A Quick Note on Translating Japanese Company Names

Just a quick note on how to translate Japanese company names/what to do when translating Japanese company names.

Needless to say, Japanese company names often come up in the course of translating Japanese material into English. For big name companies like Sony or Hitachi, finding out the official company name (i.e., does it, say, end with “Co.” or “Inc.” or perhaps another designation?) can be as easy as typing that name into Google, or even the English Wikipedia. For smaller companies, however, the process can be a little more complicated.

First, go ahead and pop that Japanese company name into Google and see if you can’t find the company’s homepage. Be careful not to just pick the first result that comes up – sometimes you will find companies with more or less the exact same name and who may have completely different official English name translations, or you might hit upon the website of a subsidiary or the parent company of the company you are looking for, instead. Also, you might be tricked into thinking a page dedicated to the company your looking for on a website which aggregates information about other companies is the website you are looking for. The latter is more of a problem when translating from Chinese, however.

Now, assuming you’ve found the real website of the specific company you are looking for, look at the top of the page and see if a banner image, etc., already shows the English name of the company. If not, see if there are any buttons near the top labelled “English” or the like which will take you to the company’s English website and, hopefully, their English name. Failing either of the above, scroll to the very, very bottom of the page. Many Japanese websites will use their English name for a copyright notice listed at the bottom of the pages on their website.

Next, and in conjunction with the methods detailed above, look for the company’s self-introduction page, often linked to under a button labeled with “[Japanese company name here]とは” or occasionally (and in English) “About” or similar expressions. The company’s self-introduction page will almost always list, in a tidy little table, basic information about the company such as their name, who the president is, how much capital they have, and what sort of business they do, among other information items. In addition, companies often list the official English translation of their company name here. I have often encountered cases where the English name here and the name used at the bottom of the page for the copyright notice and even on the official English site differed, so it’s important to check here even if you find an English name for the company elsewhere. If there is a discrepancy in the names provided, I would recommend first going with the official English name translation provided in the company information page, unless the name listed there is patently inappropriate for some reason. At any rate, if there is a discrepancy, regardless of which name you choose to use, be sure to leave a translator’s comment in your translation (via the comment feature provided in various document applications or, more traditionally, a highlighted comment in parentheses within the text) indicating the discrepancy and why you chose the name you chose as well as any recommendations you might have concerning the English version of the company name.

If no English version of the company name is provided anywhere on the official site, or if the company apparently has no website, you’ll have to guess at the pronunciation of the characters used in the company name (unless, for some reason, the company name is written only in katakana or hiragana). Often this is a straightforward process if the company name just describes what the company does, such as company names with words like “重工業” (jukogyo, “heavy industries”) in them. If the pronunciation of the characters in the name are not straightforward, however, such as personal or place names, you may just have to guess by searching on Google for websites which provide readings for personal and place name characters and choosing the one that seems most likely. If it’s apparently a place name, or you know more or less where the company is located, you can try matching up the name with a location, which will then tell you or help you find the pronunciation of the name.

For example, if the company you are looking for is named “大田重工業” (a name which I just made up and bears no relation to any real companies) and you know the company is located in Ota (大田), Tokyo and not in the city of Tsuyama, Okayama (which has a neighborhood whose name is also written “大田” but which is pronounced “Oda”), you can be pretty sure the company’s name is pronounced Ota Jukogyo and not Oda Jukogyo. Using the Japanese version of Wikipedia can be a big help in finding out whether there are any regional names which use the characters you are looking for and where they are located. If the company name you are looking for is apparently using a place name as part of its name, even just knowing what half of Japan the company is in can sometimes be a big help in narrowing down how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

Now that you’ve figured out the pronunciation of the name, you can test it out to see if it’s ever been used in English. You can try typing variations of the name, in English letters, inside double quotes in Google (to specify you want exact matches only) to see if the company has ever been mentioned in any news articles or websites which aggregate company information. If you get any hits, be sure to compare the information on the page to see if it seems to match the company you are looking for. If the company name contains any general terms (like 重工業 mentioned above), you can try typing in different translations of those terms plus the place or personal names that are part of the name with and without double quotes to see if you can any hits or near hits. With any luck, you’ll find a more or less “official” English name for the company.

If searching on Google proves unsuccessful (and assuming you’ve at least discerned a likely pronunciation for the name), you’ll just have to write the pronunciation of that name in English. In this situation, do not, I repeat, do not “translate” the name. Just leave it as is. The standard protocol if you don’t have an official translation for a company name is to just write it in English letters and otherwise leave it untranslated. For example, if the company’s name is “大田重工業株式会社” (or “株式会社大田重工業”, the placement of the “株式会社” part doesn’t matter) and you have no official name for it, you would write “Ota Jukogyo K.K., not “Ota Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.” (the “K.K.”, short for “kabushiki kaisha”, is how you typically write the legal designation of “株式会社” in English if there is no official translation [even though it’s really pronounced “kabushiki-gaisha“, I know]). The “untranslated” abbreviations of other Japanese legal designations, in the rare case you encounter them and don’t have an official English name, can be found with some Googling.

Regardless, and again, in any situation where you are not 100% certain what the company name is, be sure to leave a translator’s note explaining the situation.

As for romanization systems, you may have noticed I used a modified Hepburn romanization (if you don’t know what that means, take a quick trip to Wikipedia-ville). Hepburn includes a system for writing long vowels, but I omit long vowels as I feel using this will just confuse readers not familiar with the way Japanese is spoken, and this seems from my limited experience to be the majority view among translators. So, for example, I write the long “o” sound in 大きい(おおきい) and 書道 (しょどう) as just another “o,” not “ō,” “ou,” or “oh” (or possibly “oo” in the case of 大きい, which would be even more confusing for those not familiar with Japanese). Regardless of which romanization you choose, be sure to use it consistently throughout the document and, if the document is to be part of an existing translation, be sure to follow the existing romanization scheme being used.

Lastly, if possible, it’s best to just ask what the official English translations are of any company names that appear in the document to be translated before/when you accept the job. Of course, if the client has no direct connection to the companies listed in the source text, you will most likely have to revert to the method described above.

Basic Japanese translation lingo: 银联

In your translator travails, you may come across the term 银联, particularly if you’re translating documents for stores, malls, and the like, and it may make you nearly tear your hair out in frustration trying to look up the kanji. That’s because 银联 is not kanji but in fact full-on Chinese. The funny-looking (for a person who studies Japanese) shape of the characters are a big tip off. 银联 is actually UnionPay, China’s home-grown bank card, which more and more Japanese retailers are beginning to accept. Now you should have no problem if they pop up.

Quick translation tip: mysterious acronym

Got an acronym that you just can’t find no matter how much you Google it? If you’re working on a document for a company, take another look at who you’re working for – that acronym may just be the company’s name. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-learn this lesson (including just a few moments ago). In translation, sometimes the answer is right in front of your face.

Basic Japanese translation lingo: ベタ打ち

There are a few different ways a client might ask for a translation to be delivered; ベタ打ち (betauchi) is one of them. ベタ打ち basically means to type your translation (usually in MS Word) more or less exactly the same as it appears in the source document. This method is only used when the source document is a picture, un-copy-able PDF, or other document format from which the source text cannot simply be copy and pasted (if you have an editable Word file as your source document, for example, you can just write your translation right over the original text, or below it). For example, if a title in the source document is centered and in bold, your translation of that title will be centered and in bold as well.

Where it gets tricky is when you have diagrams and other non-linear forms of text. One way to handle this would be to paste a copy of an image of the diagram in your Word document and place text boxes over the areas to be translated. Text boxes are messy, however, and due to spacing issues and text size, this isn’t always a viable option. I prefer to make a table and try to orient the translations so their relationship to each other approximates how they appear in the original. Sometimes, however, this is just not possible, or at least not practical – there are so many bits of text in so many odd positions in a diagram that even if you turned them into a table, a monolingual editor looking at it will have no idea what’s supposed to go where. In these cases you have to bend the rules a bit. I usually just create a two-columned dictionary table, with each phrase or term from the original document typed on the left and their translation typed on the right. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious or just typing the terms seems insufficient (for example when the same term appears twice or more in the same diagram but, due to context, each instance has to be translated differently), I’ll cut out an image of that term and paste it into the left hand column instead (the Snapshot tool in the free PDF editor PDF-XChange Viewer is a lifesaver here).

Becoming a freelance translator in Japan: Notifying the tax office

*First, let it be duly noted that I am not a tax accountant or any sort of legal authority. All information provided below is for reference only. Please be sure to confirm the appropriateness of any and all actions you may take based on the information provided here with an appropriate authority.

 

While I have heard and read about what one should do, legally speaking, when becoming a freelance translator in other countries, I have not yet seen anything that covers becoming a freelance translator (or any other kind of freelancer) in Japan. In fact, it is exceedingly simple and painless. All you are required to do is file a single document, 個人事業の開業・廃業等届出書 (available here) with your local tax office (税務署; find the one nearest you here) declaring that you are starting your own business. There is no need to obtain a business license, tax number, etc.

Actually, like many laws in Japan, although you are “required” to file this document, there are no punishments for failing to do so. However, 1) you should do it because you are a good citizen, 2) it’s incredibly easy to file (see below), and 3) filing it enables you to enter the money you earn translating as business income (営業所得) on your tax return rather than as miscellaneous income (雑所得扱). It’s also required if you want to file the fabled blue tax return (青色申告), which offers all sorts of benefits for business owners but looks to be a real pain to file, so I’m not bothering with it for now (learn more from this pamphlet here).

You’re also supposed to file it within one month of starting your business but, again, there are no punishments for filing it later than this.

Click to view large version.

Anyway, as I said, filing the 個人事業の開業・廃業等届出書 is easy. The following instructions assume you are (or will be) a freelance translator operating out of your home and have no employees. I’ve provided an example form on the right. Click to enlarge.

First, in the 納税地 section, circle 住所地 and fill in your address and phone number. A cell phone number is fine. Next, since your “office” and home are the same, skip the next section (上記以外の住所地・事業所等) and fill in your name, circle your sex, and write in your birthday using the Japanese year system in the appropriate boxes. Don’t forget to add your seal (a signature may be acceptable as well – check with your local tax office). In the 職業 section, write “翻訳者.”

In the 届出の区分 section, circle 開業 at the top. The address line below that is only used when you move, so there’s no need to fill that in (conversely, should you move, you have to refile this document with your new address; you also have to file it again should you stop your work as a freelance translator and “close” your business, hence the 廃業 part). Below the address line, circle 新設 to indicate that you are opening a new office.

Skip down four sections to the section called 開業・廃業に従う届出書の提出の有無. There are two sub-sections here: 「青色申告承認申請書」又は「青色申告の取りやめる届出書, which concerns the application to use the blue tax return; and 消費税に関する「課税事業者選択届出書」又は「事業廃止届出書」, which is for consumption tax exempt businesses that wish to be taxed regularly. For both subsections, circle 無 (unless you want to do the whole blue tax return thing, in which case, consult with a staff member at the tax office first).

Lastly, in the 事業の概要 section, write “自宅で翻訳を行っています。.” That’s it!

Now all you have to do is give it to one of the staff at the main reception desk in your local tax office. They’ll stamp it and probably offer to give you a copy, as well. They won’t even ask to see your ID or visa status. There’s also no need to confirm anything – you’re all done! Just don’t forget to keep records of all your income and business expenses and file your tax return on time.

Basic Japanese translation tips: Titles, names, “法律”

Needless to say, Japanese is a difficult language to translate into English. Just one of the many reasons for this difficulty is that generally there’s nothing to indicate that the title of a book, document, etc. is actually a title in a written Japanese text. Occasionally, titles are encased in quotes (「」), but this is usually only the case of book titles or other media, and even then not only is this rare, but quotes are also often used just to add emphasis.

Documents from large companies are often littered with references to other official documents, manuals, and applications. Often, these documents will already have an official English title. If you are in doubt as to where a particular block of text is a title or not, it’s best just to contact the client or agency you received the document from. At the very least, leave a translator’s note in the form of a comment in Word, etc., indicating your uncertainty and providing two separate translations (one that can be used if the highlighted text is an official title and one that can be used if it’s just a general phrase).

One type of title that is particularly easy to overlook if you haven’t encountered them before is the name of laws. Take, for example, “資源の有効な利用の促進に関する法律.” At first glance, this may look like a general phrase about “laws concerning the promotion of the effective utilization of resources,” but actually, it’s the name of a law which would be more properly translated as the “Act on the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources.” (part of the tip off that this is the name of a law could be the stiffness of the phrase, but sometimes the style of the document is just as stiff).

The official source for “unofficial” English translations of Japanese law names is theJapanese Law Translation website operated by the Japanese government (from which the above translation comes). Any time you see the word “法律,” treat it with a modicum of caution and plug it and the phrase proceeding it into the site. Often, however, laws are referred to by common names shorter than the full, official title used by Japanese Law Translation, which frequently fails to recognize the shorter version. Even if you don’t get a hit on that site, it’s often a good idea to also try the excellent dictionary composite site Weblio or even just do a regular Google search to be safe.

As you should be well aware if you are a current or aspiring Japanese translator, Japanese personal names are simply impossible to translate without help. Even the characters used in common names can be pronounced multiple ways, never mind the increasingly creative pronunciations and character combinations given to the names of members of younger generations. Further, even if you are verbally told the pronunciation, you still need to know the correct romanization, since several romanization systems are currently in use. In a best case scenario, your client will provide you with a list of all personal names appearing in the document as well as their proper romanization before the project starts. If you didn’t get such a list in advance and run into a name you didn’t notice before accepting the assignment, email the client. If the client is difficult to reach or has specified so, you could also leave personal names untranslated with translator’s notes attached to each indicating the need to fill in its romanization. If you are working with a big company and they have a website that is available in both English and Japanese, you can try searching for pages on their site that contain the Japanese name and then look for the matching English page. If the site itself does not have a search engine, you can search their site from Google by first searching for the term you are looking for, clicking the gear button on the right side of the search results page and selecting “Advanced search,” and then typing the address of the site you wish to search in the “site or domain” field on the advanced search page.

Unfortunately, however, most Japanese companies do not translate every page on their website, instead offering a sort of mini version of their site in English. In that case, you can try searching their site for the Japanese name and looking for other relevant information about the person such as their job title or projects they worked on. Then search the English site using probable pronunciations of the person’s name, taking care to match any hits you find with the information you discovered about the person when searching the Japanese site. Even if this method yields results, always attach a translator’s note. Especially in the case of personal names, there’s nothing wrong with asking the client to check your information; as mentioned above, it’s simply impossible to know the pronunciation or preferred romanization of personal names without being explicitly informed of them.

Possible pronunciations of names can be found by searching with Weblio, but I find usingFirefox with the Rikaichan add-on and a blank text entry field such as this one is much more flexible and faster as well.

If true machine translation becomes a reality, everybody (not just translators) is screwed

The only way I see true, usable-for-any-situation MT becoming a reality would be with the invention of true AI. Translating meaning necessitates understanding and understanding necessitates consciousness. Especially with context – in Japanese, whole passages can go by without the subject being explicitly stated, which works fine and dandy for Japanese but makes it impossible to accurately translate it into English on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

However, even if we ever managed to create a true, human level (or beyond) AI, would we use it just to translate some random financial documents? Assuming that a true AI can be created, I see two possibilities as to its nature: either each AI is unique and has to be ‘grown’ through experience like a living person or you can make unlimited copies of the AI and run it on any computer that has the CPU muscle to power it like any other piece of software. If it ends up being the first possibility, it will be far too precious to use for ‘mere’ translation and far too expensive to make it profitable even if you did. If it ends up being the second possibility, that AI plus some general-purpose robot bodies (like the Honda Asimo already in existence) means that virtually every person on the planet will be out of a job and we’ll either enter a sci-fi paradise where people only work for pleasure or most of the world’s population will instantly be out of a job and revert to a literal hunter-gatherer existence to survive on the outskirts of Detroit et. al. while the handful of CEOs that run the robot and AI companies live a cushy existence until their eventual overthrow by their cybernetic slaves.

Even if an AI is doing the translating, you’d need to equip it with many of the same tools a human translator needs, like internet access to research new terms and confirm terminology use (as language is constantly evolving, especially in technical fields) and even a phone line so it could confirm, for example, names of businesses that have no website, which is a big concern in Japanese and other languages that use a writing system not descended from Latin. Or you could just have it email those names to you so you can confirm them. Not deal-breakers, to be sure, but that AI translator starts to have the same concerns and drawbacks that a human translator has, though presumably it would work like a slave for free once you bought or rented it.

My ultimate concern, though, would be whether you could truly trust this AI, especially with sensitive information. What if it got hacked? Your company could lose all of its trade secrets in one blow because everything was being funneled through the AI for translation and all of that data was sitting in the AIs files for future reference. Further, how can you be absolutely sure that it’s translating everything correctly? Of course, human translators make mistakes as well, but how do you check the machine’s translations? With a human translator? With another, but different AI? And then there’s the fact that it’s just not a human intelligence -it’s not using a human brain, evolved over countless generation to have specific features that operate within a fairly definite range even between different people. It would be using software and a computer, or maybe a specialized device designed to facilitate AI, to operate. Either way, that’s not a human brain and it’s not going to think exactly like a human. If you give it its freedom and allow it to build trust like any living person – by working and not screwing up and holding it accountable for its action when it does – that’s one thing. But trusting what is effectively an alien slave is probably not something a lot of companies would want to do when faced with the reality.

But I should stop now that I’m neck-deep in science fiction. I think Steve Vitek said it quite eloquently, however, on his blog when he asked “Do you think that it is possible to create software, similar to machine translation software, that would write steamy romance novels that women would actually be buying and reading?”