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.

What will the end result look like?

Crowdsourced translation and community translation are translation models in which, instead of hiring a professional, you entrust the translation of your content to strangers on the internet. Sounds like the worst idea ever, doesn’t it?

We translated your website for you, Mister.

With community translation, you ask the community of users interested in your content to translate it. It’s a lot like having a bunch of neighborhood kids paint your house. They’re willing to do it for free because it sounds like fun. Of course, they really only have a general idea of how to paint a house, so you’ll have to show them. And provide all the tools and paint. And, even if you tell them you want the walls painted white and the trim red, you’ll probably have to watch them like a hawk and keep reminding them. And take care of the inevitable disputes that arise. And deal with some of the kids getting bored in the middle and leaving, or painting their name on the floor instead of painting your house. And I’m sure you can imagine the clean up you’ll have to do afterwards. And you’ll probably have to do the tricky areas yourself or hire a professional to do them, anyway.

Crowdsourced translation is similar to the above, only instead of asking people at least interested in your content, you relegate the translation of your content to a mass of completely uninterested and poorly paid amateurs, “volunteers,” or even just machines. It’s like the above, only paying slightly less than what a professional painter costs to hire a company that uses kids from a couple towns over and pays them 10 cents an hour.

Whether you hire a professional or let the neighborhood kids paint your house, it’ll get done one way or another. The question is, what will the end result look like?

Crowdsourcing translation – worst idea ever

Comic Book Guy thinks crowdsourcing translation is a terrible idea.

A recent article on Business Insider provided by some company called Smartling suggests crowdsourcing the translation of your website.

I particularly like that the page title reads “An Easy Way for Businesses to Get People To Translate Their Websites For Free.” As even their own infographic indicates, crowdsourcing involves significantly more work (and subsequently money) than just hiring a professional.

Trust the translation of your website to random strangers on the internet and spend more money and effort in the process?

As Comic Book Guy would say, worst idea ever.

First, you’ll need to hire people just to create that crowdsourcing infrastructure. Presumably, Smartling would recommend itself for this job. You then need people, either internally or provided by a company that believes you should trust your company’s website to strangers on the internet, to monitor submissions, control quality, and provide technical support. Smartling itself also recommends hiring or establishing a team of reviewers, involving professional translators, and creating style guides and glossaries. In other words, a significant amount of time and effort to utilize the work of the average Joe Schmoe on the internet, who may get tired or bored in the middle of the project, who has little interest or incentive in reading all those style guides you created, who bears no responsibility for what they are providing regardless of whether it’s trash (most likely) or treasure. All so that you end up with a website that looks like it was translated by a first year language student (because it was) and users who are disgruntled either because their translation wasn’t used, they’re not getting paid for all the effort they put in, or the translations are terrible (which, again, they will be). For example, everybody (who isn’t using the English language interface) complains about Facebook’s crowd-translated interfaces.

And let’s not put the cart before the horse. Unless you’re a gigantic, Facebook-sized social website, it’s unlikely you have the community of users needed to even attempt to implement this flawed idea.

Compare this to hiring a translator. You give the translator your documents. The translator translates them, doing all the research necessary in a professional manner and re-writing your copy to the best of their ability to make sure your website’s as beautiful in another language as it is in the original (if not more so), because that’s how a translator gets paid and that’s how any translator worth their salt takes pride in their work. The only effort on your part will be answering a few questions from the translator, putting the files they provide you on the internet, and, of course, paying said translator.

One other supposed disadvantage of professional translators, Smartling argues, goes as follows:

Twitter uses the word “unfollow” to label the button that stops following another account. If you ask an LSP to translate this they will likely return a phrase such as “Nicht mehr folgen” in German. If you ask a translator (or linguist) directly they will probably point out that “unfollow” isn’t a word. Twitter’s language is very informal in English and community translation has helped us keep that playful tone in every language (even the ungrammatical “Entfolgen” in German).

In other words, translators are apparently robots. “Error! Error! Ungrammatical phrase! That does not compute!” What makes random internet users any more likely to come up “Entfolgen” than a professional writer/translator? In reality, the reverse of the above situation is more likely. While your average bilingual on the internet may be able to understand and express themselves in two languages, a professional translator makes their living both through language and writing. A professional translator plumbs the very depths of their native and working languages, keeps up to date on the latest trends in the fields they work in, and hones their writing skills so they can provide the best possible product to their customers. The average bilingual person is far more likely to translate something literally, while a proper professional translator will reflect on the cultural background to the piece their working on, the intended audience, and how best to express the piece in the target language.

Pay for professionalism or pay (however you want to take that) for amateurism – the choice is yours.