Useful Notes: Japanese Romanization
Japanese Romanization is the way that Japanese text gets transliterated into the Roman alphabet. The romanized text is referred to in Japanese as "Rōmaji", from Roman alphabet + "ji" meaning "characters" (much the way "Kanji" literally means "Chinese characters"). The word Romanization can actually refer to using any Latin-based alphabet (French, German, Polish, ...) to write a words originally written with any non-Latin script, but in English-speaking fandom it almost universally refers to Japanese-to-English transliteration. See Romanization, Japanese Writing System. Japanese to English Japanese has a few quirks that don't exist in English. Although in general pronouncing kana is simple, there are challenges in representing it in Roman letters. There are several systems to do this:
There are several ways of presenting the long o:
- Hepburn romanization and its revised variants are the most widely used methods of transcription of Japanese., especially for formal and academic writing. The Hepburn system is intended for use by English speakers and is based on English phonology, so a native speaker of English with no knowledge of Japanese will be more likely to pronounce Hepburn-romanized words correctly than if a different system were used. Some linguists dislike the Hepburn method, as it can make the origins of Japanese phonetic structures unclear, but those in favor of it say that the Hepburn system isn't supposed to be used as a linguistic tool anyway; it was originally developed when the relationship between kana readings and pronunciation was looser than it is today.
- Kunrei-shiki Rōmaji (literally: Cabinet-ordered romanization system, romanized as "Kunrei-siki" in its own system) is based on the older Nihon-shiki system, and was modified for modern standard Japanese, essentially meaning words are romanized not as they appear, but how they sound in modern spoken Japanese.
- Nihon-shiki or Nippon-shiki Rōmaji ("Japan-style"; romanized as Nihon-siki or Nippon-siki in its own system) is the most regular out of all the major romanization systems for Japanese, and has a one-to-one relation to the kana writing systems. The intention of this system was to completely replace kanji and kana with a romanized system, which, its creator believed, would make it easier for Japanese people to compete with Western countries. Since the system was intended for Japanese people to use to write their own language, it is not designed to be easy to pronounce for English speakers (and isn't for the most part).
- There's also "word processor romanization" or "wāpuro" which is technically a workaround for inputting Japanese with a QWERTY keyboard but is also used for informal writing, especially on the web. It tends to ignore all the difficulties below and just give a direct transcription of the "standard" kana reading; as such, the spelling may not match the actual pronunciation of words.
- Ha (は), when used as the topical particle, is pronounced wa, and Hepburn and Kunrei-shiki follow the pronunciation.
- He (へ), when used as a directional particle, is pronounced e and written that way in Kunrei-shiki; Old Hepburn rendered it as ye.
- Wo (を), which is obsolete in modern Japanese except when used as the objective particle and sounds like o in all cases, is usually rendered as o in modern Hepburn and Kunrei-shiki.
There are several ways of presenting the long o:
- Hepburn technically requires a bar (macron) over the o (ō): Tōkyō. This can be hard to type, and may cause formatting issues when text is copied between different systems.
- Kunrei-shiki uses the circumflex (ô) to indicate long vowels. This is handled better on many computers, though many Japanese-language programs will still reject it as input.
- A double vowel (oo): Tookyoo. The problem with this is that in English this represents an entirely different sound - a long u, as in "spoon".
- The pair spelled the way they are in hiragana (ou): Toukyou. Again, in English this is a different sound, a diphthong as in the word "sound".
- Rarely, an h after the vowel (oh): Tohkyoh. This can look unnatural, as no English words have this combination in the middle of a word.
- The long/short distinction omitted entirely, as is the case with Tokyo. Most English speakers wouldn't really know the difference between a short and long vowel unless it was pointed out to them, so this is probably the most common way to write it. The downside is that if you want to turn it back into Japanese, you would lose the extra information of long syllables.
- The lack of a differentiated "R" and "L" sound in Japanese. Japanese has only one sound, which is somewhere between the two. This is probably the most common challenge in romanization: figuring out whether a Japanese syllable is meant to be an R or an L. This is where the term "Engrish" comes from.
- Japanese don't really have a "f" sound; "f" is basically a somewhat stronger version of "h" (perhaps not coincidentally, "fuu" means "wind" is Japanese); the -u syllable is usually written in English as "fu" but the others are "ha, he, hi, ho". This makes for weird combinations like "fu-(small ya)" for "fya" to stand in for "fa". Sometimes the two are interchangable; for example, "hu" in Japanese would still be spelled with the "fu" syllable.
- The lack of ending consonants. "n" is the only consonant that Japanese allows to end a syllable, so when foreign words are transliterated into the Japanese syllabaries they end up with extra vowels. "U" is commonly used since it's often elided in speech when it comes between unvoiced consonants; for this reason, Old Hepburn usually wrote it as an apostrophe. When "r" comes at the end of a syllable or is followed by a consonant, it's typical to double the preceding vowel (represented by a long dash in katakana), so for instance "number" becomes "nunbaa". The trailing "s" of plural nouns is often omitted, because the Japanese language lacks plurals.
- Japanese is not written with spaces or capitals. Translators have to figure out where the spaces go, which can be challenging. (Although there is a special dot symbol which can be used to separate words when necessary, e.g. to separate personal name from surname.)
- Missing sounds. Japanese has fewer sounds than English. Examples include:
- "th" is turned into "s" when it's not voiced, like in the name "Smith" (su-mi-su). When it's voiced, the "s" is, too: "the" becomes "za" (although "z" is pronounced more like "dz" in most cases). Since the Japanese language doesn't have definite articles, "the" is sometimes omitted, contributing to The "The" Title Confusion.
- "v" can be written as "u" with a digraph on it, followed by a vowel, but more often is just rendered with a "b" (e.g. "violin" would be "ba-i-o-ri-n"). This has caused the weapon name "Vulcan cannon" to be mistranslated as "Balkan cannon" in such games as Magical Chase and Forgotten Worlds.
- The "tee" sound doesn't exist in Japanese. It can also be written using "te-(small i)", but it's often replaced by "chi". So "steal" gets turned into "su-chi-ru". Similarly, the "dee" sound in words like "melody" has to be written as "de-(small i)".
- The lengthened "a" and "o" are used to stand in for English diphthongs like "ar," "er" and "ur"; together with the R/L collapse noted above, this is how "claw" is often mistranslated as "crow" and vice versa, and why so many Japanese people will accidentally say "ice cream corn" instead of "cone."
- For some reason, Japanese sometimes treats an ending "m" like an "n", leading to words like "combo" and "computer" being turned into "ko-n-bo" and "ko-n-pyuu-ta".
- This is because "n" is assimilated so it's pronounced "m" before labials (i.e. "b", "p", and "m" in Japanese), so writing it "ko-mu-bo" is unnecessary. The same thing happens in English when the prefix "in-" is added to a word beginning with "p" (i.e., in+possible=impossible). This assimilation sometimes also happens in other languages, whether the speakers are aware of it or not.
- The "w" sound exists in Japanese only in the syllable "wa"; when "wa" is the wrong sound, the consonant gets replaced by the vowel "u". Sometimes this "u" absorbs the following vowel: "wolf" turns into "u-ru-fu".
- The five vowels "a", "e", "i", "o" and "u" are each pronounced one way in Japanese, but in context these vowels are rarely pronounced the same way in English. The katakana used to represent loanwords may either attempt to approximate the English vowel sounds or represent the vowels as written (which in words not native to English is often closer to the original pronunciation). One old controversy among Japanese speakers was whether Ultima should really begin with "a" instead of "u".
- Star Ocean: The Second Story: Scylla → su-ku-ra → Scewer
- Final Fantasy VIII: Thamasa Soul → sa-ma-sa → Samantha Soul
- Tales of Phantasia: Stirge → su-te-i-ji → Stage
- Shadow Hearts: From The New World: Shub Niggurath → she-bu-ni-gu-ra-su → Jeb Niglas
- Final Fantasy Tactics: Breath → bu-re-su → Bracelet
- Wild ARMs: Jack Vambrace (a vambrace is an arm guard) → va-n-bu-re-i-su → Jack Van Burace
- Mega Man Xtreme 2: Iris → a-i-ri-su → Aillis
- Final Fantasy V: Wyvern → wa-i-baa-n → Y Burn