Japanese Copywriting and Article Writing – It’s not About Translation

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This is probably one of the things I learned the best about since I start doing business in Japan: copywriting and article writing in Japan is nothing like it is in other countries.

When I worked at my previous company -that was for a few years-, we made that mistake, when we had English pages that we wanted to have in Japanese to promote our services. We used to call any skilled translator we had available and ask him or her to either translate our English texts or proofreads rough translations of an English speaker.

When we got the results, the reactions were always the same, from both Japanese people and foreigners with a decent understanding of the Japanese language: it doesn’t sound right. And you know what? That’s exactly it. No matter how good the direct translation is, the way Japanese people put texts together, especially for business, really doesn’t have much to do with English or French or whatever-other-language copywriting.

The way sentences are arranged (beyond the language difference), the vocabulary used, the way the companies refer to themselves or the way they try to convey that their services are really the best, all these things differ drastically. This is why when you need to write a service or product page in Japanese, no matter if you have something in another language already, you will need to hire a copywriter rather than a translator. And what you will tell the copywriter should be something like “So we have this service/product, its features are (insert bullet list here) and this is more or less why we do it better than the others. Thank you and good luck”.

It may sound a bit ridiculous, or overly romantic somehow, but that’s how you should handle it. If you don’t have a native speaker writing you a text from scratch, your customers will know that. And of course, if your client knows you’re a foreign or foreigner-owned business and that your services are related to international business, probably they will understand and still be happy to contact you. But if you do offer services or products that a Japanese company would handle just as well, you may lose a good chunk of customers who will feel more comfortable talking to people who speak their native language.

Never forget about it: Copywriting, and this is especially true for Japanese copywriting, is NOT translation. You may call it localization, globalization or anything else, but in any case it is way more complex than transposing words from a language to another.

3 thoughts on “Japanese Copywriting and Article Writing – It’s not About Translation

  1. Some nice insights John …… We have been up and running for just over 12 months and I have been thru the copywriting/translation trap . What a drama !!!

    Keep up the good work

    Cheers Graham

  2. I really don’t know whether I should laugh or cry. I’ve ordered some translation work for my UK visa application and I was shocked to death when they sent me the text to check. A pure rubbish. No, I’d say worse than rubbish. And I’m not saying that the text didn’t sound right or weird. I could have done that much much better myself… And now, I’m burning my brain to find out how I should fu…. ops, deal of this to recover the money I’ve already paid. By the way, I found a decent translator firm and got my visa…

    • It sure sounds like a tough experience! The quality of translations rely mostly on the translators themselves. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes not… I am lucky enough to work with translators who consistently do a wonderful job!

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