What is a phonetic component?

Natalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is a #1 Amazon Best Seller.

kanji phonetic componentPhonetic components such as 㑒 (KEN), 青 (SEI) and 亡 (BOU) are the parts of kanji characters that indicate their sound or pronunciation. In fact, 青 unlocks the ON reading of at least five kanji characters – so I call it a ‘power phonetic’. Most people know about the radicals, which give a hint to the meaning of a kanji, but phonetics are not as well known.

Some phonetics are also radicals, and some are kanji characters in their own right. Other phonetics are neither radicals nor kanji characters – these can be referred to simply as components.

For example, the following kanji all contain the 㑒 component, and they also have the ON reading KEN. So the phonetic component 㑒 can be said to indicate the ON reading KEN.

  • 検    examine
  • 険    danger
  • 験    verify

㑒 is neither a radical nor a Japanese kanji character, so it is referred to as a component. In fact, in order to write it, you need to use a Chinese font, as it does not exist as an individual character in Japanese character sets!

In Chinese, 㑒 means everyone or all. It is a simplification of the Chinese character 僉, which depicted two people under a roof, and the idea of all the people being in agreement – think of a town meeting.

ON-yomiIt may seem strange to be referring to the Chinese meaning of components when you are studying Japanese, but the fact remains that kanji were imported from China, and they still retain many links in meaning and sound. One study found that about 60% of Japanese kanji words have the same or a similar meaning and orthography as their modern Chinese equivalents.

The ON reading (onyomi /音読み ) or Chinese reading literally means ‘sound reading’, which seems to be a big hint to the phonetic nature of kanji.

Learning the phonetic components will give you an extra tool in your kanji study toolkit. The faster you can learn the kanji readings, the more time you will have to spend on all the other aspects of Japanese study, such as grammar, vocabulary and honorifics!

The Kanji Code: Japanese_phonetic componentsLearning the meaning of components is also quite fascinating, because kanji makes even more sense when you understand its origins.

Our new book The Kanji Code lists 150 phonetic components for you to learn at your own pace. Each component includes a meaning, ON reading, example kanji and kanji words that use that reading.

 Learn phonetic components with The Kanji Code book



P.S. If you love what we do let us know by voting for us in the Ausmumpreneur Awards Best Product category (Natalie Hamilton, 26th in the list).


Kanji Phonetic Components

Natalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is a #1 Amazon Best Seller.

Japanese phonetic components

Kanji is a puzzle, you just need to learn the pieces

Many kanji have two or more readings that need to be learned in addition to their meanings. By learning the phonetic components of kanji, this task can be made a lot easier. If you don’t like rote learning, you will love the phonetic components.

Japanese phonetic components: River contains the KA phonetic 可
River contains the KA phonetic 可

Most people know about the radicals, the part of a kanji character that indicates its meaning or meaning category. For example, the radical in forest 森 is tree 木. But not everyone knows about the phonetic components. They are the other side of the same coin, but instead of giving a hint to the meaning, they give a hint to the reading or pronunciation – specifically, the ON (Chinese) reading.

For example, the phonetic SEI 青 appears in the characters for clear 清, ask 請 and spirit 精, and they all have an ON reading of SEI.

If you can access a list of phonetic components and memorize them, reading kanji becomes a systematic process of recall, rather than a stab in the dark.

Japanese kanji phonetic components: Intention contains the SHI phonetic 士
Intention contains the SHI phonetic 士

Phonetic components appear in keisei moji (形声文字) or form-sound kanji characters, which make up 80% of the Joyo or daily use kanji. These characters contain a radical that indicates the meaning, and a phonetic component that indicates the ON reading.

A list of 150 phonetic components can be found in The Kanji Code, a new Japanese textbook.



P.S. If you love what we do let us know by voting for us in the Ausmumpreneur Awards Best Product category (Natalie Hamilton, 26th in the list).

More on The Kanji Code book

CAT Got Your Tongue?

In the first two instalments of this 3 part series, I discussed why translators needn’t fear losing their jobs or downgrading their skills by adopting CAT Technology. In the third and final blog, I discuss another common fear.

Fear #3 I will be exploited by agencies if I use CAT

There is a perception among some translators that adopting a CAT tool will render them wage slaves to the translation agency, their per word rates slashed, forced to work for free.

It’s true that agencies that use a CAT tool often pay according to the percentage of phrases which are new, updates of existing translations (so-called “fuzzy matches”) or exact matches of previous translations. So if your usual rate is 5 cents per word, you might be paid say 5 cents per new word, 3 cents per fuzzy match, and 1.5 cents per exact match.

I can understand why people might find this dubious and wonder, “Hang on, why do you want to pay me only 60% of my usual rate for those sentences, and even LESS for those ones?!” But once you get used to working with CAT and the way it analyses the number of words in a document, you will realise that it’s actually a pretty fair deal.

If you or another translator has already translated one of the sentences in the document and it can be easily retrieved from the memory, it’s known as an exact match and the rate will accordingly be pretty low. For example, a document title, such as:

XYZ Software User Guide

The electronic package you receive will contain that phrase and it will be automatically populated on your screen, so all you need to do is check that it’s OK in this context and click OK. If it’s not right then of course you need to make a change, but that is fairly rare. Either way, it takes a lot less time than translating a sentence from scratch. It hardly seems fair that you would be paid your full rate to translate something that’s already done for you.

Likewise, if the sentence is a fuzzy match, you may only have to make a couple of tweaks to update the previous translation to match the new source text. For example, changing the main verb from opening to saving:

  • Opening a File
  • Saving a File

In such cases you can replicate the surrounding words, structure and style, making it much easier that starting from scratch. You’ll probably spend about two thirds of the time you’d spend on a new translation, and the rate is reflective of this.

In contrast, all the “new” phrases and sentences will show up completely blank and you will be left to your own devices to translate them. You are therefore paid your full rate as these are all new translations that require you to work harder.

After following this system for a while, I am pretty sure you will find that the pay structure is not exploitative but rather reflective of the amount of time, skill and effort required for each individual sentence.

There are other benefits too

While the string of statistics may be baffling at first, once you get used to it you will find it a handy way to get an overview of the project content.

For example, if you can see that 70% is new, 20% is fuzzy and 10% is an exact match, you’ll be able to estimate the time it will take you based on these stats – and it should take you around 85% of the time it would take for an all new project. This information helps you schedule your project and manage other offers that come in once you’ve started.

Then again, if 70% is fuzzy and 30% is new, you may come to the conclusion that the job is more hassle than it’s worth. That’s because in some cases, reworking existing translations is actually harder than creating your own – especially if you are asked to adhere to strict style guidelines, or conform to previous translations that vary greatly from your own style.

But if you see that 40% of the project is made up of exact matches, you may do a fist punch as you realise that this job is going to be largely review and will take around half the time of an all new translation job.

As you can see, CAT tool-based payment structures are not inherently bad, and they can even help you manage your workload. Problems only arise when you don’t understand the system.

The more you understand the analysis statistics and pay structures associated with CAT, the better a bargaining position you’ll be in when the next job offer arrives in your inbox. You’ll also gain an insight into your translation speed and the kind of sentences you enjoy or dislike translating.

Use CAT Tools and Keep Your Skills Too

In the first blog entry of this 3 part series, I discussed why translators needn’t fear losing their jobs to CAT Technology. This time, I’m looking at another common misconception.

Fear #2 Using CAT will downgrade my skills

The idea of using CAT conjures up images of copying and pasting phrases into Google Translate and using the sentences it spits out verbatim. The translator ends up totally dependent on the tool, their memory and knowledge of the language gradually reducing to nothing and their brain turning into mush. Heaven forbid the internet goes down, you can’t use your tools and you are closed for business!

It’s not a pretty picture, but as many translators will tell you, simply copying and pasting phrases into a translation engine will often result in laughable results. Sure, these engines can be handy for one or two word phrases and can give you an idea of the most commonly used translations. But that’s not how you will be using CAT.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to become a recreational user without becoming completely dependent.

Use CAT as a memory aid or assistant

A CAT tool can’t think for you. But what it can do is to record your translations and save them in a database for recall at a later date. Take the following example: on Monday you translate the following sentence:

– Funky Company was founded in 1976.

Then, two weeks later this sentence appears in a new translation job:

– Ridiculous Company was founded in 2014.

The sentences are virtually the same, the only difference being the company name and year. With CAT you can quickly locate the translation you did on Monday, insert it into the document, and update the company name and year. This saves you having to re-translate such a basic sentence. The CAT tool even marks the differences for you:

Ridiculous Company was founded in 2014.

Sure, if that sentence was the sum total of your knowledge of a language, then you might be down skilling by using CAT here. Then again, if that WAS all you knew about a language, chances are you are not a professional translator. Because that would be the equivalent of a mathematician doing this calculation:


So you see, you won’t be using CAT as a crutch, but rather as an assistant to help speed up the translation process. You could liken it to the services a legal assistant provides to a lawyer. The assistant prepares the letter using an appropriate template, then the lawyer finalises it using their knowledge of the law and the particular circumstances of that case.

Of course, in each new document presents new challenges and the wording, tense or style change depending on the context. For example, a month later you might be asked to translate:

– The owner of Funky Company is rumoured to be planning to found a new company called Ridiculous Company in the next fiscal year.

In this case, you won’t be able to simply re-use your past translation. But you can still search your database and find the previous sentence, which will give you some ideas on how to tackle it.

Remember, CAT doesn’t take away control or restrict you to reusing certain translations. You can always change or update the translation suggested by the tool. It is however a great resource for jogging your memory and saving you from reinventing the wheel each time. And this in turn lets you focus on solving more interesting translation problems.

If you haven’t been using a CAT technology tool for fear you might downgrade your skills, perhaps it’s time for a re-think.

Feel the Fear and Use CAT Technology Anyway

I’m no digital native, but I have always been open to new forms of technology. So I’m always surprised when I hear translators voice suspicion and doubt about CAT Technology (Computer Assisted Technology).

And yet, when Angelika Zerfass presented her talk, Translation Tools – Friend or Foe (or something else?) at the AUSIT conference in Brisbane last November, one of the most common reactions from the audience was just that. Fears voiced included translators losing their jobs to machines, down-skilling due to over-reliance on technology, and exploitation by agencies who undercut traditional per-word translation rates by paying per match percentage. 

While fear can be a natural reaction to the unknown, I have a different view. Read on for the first part in a 3 part series on why you should stop fearing CAT Technology and start taking advantage of it to work more quickly and with less fuss.

Fear #1 – CAT Technology will take my job

It’s natural to think that technology might be able to take over from humans. But CAT Technology doesn’t have to be scary.

The first thing to understand is that there is a big difference between “MT” Machine Translation, and CAT “Computer Assisted Translation.” Machine Translation is a bit like copying and pasting a phrase word into Google and hitting the Translate button. The machine runs the word through its database, and spits out a translation that is usually word for word and is often gobbledegook, especially when the grammar of the source and target languages is quite different, such as with Japanese and English. Sure, machine translation can be useful for translating data, such as lists of car parts, but when it comes to written texts that require finesse, such as legal contracts or marketing materials, you may as well ask a real cat to do the translation for you.

CAT Technology, in contrast, is simply a tool to – as the name suggests – ‘assist’ translators. These tools can help out with mundane tasks such as sorting the documents to be translated to help you avoid translating the same sentence twice. But applications such as MemoQ, WordFast and SDL Trados will never replace the need for human translators, who have the unique ability to read a text, interpret its nuances and rewrite it in the target language.

Rather than looking at CAT as a threat to humans and an evil restriction imposed by greedy translation corporations, it is more useful to view this technology as a useful tool that if harnessed correctly can save translators time. By reducing the number of tedious and repetitive tasks such as cross-checking between documents and glossaries, CAT can help you focus on the part you actually enjoy, translating!

The Word software application revolutionised writing and turned typing into “word processing.” But as any professional writer or journalist will be quick to inform you, Word can’t make you a better writer. Sure, it can perform automatic spell checks and grammar checks, but half of the changes suggested by the spell checker are wrong – that’s why they added the “Ignore” button. Similarly, CAT Tools can’t make you a better translator. If you are going to enter junk into your translation “memory” database, you will output exactly that, junk in another language.

But just as Word can help you quickly format your document by adding styles, tables and indexes, CAT Tools can help you search, replace and automatically populate sentences that you’ve translated in the past. They can quickly aggregate information and remove the need to spend time aligning bullet points, pasting styles and formatting tables. I suppose for some people that kind of painstaking work can be gratifying, but remove it and I’m in translation heaven.

Given the choice, would you choose to stop using Word and go back to a basic text application like NotePad, where the only features are Word Wrap and Find and Replace? I think not. And once you have witnessed first-hand the benefits of CAT Technologies, I suspect you will wonder why you spent so long in the ‘TextPad’ of translation land – Word, PPT and Excel.

Technology continues to change the way we communicate and work, and there will always be companies and people who will try to exploit the new technologies to cut costs and edge out the little people. But wouldn’t you rather be educated on how they work so you can make them work for you? Wouldn’t you like to understand what your agency is doing with your precious translations?  Don’t miss out on the potential benefits of CAT.

Ocha Translations

Please Note: Due to teaching commitments, Natalie is only available for occasional translation jobs at this time. Please Contact Us to enquire about our availability.

Ocha Translation is a specialist provider of Japanese to English translations based in Sydney, Australia. Because we only provide Japanese to English translations, we can provide translations of a high quality.