Appropriate level of politeness for market research questionnaire
Thread poster: Endre Both

Endre Both  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:19
Member (2002)
English to German
Oct 11, 2005

Dear fellow translators,

I would like to ask for your opinion on a linguistic problem I've been confronted with as the outsourcer of an English-Japanese translation.

The text to be translated is a market research face-to-face interview about medical equipment. The respondents will be medical doctors in Japan. What I would like to know (if there is a reasonably simple answer to this question) is what level of formality or politeness (teineigo, sonkeigo or kenjougo -- excuse me if I've spelled them wrong) is appropriate for the questions / statements directed at the respondents.

Many thanks for any enlightenment. Please also let me know if I've asked the question in the wrong way (so that there is no right answer) -- my knowledge of Japanese grammar only dates from yesterday.

Thank you in advance


sarahl (X)
Local time: 04:19
English to French
+ ...
Oct 11, 2005

[Edited at 2005-10-12 05:49]


Katalin Horváth McClure  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:19
Member (2002)
English to Hungarian
+ ...
It depends (so, there is no simple answer) Oct 12, 2005

Hi Endre,
Teineigo, sonkeigo and kenjoogo are three different things (Sarah is not correct about that).
It is not easy to explain, but let me try.

Sonkeigo is the honorific language, and kenjoogo is the humble language. I will try explaining them as a pair, perhaps it is easier to understand.
I would use homorific language if I am talking to, or talking about somebody or something that I look up to, somebody that is above me based on the standards of Japanese society. For example, when I talk to my boss at work, or to my professor at the university, I use the honorific form of the verbs in my speech. I would also use the honorific language when I talk about something that one of these people are doing or have done. In other words, you express your respect by "lifting them up" in your speech. (One interesting thing, that surprised me is that your parents and family members don't make it to this "upper" group, in Japanese you would not talk about them in a honorific manner, quite the contrary, in humble manner.)
This brings me to explaining kenjoogo.

Kenjoogo is the humble language, which I would use when talking about myself, or anybody or anything that belongs to me. In other words, kenjoogo is also a language used to express respect, but the method is that you lower yourself relative to the other party.

So, you see, the key is the relative relationship between the parties (the two speakers, or the speaker and the subject of his speech). Again, if I am talking to somebody that is above me, I would use sonkeigo to address him, and at the same time I would use kenjoogo to talk about myself and my things.

Now, if I am talking to somebody that is "below" me, I have two choices. I can use kenjoogo to address the person, or I can use the "equal/normal level speech" (tsuujogo - yeah, one more, huh?). My choice depends on the actual person I am talking to, and also my position. For example, if I am the Charmain of a large corporation, it is likely that I will use kenjoogo to talk to the delivery boy (or even the secretary) bringing my lunchbox. Parents sometimes use kenjoogo to talk to their children, especially when disciplining them. If somebody is nice, and don't want to talk "down" to others, even if they could based on their "rank", they use the equal level speech.

Now, equal level speech has two forms, informal and formal. Informal would be used among friends, kids playing together, girlfriends chatting, or among family members. Formal is more polite, and would be used when talking to strangers (most of the time, unless the relative rank-difference is very obvious), or among people at equal level (coworkers). This latest version of speech is what "teineigo" refers to.

Teineigo is simply using the verbs' "-desu", "-masu" form, instead of the "dictionary form" (ending with -ru, -ku, -tsu, -u, etc.) So, it is not specific in terms of honorific or humble. The dictionary form of the verbs is used in the informal language.

Now, this may seem complicated, and I am sorry if I confused you. You are right, this IS complicated, probably one of the biggest challenges to anyone trying to learn proper Japanese.

I have not touched on the topic of male and female speech (which may play a role in your survey if it is conducted as a personal interview), because that is again a story by itself, and would involve using different verbs or nouns for the same thing depending on the gender of the speaker/listener.

Anyhow, regarding your original question, it would probably be helpful if you could post a few sample questions, so we would get a sense of how much personalization is involved. For example, if the question is about a device, such as "How long did the battery last?" - this would probably not involve more than simple teineigo. However, if the question was "According to your experience, what percentage of your patients had problems, or felt incomfortable using our product?" - that you would use all three of these.

In general, without seeing the questions, I would say you will need to use all three, but obviously not always in the same sentence.

I found a pretty good summary (in Japanese) here:

[Edited at 2005-10-12 01:26]


Momoka (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:19
Japanese to Spanish
+ ...
Japanese Oct 12, 2005

Hi, Endre.
I don't know what a questionnaire like that looks like, have never seen one; that's why my comment is not related to the language itself, but to the work to be done. Maybe I'm missing the point (I apologize in advance) , but I think the person to do the translation must know what kind of language to use (why should you ask?). If not, I recommend you find a Japanese proofreader in the field of marketing to do the necessary corrections after your translator is finished.
If your translator is Japanese, I'm sure it will be easier for him/her in case of doubt to find out (contacting people in Japan, asking to the client what level of politeness is prefered, contacting other Japanese translators, etc.).
Japanese has different levels of politeness, and you find that even native speakers sometimes make mistakes when using them (mixing up, using them in inapropriate ways, etc.). I think you should leave it to someone who knows.
Just an opinion. Best of lucks with your project!


Endre Both  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:19
Member (2002)
English to German
Thank you Oct 12, 2005

Many thanks, Sarah, Katalin and Momoka, for your help.

I am particularly indebted to Katalin for going to such extreme lengths to help me out.

As always, matters are complicated than they first sound. I had hoped that my question was not significantly more complicated than deciding between "tu" and "vous" in French (apart from there being more than two options). I was wrong and I have learned a lot once again.

Thank you all


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