Analysis / Spell My Name with an "S"

Here are some of the problem areas in Japanese to English translations:

  • The Famous Japanese "R": In English the sounds "L" and "R" are phonetically very similar, but they are phonemically distinct. This means that changing one to the other changes the word you are saying. In place of both of these, Japanese has a single phoneme (a set of semantically interchangeable sounds) forming a continuum with "R" and "L" on opposite ends. Depending on the speaker, it may sound like an "R", an "L" or something in between. But Japanese, makes no meaningful difference between any of these sounds. (Actually, it's somewhat more complex than this, but you didn't come here for lessons in phonology.) When Japanese is written with Latin script, the letters "R" and "L" are both equally valid, though it is traditional to use "R" unless the owner of the name has expressed a preference for "L". And, as if that weren't enough, in Japanese, English "R" that is word-final or is followed by a consonant tends to be dropped or replaced by an "ah" sound (as "R" is actually not spoken there in non-rhotic variants of English).

  • Missing Sounds: Japanese doesn't have "V" or "TH". In the pronunciation and writing of foreign words, these sounds tend to be replaced with phonetically similar sounds that are in the Japanese sound set. "V" usually becomes "B", while "TH" is replaced with "F" or "S". Japanese also has a smaller number of vowel sounds than English.

  • Phonological Constraints: Japanese has extremely restrictive rules regarding the combination of sounds into syllables. A syllable is generally: (a) a lone vowel, (b) a consonant-vowel pair, (c) a consonant, followed by a semivowel glide, followed by a vowel (d) one of the nasal sounds m, n, or ng (as in sing). (Which sound occurs depends on the sound that follows it.) Consequently, Japanese has few consonant clusters and adds many vowels (usually u, but there are exceptions) to foreign words.

  • Transliteration Conventions: There are three different ways to represent long vowels in romanized Japanese. The syllabic nasals can be indicated by following them with an apostrophe, but not everyone does it. Some translators prefer to use strict reading of kana, while others incorporate some English spelling conventions, such as using "C" instead of an "S".

The end result of all this is that transliterating the Japanese syllabaries is not a cut-and-dried process. It can involve a degree of interpretation or translator judgment, especially if one is attempting to extract a Western name that has been mutated by being squished into the Japanese sound-set and syllable structure. Such attempts sometimes lead to peculiar results, such as the name ダビト being rendered as "Darbit" instead of the correct "David."