All you need to know about Japanese translation and localization
May 16, 2023

All you need to know about Japanese translation and localization

The Japanese market is the third-largest in the world. It has a highly stable economy and enormous purchasing power. Yet, not all companies think of Japan first when they decide to go international. One of the strong reasons behind this hesitation is the cultural differences and language.

The Japanese market is also a quality-sensitive and mature market. They are used to consuming high-quality localized products. They also have limited English proficiency. It makes localization a near-mandatory step to even enter the market. And, you’d have to aim for perfection, no less, to begin to register on the Japanese consumer’s mind.

This post will mainly address the language concern: how you can localize and translate your products and services for the Japanese market. Because language and culture are interwoven, it’ll also be touching upon how you can take care of cultural differences from a linguistic point of view.

This post will talk about:

  • the Japanese language,
  • challenges in Japanese localization,
  • best practices you can adopt to work with these challenges,
  • the importance of context in Japanese translation, and
  • game localization for Japan.

The Japanese language, formality levels, typography

Language- Japanese Localization and Translation

Vocabulary: Apart from words of Japanese origin, the Japanese language includes words borrowed from China and a rapidly growing category of words that have been borrowed from Western languages, mainly English.

Grammar: The structure of a sentence in Japanese is different from that of a sentence in English. For instance, in English we say, “I am eating bread.” The order is subject-verb-object. In Japanese, however, it is subject-object-verb. So, we’d say, “[私はパンを食べています。]” which would roughly translate to “I am bread eating.” It sounds odd in English, but that’s just how it is in Japanese.

The Japanese language has many other word orders, too, but the verb appears at the end in many cases. And the subject of the sentence determines the verb.
Please see if you can insert Japanese words here, either in the Japanese script or as a transliteration.

Formality levels: The Japanese language has many distinct politeness and honorific markers. One must always be aware of one’s social standing with the person being addressed and social standing to address someone. The formality levels can change verbs, adjectives, and even nouns.

Typography: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana are the three types of scripts used to write in Japanese. There are rules regarding when to use which script, but there are many exceptions to the rule. What adds to the complexity is that Japanese can be written horizontally and vertically, sometimes even in the same piece of content. When written vertically, the lines read from top to bottom and right to left, but when written horizontally, they read from left to right, just like English.

In general, some content types such as business documents and scientific texts lend themselves to the horizontal orientation. So do texts that may tend to contain foreign scripts and symbols.

In contrast, Manga – Japanese comics or graphic novels – would almost always be written vertically and from right to left.

Challenges in Japanese localization

Challenges in Japanese Localization

The above section on the Japanese language should give you some idea of the complexity of Japanese localization. Here we list some more challenges that you must be aware of and prepare for:

Literal translations are difficult: Translators do not translate literally in almost every language combination that involves languages of distant cultures. They must choose words in the target language that create the same meaning, but these words may mean different things by themselves. With Japanese and English, this is starker.

Certain words in Japanese have no direct or accurate translations in English. They can only be translated for sense, depending on the context of the source contents, and at least we need to learn about the history of the words since they came from Japanese original culture.

Usually, English is the pivot language. Even if you translate from Norwegian to Japanese, you need to translate first into English and then into Japanese. That is because there may not be as many translators who can directly translate from Norwegian to Japanese.

Tool support not yet there: Though many computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools exist to help with the process of translation when it comes to quality control for Japanese translations, they are not sufficient. Manual checks and reviews have to be done multiple times. This can make the process go much slower than translation into other languages.

Many developers may not be aware of the many complexities involved in accurate translations from English to Japanese or the other way. Unaware of the different character sets in Japanese, they often approach the project as any other straightforward localization project where source strings will be translated into the target language.

However, Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic, whereas Kanji is logographic. Many words are written with any of all three character sets or a combination of them. This makes sorting difficult, as it is not clear what should be the order on which the sorting will be based. The problem is usually with Kanji characters because they have many pronunciations based on the context. So, if you were creating a phone book, it’d be incredibly difficult to know how to sort the names because the same character may be there in multiple names. Yet, the name would be different because of the pronunciation.

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Best practices


Translate for cultural propriety: The Japanese try to put things in a more polite way, even when they have to convey something negative. So, instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” a more appropriate way of saying it in Japanese would be, “It would be difficult for me to do that.”

On a larger scale, this means that Japanese localization projects may lend themselves more to transcreation, especially with marketing content. Transcreation refers to writing fresh copy while keeping the spirit of the original message intact. With so many changes that need to be done to render content authentic, creative, and compelling, direct translations stand no chance.

Translators with a creative flair and subject matter expertise are the best fit to do transcreation projects. They are not that easy to find, though—partner with a language service provider that has hand-picked such translators.

A style guide is all-important: The many formality levels in Japanese have no equivalents in English. The client and the LSP need to be in perfect agreement on the tone of voice, honorifics, formality levels to be used, and the like. Also, create a list of words that do not need to be translated. These may be brand names. They may also be some terms in English relating to the menu or the interface which are fairly well understood by the audience and hence need not be translated.

It’s best if the client can supply a sample translated text in Japanese that can be used as a reference by the translators.

Work with in-country translators: They are in sync with colloquial styles, word usage changes, or any new words being added. Diaspora translators will not be working with this advantage. The style they use may not be contemporary.

Get the right tools: Work with translation tech tools that have been specifically developed for Japanese. If not, you have to factor in the additional time required for multiple QA rounds.

Try different approaches: A simple task like registering a new user on a website is not easy because of the sorting issue we mentioned earlier. Amazon solved this by simply asking the user how they pronounced their name. Moral of the story: Think specifically for the Japanese language.

Factor in additional time and larger budget: Japanese localization projects are known to take longer and cost more. Keep some leeway time- and budget-wise. It’s not just the linguistic complexities you have to consider. At the back-end, too, databases have to be re-configured, and the code written for interfacing the database with the website.

Importance of context in Japanese translation

Importance of context in Japanese translation

Everything we have mentioned till now about the Japanese language and the challenges it throws up points to the criticality of context in Japanese translation. Without context, it becomes difficult to even frame a simple sentence in Japanese. This is because of the importance of order and hierarchy in Japanese culture.

Everything from the singular or plural, the pronouns to be used, and the character sets to be used depending on the context.

Simple words such as “Hello” or “Please” in English are not simple to translate in Japanese. This is because there is no equivalent to the word Hello in Japanese. To say something like Hello, you would need to know the time of the day and the person you were addressing.

Japanese-English translation becomes more complex because of the fact that English has no markers of social hierarchy. Contrast this to Japanese, where every sentence stems from the social context wherein everyone is below someone and above someone. One more level of complexity is added depending on the situation: whether it’s formal or informal. For example, the verbs you choose would change depending on whether you were among equals or friends or addressing your boss.

Game localization for Japan

Game localization for Japan

Japan is the third-largest market in the world in terms of revenue for digital games. The country has a long history of gaming, which has quite organically grown out of its traditions of manga and anime. While manga refers to graphic novels, anime is the Japanese word for animation, derived from English. But outside of Japan, anime stands for the Japanese style of animation.

Gaming has grown hugely in Japan in the last decade thanks to mobile phones and fast internet. Part of the reason behind such growth is the long commute hours, which provide a great opportunity to play games. But gaming goes deeper than being a casual pastime in Japan: A McKinsey survey showed that one of the items Japanese consumers were willing to spend more on during the pandemic was at-home entertainment, including gaming.

While Japan is an attractive market for game developers and companies, it’s an intensely competitive market, too. Japanese gamers show an inclination for “culturally relevant art styles, game mechanics and storylines”. This means that non-Japanese game developers must have a very evolved localization strategy to tackle the home team advantage.

Six things to help with game localization for Japan:

  1. Because of the intricacy of Japanese game translation, recruiting translators and then building a relationship with them becomes extremely critical to the success of the project. Often, Japanese game translators become legends in their own rights with huge fan followings.
  2. It is also advisable to keep your localization team small to maintain style consistencies. Each translator will have their own style, but you can’t have one character speak in different ways.
  3. The script needs some preparation because of the formality levels and the need to know the context. The tone of voice also varies depending on gender.
  4. The role-playing genre (RPG) went through many innovations in Japan and remains one of its popular exports in the gaming world. When localizing a Japanese game into English, consider your audience’s preferences. Would they be okay with English subtitles and Japanese dialogue in the background, or would they much rather have an English dub?
  5. When dubbing, remember that the Japanese dialogue may take longer to finish than the lines dubbed in English.
  6. Use tools that allow easy interaction with translators. This way, you can address their questions faster and let others see and learn from the interaction. You can also leave reference notes for translators so that they can translate quickly and correctly.

To sum up, when you launch a translation project for Japanese, please keep in mind that you need to approach it differently. It might not be the easiest language to translate into or from, nor is it cheap, but remember that (1) there is high revenue potential and (2) localization is simply a given even to start operating in this market.

Work with an experienced LSP who brings to the table skilled resources are intimately aware of the tech tools to use for Japanese and has the project management muscle to pull this through. The LSP is your partner, and not merely a vendor, in your journey to the top of the Japanese market.

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