation, but one that also respects the governing structures of the source text, i.e. its paragraph conventions, layout, sentence structure, etcetera. Given the vast remove between Japanese and English grammatically and syntactically, applying this method to the translation of Japanese texts into English yields mostly nonsense (semantically), and would only really be of use to linguists who wish to parse the Japanese text, or to students of Japanese seeking to understand its formal structural conventions.  Nida and Taber (1982) recognize this problem themselves, suggesting that the end-users of such a translation might experience unnecessary difficulty when attempting to assimilate the target text, or might fail to understand it completely. Consider the opening sentences to Soseki’s (1908) short story 第一夜 (Daiichiya):

ST: こんな夢を見た。腕組をして枕元に坐っていると、仰向に寝た女が、静かな声でもう死にますと云う。

To render these lines in accordance with the basic criteria of Formal equivalence produces the following English:

LT: This dream (object marker) saw. Crossed arms (object marker) do beside at sitting, lying on back woman (topic marker), quiet voice with already die say. (my translation)

This is by no means the only way of observing Formal equivalence for this sentence, but the results would be very similar however you approached it, namely, failing to make semantic sense. Compare this translation with Murray’s (2003, p. 17) dramatic prose:

TT: I had a dream. I was sitting with my arms crossed by the bedside of a woman. She was lying on her back. In a most gentle voice she said that she was about to die.

Murray, in order to replicate the relationship between the ‘message’ and its ‘receptor’, has revealed the omitted subject, divided the second sentence into two, and has employed English syntax. In effect, he has translated in line with Dynamic equivalence. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to suggest the overwhelming majority of English translations of Japanese texts are, in some way, in line with the requirements of Dynamic equivalence.

2. Vinay and Darbelnet’s idea of Equivalence and their translation solutions

In contrast to Nida’s (1964) method of Formal equivalence, Vinay and Darbelnet propose a method whereby the translator seeks to “replicate the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording” (1995, p. 342). While not dissimilar to Dynamic equivalence, the idea is expressed more matter-of-factly. They also furnish this definition with a list of seven translation solution descriptors.

1. Borrowing: This is when the word in the source language is brought over to the target language largely unchanged (aside from orthographically when the target language requires it). A typical use of borrowing would be for what Franco Aixela (1996) refers to as CSIs (Culture specific items). Common Japanese examples include the terms kimono, samurai and ninjaBorrowing from Japanese is normally limited to parts of speech that carry semantic meaning, except in the case of full phrases. In addition to the three common nouns listed above, there are well known adjectives (kawaii), proper nouns (Tokyo) and many others. There are a number of different reasons why translators choose to employ Japanese terms in their translations, such as to create a sense of the exotic [The chapter number headings in Rubin’s (2003) translation of Murakami’s (1987) novel ‘Norwegian wood’ are all rendered as they were in the original, e.g. 第2章 instead of Chapter 2], to make up for a lack of a corresponding concept (wabi-sabi), or even for common everyday items originally exclusive to Japan (Tamagotchi). In the following example from the Asahi Shinbun’s Vox populi, vox dei (2010, p. 57) we see a case of borrowing for a historical epithet:

ST: 昔の中国では、君主を助けうまく政務をさばく者を「塩梅の臣」と呼んだそうだ。

TT: In ancient China, I heard that followers who helped their lords by aptly handling political affairs were called Enbai no shin (retainers of salt and plum).

What is noteworthy in the above example is the translator’s (anon) use of what Aixela (1996) refers to ‘Intratextual gloss’ – an explicit explanation within the text. These sorts of explanations, whether inside or outside the text as footnotes, are essential when bringing a hitherto unknown Japanese term across into English for the first time.

2. Calque: A very specific type of borrowing where a word or phrase is literally translated into the target language. The Japanese word 剣道」 (Japanese fencing, or simply Kendo) is, for example, sometimes translated as ‘The Way of the Sword’, however this is usually as an annotative sub-heading.

3. Literal translation: For Vinay and Darbelnet (1995), Literal translation means simply translating word-for-word following the syntax of the source language. This method is comparable to Nida’s (1964) concept of Formal equivalence. As mentioned above, this method is not suitable for most Japanese to English translation, excepting for the purposes of analysis, or perhaps artistic creativity.

4. Transposition: This is the process of substituting one part of speech for an entirely different one (e.g. employing a verb in place of a noun). This solution has some application when translating from Japanese to English.  Indeed, Pym states “Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, however, do not have the explicit syntactic relations of Germanic or Romance languages, so the default procedure is more usually at the level of ‘transposition’ rather than ‘literal translation’…” (2014, p. 16). Japanese ‘adjectives’, for example, are problematic. Though they may have some corresponding functions with English adjectives, they also behave in a number of ways their English equivalents don’t, e.g. as verbs:


Kimono wa takakunakatta desu.

The kimono wasn’t expensive (My translation).

The underline shows the ‘adjective’ (conjugated in the Japanese), which in this case incorporates both the English verb ‘to be’ as well as the adjective ‘expensive’.

5. Modulation: The term modulation covers a broad range of adjustments (Vinay and Darbelnet list no less than ten ways it can be applied) that can be made to translations that may be grammatically correct, but present as clumsy, awkward or unsuitable. As in the following example from Akutagawa’s (1916) short story

ST: 禅智内供の鼻といえば、池の尾で知らない者はない。

LT: Zenchi Naigu’s nose speaking of, lake of O at don’t know person (topic marker) isn’t.

TT: When it came to Zenchi Naigu’s nose, there was no one in Ike-no-O who did not know about it. (Murray, 2003, p. 149)

This being the opening line of the story, beginning with “When it came to..” appears much more natural, although “Speaking of…” would have been grammatically acceptable.

6. Equivalence: This refers to when translators employ different  stylistic or structural means to describe a particular situation. According to Munday  “Equivalence is particularly useful in translating idioms and proverbs…” (2012, p. 89). The Japanese idiom 「朝飯前」 (literally: before breakfast) has the equivalent function as the English saying “a piece of cake”. Given the stark difference of syntax and expression between English and Japanese, their term ‘Equivalence’ could well describe most translations across these two languages.

7. Adaption: Much in common with Schleiermacher’s (1992) notion of a domestic translation, adaptation entails replacing one cultural reference specific to the source language, with another specific to the target language. A practical (albeit unlikely) example of this might be where references to the Japanese custom of bowing upon meeting someone in source text, are replaced with a western handshake in the target text.

While Vinay and Darbelnet’s (1995) translation solutions can certainly be utilized for translating between Japanese and English, it is worth noting they were conceived when the two theorists were comparing English and French.

3. Chesterman’s notion of Similarity and corresponding translation solutions

While Andrew Chesterman (2000) argued in favour of his notion of ‘Similarity’ over Equivalence, his extensive list of translation strategies is of significant value to translators interested in achieving the latter. These strategies are subsumed under three distinct taxonomies: Grammatical, Pragmatic and Semantic. N.b. not all entries will have corresponding examples.

Grammatical  (G)

G1. Literal Translation: In contrast to Vinay and Darbelnet's (1995) definition, Chesterman (2000) suggests a grammatically correct translation as close to the source text as possible. To take another example from Soseki's (1908) story「第一夜」 (Daiichiya), the sentence, 「腕組みをしながら、どうしても死ぬのかなと思った。」would produce something to the effect of "While crossing my arms, I wondered if she would really die" when employing this strategy.

G2. Loan, Calque: A type of borrowing where a word or phrase is translated into the source text mostly unchanged. The syntax of the target text flows that of the source. The concept of 「残心」(literally: leave heart) as it appears in Japanese martial arts is rendered as 'lingering heart' by Bennett (2014, p. 8) in his translation of Yamamoto's controversial treatise Hagakure.

G3. Transposition: Replacing one part of speech with another. See Vinay and Darbelnet's (1995) definition above. A simple example might be replacing the 'adjective' 「嫌い」(kirai) in the phrase 「野菜は嫌いです」with the verb 'hate', e.g. "I hate vegetables".

G4. Unit shift: A shift that occurs between different units, e.g. morpheme, word, phrase, etc. The word「初詣」(hatsumoude) becomes the phrase "first shrine visit of the New Year" (Weblio).

G5. Phrase structure change: This refers to the changes that occur within the internal structure of a noun or verb phrase. 「10年というのは、長い年月だ」might be commonly expressed as "Ten years is a long time" by omitting the underlined「というの」(to iu no).

G6. Clause structure change: Changes that occur to the integral parts of the clause. 「ニュー・ジーランドは英語が話されています」(English is spoken in New Zealand) could be happily translated into "They speak English in New Zealand" using the active in lieu of the passive voice.

G7. Sentence structure change: Changes in regards to the positioning of a clause or phrase.

G8. Cohesion change: A changes that may include intertextual reference, substitutions, ellipsis, substitution, etc. that are required to create cohesion in the target text. In Japanese sentences where the subject has been omitted, e.g. 「ぼんやり歌詞カードを眺めていた。(Tamara, 1992) its reintroduction is seen as a cohesion change – "(I) gazed at the lyrics card absent-mindedly" (my translation).

G9. Level shift: This refers to a shift that occurs between phonology, syntax, morphology or lexis.

G10. Scheme change: For use in translating rhetorical schemes which may include parallelism, repetition, alliteration, etc.

Pragmatic (P)

P1. Cultural filtering: A domesticizing strategy where culture specific items are replaced with corresponding cultural items from the target culture. One could readily imagine a reference to Japanese folklore hero Momotaro being comfortably replaced with a reference to Tom Thumb given the similarity of both characters' size, heroic deeds and supernatural nature.

P2. Explicitness change: A change to the target text wherein information is either omitted or appended in line with target language norms. 10年というのは、長い年月だ」might be commonly expressed as "Ten years is a long time" by omitting the underlined「というの」(to iu no).

P3. Information change: Same as P2 except the omitted or appended information in the target text is not implicit in the source text.

P4. Interpersonal change: A shift in register or a change in the general style of the source text.

P5. Illocutionary change: A change of the speech act, e.g. from exclamation to imperative where 「うるさい!」(noisy) becomes "Shut up!". Also from direct to indirect speech. Soseki (1908) writes「何時遅いに来るかなと聞いた」. A fairly literal translation might be "I asked him when he'd come back" (My translation), whereas Murray (2003) changes from an indirect to a direct voice: "When will you come back?", I inquired.

P6. Coherence change: A change in the ordering of information within a sentence. The fact that Japanese and English syntax runs in opposite directions much of the time means that any sense-for-sense translation is usually one where coherence change has taken place. This could be considered a default strategy.

P7. Partial translation: Translating only a portion of the text, e.g. a summary.

P8. Visibility change: Using footnotes or glosses to increase or decrease the 'visibility' or either the author of the source text or its translator. An example of Intratextual gloss can be found under Vincent and Darbelnet's (1995) notion of borrowing above.

P9. Trans-editing: This involves significant re-editing of texts of a poor quality.

P10. Other pragmatic choices: This could include layout, dialect, other conventions.

Semantic (S)

S1. Synonymy: Replacing a word with a synonym or closely related word. Japanese business articles frequently use the term 「増」(zou) to describe an increase in something (often many times throughout the same piece). This is less desirable in English, so synonymy is sometimes called for. A sentence from the Asahi Shinbun (2015) reads:「一方で、純利益は回復し、純利益は37.6%増の1113億円」, which could be translated using soar in lieu of increase, e.g. "However, profitability for the company has recovered, with net income soaring 37.6% to 111 billion yen" (My translation).

S2. Antonymy: Replacing a word with an antonym or closely related word.

S3. Hyponomy: A shift to a more general or more specific term. The specific terms paw or foot do not exist in Japanese and would likely be rendered by the more general Japanese term 「足」(literally: leg).

S4. Converses: Using a contrasting viewpoint to express the same situation, e.g. buy – sell. For example, 「ジョンはスティーブに彼の漫画を販売しました」(John sold his comics to Steve) could become "Steve bought John's comics.

S5. Abstraction change: A change in the level of abstraction, e.g. from metaphor to factual statement.

S6. Distribution change: Expressing the same semantic detail with either more or fewer components.

S7. Emphasis change: To alter the emphasis in the source text

S8. Paraphrase: To freely translate to serve a particular function

S9. Trope change: Substitution of source text trope for related trope in target language.

S10: Other semantic changes: Sense or direction changes, for example.


The notion of equivalence might well be as Pym (2014) regards; a useful illusion. Nevertheless, it has been a fruitful one, engendering a broad range of strategies and solutions to equip a would be translator. While this essay has only touched on a handful of names and approaches associated under the banner ‘Equivalence’, it has hopefully demonstrated its practical utility when translating from Japanese to English (and, of course, when analyzing existing translations). It is important to note that the strategies mentioned here are not specific to this language pair, and that they, along with many others, can be utilized to tackle any number of translation problems across any combination of languages. The theorists and their work that appear in this essay have been presented chronologically. This was not to show any particular development of thought on the subject, rather to present to the reader translation solutions ranging from the general to the more specific.



Akutagawa, R. (1916). Hana, Tokyo: University of Tokyo.

Chesterman, A. (2000). Memes of translation: The spread of ideas in translation theory,Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Franco Aixelà, J. (1996). Culture-specific items in translation. In R. Álvarez and M. C.-Á. Vidal, (Eds.),Translation, power, subversion (pp.52-78). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Munday, J. (2012). Introducing translation studies (3rd Ed.), New York: Routledge.

Murakami, H. (1987). Noruei no mori, Tokyo: Kondansha.

Murakami, H. (2003). Norwegian Wood, (J. Rubin, Trans.), London: Vintage. (Original work published 1987)

Murray, G. (2003). Breaking into Japanese literature, Tokyo: Kondansha

Nida, E. A. (1964). Toward a science of translating : with special reference to principles and procedures involved in Bible translating. Leiden: E. J. Brill

Nida, E. A., Taber, C. R. (1982). The theory and practice of translation. Leiden: E. J. Brill

Pym, A. (2014). Exploring Translation Theories (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Schleiermacher, F. (1992). “On the Different Methods of Translating” (W. Bartsch, Trans.),Theories of Translation. R. Schulte and J. Biguenet (Eds.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 36-54. (Original work published 1813)

Shintaku, A, (2015). Pana, junrieki 37% zou, Retrieved from The Asahi Shinbun website: http://digital.asahi.com/article_search/list.html?iref=search_tab&keyword=パナ、純利益37%

Soseki, N. (1908). Yume juya, Osaka: Asahi Shinbun.

Tawara, M. (1992). Ringo no namida, Tokyo: Bungeishunju.

Vinay, J. P., Darbelnet J. (1995) Comparative stylistics of French and English: A methody for translation, (J. C. Sager and M. J. Hamel, Trans.) Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Vox populi, vox dei, (2010), Asahi Shinbun editorial committee (Eds.), International editorial division (Trans.), Osaka: Asahi Shinbun.

Weblio (n.d.), http://www.weblio.jp

Yamamoto, T. (2014). Hagakure: The secret wisdom of the samurai (A. Bennett, Trans.), Vermont: Tuttle

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