SimulTrans Localization Blog: SimulTips

5 Tips on Japanese Translation

[fa icon="calendar"] November 9, 2018 / by Vinodh Nedyavila


“Kampai!” celebrates a group of Japanese businesspeople after a taxing workday. “Kampai” is “Cheers” in Japanese. However, its literal meaning translates to “dry glass”, “(kan-乾)” meaning “dry” and “(pai-杯)” meaning “glass”.  Japanese culture is quite intricate and has been gracefully weaved into the Japanese language.

Japanese communication and marketing styles are unique. Japanese tend to prefer passive communication over aggressive communication, and that can affect the tone of marketing messages. Communicating passively may involve conveying thoughts indirectly or using a certain tone of politeness (Japanese has three, perhaps more). Some thoughts are much more easily (and beautifully) articulated in Japanese, while others are not. Translation into Japanese can be tricky – immerse yourself in helpful tips on Japanese translation below.


Japanese Translation Tip 1: Select the most suitable tone of politeness

Japanese has three basic tones of politeness: normal (普通), polite (丁寧), and honorific (尊敬). Even in the business world, the tone used towards a colleague (polite) versus a customer (honorific) can be quite different (the honorific tone involves prefixes and suffixes added to certain words, and special conjugations of verbs). Generally, the more personal your relationship is with another person or the longer you have known them, the more informal your tone can be (hence, the most informal Japanese is generally used among family and friends). When translating into Japanese, selecting the most suitable tone based on your target audience is essential to making the best first impression possible with your translated content. Selecting tone of politeness is typically the first step in Japanese translation.


Japanese Translation Tip 2: Consider use of kanji vs. katakana vs. English script

Japanese consists of three types of characters: hiragana (used for naturalized Japanese words and grammar structures), kanji (adopted Chinese characters that can replace or be combined with certain hiragana), and katakana (used for foreign words and names, onomatopoeia, scientific or technical terms, and occasionally for emphasis). When translating into Japanese, certain words are better left in English (e.g., company or product names such as Apple or iPhone). For words where Japanese translation is needed, it may be better to use either kanji or katakana, or in some cases a combination of both. For example, take the Japanese translations of “love” and “neural network”:

  1. “Love” can be translated in kanji as “愛” (ai) or in katakana as “ラブ” (rabu)
  2. “Neural network” can be translated in katakana (ニューラル ネットワーク) or as a combination of kanji and katakana (神経ネットワーク)

Because Japanese only begin studying English in junior high school, it is best to use katakana and kanji for much younger audiences. That said, considering the use of kanji vs. katakana vs. English when translating into Japanese is generally a good idea.


Japanese Translation Tip 3: Use centered dots or spaces as word separators

In Japanese, there are typically no spaces between words (double-byte spaces are generally used after commas and periods to indicate a break in a sentence or the end of a sentence). In cases where Japanese translation involves a series of long words in katakana, distinguishing between the words may prove challenging. For this reason, a centered dot (nakaguro) or single-byte (“half-width”) space can be inserted between each word. For example, take the Japanese translation of “console application” which involves the words “console” and “application” spelled out in katakana:

  • No separation: コンソールアプリケーション
  • Centered dot: コンソール・アプリケーション
  • Single-byte space: コンソール アプリケーション

While a Japanese audience can probably read the first translation with no separation between words, the same audience would find the translation much easier on the eyes if centered dots or single-byte spaces were used as word separators. Which one to use in these instances depends on the style preferred by your company and/or target audience, but these days it is more common to use single-byte spaces because they are subtler as word separators than centered dots. Centered dots are still used, especially when the content is rich in katakana.


Japanese Translation Tip 4: Maintain clean glossaries and translation memories

Clean glossaries and translation memories are particularly important in maintaining consistency in Japanese translations. Keep in mind, the same word or sentence can have different Japanese translations based on tone of politeness and/or type of script used (kanji, katakana, etc.). For example, the word “Reference ID” can be translated as “レファレンスID” (katanana), “参照ID” (kanji), or left in English as “Reference ID” – all three translations have the same meaning but the most suitable translation should be applied consistently over time. Hence, it is a good idea to keep Japanese glossaries and translation memories up to date.


Japanese Translation Tip 5: Plan for several rounds of review

It is no secret that Japanese reviewers can be very strict. Generally, Japanese reviewers are more critical of translations and provide more detailed feedback than reviewers for other languages. For this reason, it would be wise to plan for several rounds of review. When planning for Japanese transation, take into consideration the time spent on the “back and forth” with reviewers in order to make Japanese translations perfect. You may even want to plan ahead and prepare for a project in advance (e.g., provide translators glossaries, style guides, previous reviewer feedback for similar translations, contextual materials) – there are cases when extra time spent before project kickoff can lessen the time required for review and/or number of rounds of review. Japanese businesses tend to prefer this proactive approach, as ultimately, the goal is Japanese translations that have been polished to perfection.


The tips above can help you build a strong foundation to your planned Japanese translation projects. We hope that our suggestions help you achieve Japanese translations that truly resonate with your target audience. If you'd like more advice specific to your translation needs, click below to schedule a free consultation with a SimulTrans Localization Expert!

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Vinodh Nedyavila

Written by Vinodh Nedyavila

Vinodh is an Account Manager and Marketing Specialist at SimulTrans' HQ in Mountain View, California, and focuses on new business development, inbound marketing, and creative writing. With a background in Economics and International Relations, and experience working in the US, Singapore, and Japan, he is a valued member of the ever-expanding SimulTrans team, and passionate about bringing the world closer together through localization services.