Bill Lise

The Importance of Context in Japanese-to-English TranslationContext, Metadata, and More

by Bill Lise

(Updated May 29, 2022)

Context is to a source text as metadata is to an email or other electronic information. In fact, actual email metadata can be useful to translators, as will be noted below.

When a Japanese-to-English translator asks colleagues how to translate a particular word or phrase they often receive a response that is qualified by the disclaimer IADOC (it all depends on the context). This caveat should be taken to heart by every professional translator and underscores the importance of context.

But just what is context? It turns out that it is more diverse than just the name of the field in which a translation is being done, such as "semiconductors" or "finance" or the type of document, such as "a patent" or "a series of emails."

Field Context

The translation of a term or phrase will, of course, differ depending on the field in which it is used. The translator should require the translation customer to reveal the subject matter field of a source text in sufficient detail before even accepting an assignment.

If the customer is a translation broker that is removed from the source text and the writer thereof, they might not know or care much about the field. It is not uncommon for translation brokers to ask translators if they can accept the job of translating "a patent," "a technical document," or "internal documents." This is totally insufficient as context and just demonstrates the lack of engagement with the process on the part of the translation broker. Translators need to steer clear of such places.

Writer Context

Who wrote the source text? While many translation purchasers (particularly translation brokers) are reluctant to reveal this information, it is very important in judging the overall context of a message.

Reader Context

The assumed (or, in some cases, known-with-certainty) reader demographic is important in making terminology choices and in setting the tone of the translated text. The level of understanding of the subject matter on the part of the reader is particularly important.

Read-Writer Relationship Context

Did the originator of the source text write a message to a customer? To a person in their own organization? If so, is that person a subordinate or a supervisor of the writer? Is the message to an adversary in litigation? This information is sometimes apparent from the source text itself. Without it, however, the translator is left with things such as register and keigo to judge this relationship, and the risk of misjudgment is real, particularly when translating incomplete texts.

Objective Context

Why was the source text written? Was it to set or announce a company policy? To give work instructions to a subordinate? To complain about something (although that should be obvious from the source text itself)? To convince a patent examiner that an invention is novel? To warn a colleague of the risk of certain actions? All of these things should be made clear to the translator; often they are not.


Although many types of context can be treated as the metadata of a source text, actual metadata of emails often helps a translator discover and interpret context. Beyond subject lines, which are obviously valuable, email address domains tell you who works where. And email timestamps can provide sequence to events and messages that might not be clear from a jumble of forwarded or cited email.

Interpreting Context and its Significance to the Translation Process

Understanding the meaning of context often requires that the translator have real-world knowledge significantly beyond just being able to translate. Things such as knowledge of the entities in a particular industry or field and awareness of what particular entities have been doing in their fields can sometimes solve mysteries.

But without context as the raw material for such interpretations, often little can be done beyond guessing. Given that, it is particularly important that the translator require the translation customer to provide the required context. That is sometimes an uphill battle, and if the customer is a translation broker, it might be futile, but it often it pays off in a better understanding of a message and the way it should be translated.