In Japanese Translation, Audience is Everything

“Is it casual or formal, business or private?” These are the types of questions that I constantly have to ask my clients whenever I begin a new Japanese translation project.

Translating an English document into Japanese involves more than just conveying the meaning of the word or the sentence from the original language to Japanese. The Japanese language contains a variety of “languages” depending on audience and context; each has a unique set of expressions and sentence structures depending on the levels of politeness that the speaker wishes to convey to his or her listeners.

I refer to these various languages as business language, professional language, authoritative language, casual language and so on. For example, a merchant speaking to his or her customer uses one set of expressions and a doctor is speaking to his patient uses another. When the same merchant is communicating with his corporate customers, the tone in written language is different from that used when he is writing to an average consumer.

This may be a foreign concept to speakers of English and other Western languages, but trust me, it is very important to pay attention to these details. A business will not succeed in Japan unless it can earn the trust of Japanese consumers. Unfortunately, I have seen way too many mistakes in translated documents using the wrong sets of expressions or tones, and Japanese buyers can spot those mistakes in a heartbeat. Do you think a Japanese customer would be willing to pull out his or her credit card and buy something from your web site when it is obvious that your business didn’t even make an effort to get the wording on its credit card page right?

Unlike the English language, the Japanese language has many different levels of politeness to express depending on who the audience is in relation to the speaker of the sentence. For example, when I was in middle school, the level of politeness I used when speaking to someone my own age was different from that used with someone older than me, even by a year, and also with someone younger than me, even by a year. (Using the less polite terms with the older students in my Judo club led to an unpleasant experience.) Similarly, the level of politeness is higher when a merchant is speaking to his or her customer than when the person is speaking to his supplier. In Japanese culture, it is considered common and good business practice to treat buyers with the utmost politeness and importance when it comes to any business relations. This is why a merchant can be quite rude to his supplier but must treat his customers as if they were celebrities.

And then there is “you.” This may sound strange to most people, but translating “you” into the proper Japanese context is one of the hardest and most awkward aspects of Japanese translation. In Japanese, we almost never use the word for “you”; it is potentially offensive to the person being addressed unless used in a romantic relationship with that special “you.” We would rather address a person by their name, typically their last name, rather than calling them “you” in a conversation.

If I am speaking to Mr. Yamada in a casual context, I would almost never address him in the “you” form; I would address him as “Yamada-san” or Mr. Yamada. If he has an umbrella in his hand, I would refer to it as “Yamada-san’s umbrella” rather than “your umbrella.” (In fact, I saw in a popular Japanese textbook that Westerners use “you” and “I” words in Japanese way too often when they try to speak it.)

Then, there is the rather extreme commercial context. Let’s say I am hired by an online business owner to localize a website selling chocolate for the Japanese market and there is a sentence in English that says, “If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our customer service department.” Notice that dreaded word “you” at the very beginning of the sentence. In this context, I don’t think it would be considered rude if I translated it as “you” in Japanese, but it will definitely sound like someone from another planet is trying to speak Japanese. But if a Japanese business owner were writing the same concept on his web site, it would read something like, “If sir/ma’am Customer has any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact our humble Customer Service center.”

Those of us who have been providing professional translation into Japanese for years would likely agree that the Japanese language is one of the hardest languages to master, even as a native Japanese speaker. I have to pay constant attention to who the audiences might be and adapt the vocabulary and sentence structure based on what I think the audiences expect from the clients that I work for. I see my job as earning the customers’ trust on behalf of my clients’ businesses. I see my job as a translator as creating communication channels in which audiences understand the intent of what my clients wish to communicate to them.

The next time you’re hiring a Japanese translator, please don’t think twice about spending a lot of time with him or her to discuss the context of your document. Believe me, it is worth the time and effort to gain the confidence and trust of Japanese audiences.