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  • October 10, 2016

Translating Content: Information Versus Design in Japanese

Creating content in different languages goes beyond the simple translation of words. In order to resonate with an audience, avoid misunderstandings, and ultimately get your point across, content itself has to reflect the cultural habits of the target reader. This sometimes involves acting against one’s own assumptions about what constitutes good communication.

Japan presents a unique challenge for content creation. The typical Japanese website tends to favour the inclusion of information over usability and design. They tend to give endless information about the subject matter, whereas English websites are more concise. The instinct for an English speaker translating into Japanese is to retain “good design” in the translation, but this is not always a good idea.

For example, take Rakuten – Japan’s largest e-commerce platform. Below are the Japanese and global sites:

Both images are of the same product: a high end backpack. The screenshot on the left (top on mobile) is from the Japanese site and the one on the right (bottom on mobile) is from the global site. Please note that the Japanese screenshot is incomplete (the actual page is about 1.8 times as long). The original pages for both can be found at the respective URLs below.



Differences are apparent at first glance:

Japan Global
Main product info positioning Well below fold Above fold
Branding info positioning Before main product info After main product info
Space allocated to ads * Over half the content, all across the page About 1/8th of the page, at the bottom
Sidebar * Takes up about 3/4 of page Mostly empty, except above fold
Length ** ~17x above-fold content ~5.5x above-fold content

* Not apparent on screenshot, see original pages for better illustration
** As measured on a 24 inch screen using Chrome in a maximised window

Everything we see on the Japanese site would be a huge no-no if it was done in English. The product information is too far down the page. The sidebar is too long and hence distracting. There is far too much information that does not pertain to the product. Even the English site is questionable — aside from the fact that not all content has been translated, it still has a high concentration of information from a Western point of view. It could be considered “too Japanese”.

Granted, product pages on Rakuten change from seller to seller. But the above example does demonstrate the level of information needed to communicate the same product to a Japanese and English speaking reader, as well as content’s relative importance to usability.

The takeaway here is that translated content is like any other aspect of cross-cultural communication: if you want to get your point across, sometimes you have to drop what you assume to be right and accommodate your audience on their cultural terms.

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