Backstage of International BroadcastingChallenges of Making
English News ScriptsSeeking Mutual Understanding Across Cultures

Making English news scripts from Japanese scripts is full of challenges. It’s not enough to simply translate. Background information must be added to clarify what’s happening. The Japanese language poses problems, too. Sentences often lack subjects and tend to contain hearsay and inference. How is NHK’s news staff overcoming these challenges?

Outline of Services  >  NHK WORLD TV(4)


Joint Work of Japanese and Native Speakers of English

Making English news scripts is joint work between Japanese and native speakers of English.

Japanese writers write English news scripts based on Japanese scripts in a way that’s easy for foreign audiences to understand. Native speakers of English check the scripts’ grammar and expressions, and rewrite, if necessary. Desk editors examine the scripts, revise them if needed, and give final confirmation.

Overcoming Cultural Gaps

One important step in this process is to look at news from perspectives of foreign audiences who have no basic background knowledge of what is happening in Japan.

One good example is news about U.S. bases in Okinawa. Whatever happens in connection with them, we can add information such as “more than 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan are in Okinawa Prefecture.” Not many foreign viewers know this. It is not in Japanese scripts. But such information can help audiences see what is behind the news.

It’s the same with news about traditional events. An event called mame-maki, or bean throwing, is held on the first day of spring. People throw beans in and out of their homes, saying, “Get out, demons. Come in, God of Happiness.” So, we explain, “According to ancient beliefs, evil spirits appear at the turn of the season. People throw roasted beans to drive the spirits out and invite good fortune.” It is hoped that such historical background and meanings of events will lead foreign audiences to deeper appreciation of Japanese culture.

Writing English Scripts
Writing English Scripts:Japanese writers write Englishscripts based on Japanese scripts.

Japanese writers write English
scripts based on Japanese scripts.

Rewriting English Scripts
Rewriting English Scripts:Native Speakers of English check the scripts’ grammar and expressions.

Native Speakers of English check the scripts’ grammar and expressions.

Revising and Confirming to Finalize
Revising and Confirming to Finalize:Desk editors check the scripts and finalize them for broadcast.

Desk editors check the scripts and finalize them for broadcast.

Desk Editors as Bridges Between Cultures

An essential part of international broadcasting is telling foreign audiences what’s happening in Japan in a way that’s easy for them to understand. We need to use our imagination fully to find out what aspects of our systems, customs or events would make it hard for them to see the essence of news. Then, we explain.

But this could lead to pitfalls. Japan’s lay judge system is similar to the jury system, but different in basic ways. Calling ours a jury system in news for foreign audiences is wrong. Jurors make guilty or not-guilty judgments, but lay judges also decide on sentencing. We sometimes need to explain how two seemingly similar things are different. Deciding what to do calls for a subtle sense of balance. This makes this work so much fun, too.

It is also important to make English scripts fit international standards of style. This helps foreign viewers feel at home watching NHK WORLD. English news does not repeat information in leads (the first sentences telling the essence of news), and tries to avoid repeating words.

If a Japanese word meaning “to agree” comes up a number of times, there is a need to use synonyms such as “approve,” “back” or “consent to.”

With these in mind, staff members make news scripts through trial and error. They’re encouraged when told their news is clear and interesting.


Pitfalls in Making English Scripts

U.S. base in Okinawa.

U.S. base in Okinawa.

Mame-maki event at a shrine in Iwate.

Mame-maki event at a shrine in Iwate.

Senkaku Islands

Senkaku Islands

Some kinds of news need extra care to avoid misunderstanding. One example is news about matters involving systems that differ from country to country. If we failed to choose our words carefully, we could depart from the nuances of Japanese scripts.

Care is also needed for news about security. This includes stories about China or Japan concerning the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Suppose Chinese government ships become active, and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces tighten their guard and surveillance. When reporting on this, to say “the Self-Defense Forces are in a heightened state of alert” could invite dangerous misunderstanding. It could mean the SDF are on alert, i.e. a stage of military preparedness, in anticipation of an eventuality. “The Self-Defense Forces are stepping up their surveillance” is far better.

Cultural Hurdles

In some cases, desk editors and rewriters disagree over what to say or how to say it. It can take time to settle such a dispute. This is often caused by subtle expressions of the Japanese language.

The direct translation of a Japanese sentence often goes like this: “It is believed that the committee will decide….”

This is a common expression in Japanese. But rewriters may ask who believes what.
They may say the subject should be identified, and that the news should say, “An official has suggested that the committee will decide….”

But this approach can cause problems. If a reporter obtained the remark from an official on condition of anonymity, saying so could put both of them in trouble. The ambiguous way of saying it is meant to avoid such a problem. After some debate, an editor might go ahead with the first draft, leaving the rewriter unconvinced.

Trying to Adopt International Standards for Reporting Style

Differences in media cultures can also affect newswriting styles. In the U.S. and Europe, it’s common sense that responsibility for news stories rests with those who report them. In Japan, there is a persistent belief that the news organizations that reporters work for are responsible.

How far can Japanese newswriting practices, such as using hearsay and inferences and omitting subjects, be reduced in writing news for overseas? NHK’s international news staff seeks an appropriate style that fits international standards.

Quick Tempo vs Pausing

News in Japan is also different from that in the U.S. and Europe in how images are presented with narration.

In Japan, it is considered unfashionable to present nonstop edited images with narration. Appropriate pauses are used in a number of places for brief moments of silence or natural sounds where news was covered.

Media in the U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, tend to string together short cuts of images with a quick tempo.

As we give narration in English, it would be sensible to follow this style. But for some kinds of stories, such as those about seasonal events or portraits of individuals, the Japanese way of editing with pauses seems more appropriate. One native speaker of English said this is just like the difference between Disney animation, which focuses on personalities, and Hayao Miyazaki anime, which has more details, even those of landscapes.

We live with cultural gaps. Efforts are made to bring NHK’s news more in line with international standards. At the same time, there is a wish to keep English news from Japan uniquely Japanese. The same goes for editing images. It is not just a matter of choosing either the Western style or the Japanese style. A superb sense of balance is called for.