Japanese-English Localization

Localization isn’t a one-dimensional process. Machine translation, à la Google Translate, may deceive the layman into thinking it’s a simple process of changing A to B—taking one language and converting it into the other. Yet from a professional standpoint, it’s ideal to conceptualize translation as a tri-fold process that involves converting (1) source text to native concept, (2) native concept to target concept and finally (3) target concept to target text.

In particular, when faced with complex linguistic formulations in the Japanese language, it’s crucial to determine the native concept underpinning the source text. Often, this native concept entails cultural and historical consideration of the language at hand. Therefore, instead of trying to mold the source text directly into the target language, the native concept should be first be extrapolated in the target language as a concept: “How can I define this concept in my target language?”

At this stage, many questions arise. Does the native concept have cultural or historical context? Has the meaning changed over time? How is the native concept used today? Is it etymologically complex? Is it slang? Does an equivalent concept exist in the target language? If not, we’re often faced with the task of changing the linguistic structure or expressions used, yet retaining the original meaning. Sometimes, meaning is lost—but it’s our job to mitigate the loss, formulating an adept and comprehensible phrase.

Let’s look at an example.

1. Japanese source text


2. Native concept (rough transliteration/explanation)

“Our team works through sessa takuma to produce results.”

*The native concept here is 切磋琢磨 (sessa takuma), which is a Japanese idiomatic expression that translates roughly to “refined, polished processes that encourage improvement.”

3. Target concept

In this instance, the native concept of sessa takuma is the focus of our linguistic detective work.

Researching the term sessa takuma reveals that it was originally used to describe religious/spiritual self-improvement, using the example of polishing a stone. It was also used in the processing of materials in carpentry or craftsmanship, before taking on broader idiomatic usage.

We know that the fourth character in the phrase, “磨”, is the root character for migaku, or “to polish,” and the other individual characters have similar meanings, too:
切 – cut
磋 – whet
琢 – buff
磨 – polish

We can thus infer that sessa takuma refers to a refined, methodological, or labor-intensive approach to work processes. It is also increasingly being used to refer to some form of friendly rivalry or peer encouragement—’polishing’ each other, rather than just oneself.

4. Target text (final translation):

Our final translation is made possible by grasping the native concept and extrapolating it into a target concept before giving it a copywritten touch.

With a spirit of friendly competition, we inspire each other to produce results.

Although the ideas of native concept and target concept are more succinct when translating more disparate languages (Asian languages or Arabic into English, etc.), the process should be followed even with similar language pairs. For example, Italian and Spanish are so similar that a direct translation may generally suffice, but an experienced translator will always employ a multiple-step process that considers the native concepts and target concepts in play.

We believe this tri-fold methodology in conceptualizing a translation’s native concept and target concept is an intrinsic part of high-level translation and copywriting. Considering how the native concept extrapolates into a source concept provides an extra layer of understanding that will add value to your localization services, boost your linguistic comprehension and heighten your organization’s profile.