The good, the bad and the ugly—ensuring quality in Japanese‑to‑English translation

(Since the terms “translation” and “interpreting” are often confused, it is worth reiterating that “translation” refers solely to the rendering of the written word into another language. The terms “source language” and “target language” refer respectively to the language of the original text and the language into which it is translated. The following abbreviations are also used: J2E for “Japanese‑to‑English”, NSE for “native speaker of English” and NSJ for “native speaker of Japanese”.)

Something is rotten in the state of the J2E translation market in Japan. In Europe it is axiomatic that a translator should only translate into his or her own native language. Thus, only a native German speaker will undertake an English‑to‑German translation. The rationale is that even a person who has studied another language extensively will inevitably have a greater “active” command of his native language than of his second language. The term “active” denotes the ability to identify the proper word in a given context, to use technical terminology and idiom, and to accurately craft natural‑sounding sentences. (Correspondingly, “passive” facility denotes the ability to comprehend text or speech in the language.) A true bilingual may have an equally well developed active facility in two languages, but such people are extremely rare.

Translation is essentially a two‑stage process—thorough comprehension of the source text followed by precise rendition of the meaning into the target language in written form. Only the second stage—writing—requires an active command of the target language. Thus a translator ought to be a native speaker of the target language, not the source language. Moreover, few people write well in their own native language (let alone in one they have acquired). The number of people who can also write well in a second language is much lower—the large majority undoubtedly being people working in pairs of languages that are structurally similar, such as Japanese and Korean. For a language pair as structurally dissimilar as English and Japanese, people with strong writing ability in both are virtually non‑existent.

In Japan, however, with its huge J2E translation market, the “target‑language native speaker only” caveat goes largely ignored, and much of this J2E material ends up being translated by NSJs—often with dire results. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is a shortage of proficient NSE translators, since Japanese is still not studied much in English‑speaking countries (except for Australia). Hence, relatively few NSEs have attained a level of Japanese reading ability sufficient to enable them to translate effectively. (The increasing prevalence of software dictionaries, which spare the translator the need to memorize kanji readings, has alleviated this situation somewhat.) Hence, a company requiring J2E translation may struggle to find a suitable NSE translator.

Second, some companies with no foreign staff attempt to save money by assigning translation tasks to in‑house NSJ staffers—no matter how limited their English ability.

Third, there is a perception in Japan that Japanese is so complex and subtle that only NSJs can understand its nuances well enough to translate from Japanese into another language—and therefore that no NSE could ever comprehend Japanese well enough to adequately render the meaning of a source text into English.

Fourth, some Japanese managers believe that the best way to manage J2E translation is to have an NSJ familiar with the subject matter translate the source text and an NSE checker edit the resulting English text to produce a polished final version. This assumes that although the translator’s English may not be perfect, his output will be clear enough for the editor to easily divine the correct meaning and turn the text into natural English.

Fifth, NSE J2E translators are often less adept at speaking Japanese than at comprehending written Japanese (two quite distinct skills), and this hampers their ability to convince potential clients to entrust them with J2E translation projects.
Sixth, some English documents are intended purely “for show”—not to be read or understood. Hence, the quality of the English is immaterial.

Experience has consistently demonstrated, however, that the rationales for using non‑NSE translators for J2E translation are fundamentally flawed. Twenty-five years ago Japan was universally admired for its consumer electronics devices, but ridiculed for the English contained in the accompanying user’s manuals, which provided a stark illustration of the need to avoid non‑native writing in the commercial arena. The manufacturers have largely rectified this problem and now produce manuals of a quality commensurate with their products. However, NSJ‑authored English is still prevalent in Japan—in company reports, in corporate promotional literature, on company websites, and on barely comprehensible signs in airports, conference centres and sports stadia throughout the country.

Two reasons cited above for reliance on J2E translation by NSJs merit further discussion.

The belief that only an NSJ can appreciate the subtleties of Japanese well enough to render the meaning correctly in English is rubbish, and denigrates the intelligence and diligence of numerous non‑Japanese students of the language. As stated, the translation process requires only a passive understanding of the source language, and the diligent student can match an NSJ in this regard.

The notion that acceptable J2E translation might be produced by an NSE checker correcting the output of an NSJ translator is not so easily dismissed. (The arrangement may indeed be workable under ideal conditions, with the NSE checker having unlimited access to the NSJ translator for clarification of questionable points; however, this is rare in practice.) The operative word here, however, is “acceptable”. Editing non‑native English rarely results in text that reads smoothly. More importantly, the individual or company commissioning the translation will often seriously over‑estimate the translator’s English ability and under‑estimate how difficult it will be for the NSE checker to divine the intended meaning. Thus, in practice misunderstandings are likely to occur between the translator and checker, resulting in errors of meaning and nuance. Hence, the final text will be prone to imperfection—in both accuracy and style.

Advocates of the NSJ translator/NSE checker combination for J2E translation often buttress their claims with the argument that an NSJ translator with specialist knowledge of the field will do a better job than an NSE who lacks such knowledge. This is a complete red herring, however. Knowledge of the subject and of the technical vocabulary and phraseology used in the relevant literature will naturally confer a significant advantage. However, this alone will be insufficient to overcome the deficiencies inherent in using a non‑native translator. High‑quality J2E translation of specialist material certainly requires an NSE translator with sufficient understanding of the subject and adequate knowledge of the attendant terminology. However, this is entirely separate from the issue of the translator’s native language.

How, then, can top‑quality J2E translation be achieved? Experience demonstrates that consistently excellent results can be obtained as follows: first, a qualified NSE translator with knowledge of the subject matter translates the source document; second, an NSJ checker with an advanced level of English ability checks the translation against the original source text and points out any outright errors or mistakes in nuance; third, the NSE translator incorporates the NSJ checker’s corrections into the translated text; and fourth, an NSE editor performs a final stylistic edit and check for consistency. The two NSEs thus make maximum use of their active facility in English, while the NSJ brings to bear his likely superior passive facility with Japanese. This use of high‑quality personnel and three pairs of eyes is a proven method of achieving a near‑perfect translation that will read as smoothly as an original document written in English.

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Why is there such large variation in the quality delivered by different translation companies?

best quality badgeMany clients are disappointed with the results of their first encounter with a translation company: the output looks like machine translation, the wrong terminology was used, the translation had lots of grammatical errors, and so forth. That short list contains only problems the client can observe when translating into the client’s native language. The problems with meaning will go largely unnoticed to the monolingual client.

In many cases, the translation company has never had a high quality standard forced on it by the market, partially because the client typically cannot judge the quality of the product, or the client values low cost over high quality. This allows many translation companies to turn out substandard output. There are several industry exigencies that allow this type of translation company to survive, which will be the subject of a different blog post.

In this age of globalization, however, there are many more clients than ever who can understand the foreign language and can judge the quality of the translation, and they are expecting that all translation companies are operating on the same understanding that quality translation is not just nice to have but is a marketing imperative. Hence, their disappointment when the translation arrives.

Another problem that beggars belief is that, in Japan, there are some small companies that cannot judge the quality of the translation themselves. These agencies are started by non-translators who see an opportunity to make money in Japan’s lucrative translation industry. Keep in mind that Japan is the world’s third largest economy, has one of the most difficult languages to master, and is the only G7 country that does not “do English.” In other words, Japan is a rich country with a huge demand for translation and few resources to deliver it. As a result, in the past anyone with high-school level English comprehension could call themselves a translator, despite the very poor results.

So, what can a client do to ensure they get what they want?

Here is a short list of questions to ask prospective translation providers.

  1. What is the company’s quality assurance process?
  2. Are the translators native speakers of the translation language?
  3. Do the translators have experience in your industry or field?

If the company does not have solid answers to these questions, beware.

If they do have solid answers, have a two-page document translated (this can be a portion of a larger job), and have the translation confirmed by someone else.

If all is well, then you have found yourself a translation service provider worth keeping.

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Why is there such large variation in the prices charged by different translation companies?

Worldwide, the translation market is vast—in Japan alone, there are around 2500 companies that specialize in translation and interpreting. In the age of the Internet, there are also numerous companies based outside Japan that offer translation between Japanese and English. Many companies (both here and abroad) choose to compete on price, which requires that they slash their own costs to the bone. In general, they do so by using the cheapest (generally, non-native) human translators available or even machine translation—with predictable consequences in terms of quality.

At the other end of the spectrum, companies that choose to compete in terms of quality and specialization need to utilize the highest-quality, most specialized translators whom they can find (whether as in-house employees or freelancers), and to ensure that the translations they submit are properly checked and edited by reliable checkers and high-quality editors. This increases the company’s costs in terms of salaries and payments to freelance contractors, which inevitably makes for higher prices to the client.

In general, then, the client tends to get what they pay for. Seeking the cheapest vendor when buying translation services may seem like a good idea at the time (and may, of course, go down very well with the boss). However, if that translation is not up to standard and then goes out into the public domain (on the Web or in print), what are the potential longer-term consequences and costs to the client company in terms of reputation and public image?

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What does it mean when a government agency insists that the translation of a document be “certified”?

This simply means that the translator or translation company that carries out the work is required to append a statement to the end of the translated document stating that, in their view, the translation represents a complete and accurate rendition of the source document. The translator or translation company then stamps the statement with their official company seal.

Personal documents such as Japanese family registers, or birth and marriage certificates, normally require this certification step when they are translated for use in passport applications or other bureaucratic processes.

(Confusingly, embassies will sometimes post a helpful list of translators and translation companies on their website, with the caveat that the embassy makes no representation as to their competence.)

In any case, there is no official certification process (for translators or their work), so in practice this certification step is really just a formality that ticks a bureaucratic box.

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Is there such a thing as a “qualified” or “certified” translator?

There are a number of industry organizations and academic institutions that offer certification and qualifications in translation and interpreting. However, there is no real standardization nationally or internationally regarding testing criteria, and no compelling evidence that the holders of these degrees or certificates are any more competent or capable than their “unqualified” colleagues in the industry.
The Graduate
In practice, there are many excellent translators who have entered the industry from some other profession (such as law, IT or finance). Such people automatically possess the field-specific knowledge that they require. Provided that they have the language and writing skills as well, they possess all the necessary attributes to produce accurate, high-quality translations.

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Advertisements reveal a lot about who we are

Management guru Peter Drucker famously wrote, “a business enterprise has two—and only two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.” It’s a great line. It’s an axiom with far reaching implications. It also implies that companies can be differentiated on these two points alone.Drucker portrait

Recently at Honyaku Plus we began to up our game in the marketing arena, which naturally led to the topic of in-bound marketing (providing informative content for free to interest your target audience and generate interest in your product) and SEO (the use of keywords to make search engines display your information higher up than that of other companies). It’s all about social proof and credibility, at least on the surface. How you advertise, however, says a lot more about who you are than some companies imagine.

A few months ago, we started investigating the keywords for our industry, and I came upon a Japanese website that called itself a “translation service provider’s ranking website.” It was highly polished, and they played up the fact that the service providers were ranked based on “customer reviews.” Having recently surveyed our clients to learn our strengths and weaknesses, I was curious about what customers said of our competition. So I clicked on the top-ranked translation company. The next page gave a list of information about the company—your basic elevator pitch about why they were best, plus a few contact options—followed by their “customer reviews.” Imagine my confusion when the database helpfully filled in that field with “No reviews yet.” Hmm. So, how did that company get to be “#1”?
The site also helpfully provided a list of the featured companies, and these were classified into their respective fields—i.e. the industries that a company primarily served. Here, I discovered another oddity. There were only one or two companies per industry, and there were only about 15 companies listed.

As an executive responsible for “innovation and marketing,” my first thought was, “each company paid to be listed here, brilliant! Where do I sign up?”
However, there was no information about or link to the owner of the website. There was no way to sign up!

So, who are these companies with gorgeous websites and stock photographs of bright, sparkling young people ready to process my translation requests? I looked up the address of one of the companies on Google Maps and found myself standing, virtually, in front of a small, rundown office building in Tokyo with a fast food restaurant on the first floor, and no apparent signage or other evidence of the existence of the esteemed company and its hundreds of staff. Odd. As anyone who has been to our office or even looked at our website knows, Honyaku Plus is located in a similarly puny office building—such are the realities of business—but we at least hang out a shingle!

I also ran a Whois search on the URL and found that it was owned by a large Internet research and marketing firm.

If I were to hypothesize, I would say that someone contacted translation companies specializing in different fields, created the webpage, and then SEO’d the bejeezus out of it. This is common enough, but the fact that they hide their identity and give the consumer the idea that this is not paid for advertisement? That is false advertising.

After discussing this subject internally, we decided that the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach is not who we are as a company. There is no sin about talking about how good you are, and it is generally better to promote the best side of your business rather than talking about how you screwed up that project or how this client hates your guts. However, there are limits.

To translation buyers, caveat emptor.

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Why is there so much bad translation out there?

We’ve all seen non-sensical (and sometimes hilarious) English signs, menus and notices in shops, restaurants, sports grounds and airports around Japan. It is somewhat less amusing when you pay for a document to be translated, and the quality of the translation is much lower than you expected.

Google Translate or other machine translation applications may well be the source of some fraction of the poor translations that are in evidence (especially those in restaurants!).

Much more common, however, is poor translation by human translators who are simply not up to the job. Japanese companies seeking to save money on Japanese-to-English translation work will sometimes assign the task to an employee who is believed to have a fair grasp of English. The thinking is that, even if the result is not perfect, a “native-checker” (i.e. a native speaker of English who will edit the translation) can be hired cheaply to spruce up the employee’s translation and produce an acceptable final document in English.

In many cases, however, the cumulative effect of the incorrect word choices, grammatical errors and stylistic lapses in the English soon becomes overwhelming, causing the meaning of the document to be substantially obscured. The native-English checker is nevertheless expected to rewrite the piece to clarify meaning, eliminate errors and make it sing stylistically. This is a tall order at best, and is often well-nigh impossible—even with extensive rewriting. The end result, then, is usually a substandard product that reflects poorly on all involved.

A similar problem exists with translators who are translating out of their own native language. In Europe it is axiomatic that a translator should only translate into his or her own native language—the rationale being that non-native speakers of the target language lack the ability to write as clearly and fluently as native speakers can. Thus, only a native German speaker will be assigned English-to-German translation work. In Japan, however, this basic tenet goes largely ignored, and a significant proportion of Japanese-to-English translation work is carried out by working translators who are Japanese.

Again, the belief is that a native-English editor will be able to smooth out the draft translation and produce an acceptable final version. However, even “professional” Japanese translators are rarely immune from making poor choices of words and idiom, and significant grammatical and stylistic errors. As a result, misunderstandings are likely to occur between the translator and the rewriter, resulting in errors of meaning and nuance. In addition, editing non-native English rarely results in text that reads smoothly. Hence, the final text will be prone to imperfection—in terms of both accuracy and style.

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Aren’t all translators going to be replaced by computers or Google Translate any day now?

Very simply, no. For extremely simple or repetitive translations (such as a list of components, or a set of instructions where only part names and numerical quantities change from one version to the next), a computer can do the job. Alternatively, if you just need to get a very rough sense of the meaning of some text by looking up individual words, then Google Translate or a similar application may fit the bill. However, computers are not capable of actually comprehending language in any real sense—in the cases cited above, the computer is simply substituting individual words or phrases that are stored in its memory.

An experienced and knowledgable human translator, on the other hand, possesses a clear mental picture and an overall understanding of the source text’s subject matter—be it a digital camera, a foreign-policy topic, a semiconductor device or a sports match. The human translator thus understands the implications of what is written in the source, as well as what is stated explicitly.

As he or she works through the text, the human translator can select just the right word, term or phrase, spot nuance, and deduce the correct meaning based on each statement’s context. These skills are simply beyond the capability of a computer—nuance, phrase and idiom choice, context, and cultural sensibility simply cannot be digitized or computed. In addition, computers are also incapable of producing fluent, natural writing—an indispensable component of high-quality translation.

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Translation and interpreting—what’s the difference?

Confusion sometimes arises over the difference between a “translator” and an “interpreter”.

A translator works on a written document, reading the content in the source language (e.g. Japanese) and producing the equivalent document in the target language (e.g. English).

An interpreter acts as a verbal intermediary between two or more people whose native languages are different, usually repeating in turn what each of his/her clients says in the other’s language, to facilitate communication between them.

Interpreting can be either “consecutive” (the interpreter listens, then interprets into the other language) or “simultaneous” (the interpreter listens and speaks simultaneously, so that the client does not have to stop mid-flow). Interpreters commonly work at business meetings, press conferences and sporting events.

Translation and interpreting thus require very different skill sets.

A translator working from Japanese to English essentially needs three attributes: the ability to read and comprehend written Japanese; the ability to write well in English, so as to express the meaning of the original text clearly and concisely; and sufficient knowledge of the subject matter at hand (less crucial for generalized subject matter, but vital for technical subjects such as law, finance, medicine and IT).

Interpreters require both excellent listening comprehension skills and spoken fluency in both languages, sufficient knowledge of the subject(s) about which they will be interpreting, and the social skills to adapt instantly to a variety of situations.

As a result, language professionals tend to specialize exclusively in either translation or interpreting.

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How to improve as a translator—advice for the frustrated freelancer

To meet a really high standard of quality, a translation needs to fulfill the following two criteria: it should (a) accurately capture the meaning of the source text, and (b) read smoothly—just as if it had been originally written in the target language.

This is significantly harder to achieve when translating into English from Japanese than from a closely related European language (such as French or Spanish).

Japanese and English have completely different grammatical formations, sentence structures and writing conventions. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear an aspiring J-to-E translator say: “I understand exactly what the Japanese text means—I just don’t know how to put it into natural English”.

There is no easy answer to this problem. The serious translator needs to develop their English writing skills as much as possible, and to avoid compromising and producing slapdash writing just to get the job out of the door. Don’t lose heart, ‘though—with experience and perseverance, the translation process does become easier!

In order to produce natural-sounding English output, don’t be afraid to do the following when necessary:

• Depart radically from the order of the Japanese sentence.
• Use idiom and paraphrase.
• Split long sentences into two or more English sentences.
• Combine short sentences into one English sentence.
• Use words or terms that do not feature prominently in standard Japanese-English dictionary definitions for the Japanese word or term.

In short, be creative and make bold, independent decisions. The author of the source document may own the original, but is rarely qualified to tell the translator how to express the same meaning in English.

Another useful exercise is to have your work reviewed by others. A native Japanese speaker (with a good command of English) should be able to point out errors in meaning and missed nuance; a fellow English speaker with advanced writing skills (but not necessarily any Japanese ability) will be able to point out stylistic inconsistencies and lapses.

Naturally, feedback from clients should also be taken on board (subject to their ability to assess how well your translation plays with the target audience).

To re-iterate, the ultimate goal is to produce text that reads like an original—not a translation. Just as for a referee or an umpire in sport, the highest accolade for a translator is when the audience didn’t even notice they were there.

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