US firms striving to reach Japan in its own language

As a growing number of Western companies prepare to ply their wares in Japan, Japanese translating and interpreting firms are springing up across the country to ensure that the company sales pitch sings just as sweetly in Japanese characters as it did in English.

Perhaps encouraged by the Japanese example of familiarity with their potential market, more foreign firms are realizing that an English text sent to Japan will not always be well received - or understood. While Japanese remain fascinated by the English language in particular, companies aiming to reach consumers - and to keep an eye on the competition - are beginning to think it worthwhile to present themselves in the country's native tongue.

''It's absolutely crucial to have Japanese material,'' insists Peter Cofflin, of the Vermont Agency of Development and Community Affairs, which commissioned promotional materials about the state from Japanese Language Services here. ''Anyone is kidding themselves if they don't think it's important. After all, practically speaking, while many Japanese executives can understand some English , they're simply going to understand a Japanese text better.''

''I think [Japanese translations] are very important to success in the Japanese market,'' asserts Edward J. Lincoln, vice-president of economic studies at the Japan Economic Institute of America. ''Too many American firms have tried to conduct businesses entirely in English. That's fine to a certain point, but to really penetrate the market, you have to deal with the Japanese on their own terms.''

As a result, translation firms that deal exclusively with Japanese are being formed in most major cities, from Seattle to Chicago to New York, which has five or six such services.

''There are two reasons for this,'' comments Don Cyril Gorham, a free-lance translator and interpreter in Washington, D.C. ''With increasing trade between the United States and Japan, both sides are interested in translated materials. And also, there's a lot of trade friction, so lawyers want to know what's going on in Japan.''

Hitoshi Uyama, president of Japan Technical Information Center Inc., a small, two-year-old firm, agrees. He too mentions lawsuits concerning patent infringements as a factor in growing business. But he attributes much of the growth in the Japanese translation industry to a growing ''hunger for knowledge'' about Japan. An ''information broker'' as well as translator, Mr. Uyama says he gets regular requests for labor and education statistics in Japan, or for translations of technical articles.

Most such labor-intensive operations are relatively small. Carl Kay, for example, who founded and runs Japanese Language Services, works out of a tiny third-floor office on a quiet back street. With a staff of 10 free-lance translators and a full-time marketing manager, his company deals with such diverse assignments as reviews of a recent tour in Japan by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; birth certificates for a Boston law firm; an operating manual for an electronics firm in California; and typesetting captions on a defense film.

Started four years ago, Japanese Language Services is now a $100,000-a-year business, which, though small by any standard, is growing rapidly. Its clients run from Computervision and Teradyne to the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.

Mr. Kay, who has a background in Japanese language and civilization, as well as science, is particularly concerned with quality control. Japanese reflects a consciousness of status, and so proper use of various levels of formality is very important. He notes that even translating a business card requires attention, as the Japanese appreciate understanding exactly what the person's responsibilities are.

''Japanese is subtle, and in advertising and promotion, there is a lot of nuance. Even in typesetting,'' he says, noting the visual sophistication of most Japanese, ''there's a whole set of conventions of layout that people don't know.''

Kay admits jokingly that high quality can sometimes have its drawbacks: A Japanese questionnaire he developed for a medical consulting firm was so thorough in overcoming Japanese reticence to provide certain information that a follow-up research trip for him proved unnecessary.

Kay says he himself has translated ''over a million words'' of Japanese into English - and much of that is in technical fields, which are the company's specialty. The company searches out translators not only with facility in both languages, but with a familiarity with technical subjects. And it requires that a native speaker with good writing ability review a final translation.

Overall, most translators note, American companies are becoming more sensitive to these finer points.

''Many more are having their documents translated into Japanese,'' noted Mr. Uyama. ''That just wouldn't have happened before. Now people send even their official invitational letter in Japanese, as a way of paying some respect . . . .''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.