Learn Hiragana
Sunday, October 30, 2016

Your Name in Japanese - How to Translate and Write

A question anime fans often ask themselves is "how do I write my name in Japanese?" Sure there is a way? Maybe you can write your name with kanji, maybe not, maybe it changes, maybe not. Well, either way, I'm here to teach you how to translate names to Japanese properly. The right way.

And that way is: there is no way to translate your name to Japanese.

Yep. You heard that right.

(look up how your name is written in Japanese if you don't really care how are names translated to Japanese and just want to see your name in that fancy, exotic asian script)

First off, hear me out, I'm Brazilian. Brazil speaks Brazilian Portuguese, not English, therefore my name, which my mom gave me the day I was born, is technically in the Brazilian Portuguese language, no English. What's my name like? Leonardo. Same as that mutant turtle from that English comic.

What I mean to say is that there is no way to translate names because translating implies you change a word or phrase to another language keeping the same meaning as it had in the original language. Since names have no meanings associated with them except representing the thing which they name, translating names becomes pointless.

Transliterating Names to Japanese

So translating is out, but how about writing your name in Japanese? Using the Japanese alphabets? Since it's just a change of script, not meaning, we can do it, right?

Yes! We can!

When you see the name 綾崎 ハヤテ, it's written with the Japanese alphabet. If we transliterate it to our alphabet, the latin alphabet, we get Ayasaki Hayate, the main character of Hayate no Gotoku ハヤテのごとく! What we want to do is the opposite of this, the opposite of romaji, we want to take a name written in our alphabet and write it in Japanese.

What we do, exactly, is to figure out the original pronunciation of the name, take only the sounds and nevermind the letters, and then write those sounds in Japanese as if it was an onomatopoeia, which are often written in katakana カタカナ.

Problems with Transliteration

Now here's the thing: there is literally no way to do this without knowing both Japanese and English to the point of mastering the languages' pronunciations.

See, if I were to transliterate my name, Leonardo, to Japanese, I'd get レオナルド. If I transliterated that back to latin, I'd get reonarudo. Now, it's pretty obvious from first glance that Leonardo and reonarudo have very little in common. What gives? Where did this re and this ru came from?

This is because the Japanese language lacks some, if not many, syllables and sounds found in English. So it's like downsampling the sounds found in your name. Most English names can't be perfectly represented in the Japanese alphabet, and this is also why the Japanese can't speak English right.

Jeanne d'Arc's name in Japanese, jan'nu daruku ジャンヌ・ダルク, as shown in the manga Drifters ドリフターズ

Here are some common names transliterated so you have a better idea;
  • James
    jyeemuzu ジェームズ
  • Jack
    jyakku ジャック
  • Alex
    arekkusu アレックス
  • Ben
    ben ベン
  • Daniel
    danieru ダニエル
  • Emily
    emirii エミリー
  • Chloe
    kuroe クロエ
  • Megan
    meegan ミーガン
  • Charlotte
    shaarotto シャーロット
  • Emma
    ema エマ

Same Spelling Multiple Pronunciations

On the flip side of the coin, a problem can arise where the same name in English can be transliterated in multiple ways because how its pronounced varies. For example, the name Alexander.

If we say it like Ale-kiss-ander, it's arekisandaa アレキサンダー. If we say it like Alexus-ander, it's arekusandaa アレクサンダー. And if we say it like Alexan-dërrrrrrrp, it's arekusandoru アレクサンドル.

So the same name can be written in Japanese in multiple ways. This is specially true if we compare two names of same spelling, but one is American English and the other British English, or one is English the other is French or German, etc.

Separating First Name and Surname

Another thing is that when dealing with surnames we don't use spaces in Japanese, because we don't use spaces at all in Japanese. We use a middle dot instead.

So Leonardo Pereira would become reonarudo pereira レオナルド・ペレイラ, note the middle dot.

Another note is that in Japanese it's normal to write the surname first, or "family name," myouji 名字. However, this is not the case when talking about foreign names.

Though ayasaki hayate's given name is hayate, not ayasaki, we write ayasaki first because it's a Japanese name and that's the order Japanese names are written like. Since Leonardo Pereira is not a Japanese name, we write Leonardo first because it's not a Japanese name.

Your Name in Kanji

Finally, the last question which you may have is: can I write my name in kanji? Why, yes, sure, why not. It's not like kanji isn't already the most confusing mess in the whole Japanese language already. Go ahead.

A few notes, however, which I think are important. There are 2 days to do this.

Pick Kanji to Make an Ateji Name

The first way is to ateji your name. What that means is that you get kanji which can be read in the same way your name is pronounced. In this case, the meanings of the Kanji hardly matter and  it's with those kanji just so it is written with kanji.

For example, the country I was born, Brazil, is transliterated burajiru ブラジル, but can be written burajiru 伯剌西爾, because 伯 can be read as bu, 剌 can be read as ra, 西 can be read as ji, and 爾 can be read as ru.

So if I were to write Leonardo, or reonarudo, in kanji, I could write it reonarudo 玲音奈留怒, or reonarudo 獅子鳴怒, or reonarudo 良成土. It doesn't matter which you pick, but if you pick one, you better stick to it.

Pick Kanji LoL Whatever

The second way is to do whatever. Pick whatever kanji you want and claim your name is how it should be read. Seriously, that works.

In Japan, names are written in kanji just because it's normal for them to be written in kanji so parents keep picking names like they are saying "this is how you write my child's name in Japanese, and this is how you say my child's name in Japanese."

Example: someone named their child junko 六月子, because rokugatsu 六月 is how you say the sixth month of the year in Japanese, which would be "June" in English, which when transliterated to Japanese would become jyuun ジューン. (http://oshiete.goo.ne.jp/qa/598696.html)

(in an unrelated, more extreme case of naming shenanigans, someone was named Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 in Sweden once. It's pronounced "Albin.")

So if you want to write your name in kanji, picking whatever kanji will work. Either way if you write your name in Japanese, whether you're native or not, you're supposed to say how it's pronounced because you can never be really sure how a name written in kanji is supposed to be read.

Doubts? Post a comment below!

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