Japanese translation projects have earned quite a reputation in the translation and localization industry. It is too time intensive, say some. It is far costlier than other language projects, say others. And Japanese clients are notoriously fussy about that ever-moving-goal called “quality.”
But this relatively small island alone is the third largest in the world’s economy and the amount of content that gets localized to or from Japanese is enormous. So it makes sense to learn what it takes to be successful at Japanese localization.
Rules? Which Rules?
Language is a living thing — actor and subject, evolving and dying, a nearly inaudible whisper and a forceful storm. Efforts at structuring and containing it, while noble, quickly come up against its everyday realities.
That doesn’t mean that these efforts are never undertaken. Quite the opposite. In France, for example, the 379-year old Académie Française strives to police, protect, and preserve the French language. When you consider its very public fight last year against the efforts of the French government to open up higher education to English, you can see that is no easy goal. But these efforts at linguistic purism are the passion of similar language academies around the globe.
Except in Japan. Japan does not have a centralized regulatory body to fulfill the “officiate and prescribe” role that these other nations do.
So how then do translators ensure that they are properly translating from or into a language that has three writing systems?
The answer: It depends.
The Quality Question
Across all language projects, the notion of linguistic quality remains largely a relative one. The variables are based on factors as diverse as audience, deliverables, locale, generational differences, and even mere preferences.
Stating that the linguistic quality of Japanese translation is highly subjective is a gross understatement. It has multiple writing systems (kanji, which is ideographic; hiragana and katakana, which is collectively known as kana and is phonetic; and romaji, which is used in specific situations for writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet), two computer input methods (direct kana or keyboard romaji), no centralized authority’s take to fall back on, and the variables mentioned above to contend with.
The choice of words/writing systems is often driven by cultural differences, context, target audience, or company policy. Kana words are used ever more frequently, because kana is more likely to be used for foreign concepts and terminology. Software or online content are one such area. Much is also generation specific. While the younger generations may prefer katakana to kanji, older generations may sometimes not understand modern katakana.
Add to this the distinctive grammatical structure of Japanese. It is an agglutinative language, having more in common with Native American languages than with neighboring China’s. Unlike English, its word order is subject-object-verb not subject-verb-object. The differences are so stark that translators often have to restructure sentences, reorder words, add words or omit words altogether to arrive at the proper translation.
Japanese reading comprehension is also highly context dependent. This means, for instance, that when sorting in Japanese, one may have to manually index characters by considering their reading in order to arrive at the correct table of contents, index, or sorted lists.
No surprise then that Japanese localization is plagued with high error rates, longer project cycles, and budget-breaking costs.
Customer Care Conundrum
As if these challenges were not enough, Japanese localization projects generally call for greater attention to the customer service experience. Like Japanese characters themselves, translations are expected to be aesthetically driven. Business relationships, too, are expected to show attention to style, presentation, and visual coherence.
Our own experience with Japanese localization, for example, has revealed
- low tolerance for design errors
- preference for the visual over the textual (often calling for re-design of original source materials)
- presentation valued more than substance
This may be, too, why Japanese business relationships place greater emphasis on harmony rather than confrontation, constructive or otherwise. According to Robert Whiting, the author of You Gotta Have Wa, the concept wa, or peace, is a core Japanese value and critical to succeeding in its market. For an unprepared non-Japanese, wa may prevent them from discovering the root cause of a problem or an issue.
Success Is Possible
What we know of the challenges of Japanese localization are the sign posts along the way to success. That is, we can deliver accuracy and quality while also attending to the business values that contribute to trust. How can you win at Japanese localization?
Prepare for translation difficulties with terminology bases, style guides, and glossaries that address specific project needs and client preferences.
Agree on policies that will govern the typically higher time and budgetary needs of the Japanese localization process. Build in an early client or reviewer involvement in your projects; expect a higher number of review cycles.
Shift additional resources to desktop publishing and other visual presentation priorities.
Localizing content for Japanese clients may test your mettle, but knowledge and commitment can deliver results that are a success for all involved. For additional insights, download our article Managing Japanese Localization Projects.