Japanese IR: lost in literal translation

Dec 15, 2015
<p>Improved translation of IR materials would lead to more investor interest</p>

There are websites dedicated to reporting humorous translation errors (for example engrish.com). While the most humorous of these errors seem to originate in Japan, investor relations material does not fall into this category. The problem with IR materials in Japan is, typically, the translation is perfect – as in literally perfect.

A literal translation is problematic because it fails to communicate effectively. Something is indeed lost in translation – the essence. A literal translation feels safer and superior to a Japanese executive because it is a more accurate representation of the original text. One cannot understand the English, however, without also looking at the Japanese. This is why most foreigners who know Japanese rely on the Japanese versions of IR communication.

With its roots in politics and law, plain English is a type of communication that emphasizes clarity, brevity and the avoidance of technical jargon. Just as consumers get frustrated with difficult IT assembly, investors get frustrated with difficult translation assembly found in poorly constructed communications.

‘I would've written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,’ said Blaise Pascal. This quote beautifully emphasizes the time component absent in great communication. A long, rambling letter is indeed easier to write. But, just as you find it difficult to focus on your mother's long rambling letter, an investor feels the same about a long, poorly formatted IR communication – but minus the dutiful obligation! Getting to the point contributes to value creation. A great product wrapped in verbose jargon loses value in delivery. To make a great product valuable or irreplaceable, one must take care of how it is experienced.

To put this into context, let me share an example:

Original Translation: xxxxx has established the Management Advisory Council to serve as a consultative body to the president from the perspectives of compliance and management transparency.

Sample Rewrite: Our Management Advisory Council provides advice to the President in two areas: compliance and transparency.

In this particular passage, we improve readability by reducing the passive voice and streamlining the sentence into a clear, more direct passage. It's only one sentence, but you can imagine, over an entire communication, the IR product would be transformed – literally and figuratively.

Sarah Ingmanson is an IR consultant who specializes in the Japanese market. This is an edited version of a blog post that first appeared on LinkedIn.

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