Crafting Natural English from Japanese - Episode 9

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Welcome back to our series on creative J>E translation, where we translate the idea behind Japanese words, not merely the words themselves. If you’d like to go back to the first episode, click here. For the full episode list, click here.

Today our word is 機能. But first:

A Note Before Continuing
The examples below come from actual projects that I have worked on for my customers, although I have modified the text to some degree in order to maintain confidentiality. Also, keep in mind that when it comes to translation, especially creative translation, there is usually more than one right answer. You may have different ideas for how to render these examples into English that could be just as valid or even better than mine. Much like writing, I’ve always thought of translation as an art, not a science. Of course, it also helps to have a good editor, so I’ve only selected examples from translations that were checked by a second pair of eyes.

Let’s get to it!

機能 (kinou)

Overly common translation: function
Suggested alternatives: feature; capability; performance; or whatever else fits

For this word, I’d like to first examine what 機能 means to a Japanese speaker. Kotobank, my favorite free online resource for definitions in Japanese, aggregates results from different resources to explain the term you search for. The results for 機能 describe this word as meaning 作用 (action/work), 働き (also equivalent to action/work), or 役割 (role). All of these descriptions approach 機能 as a part of a system, such as a machine, a system of the body (e.g. digestive, respiratory), a component of an organization, etc. Essentially, a 機能 in this context is something that operates in tandem other parts of a greater whole. When this is the case, “function” is the appropriate translation in English.

In Japanese copy, however, 機能 will on many occasions mean something different. It is usually a function or property of a product or service that is supposed to benefit the consumer. In other words, it is a selling point. To describe this as a mere “function” does not do much to encourage your target audience to go out and make a purchase. In English, we would associate a function with something that is supposed to work a certain way, something we take for granted and will do what it’s supposed to; it’s not a bonus that will arouse excitement and the desire to open up our wallets. To help elicit this response, “feature” is the preferred translation.

Instead of just providing straight-up examples, in this episode I also want to give you a quiz. If you understand the explanation above, then this should be fairly easy.

For each of the following parallel translations, choose either “function” or “feature” as the appropriate word to fill in the blank. You can check your answers at the bottom of this page.

Good luck!

So as to streamline operations, we will relocate the plant’s engineering and sales __________ to a site closer to the headquarters of Farrell Trading House, a major customer.

We will add new __________ such as adaptive cruise control and the ability to repair defects remotely through program updates.

The video website’s popularity stems from the comments __________.

The newly developed drug does not inhibit the multiplication or __________ of human body cells.

(Scroll down to the bottom to check your answers.)

Continuing on…

機能 could also mean something akin to 能力 (nouryoku), which is equivalent to “skill,” “ability,” “capability,” and so on. In the example below, “feature” is clearly out of place, but although “function” would technically be accurate, it comes off as overly dry for a text in, say, a press release, which is where the following sentence comes from.

The company has beefed up its domestic development capabilities by adding more equipment and personnel.

Likewise, “option” seems like a better choice of words in this sentence:

Customers making a purchase of 5,000 yen or more with the card’s debit option at any of the following participating stores will receive free original merchandise!

Here is one more way to translate 機能: “performance.” For this usage, you will usually see 機能 acting as a descriptor for a noun that follows it. For example:

performance materials for automobiles

performance chemicals

Basically, 機能 in this case means that the object is a more advanced or sophisticated version of whatever it is. (In fact, “advanced” and “sophisticated” can function as an alternative translation to “performance.”) There are many Japanese companies with terms like 機能材料 or 機能化学品 in the names of their divisions or departments, and on their English websites, they call them things like the Functional Materials Division or the Functional Chemicals Department. These are not necessarily wrong. For example, you can find “functional materials” in texts written in native English like here, but if you search on Google with quotation marks for “functional materials” and “performance materials” — both of which turn up millions of hits — you’ll see that the latter gives you a lot more corporate website copy than the former. That means in creative translation, you’ll probably want to use “performance” instead of “functional.” But as always, think about the context and your audience before you decide.

And of course, sometimes you can just entirely leave out a translation of 機能 if it’s clearly implied and forcing a translation would result in clunky English.

a sheet containing zinc dust that offers sacrificial protection

A press release headline:

Farrell Trading House to Develop Wireless Updates for Vehicle Software in 2022

Finally, here are the answers to the quiz:

  1. functions
  2. features
  3. feature
  4. functions/functioning

I hope this article has clarified any confusion you may have had about how to express 機能 in English. One other tip: If you can’t make heads or tails out of what 機能 is supposed to mean in a sentence, maybe it’s a typo for 昨日. It happens more often than you might think!

For other episodes in the series “Crafting Natural English from Japanese,” click here.

Click here for the full archive of The Kyoto Linguist. You could also read the randomly selected article below.


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