The challenges presented by Japanese translation

What Makes Japanese Translation so Challenging?

With the Rugby World Cup upon us, we thought we’d look towards the Land of the Rising Sun to discuss some of the challenges of translating for the Japanese market.

Japan is an economic and commercial powerhouse, with the third-largest market in the world and a GDP twice the size of the UK. This means that there are excellent potential returns for businesses that can successfully bridge the cultural and linguistic chasm.

Around 450 UK companies currently have a base in Japan producing goods that include pharmaceutical products, electrical machinery, insurance, business and financial services and much more. Everything from large multinationals to smaller family companies are finding success in this lucrative and varied market, but given the challenges, there’s also a significant risk that your expansion could go wrong.

We’ve helped many businesses translate and localise for the Japanese market, and with the help of our mother tongue translators, we’ve compiled a list of the challenges it brings.

1. Translations are rarely literal

There are many words and phrases in the Japanese language that do not have literal translations in English, and that makes life difficult for our team of Japanese translators.

One of the primary challenges is writing messages in English that make sense in Japanese, and vice-versa, while still retaining the original meaning. This is something that the US firm Taco Bell discovered when branching out into Japan. Its ‘Crunchwrap Supreme – Beef’ became the ‘Supreme Court Beef’, while its ‘cheesy chips’ became the perhaps Freudian ‘low-quality chips’.

2. Cultural nuances are a constant challenge

Professional translators must pay close attention to cultural nuances with every translation they perform. However, this is particularly true of the Japanese language, where the country’s culture is so ingrained in its language. For example, Japanese grammar expresses a sense of politeness and formality that can be difficult for a translator to capture unless they’re a native Japanese speaker.

3. Pronoun choices require serious thought

In the English language, and in many other languages for that matter, choosing the right pronoun is a very simple thing to do. In Japanese, it’s not. Some Japanese expressions provide no contextual clues about the gender of the person being referenced, which makes it very difficult to choose the correct gender-specific pronoun to use.

4. There’s nothing to distinguish between singular and plural nouns

As Japanese nouns do not distinguish between singular and plural forms, there’s often no way to determine whether a word is meant to be singular or plural without looking at the wider context. However, at times, the wider context offers no assistance, which makes the translator’s job all the more difficult. With no plural nouns, the method of counting also frequently changes, even when using pronouns and adjectives.

5. The irregular placement of subjects and verbs

In Japanese, there are many grammatical rules that are less intuitive than in other languages. This is true of the placement of subjects and verbs.

In English, the subject and verb usually appear towards the beginning of a sentence, while in Japanese, verbs are placed at the end of a sentence. Subjects are also not always implicitly stated, which again makes the context of the sentence all the more important.

Experience is vital

With such a varied range of challenges and the cost of making a mistake so high, you need a Japanese translation team you can rely on to get it right.

At Linguistica International, we have helped many firms, large and small, to take their first steps in the Japanese market. To discuss your Japanese translation project, please get in touch with our team on 02392 987 765 or email info@linguistica-international.com today.