It’s all Japanese to me

Would you book your flight with an airline website full of spelling errors and badly written sentences? I often wonder this when I see websites translated into Japanese.

Japanese translation has long suffered from poor quality — linguistic quality is often poor both in Japanese as the source and target language. Sometimes I am quite taken aback by technical documents written by Japanese engineers. They may know their stuff, but clearly, they have no writing training whatsoever. Translators will go through hell to translate their documents.

Japanese is a relatively flexible language. This flexibility contributes to enhance literary richness in haiku and other literature, but it poses a problem for translators. Also, I see many incidents of crude Japanese translation of major corporate websites, for example. I cannot believe that these big names don’t care how incomprehensible their websites are. This is partly because the writing standard for Japanese is relatively unstable. There is no equivalent of the Chicago Manual of Style in Japanese. Japanese companies do not concern themselves much about language quality, and therefore don’t enforce systematic linguistic quality control. Also, non-Japanese companies have no quality control over documents published in Japanese. Another reason is that practical writing education is weak in all levels and areas of education in Japan. This is not because Japanese has thousands of ideographs. Effective, logical, and concise writing is possible, regardless of the number of characters, if you know how to do it.

If you are a translation client who is not familiar with Japanese, how can you be sure of the quality of documents in Japanese? In other words, is there any way for a nonnative Japanese speaker to correctly evaluate and improve the quality of Japanese writing? Well, there is no easy way, but adopting a Japanese writing style guide is a good start. This is true for both human and machine translation.

Japan Translation Federation (JTF) has published JTF Style Guide for Translators Working into Japanese, available for free at as a PDF document. Currently the original version in Japanese is available along with some checking tools, and a version translated into English will be available soon.

A simple but effective way to improve the readability of Japanese documents is to limit the number of characters in a sentence. I recommend dividing any sentence that has more than 100 Japanese characters into two or more sentences. I call this the hyaku-han (halve a hundred) rule. A long sentence has many problems and the grammatical relationship between words can become ambiguous. Since the verb comes at the end of a sentence in Japanese, a long sentence is harder to read.

Some people claim that around 50 characters per sentence would be appropriate. But this limit is too severe for many technical documents that include long technical terms or product names.

You can check if a document follows the hyaku-han rule even if you don’t know a single word in Japanese. You can use the word count function of Microsoft Word or text editor, for example. There any many other methods to check Japanese readability grammatically.

Along with a style guide, a glossary can improve the quality of translation. A glossary ensures the consistency of technical terms used in documents. You might know of MultiTerm, for example, a terminology tool included in SDL Trados. The use of MultiTerm is surprisingly rare as far as my experience goes. Many companies still rely on Excel glossaries, or they don’t have one at all. With an Excel glossary, however, the terminology checking process is manual, and it is only carried out when a translator or checker chooses to look at it. A more systematic, automated approach by a glossary data and terminological tool could greatly enhance productivity and reliability of term usages. UTX is a simple glossary format that helps you quickly develop a glossary of your own. A quick guide with detailed specification and sample glossaries is available for free at

A good style guide is necessary for a good glossary, especially in the case of Japanese where orthographic rules can be complex. Some people think of a style guide and glossary as restrictive, and hesitate to adopt them. But at the end of the day, this combination will make your life a lot easier.