Japanese Transliteration : English to Katakana, Hiragana & Romaji
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Romaji (click for pronunciation guide)
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Katakana Hiragana
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Transliteration from English to Japanese: What, Why, How?

Translation vs. Transliteration

Translation is when we take the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence in one language (here English) and convey that meaning using another language, in this case Japanese. The resulting language uses Japanese words, word order, grammatical structure, script and so on. Transliteration, however, is where you keep the original language (including, as far as possible, pronunciation) and change the script with which it is written.

This might sound like an odd concept to a native English speaker, because we are not used to working with different scripts. But imagine that you took an English word, for example "taught" and put it into phonetic script, showing someone how it is pronounced. It would then look like this: t ɔ: t. The two versions sound the same and mean the same thing, but they look different.

Japanese Script

Japanese has three scripts, used in combination. These are called kanji, katakana and hiragana. There is a fourth script called romaji, not used by the Japanese themselves (apart from a few exceptions such as abbreviations, like DVD and CD), but by speakers of other languages who do not understand the three Japanese scripts. Romaji means "Roman letters," and is the alphabet we use in English.

Japan appears not to have had a writing system at all until kanji were introduced from China in the 4th century. Kanji were then adapted to suit Japan's purpose.

Kanji are ideographs, derived from pictures, and each stands for a meaning, rather than a sound. It can sound differently, according to context. Japan developed two syllabaries from it. These are hiragana and katakana, known together as kana. (A syllabary is a phonetic system where each symbol stands for a syllable.) Both kana sets were taken from kanji which had the required sound; hiragana from a simplified version of the whole kanji, and katakana from one part of it.

A kanji is used in Japanese to express the basic word meaning, and word endings, grammatical purpose words (such as prepositions) and so on are all expressed using hiragana. Katakana are used to write words of foreign origin, including loan words which have been adopted into the Japanese language and foreign names. It is also sometimes used for effect, for example in signage.

Why Transliterate English into Japanese? How is it Done?

The main reason for transliterating English words into Japanese would be to write the name of a person, place, or even the title of a book or movie in Japanese, so that it can be written in that language, or even sometimes so that a Japanese person knows how to pronounce them!

Firstly, consider how the English word sounds. The spelling is not important, especially since English does not have a strict connection between spelling and sound. Then for each syllable you have, consider what the closest sound is in Japanese, from the range available.

There are some rules to assist, here. Firstly, it helps to understand romaji syllable pronunciation (see below). Then bear in mind the following guidelines (romaji syllables are in italics):

Sounds which do not exist in Japanese

L - use ra, ri, ru, re, ro

X - use kkusu

Q - use ku

V - older foreign loan words use ba, bi, bu, be, bo instead; modern Japanese has created "v" sounds using a hardened u plus half size a, i, u, e, o. E.g.: ヴィ(vi).

Word Endings

For words ending in a "t" sound, use to.

For words ending in a "d" sound, use do.

For words ending in an "n" sound, use n/m..

For other consonant sounds on the end of words, use the u ending (i.e., for s sounds use su, p sounds use pu, etc). This rule also follows for a consonant sound within a word, which is not followed by a vowel. E.g.:

handbag - handobaggu

post - poosuto

actor - akutaa

Words which end in an "er" or "ar" sound (which could be spelled in a number of ways), use aa. E.g.:

car - kaa

under - andaa

Long vowel sounds are also required for the following endings: or, ee, oo, y, ie, ey, ea, au.

Double Consonant

A double consonant in the English word does not necessarily indicate that you need one in Japanese (and similarly, a single consonant could transliterate as a double in Japanese). Often a double consonant is required in Japanese after a short vowel sound. For example:

truck - torakku

pet - petto

stop - sutoppu

This double consonant is made by adding a small tsu in front of the letter to be doubled, unless that letter is an "n" or "m", in which case you use n/m  (ン).

Combination Vowel Sounds

Many of our English vowel sounds are not pure sounds, but a combination of two; so you need two Japanese vowel sounds to express the word in Japanese. E.g.:

Kate - Keito

note - nooto

Click here to learn more about pronouncing the Romaji transliteration.

New Syllables

To express foreign sounds, new katakana syllables are now being introduced: fa, fi, fe, fo, si, ti, tu, di, du, wi, we, wo, va, vi, vu, ve, vo, tsa, tsi, tse, tso, che, she, and je. New words coming into the language may use these whereas older words may not. Coffee, for example, is an older word: koohii.
Romaji Pronunciation

Every letter in romaji is always pronounced the same, no matter what the combination. This is where English speakers often make mistakes, especially where a double vowel in English produces a new sound, such as double "o". Japanese double vowels sound just like two of the original sound, stuck together, or one drawn out to twice the length. Thus nooto sounds like "nor-to", for example.

Romaji vowels are pronounced as follows:

a - as "u" in "cup"

i - as "i" in "bit"

u - as "oo" in "good"

e - as "e" in "bet"

o - as "o" in "hot"

Other English vowel sounds are made using combinations of these, or by doubling (which in katakana is achieved with the symbol ).