The language that Google can’t speak: Untranslatable words

by Ryoko Iwamoto

Tokyoesque are the experts in UK / Japan relations and provide clients with unique cultural insights that can be used to accelerate business growth across the globe. Here, Tokyoesque discuss the impact that translation can have on branding and business, and the words that even Google can’t understand.

Recently, Osaka Metro grabbed international attention by using an automatic English-Japanese translation system which caused its website to display some rather bizarre English word choices. Although we have seen greater improvements in the quality of machine translations overall, including the likes of Google Translate, these services are not yet efficient enough to replace human translation completely. This is partly because some Japanese words are not translatable (at least not directly) into English, and the way they should be translated varies depending on the specific context in which the words are used.

In this article, Tokyoesque demonstrates some of these untranslatable Japanese words, explaining why it is important to localise rather than simply translate in order to be understood in the Japanese market.

Some untranslatable words used in Japanese Business

The BBC listed some non-English untranslatable words in their article “The ‘untranslatable’ emotions”, which included a few Japanese words such as ‘Shinrin-yoku’, ‘Natsukashii’ and ‘Wabi-sabi’. Although this sounds a bit misleading since the Japanese words ‘Shinrin-yoku’ and ‘Wabi-sabi’ are not generally considered as expressions of emotion among Japanese people, the article did a good job in spotting some examples of how foreign languages cannot be translated directly and need extra explanation to fully understand their meanings. Here are a few untranslatable Japanese words that you might find useful in Japanese business situations.

The meaning of this phrase can be quite broad and can be used in several types of situation, both within a professional and personal contexts alike. This can be used when you first meet someone. It’s meaning is generally “nice to meet you”. You can also use this phrase to ask someone for a favour, in which case the meaning is closer to “please help me out”. It is very common to put this phrase at the end of business emails almost as default in the same way people write “Best regards” or “Best wishes” to conclude emails in English. The meaning of this phrase can vary even more widely depending on the context. It should be noted that the level of politeness also changes if it’s phrased slightly differently (i.e. using the phrase ‘Yoroshiku-onegai-shimasu’ is politer than simply saying ‘Yoroshiku’.)

The direct translation of this phrase would be “Thank you for your hard work.” but the ways in which Japanese people use this can vary according to specific situations. For example, it is used as a simple greeting at the offices, meaning something like “How are you?” “How is it going?” “You alright?” etc. You can also use this when you leave the office or to someone else who is going home.

If literally translated, it means “I am leaving before you do.” — but communicating it in this way would result in the phrase losing its true meaning as it does not take into account the cultural context behind it. The phrase is used as a farewell greeting when you are leaving the office earlier than others while paying respect to your boss and colleagues who are still working. Japanese people often use this phrase instead of simply saying “See you”, because leaving earlier than others could evoke a sense of guilt even if they did finish their own tasks. Therefore the phrase should be localised as something closer to, “Excuse me for leaving before you,” which implies the apologetic aspect and also the recognition of others’ hard work.

Adapt for the Japanese market

The above examples are useful Japanese phrases for business occasions that are not necessarily translatable into English. But what about the localisation of brands and products when you are interested in the Japanese market? Shin Murakami, the new CEO of LinkedIn headquarters in Japan, says in the interview that localisation is the key for western brands to succeed in the Japanese market.

Both LinkedIn and Facebook launched in Japan in 2010, but Facebook is far more popular compared to LinkedIn among Japanese people (there are 28 million Facebook users vs. 1 million LinkedIn users). Shin Murakami thinks LinkedIn still has some unnatural Japanese translations and the first thing he is doing is to continue localising the content efficiently. He argues that the typical strategy western companies adopt is to sell their product as it is in Japan. But this won’t work — it is imperative that products are localised in a way that resonates with the targeted audience, culturally speaking.

Don’t just translate, localise

As the above examples show, certain Japanese words or phrases can lose their actual meanings when they are literally translated without taking into account the cultural context and nuances. This is why you might want to consider localisation and not just direct translation when taking a product or service to Japan. This becomes particularly important if you want to make your brand messages fit with the Japanese market. Brand communications often include conceptual meanings that require extra attention to resonate with a Japanese audience. This is also where aspects like semiotics can boost knowledge of underlying cultural cues.

Tokyoesque offer a full localisation package service which enables you to maximise your brand’s impact in the Japanese market. To see how your business would fair in Japan today try our free diagnostic tool here.

Cultural insight agency connecting Europe and Japan. Tokyoesque’s Market Readiness Score measures how to succeed in the world’s third largest market.