How To Write Names in Japanese
While there are several ways to translate names in Japanese, there is only one standard way: A phonetic translation to katakana. Katakana is a syllabary (Japanese is a language of syllables, not letters) that only represent sounds and so the characters themselves have no meaning.
For aesthetic reasons one may choose to use a phonetic translation to hiragana or a translation to kanji – all which can be suitable for informal uses or for artwork. These are not, however, suitable for formal uses such as for bank accounts, legal documents, formal Japanese seals, and so on. If one is concerned whether the translation is correct or not, then katakana should be used.
As an example, phonetic translations to kanji are popular. Be warned though that translations to kanji are non-standard. Japanese seeing these designs will most likely not know they are a name and will probably not guess the correct pronunciation. The reason is because this is not standard there are no rules, no standards. And what is worse, any given kanji can have a multitude of readings. If you expect Japanese to understand your name in kanji, in almost all cases you will be sorely disappointed.
There are four ways to translate names into Japanese:
For a phonetic translation, the pronunciation of the name must be known because it is the pronunciation of the name that is being translated not the spelling. For example, the names “Kathy” and “Cathy” are rendered into Japanese in exactly the same way. On the other hand, a name that is spelled the same but has different pronunciations will be rendered in Japanese differently. A good example is the name “Jan” which is a common English name, and it is also a common non-English name which is pronounced “Yan.” One would use a different phonetic translation depending on whether the name is pronounced J-jan or Y-yan.
There are often some difficulties with a phonetic translation. The most obvious issue is that Japanese does not have all of the sounds that are possible English. The
most widely known example is that Japanese not have an “L” (ell) sound and will render everything with an L as an R. I would like to give a few other examples. But first we need to discuss romaji.
What is Romaji? Romaji means “roman characters” and is the way that Japanese words are rendered with English letters. Romaji is written ローマ字 with ローマ ro-ma meaning “Roman” and 字 ji meaning “characters”.
There are actually two romaji systems and the one most commonly used today is the Hepburn system. As an example, Katherine in romaji is kyasarin which in katakana is キャサリン and in hiragana is きゃさりん.
1. Phonetic Translation (Katakana)
As mentioned in the introduction, the proper way to write non-Japanese names in Japanese is to use katakana. After the end of World War II, as a part of a process to simplify the Japanese language, it was established that all non-Japanese words and names were to be rendered using katakana.
Katakana 片仮名 is a syllabary with each character representing a syllable (not a letter) and each character has no meaning.
Each katakana character is a simplified form or a part of a kanji (Chinese) character. Katakana’s creation is attributed to the monk scholar Kibi no Makibi (AD 693-755) and was the first syllabary developed. Initially, it was used as a pronunciation aid for Buddhist scriptures. Later katakana was used to write grammatical and inflectional elements. Today katakana is used to write non-Japanese words, names, and technical terms in Japanese.
Along with the basic characters, there are also a few modifiers commonly used with both of the kana.
The sound changes shown in the first chart below use dakuten 濁点 (which looks like a double quotation mark) and handakuten 半濁点 (which looks like the degree symbol – a small circle – in the upper right corner).
There are several modifiers that are small vowels a, e, i, o and u, along with ya, yu, yo and tsu that are collectively called shouji 小字 or small characters.
The ya, yu, and yo have their own name, youon 拗音 and these modify the regular kana as shown in the chart, and may also modify otherkana.
The small tsu also has its own name which is sokuon 促音 and it occurs before kana beginning with k, s, t or p, and acts to double or emphasize the consonant. For example, the name “Duke” is written as dukku in romaji and is デュック in katakana. The small tsu serves to place emphasis on the “k” sound rather than duku デュク, which would not place an emphasis on either syllable. Notice also, in this example the use of a youon which is the small yu which modifies the “de” character and makes it a du sound.
Katakana has many combinations that do not exist within hiragana and kanji. It has the broadest rules as it has been modified to more accurately render non-Japanese words into Japanese. One example of this is the enchou fugou 延長符号 which extends the vowel sound. This corresponds to the dash written in romaji. An example of the enchou fugou is the last character in the name Kelly, written in the sample below.
Note that the enchou fugou orientation changes depending on whether the name is being written horizontally (1) and (2), or vertically (3) and (4). The enchou fugou is the only katakana symbol that changes orientation depending on whether it is being written horizontally or vertically.
Kelly written in katakana (1), (2), and (3) horizontally from left to right (3), (4), and (5) vertically from top to bottom.
Arthur is rendered in romaji as a-sa-. The reason being that there is no “th” sound so this becomes “sa”. There cannot be two consecutive consonants so the “r” before the “t” is replaced by the elongated vowel symbol. And the final “r” cannot be pronounced alone, so it is also replaced with an elongated vowel. The result is Arthur is アーサー in katakana.
As another example, Japanese does not have the “thy” ending in Kathy and Timothy. These are replaced with shi-. So Kathy is kyashi- キャシー and Timothy is timoshi- ティモシー.
As a final example, Brian is buraian which may be seem counter-intuitive. Names are rendered in Japanese by how they are pronounced, not by how they are spelled. Because the “r” is after a consonant, it is normally pronounced. The “B” alone becomes the syllable “bu”. Brian in katakana is ブライアン.
Recently katakana has been further modified to better render non-Japanese pronunciations. For example, Japanese does not have a “v” sound and so historically everything with a “v” were rendered with a “b”. For example, the name Steve was rendered as suti-bu or スティーブ. Today it is written suti-vu or スティーヴ where u ウ is modified to vu ヴ.
Katakana and Seals
The problem with katakana, is also its strength: the simple and angular lines leave little room for modification and hence artistry. This makes katakana is easy to write, but the simple and angular lines leave very little room for variation and this it makes nearly useless the rich tradition of Japanese calligraphy.
Dictating the use of katakana for all cases, however, can present problems. One common issue is that “Seal Script” (tensho) should be used for seals. This script is complex and curving which makes it more difficult to forge. Because of this property, Seal Script has been used to design seals for thousands of years.
The problem is that Seal Scripts predate the creation of katakana by several thousand years, and is only defined for use with kanji. This contradiction means that one rule is going to have to be broken. And once we begin breaking rules, the best we can do is look to precedent on how to proceed. This is where things get interesting.
To avoid confusion in what I have just stated, I would like to clarify one point about seals. In Japan, there are two types of seals. One is called inkan, this is used for everyday purposes. The other is called tenkoku (lit. “Tensho Carving”) and is used for legal purposes. If my name were Yamada, I could go down the street to a stationary store and buy a pre-made inkan for Yamada. Of course, all of the other Yamada’s in the area could do the same. This seal, this inkan, could be used for all daily purposes as the Japanese equivalent of a signature. However, for legal purposes, such as for opening a bank account, this seal could not be used. One would need to have a unique and complex seal that is registered with the government and for this purpose, the tenkoku seal must be used.
To illustrate this point I compare the styles below. These are different seals for Sairei which is my professional name in Japan. Figure (1) is how the seal would look using katakana, (2) is a regular font that would be suitable for an inkan seal, and (3) is a Seal Script design which would be common design for a tenkoku seal.
Seal designs for sairei
Hiragana 平仮名 is attributed to the Buddhist priest Kuukai (AD 774-835) and was famously adopted by the poetesses of the Heian period (794-1185) who did not wish to use the angular, and to them masculine looking, katakana. Hiragana is a flowing, soft syllabary that is particularly well-suited for the semi-cursive and cursive fonts.
Today hiragana is used to write grammatical elements, adjective and verb inflection, and native words for which kanji either does not exist or is not commonly used.
In Japan, male and female given names can be written in hiragana so there is not a hard gender distinction. For non-Japanese names where the norm is to use katakana, however, it becomes an aesthetic choice. As hiragana can be much more feminine, women will sometimes prefer hiragana to write their given name.
Previously, Kathy was shown in katakana as キャシー. One may, however, prefer to use the hiragana version きゃしい.
But do keep in mind that katakana has been modified so that it is particularly well-suited to write non-Japanese names and words. Standard hiragana does not have the same modifications.
For example, the enchou fugou is not supposed to be used with hiragana (though one does see it). With Kathy kyashii this is not an issue as many Japanese words treat the duplicate vowel as a vowel extension. For example, the word tanoshii the duplicate “i” is an elongation. And while this convention always works for Japanese words, it often falls apart for non-Japanese words. How would the Hawaiian place name “Ka’a’awa” be rendered? In katakana it is easy to show that each “a” is pronounced individually, so it is kaaava カアアヴァ. In hiragana it would be ambiguous and, in fact, one does not see it written in hiragana.
From time to time one will see an obsolete method for extending vowels in hiragana which often adds the character “fu” to denote elongation. An example would be that ヌー would be written as ぬふ in hiragana. This should not be used and has its own issues. An example of the confusion that could result would be the name Ralph with the romaji rarufu which would be らるふ.
Names that used the enchou fugou character in katakana would double the vowel in hiragana. This is demonstrated in the sample below which shows how Kelly would be written in hiragana as kerii けりい.
Kelly written in hiragana (7), (8), and (9) horizontally from left to right (10), (11), and (12) vertically from top to bottom.
As with katakana, hiragana also has sound changes called dakuten (which looks like a double quotation mark) and handakuten (which looks like degree symbol – a small circle in the upper right corner).
Hiragana also uses the small characters or shouji 小字 a, e, i, o and u, along with ya, yu, yo, and tsu.
How Can Initials Be Translated?
As Japanese is a language of syllables, it is awkward to translate letters. The method used is to translate using how the letters are pronounced. For example, the letter “A” is エー which has the romaji e-. This also means that the single letter “W” takes five syllables to write in Japanese. “W” has the romaji daburyu- and is written ダブリュー.
As an example, IBM’s legal name in Japan is partly written as アイ・ビー・エム.
3. Phonetic Translation (Kanji)
A phonetic translation to kanji is known as 当て字
ateji. There is a long tradition of using phonetic translations to kanji that goes all the way back to when Chinese was first adapted to write Japanese.
Kelly written phonetically in kanji meaning “Respect and Reason”.
Notice with kanji we can use all of the calligraphy fonts. Here we show block, semi-cursive and cursive samples.
A Phonetic translation maintains the pronunciation of the name but assigns a new meaning to the name. In general, phonetic translations work best when the name has one to three syllables.
An excellent example is the name Oscar which means “spear of the gods” from Old English. In Japanese Oscar would be osuka- which can be translated phonetically to kanji as osuka using the characters 雄火
meaning “man of fire”.
Oscar written phonetically in kanji meaning “man of fire”
Note that the vowel elongation symbol (enchou fugou) is never used with kanji. So the common solution is to simply omit elongated vowels. Though because this is a non-standard translation method, there are no hard rules.
An example of a name that does not work well as a phonetic translation to kanji is Adriana which has four syllables and in Romaji is eidorianna. At best this can be translated to five kanji which is quite long for a name. It is also difficult to find a consistent and meaningful translation for such a long name.
When a name translates to over three kanji, one should consider a nickname or an abbreviation. For Adriana the nickname Adrie would be eidori in romaji and would be two or three kanji which is more suitable for a phonetic translation.
As a further example, Timothy would be teimoshi- which is rather long at three characters, but Tim could be translated as teimu which for a gardener meaning “Garden Dream” or 底夢 would work nicely.
Tim written phonetically in kanji meaning “garden dream”
Katakana has been modified over the years specifically to make it easier to transcribe non-Japanese names and words into Japanese. The result has been that there are standard ways to translate names to Katakana that cannot be translated to kanji. This is because Katakana has
evolved to represent sounds that are simply not found in the Japanese language.
One example, as previously mentioned, is the elongated vowel symbol which looks like a horizontal line when writing horizontally or a vertical line when writing vertically. There is no equivalent for this in kanji and it simply cannot be represented. This is why one will see
osuka- as a romaji representation for a katakana translation but will see osuka for a kanji translation.
One common problem with a phonetic translation to kanji is that there are several syllables which exist in katakana but which have no kanji equivolent. For example, the name Jennifer is written jenifa- in romaji and the katakana is ジェニファー. The problem is there are no kanji with the read “je” or “fa”. In katakana to create a “je” sound the “ji” and “e” symbols are combined. Similarly, for the “fa” sound the “fu” and “a” symbols are combined. With kanji one is forced to write all these elements and so it becomes “jienifua-“.
The kanji version is now five characters. This is very long for a first name (most Japanese first and names are two characters each). A solution as mentioned previously might be to use the nickname Jenny which would be three kanji. For example, one could choose ji 慈 meaning “mercy”, e 恵 meaning “grace (blessing)” and ni 仁 meaning “benevolence”.
Jenny written phonetically in kanji meaning “mercy, grace, benevolence”
Another difficulty with a phonetic translation to kanji can be the fact that there may be a poor selection of kanji that have the right sound. That is, one or more kanji may exist with the right sound, but the meanings are less than acceptable. Two examples that are common in non-Japanese names, but have very few options are the single syllables he in Helen and ra as in Randy. With he the solution is to substitute hei which sounds similar and offers some kanji with appropriate meanings.
As a further example, Petra is a beautiful sounding and very feminine name. Unfortunately, there is no kanji that has a natural pe sound. One gets a pe sound when he is preceded by an n as in the name kanpei 寛平 or after a small tsu as in the name ippei 一平. The solution is to use a kanji for he, but as there are no good kanji with the reading he we substitute the similar sounding hei.
Petra written phonetically in kanji meaning “gentle tiger”
The problem with using a phonetic translation to kanji is that most probably no one will correctly read the name. Remember the kanji hei 平 used above. If you click on the link you can count that there are over 10 different readings for this one character. It can be hei, but also hyou, hira, taira, tara, hachi, hi, hitoshi, he, or hen. With katakana and hiragana this problem does not exist – each character has only one reading.
The fact that a kanji can have several different readings means that even the Japanese themselves have to deal with this issue for their names. Their solution is to use a name card that has not only the kanji for their names but also the proper reading! So while people may not be able to immediately read your name when phonetically translated to kanji, if you explain it, then they will get it.
4. Literal Translation (Kanji)
The literal translation solves many of the issues of the phonetic translation. With the literal translation, the meaning of the name is preserved. Often times names are selected for their meaning and not the way the name sounds. This method respects that choice.
We mentioned before that the name Jan can be pronounced using a “J” or a “Y” sound. In this case, even though the name is pronounced differently, the meaning of the name is the same. Therefore, a literal translation is the same for both names and this happens to be “God is Gracious” which we translate as 神恵 shinkei For some see Jan in Japanese.
There are several possibilities for the meaning of Kelly. I have used the meaning from the Gaelic ceallach, meaning “war”. The translation then becomes Warrior, or 戦士 senshi in Japanese.
Kelly written literally in kanji meaning “warrior” read senshi
Literal translations maintain the meaning of the name but assigns a new pronunciation. A literal translation to kanji may be selected when the meaning of the name is important or is a word itself.
As an example, the name Liberty is riba-ti in romaji and リバーティ in katakana. A phonetic translation to kanji can be done which would be three characters. However, the original meaning of the name would be lost. In cases where the meaning of the name is important, the meaning can be preserved by using a literal translation. Here Liberty would be translated as 自由 preserving the meaning which is read as jiyuu.
Liberty written literally in kanji read jiyuu
Other examples of names that are particularly suitable for a literal translation to Japanese are:
Literal Translations to kanji
Another example of when one might select a literal translation may be for artistic reasons. The name Joy is a short and beautiful name. This can be rendered phonetically as 上位 is read joui and means superior. Or it can be rendered literally as 喜 meaning “Joy” and read yorokobi.
Joy in kanji read yorokobi
From the example one can see a visual similarity between Joy in English and in kanji.
There are several cases where literal translations cannot be done. The most common case is when a name’s meaning is
not known. The meaning of several ancient names have been lost and for these, there is no recourse. In the beginning of this article, I used Adriana as an example. Adriana means “From Adria” which is a place name whose original meaning has been lost and so the meaning cannot be translated.
Another case when names cannot be translated is when the word or concept is either too foreign to Japanese or may not be appropriate. Calvin for some reason means Bald which some may not consider worthy of preserving in a name translation. Another example is Brody which means Ditch.
As examples of names that are foreign are Lyndon (from the Linden tree) and Ashley (from the Ash tree) which have scientific names in Japanese, but do not have common words.
For a literal translation to Japanese one must first determine the appropriate meaning of the name. This is a study in and of itself and there are several excellent books and on-line resources. Once one has the meaning then a good Japanese dictionary is a must. The better the dictionary the more likely the meaning will be unambiguous and in common usage.
To translate a name to Japanese all that is needed is the Kana charts, a kanji dictionary, or a Japanese dictionary. With these tools, a suitable translation can be found. However, if you do the translation yourself it is always a good idea to get feedback from a native speaker.
As an example of what can go wrong, two cases come to mind. One person wanted Casanova translated as Lover. Using a literal translation from a dictionary, the version of lover that this person selected was aijin which means lover as in a mistress. Certainly, this was not the intended meaning.
In a second example the person wanted a name that meant heaven. To do this they had selected an archaic reading of the modern kanji 乾. And as this ancient meaning is no longer taught, Japanese who read the translation read it as kawaku meaning “to dry out”. If you check the link, you will see that indeed one of the meanings is “heaven” … but this meaning is archaic.
Always verify information and always get a second opinion.