With over 130 million speakers worldwide, Japanese is a high-demand language in the world of translation. In fact, it was our most popular target language for translation projects in the first quarter of this year, keeping our Tokyo and U.S. translation offices quite occupied.
Are you looking to invest in Japanese translation services? Let’s explore a few of the complexities involved in the Japanese language as well as some best practices for obtaining the kind of quality that will empower you to effectively build your brand’s fan base in Japan and beyond.
The Japanese language in brief
The Japanese language is known for its complexity. It uses three different groups of characters: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. All three forms are used in the written language, often within the same sentence.
Kanji are Chinese characters. Each kanji has its own specific meaning and pronunciation (and often, more than one pronunciation, depending on context). Kanji arelargely used to express concepts, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Officially, there are 2,136 standard kanji, although specialized fields, such as law or medicine, can use special kanji outside of the standard set.
Hiragana and katakana are syllables that carry pronunciation but do not have a specific meaning attached to them like kanji do. Each hiragana or katakana character equals one pronounced syllable, but they have specific usage rules. Hiragana syllables are used to help provide additional clarification for kanjiin sentences, such as prepositions, verb conjugations, and parts of speech. Katakana syllables are mostly used for foreign loanwords, similar to italics in English. Katakana can also be used for some place names and company names, among others.
In addition to hiragana and katakana, English characters (called rōmaji) are also widely used and understood. Some English words are commonly understood, but this does not mean that the English language is commonly understood.
Written Japanese is an art. Word choice in Japanese can be very specific, and how you sound is important. Working with a translation agency that specializes in Japanese translation and thoroughly understands when to use these complex sets of characters correctly is key to ensure a professional, intelligible result.
Japanese translation and the need for transcreation
Another key to obtaining high-quality Japanese translations is an investment in transcreation, a technique involving creative adaptation and local-language copywriting.
Literal translations of U.S. marketing copy always make for funny Japanese. Even Apple, with its myriad resources and marketing savvy, has struggled to achieve the right tone in Japanese. The Japanese version of the website (and IT-related websites in general for that matter) has content that could benefit from further finessing, even transcreation, in order to come across as authentically Japanese. The humor that results from “accurate” translations into Japanese can become a hurdle when trying to achieve specific marketing and sales objectives.
In fact, a literal translation from English to Japanese will rarely produce satisfactory results when it comes to high-visibility, consumer-facing content such as an eCommerce website. Stylistic choices that work well in English tend to fall flat in Japanese. We often see three-word English slogans or descriptions such as “simple, powerful, fun!” or copy that starts with a question like: “Want to …? Then …” These formulas are very specific to English, so basic translation falls short of achieving the impact you’re aiming for with your high-powered marketing copy.
This is one reason that companies like Uniqlo invest in content specifically geared toward the Japanese consumer. Retail and eCommerce sites with mission-critical copy require transcreation to achieve results. Choosing to approach Japanese customers with custom content communicates that you care about their business. It also makes you appear more local and native, giving you an edge over foreign competitors. And a transcreative Japanese translation process, though a bit more expensive up front, can truly add zeros to your sales numbers, resulting in a much more satisfactory ROI.