Artful Ideas for Rendering Japanese
David Jolly, International Herald Tribune
Monday, March 5, 2001

PARIS While proponents of machine translation search for a magic bullet that will make texts accessible in any language, technology has quietly revolutionized the way translators work with Japanese.

Rather than relying on cognitive science, translators are using off-the-shelf technology, applying electronic dictionaries, online forums and search engines in ways that have greatly improved their productivity in a field that had barely changed for centuries.

"I figure that these things raise my productivity by 20 percent or 30 percent," said Paul Hassett, a financial translator based in London, "especially when I'm working on a text with lots of unfamiliar characters or technical jargon."

Because it employs several thousand Chinese characters, or kanji, that can have multiple readings or meanings depending on context, written Japanese presents particular difficulties. Even experienced translators can be stumped by unfamiliar characters, and looking up and cross-referencing kanji can be a time-consuming process.

Electronic dictionaries, such as Canon Inc.'s Wordtank, began to address this problem more than a decade ago by combining Japanese-English dictionaries and kanji dictionaries and linking them with hypertext, eliminating cumbersome cross-referencing.

Now, online dictionaries, such as one developed by Jim Breen, a professor at Monash University in Australia (Link), have gone a step further. Copy some Japanese text, paste it in the box and, in a process of transliteration, the kanji are immediately rendered into kana, a simple Japanese script that anyone with a basic knowledge of Japanese can read. There are even short English definitions.

While experienced translators need only infrequent recourse to such tools, which are also available on CD-ROM, the effect is to move the translator of Japanese to essentially the same ground enjoyed by translators of such languages as German or Russian, where merely reading text is not a problem.

Mr. Breen, a telecommunications engineer by training, operates the site for free, although he has made it available to commercial software developers, such as the makers of Unidict, a Macintosh-based dictionary. Japanese computing is a hobby, he said, not a route to riches.

"I'm not a particularly commercial person," Mr. Breen said. "I get more of a buzz out of doing something that people find useful."

Beyond translation software, new communication tools also are helping translators. A translator with a question now can turn for help to the 1,200 members of the Honyaku mailing list (, many of them experts in their field. Honyaku began in the late 1980s as a bulletin-board service with a single modem line. It now handles hundreds of queries a week.

"Translation tends to be an isolating profession," said Tom Gally, co-administrator of the list and the author of several books on learning Japanese. The list, he said, also acts as "a virtual watercooler," where translators can exchange news, gossip and job leads. And as in other research-intensive fields, translators have become more efficient by trading their library hours and expensive dictionaries for Internet time.

"Just for getting up to speed quickly without shooting in the dark," said Adam Rice, an Austin, Texas-based translator, the Internet has been "a godsend as a research tool."