Word Wise: Animals and Plants

By Richard Medhurst

Moving away from this column’s usual focus on individual words, this time I’d like to consider translation of animal and plant names. One reason this is a tricky area is that the way Japanese and English group words together may be different. A flower known in English by one name might have several different names in Japanese or vice versa. A related issue is the diversity of naming in the English-speaking world with, for example, the same plant going by several different regional sobriquets.

If I can’t immediately decide how to translate a word, the first stage is to search for candidates. Even if it’s in the J-E dictionary, that won’t always give the best answer, so I’d look a little further. If the Japanese word has some traction in English—but not enough to use it without a gloss—then search together with a relevant term (for example, “buri” “fish”) to find candidates. Another possibility is to search with the Latin name (usually easy to find as it’s included as standard in Japanese Wikipedia articles). I remember once when I was seeking the English for シラエビ, I found that it is often translated (directly) as “white shrimp” in English. However, searching with the Latin name Pasiphaea japonica rapidly reveals that it is better known in the English-speaking world as the “glass shrimp.

Selecting among candidates can be difficult. Should one use the Japanese romanization, an English word, or both? There may also be a few different possibilities in English. The most important factor is comprehensibility, so consider the audience first of all. For people like me, who often write in U.S. English without being Americans, it is often necessary to check a term is widely used. American translators, by contrast, may have blind spots about words that are used only in some local regions.

As an example of tricky terminology, in a translation I was checking once, I came across the term “beefsteak plant.” Looking back at the Japanese, I found this was actually shiso, which I think is common enough to stand alone. The more well-known your term is, the more likely it is to have useful and trustworthy information on English naming in Wikipedia—as it does in this case, backing the use of shiso. For further evidence on usage, I give greater weight to national U.S. media outlets when making a search. This is a huge topic and often comes down to personal judgment. Please give any feedback on the column or how you handle translating animal and plant names by contacting SWET or commenting on the SWET Facebook group page.

Illustration by Stuart Ayre


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