This week let’s look at a common feature of writing in Japanese – a string of noun phrases linked by の. Take for example the noun phrase in (1) which is frequently found in legal documents:
If we translate the string of ‘N1のN2のN3’ directly as ‘N3 of N2 of N1’, it will look like this:
This is perfectly good English. But try reading it aloud. Don’t you think that with two ‘of’ and all those ‘-tion’ nouns in succession, it sounds very awkward and difficult to read? Compare (1a) with (1b) below:
(1b) Law to promote the construction of special buildings
The key here is to change one of the nouns to a verb. It is often pointed out in English writing guides that we should avoid ‘-tion’ words and use the verb form if possible. This is a good tip that translators can apply when working from Japanese into English due to a tendency for a string of noun phrases to be used frequently in Japanese writing. Note also that dropping ‘concerning’ in this case does not change the intended meaning.
The next two examples (2) and (3) are found as part of a list describing various actions in a business report, the type of document that I am sure many translators come across frequently.
(2a) and (3a) below are the direct translation of (2) and (3) that retain the structure of the original noun phrases.
(2a) Formulation of basic policies of human resource management including the personnel system
(3a) Addition of short-term marketing plans with R&D
(2a) has two ‘of’ in succession while (3a) has one ‘of’ since との is translated as ‘with’. But imagine when you are standing before an audience talking about your company’s business performance, it is such a mouthful to have to rattle off a list of ‘-tion’ words. Compare this with (2b) and (3b) below:
(2b) Formulate(d) basic policies of human resource management including the personnel system
(3b) Add(ed) short-term marketing plans with R&D
Using the verb form makes it easier when reading aloud. It also projects a more direct, dynamic appeal. The verb may be in the past or present tense depending on whether the actions are in the past or future. If the context does not provide any hint, it is safer to go for the simple present.
Of course, ‘の’ need not always be translated as ‘of’. Depending on the semantic relationship between the nouns connected by ‘の’, we can use other prepositions instead of ‘of’ and sometimes, it is not even necessary to take every single ‘の’ into consideration as we have seen with the translation of ‘との’ in (3) above. Let’s look at (4) and its translation in (5).
(5) Revision due to a change of rank in the director’s office
The second ‘の’ connecting ‘役員の職制上’ and ‘地位の変更’ can be dropped and the focus placed on ‘上’ by using ‘in’. Note also that it is more efficient to translate ‘役員の職制’ as ‘director’s office’ rather ‘the office of the director’.
Remember English is an action-based language, so when translating from Japanese into English, break up the chunks of noun phrases, avoid ‘-tion’ and use the corresponding verb as far as possible.