About Japanese financial translations

by admin on January 16, 2013

I have heard many investors mention the lack of English information on Japanese companies, and the problems with getting translations.

Given my somewhat unusual situation*, I think I may be able to answer some frequently asked questions, and give some informed (if not unbiased) advice.

I will explain here why it is hard to get good translations, what goes on behind the scenes at translation companies, and what to do about it.

1. Why it is hard to get good translations

If you think about it, translation is really simple – all you need is someone with professional knowledge of your chosen field (finance in this case) and knowledge of two languages, right?

Sure, that is simple in theory. But think about this: if someone was really good at finance (or medicine, or patent law), why would they want to be a translator?

Another question which may not occur to you immediately is why a good-quality translator would want to stay with a large translation company. In fact, most good-quality translators are like one of my friends, who just has one big client and does not take on any work from anyone else, and she has an easy lifestyle. Any translation company would love to get her, but she has a nice setup, so why change? Most translation companies find it difficult to retain the best people, partly because they are not specialists and cannot identify a good specialist. In fact, the vast majority of companies are just “shells” engaged in outsourcing – they don’t even know who they can get to work on your document at the time you place your order.  I will go into this a bit more in the next part.

Now, entirely separately from the issue of getting the right people to do the job, a very big issue is the fundamental uselessness of the Japanese language itself.

Japanese is as much a tool for accurate communication as a baked potato is a tool for fixing your car.  The most fundamental premise of the language is that imprecision and avoidance is somehow attractive. Not only that, but Japanese people regularly do not understand what other Japanese people are saying or have written, even (or maybe especially) in official documents. Of course, they will nod along. The whole idea is to preserve “harmony”. I can guarantee you that if a dope-smoking hippy had to spend a week in a Japanese office making sure that the harmony was in place, they would stop singing about it pretty sharpish. The Japanese version of harmony (和; “Wa”) is the driving force that makes you agree to fly a propeller plane into the side of a battleship, even though you know it will do no one any good.


Getting back to the discussion about the language, missing a noun is strongly encouraged. If you don’t know what someone is talking about, you won’t ask – otherwise, the pretense of the listener knowing what was implied would fall, and then the Wa would be broken – and that is just unacceptable.

And, as you may have guessed by now, the longer-winded and more nonsensical sentence is, the more intelligent it appears to other people. The reason for this is that, in contrast to most languages, the burden of understanding is on the listener/reader, not the deliverer of the verbiage.

So, what you have is a language designed for prevention of understanding, where people who should know what is going on are in the dark, while those who are competent to translate are not interested in doing it.


2. What goes on behind the scenes at translation companies

Although I have not ever worked at a normal translation company (I do manage a small one in Japan, however), I do get requests from them to fix occasional train wrecks, usually when it is very urgent and requires precision (and, unfortunately for them, urgent and precise is expensive), so I can see what is going on there.

It works like this:

The client places the order with customer service staff, who have no idea what is written in the document – for all they know, it could be a bankruptcy agreement (like I spent half of yesterday reading together with one of my staff) or a lullaby (admittedly, unlikely). They often can’t even tell if it is Japanese or Chinese. At this point, the translation company has already given a quote to the client. But they still do not know what is in the text, or who will be doing the translation or proofreading.

Next, they have to find the translator.  If there is no one suitable available they will try and get someone generally intelligent and competent, but only experienced, say, in literature, while the document is again say a bankruptcy trustee agreement. Or they might get someone who says they know about bankruptcy law, but is untested. Either they most likely will need to get emergency surgery performed on the document in time or they risk looking like incompetent fools in front of their clients. Worse train wrecks occur all the time, but I won’t scare you with them.

There are other problems which can occur, such as when the translation company splits the file amongst translators who do not know each other and at least one of them will usually have a completely different style of writing or an obvious lack of familiarity with terminology, or when the proofreader is just fiddling with the turns of phrases and not checking for accuracy (very common).

As you can see, there is a lot of scope for things to go wrong behind the scenes. This, together with the difficulty in determining quality (even post hoc), makes the whole thing stressful for the client.


3. What to do about it?

In looking for a translation service I recommend the following:

1. If you are a company, ask for a sample translation of a text that you already have the English version of. Even if you are an individual, you can still ask them to translate a trial sentence.

2. Ask who exactly will be doing the translation. What is their background? Is it plausible? I have heard of companies claiming they employ teams of medical doctors as translators. If so, they must be terribly underpaid doctors with a lot of free time on their hands, so how good do you think they will be at other technical thinking? Ask the same about the proof-reading.

3. If possible, be flexible with deadlines. As I said, urgent is expensive.

5. Ask them to provide details of how they would respond if you suspected an error in the translation (e.g. How long would it take to get it checked)

4. Try, if possible, to find a company specialized in your field.

5. Ask whether they will outsource any of the work to another company (especially check this if dealing with confidential information – Panasonic and Sanyo still have nightmares about this after four years)

However, this is all taking my book a little bit, because this is all my opinion on the right way to work.

A commercial:

I will be opening my company’s translation service to new clients soon. Until now we have been only dealing with Japanese clients. We are small, only do Japanese to English and focus mainly on financials. Unlike other companies, we have a small number of black-belt ninjas, rather than a sprawling herd of mixed ability. I have spent a lot of time training my translators, and when we take on work we know exactly who will be doing it, what they are like, and what their capacity is. We only take on work when we know we can get it done right and on time.  You will find our pricing reasonable, because we do not have a lot of “fat” and have higher efficiency staff than most places. And, we can do summary translations, which are faster and cheaper than normal translation but require understanding what the text is actually saying – not an easy task for most translators. More information will be coming soon, but if you have an urgent itch, you can email:



Why you might not be interested:

We do not take on a large number of clients, preferring to focus on long-term relationships (the reason why we have not been taking on any work outside Japan is because two big clients make up the majority of our work.) We do not do French, German, or Swahili. We prioritize existing clients. We operate on Japanese working hours. We do not have call centers full of “customer service representatives” (but the people dealing with your questions will know what they are talking about).

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