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  • Christina Theodorakis

Taking the Cultural Meaning Behind Words into Account



Here's a classic case of someone looking up an English word in a Japanese-English dictionary and choosing to use a word without understanding how it's actually used in context: deface.


In the first sentence, the Japanese text uses the verb "壊す" (kowasu), which means "to destroy" in English, and is used in the physical sense. The Japanese text is literally asking people not to destroy the bamboo grove. The meaning of the Japanese will come across to Japanese people since they have a common understanding of the word, but when you’re speaking to a tourist who doesn’t know what usually goes on in the area, you should use wording that isn’t this confusing. When we hear "deface," we may think about graffiti on buildings or broken property. The message that they’re trying to relay to foreigners is unlikely to be the physical destruction of the bamboo forest.


The next line on the sign in Japanese actually mentions “graffiti,” but this doesn’t come across in English so it can be taken as any kind of destruction. If the English is as ambiguous as this line of text is, your guess is as good as mine, and that’s exactly what you should avoid doing when localizing text.


Let's take a closer look at the second sentence: "Defacing the bamboo should be a crime." Aside from the word “defacing” being unclear, “should be a crime” sounds like wishful thinking on the writer’s side. In Japanese, they don't use clear-cut words for "should," "would," or “must” in public messaging since it’s perceived to rude to directly order people to do things. However, in the Japanese version above, it’s not written like defacing the bamboo may be a crime – they’re saying in absolute terms that graffiti is a crime.


This is why clear writing in the target language and fully understanding what the original author is trying to say is so important in localization and global business. Being aware of the cultural differences is what makes localization vital to getting your message across to the target audience.


This is where we at Globalize Consulting can come in to help. We’re not only experts at writing and copywriting, but also in cultural differences between Japan and Western countries. If your company is trying to reach out to a Japanese audience, reach out to us via phone or e-mail.


Thanks for reading and keep following our blog for more explanations about mistranslations or miscommunication that we’ve seen around Japan!

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