The question I get asked the most is: can you translate my name into Japanese?
I know, having your name translated into Japanese is cool. I have many things with my name embroidered in Japanese.
I want to explain here and share with you the process that it takes to translate western names into Japanese, because I think its actually pretty easy.
Now, I say it is easy if you know three things.
You have some basic understanding of the Japanese language, specifically how to pronounce vowels and consonants.
You know the Katakana, which is one of the three writing systems in Japan.
If you want to translate your name in Kanji, then you need to know how to read and write Kanji.
I am going to explain how to write your name in Katakana, which is the most common way to have western names translated into Kanji.
Ok, so, Japan has three writing systems: the hiragana, the katakana, and Kanji.
Hiragana and Katakana, together known simply as Kana, are syllabic scripts. This means that each kana character correspond to one sound in the Japanese language. These sounds are always with a consonant and vowel or just a vowel.
They both contain 46 characters. The difference is that the hiragana is used for native words, while the Katakana is used for foreign words.
For this reason, when translating western names into Japanese, Katakana is used.
This is the Katakana.
You read it from top to bottom and right to left. On the right column here we have the vowels: a, i, u, e, o.
On the top are 9 consonants. These consonant are then combined with each vowel to create the sound of each character. The last character is used for the “n” sound.
Like any other language there are combinations, exceptions, and other factors that will alter the basic pronunciation of a syllable.
The katakana is no exception. For example a small alteration to the character, such as placing two dots in the upper right hand corner, changes the consonants k→g, s→z, t→d, and h→b.
There are also combinations of multiple characters to create a new sound.
For example, when combining リ(RI) with the character ヤ(YA) creates the sound rya (リャ) instead of riya. Notice that when this happens the second character is slightly smaller that the first.
Before you write your name in Katakana you need to “convert” the pronunciation of it to match the Japanese language. To demonstrate this, I’m going to translate two names. One that will be easy to do and another not so much.
The first name I’m going to translate is Monica. This one is super easy because when we split Monica into syllables MO | NI | CA, each one consists of a consonant followed by a vowel.
If you look each syllable in the Katakana we can easily write Monica like this: モニカ (MONIKA).
The second name I’m going to translate is my wife’s name: Rachel. This one is not as easy as Monica.
Let’s see why. When we break down Rachel into syllables we have RA | CHEL.
In this case its important to understand the Japanese pronunciation. We can’t use the character ラ (RA) because in English this is pronounced REI. Therefore we need to use the characters レイ.
The second syllable has some challenges as well. The sound CHE doesn’t happen in the Japanese language, although CHU and CHI do. The “L” sound doesn’t happen either. Usually a character from the “R” column is used to represent the “L” sound. This is because in Japanese “Rs” are very soft.
Since we can’t find a character that sounds like CHE, I’m going to have to make some combinations.
First, I’m going to use the character for CHI (チ), next I’m going to use the character for E (エ), and then I’m going to use the character for RU (ル) to mimic the “L” sound at the end. So we have CHI E RU (チエル).
Now, lets put it all together and we have REI CHI E RU (レイチエル). As you can see Reichieru doesn’t sound exactly like Rachel, but its close. We can say that Reichieru is the Japanese version of Rachel.
I would like to point out that I could use this combination チェ: the character CHI (チ) with a small E (エ) next to it to create CHE, but it is not natural and if I wanted to write it in Kanji I won’t be able to because there aren’t any Kanji pronounced CHE.
Its really fun to translate names into Japanese using the Katakana chart.
If you are practicing Japanese calligraphy you can use your name in Katakana to sign your work!
If you don’t, but are interested in learning make sure to check out my Shodo Essentials, my Japanese Calligraphy online course for beginners.