Why so serious? Japanese translations offer major challenges

Languages1 September 20143.6k

Japanese localization projects are notoriously difficult, as expectations have to be maintained and grammatical challenges overcome. Here, one of our Japanese linguists, Chiharu Miura, tells us a bit more about the process.

What are the main challenges with Japanese translations?
The big difference with Japanese translations is that the language is quite unique and so it is very difficult to do a direct translation, because it will not look nice or read well. So we usually try to stay true to the original source language, but make sure that it makes sense in Japanese. However, that balance can be quite difficult to strike. I’m a translator, but I also do a lot of editing, so I come into contact with a lot of translators and most of them are struggling with this point. With deadlines meaning limited time, and Japanese translations already taking more time and costing more money than others, it’s a challenge to get the right translation.

Why is it viewed as so challenging?
The Japanese language is old and rich, so there are a lot of variations in tone. Because of this, the translation can be very subjective, because some translators will think a certain way is correct, while others will think otherwise. People prefer different tones, so without clear direction and instruction from the customer or client reviewers it can be difficult. For example, the translation could be correct, but there will not be a constant standard between several translators working on a large project. Although none of them will be wrong, it’s an editor’s job to consolidate styles and deliver a consistent final translation. So if you don’t have clear instructions from the start it can be a disaster, as Japanese business people are very concerned about quality.

So, how can you make sure Japanese customers stay happy with their translations?
I try to make sure all of the terminology is agreed upon and understood at the beginning, as this way I understand what the customer’s preferences are. The tone is also very important. For example, in English you say ‘This is a pen’, but in Japanese there are many different ways to say ‘This is a pen’, so we have to make sure we get the right tone in order to create the right translation.

Can you tell us a bit about business culture in Japan?
Punctuality is very important for Japanese customers. They have clear, fixed views on deadlines and they don’t like it when these are not met and the job is not done on time. This puts extra pressure on translators.

What do Western companies need to be wary off when trading with Japanese partners?
Everyone knows that we [Japanese people] are very serious and organized and so it will not look good if you are late for a meeting. I live in Thailand and it is not such a big problem, but in Japan arriving late will not be well received. Punctuality reflects that you are sincere and serious about your job. Another main thing is the relationship with the customer. In Japan, we tend to favor one relationship, we don’t like changing the contractors. So once you establish a good relationship it can go on for a long time. But this means in the beginning you have to be careful, as it takes time to build a good relationship. It’s not only about doing the job right, it’s also about creating a good human relationship. We value how we communicate with other companies.

Are there misconceptions around doing business in Japan?
I have experience of working for a foreign company in Tokyo and I had trouble with foreign people because they think if they offer good terms, they will get the contract. But in Japan it doesn’t work that way, as before we get the real contract we need to build a relationship. However, foreign people don’t understand why the process is so complicated and takes a long time. Japanese people also don’t like face-to-face communication about certain issues, so Western companies need to understand that there’s usually subtle meanings behind everything Japanese business people will say. This different business culture can be very frustrating for foreign organisations, as Japanese people will tend to be very indirect and this can lead to misunderstandings.


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