Three pitfalls of localization into Japanese

Localization into Japanese is very complicated – it requires taking into account a lot of nuances that are completely unimportant when translating for Europe. Alternative chronology, unusual alphabetical ordering, and onomatopoeia atypical for us all affect the impression of your localization skills – and influence the gaming experience. Take, for instance, the sound of a swaying drunk – it sounds like “yoroyoro.”

The Inlingo team has identified three genuinely tricky pitfalls that a translator into Japanese can face. How can just two symbols become 15, why are women in Japan much more modest than men, and what impression is created by a flower gifted to a seriously ill person? We’ve identified three types of pitfalls and will show you how to avoid them.

Visual-technical pitfall

A Japanese bird called 水鶏 (kuina) translates into Russian as “vodyanoi pastushok”, or “water rail” in English. In the blink of an eye, two characters turn into 15 characters with a space in Russian and 9 with a space in English. This happens with almost any word, so a sentence that spans several lines in Russian can shrink to one line in Japanese. At the same time, logograms with the same font size are taller than even the capital letters of European languages.

The difference in size has to be taken into account at the game development stage – the interface should be as flexible as possible. Otherwise, the text might spill far outside the frame or, in the opposite case, sit like a lone orphan in the middle of a huge, empty field. This is a major headache for the localizer, and isn’t easy to resolve without contact with the development team.

Problem: Difference in character size and word length when translating from European languages into Japanese and vice versa.

Solution: Plan the visuals and interface of the game beforehand, taking into account the tendency for texts to compress when translated into Japanese, and vice versa. If possible, discuss the interface possibilities with the development team in advance. 

Contextual language pitfall

Japanese is considered a contextual language. This means that the correct translation of any phrase depends directly on what’s happening. Who is speaking? What are the character’s gender and age? What is their personality like? Who are they talking to? What is the hierarchy and relationship between them?

Just look in a dictionary and you’ll see that the verb “to eat” can be translated into Japanese as “taberu”, “itadaku”, “meshiagaru” and “kuu”. A boss will always “meshiagaru” their lunch, but an animal will “kuu” its food. Two friends “taberu” in a restaurant, while a schoolboy in the presence of a teacher will “itadaku”. Depending on the situation, different forms of these verbs are used. Using the wrong one will be at least strange, or at worst offensive.

Another problem is the gender of the speaker. Male and female speech is quite different, and this is particularly emphasized in games, comics, and animation. Women tend to say “atashi” or omit the word “I” altogether when speaking of themselves in the first person. Men, on the other hand, prefer the masculine pronouns “boku” or “ore”.

Such gender differences apply to all parts of the language, so if you show a Japanese person a one-line phrase out of context, they will almost always know the speaker’s gender. This feature of the language is important to consider when translating both into and from Japanese: even the simple pronoun “I” can convey a lot about a character.

Feminine speech from a male character or masculine speech from a female character will always raise eyebrows: a Japanese player will either think it’s a mistake or take it as a deliberate characterization device – for example, a hint that the character belongs to the LGBT community.

Problem: Translation is impossible without knowing each character’s age and gender, as well as the relationships and hierarchies between them.

Solution: Carefully think through the background and personality of all characters; describe in detail all the interactions between them and the important details that need to be conveyed in the translation. Send references and style recommendations to the localizers.

Cultural pitfall

Anyone who is not very familiar with Japan and its traditions is guaranteed to fall into this trap. It’s important to immerse yourself in the history of the country and understand how certain events influenced Japanese perceptions – this is the only way to gain the people’s attention and support.

A tip for the barman

In one mobile game, we found this description of a samurai character from Japan: 

The character’s “sense of justice” will make Japanese players shrug in disbelief, because there’s no tipping culture in Japan. Moreover, a tip is often perceived as a humiliating handout and is more likely to offend staff than to please. This feature is important to take into account so that players correctly understand and share the character’s motivation.

Funereal gift

In a game by Russian developers, a girl called Ira visits a friend in the hospital. She takes a pot plant as a gift – a white cyclamen. For Russian or European players, this is completely normal, but the Japanese are taught from childhood that they should not give flowers to the sick – the disease will take root just like a plant in soil. Moreover, the choice of flower will confuse Asian players – in Japanese, the funereal white cyclamen sounds like “suffer and die.” In this context, Ira is perceived as a villain, not a devoted friend. 

Christmas nuggets

A Russian or American player is unlikely to understand why the characters in a game go to KFC to eat chicken nuggets at Christmas. The explanation is quite simple: Christian traditions mean nothing in Japan, and Christmas is not a very understandable Western holiday for the Japanese. The head of KFC Japan decided to seize the opportunity and, since the 1980s, has been promoting the eatery as the place to go for Christmas dinner.

Criminal tattoos

Traditionally, Japan’s complex tattoos, which have become markers of hipsters in the West, were a feature of members of mafia groups. Over time, tattoos have come to be perceived as a means of self-expression and even art, but in Japanese culture, the stereotype persists. To the Japanese, tattoos are a distinguishing feature of mafiosi. This is well demonstrated by the Yakuza series of games – the main characters are gangsters who are completely covered in tattoos.

Rice donuts

A localizer translating Japanese content into European languages has to take cultural differences into account and sometimes make changes. As such, the main character of the Pokemon series was transformed from Satoshi into the internationally renowned Ash Ketchum, and the Pokemon acquired the Europeanized names that we know.

But these substitutions aren’t always successful: in the same Pokemon animated series, Japanese onigiri rice balls suddenly became donuts, giving rise to a snide meme among Pokemon fans.

To laugh or to cry

When translating from Japanese, a Western audience’s mindset has to be taken into account, since Japanese humor is less politically correct. Suffice it to recall a small but indicative scandal with the fan localization of the game Goemon 3, caused by the translation of just one word, ニューハーフ (nyūhāfu).

This is a rather offensive slang term for a transgender woman, for which the translator chose the much ruder and more derogatory word “tranny.” A storm of indignation erupted on Twitter, resulting in a fan patch replacing the word with a more neutral one.

Moreover, the Japanese are comfortable with toilet humor and sex-themed jokes – even in works intended for children.

Problem: There’s a huge cultural difference between Western and Japanese players.

Solution: Define your target audience in advance and be prepared for the fact that most of the texts will need revisions. Involve cultural natives in localization to carefully translate and check the game before release. It’s important that nothing raises questions or indignation among players. 

What next? 

We could give many more examples, but we hope we have already succeeded in demonstrating that Japanese is not the easiest language to localize. There are many important nuances and cultural differences, but don’t be put off – be attentive and try to immerse yourself in the culture of the country for which you are preparing the translation. And if you have any questions, the Inlingo team is always happy to help.