Ten Japanese-to-English Translation Myths Believed by some Translation UsersPeeking behind the curtain.

(Published March 7, 2021; edited July 6, 2022)

It is difficult for people outside the translation business, including users of translation services, to distinguish between comfortable beliefs and the realities of the providers they are using to translate their Japanese documents. Myths abound, and translation providers often allow clients to believe those myths. Let's look at some of them.

Myth One: The translations you order are done by the translation company receiving your order.

This is most likely false for most translations ordered in the US from translation brokers purporting to be translation companies, and certainly when ordering from the few large ones that sell translations to law firms, because they are no more than brokers, purchasing and reselling translations. Most major translation brokers used by law firms in the US, for example, do no translations themselves, their business model being simply to purchase and resell translations.

Myth Two: The translation company you order work from understands the documents you send them.

That might be true if you avoid translation brokers and order translations from true translation companies with identified and disclosed translators. It is very likely to be untrue for almost all the Japanese-to-English translation ordered in the US from large translation brokers. Such companies not only do not understand the subject matter of your documents, but they sometimes cannot even correctly identify what language they are in. We have seen major US translation brokers mistake a Chinese or even a Korean patent for a Japanese patent. The reason is that the people purported to be their “project managers” generally lack basic literacy about languages.

Myth Three: The place you order Japanese-to-English translations from uses translators they know.

This might be true if you use a relatively small translation company. It might be arguably true for even the high-volume US translation brokers (until recently, anyway; see Myth Seven), but only if "knowing" the identity of the translator means knowing their email address and knowing that they will do the work by the required deadline for the required price and that their work has not (yet) been complained about by the translation broker's clients. But even that minimal level of knowledge about the translator is slipping away, as noted in Myth Seven.

Myth Four: The translations must be accurate, because each translation you receive has a letter of certification attached to it, attesting to its accuracy.

For several reasons, this is an unwarranted level of confidence. Most of the certification letters from the major translation brokers in the US are signed by an administrative employee of the broker, who (1) is almost never a translator of the languages involved and (2) has no ability to judge the accuracy or other quality of the translations the broker sells, beyond undertaking an act of faith that the translator (or other translation broker—see Myth Seven) executed the translation properly with the required quality. For reasons noted in Myth Seven, the person signing the translation certification letter these days will often not even be able to learn the name of the translator who has translated your documents.

Myth Five: The place you purchase translations from is ISO-certified, so you can trust the quality of the translations they do.

First, they likely don't do any translations at all (see Myth One). Second, the ISO quality certification demonstrates nothing more than the translation broker having filled out and submitted the ISO paperwork correctly, and having reported therein that they have "a system" of quality assurance procedures that they follow. And they indeed might follow those QA procedures. The problem is that, while this might work for processes that have well-established and understood quality metrics, it falls apart when applied to translation, and the broker is not held to some defined level of quality by the ISO standard, which only addresses issues of process, not quality. The broker can tell ISO, for example, that they have a second translator check the translation done by the original translator, but there is no assurance that the second translator is qualified to do so, nor is there to start with a clear-cut metric for translation quality. It's basically a process amenable to the use of smoke and mirrors.

Myth Six: The name of the translator cited on the certification letter is that of the translator who translated your document.

In the best of worlds this would be true. Sadly, however, we have seen and verified cases in which it is not. For example, we have personally witnessed a case in which the translation broker purported to disclose the name of the translator in a certification letter, but used what appeared to be a false anglophone name (both family and given) in English orthography, totally different from the name signed on the same page as a Chinese name by the Japanese-to-English translator.

In another, more egregious betrayal of trust of both the client and a translator, the translation broker used the name of an existing translator who had nothing to do with the translation. This was discovered during a deposition, and the quality of the translation of that discovery document being used in witness examination was so poor that it raised suspicions on our part about the claimed identity of the translator. The interpreter knew the purported translator personally and immediately emailed the translator, only to discover that he had neither involvement with that translation nor knowledge that his name was being used without his permission. Additionally, he mentioned that "they're doing it again," revealing that the translation broker was a serial offender.

Myth Seven: The translation company you use knows who is doing your translations.

In recent years, the major translation brokers operating in the US and providing Japanese-to-English translations to law firms have become power users of translation brokers in China, to which they subcontract work received from their US law firm clients. It is likely that this is why there has been a reduction in the frequency of disclosure of specific translator names in certification letters, since the Chinese translation broker will not necessarily or properly disclose the translator’s name, even to the US broker purchasing translations from them. And you can understand why the US translation broker would be reluctant to disclose the name of a Chinese translator. This imposes another veil of mystery that hides the identity of the actual translator, and the use of Chinese translation brokers presents other concerns, including language ability and security.

Myth Eight: Chinese language is similar to Japanese, so there is no problem with—and there is even an advantage to—sending Japanese documents to China to be translated.

First, although Japanese has borrowed a subset of its writing system from China, the two languages belong to distinctly different language groups and are mutually unintelligible, eliminating any imagined advantage to the use of a Chinese native speaker in translating from Japanese to English. Although shared orthography might sound like an advantage to Westerners viewing the writing systems of both countries as exotic and impenetrable, it should be remembered that French, Polish, and Turkish share a larger proportion of their orthographies than do Chinese and Japanese but are mutually unintelligible. If you would hesitate (as you should) to have a Polish native speaker translate from French to Turkish, you should think twice before you give a Japanese-to-English translation assignment to a broker who will send your document (usually unbeknownst to you) to a broker in China that uses native Chinese speakers for that Japanese-to-English translation task.

Having a human translate between two languages that are both foreign to the translator is perhaps only marginally better than using a machine translation system, which has no human language as native and actually understands nothing beyond use of an algorithm designed to mimic translation as done by humans, and those MT systems are not yet good enough at that task to eliminate human translators.

Myth Nine: But the Chinese translation brokers surely use translators educated in the West who speak fluent English.

How do you know? How does even your US translation broker know (see Myth Seven)? It is much more likely that the translators used by the Chinese brokers subcontracted to by the major US translation brokers for Japanese-to-English translation have scant opportunity to even travel to an Anglosphere nation or to Japan. That combined with the inherent vast linguistic distance between Chinese and Japanese languages spells trouble, and we have seen that trouble arise in some horrific translations of discovery documents that have been spirited away by US translation brokers to China for Japanese-to-English translation.

The poor quality of these translated documents often comes to light in depositions. For example, when an attorney presents a document to Mr. Tanaka and asks "Mr. Tanaka, when you wrote XYZ, ..." but it turns out that Mr. Tanaka wrote—and the document says—nothing of the sort, the attorney is likely relying on a mistranslated Japanese-to-English document. But quality is not the only problem with allowing US translation brokers to subcontract to Chinese brokers. Security and accountability are also sacrificed.

Myth Ten: Your translation company signed an NDA or a subscription to a protective order, so you need not be concerned about security.

In cases in which not only a primary party executing and bound by the NDA or the like but also entities it subcontracts to are disclosed and accessible to you, this might work. But the presence of two layers of overseas parties (the Chinese broker and a Chinese translator they use) beyond your US translation broker seriously hinders the effectiveness of such an NDA, which becomes nothing more than a security blanket. If something goes wrong, remedies are not going to be available. But why do you need to be concerned about security regarding Japanese discovery documents for litigation translated into English in China? People wondering about this should look at the considerable amount of IP litigation involving Chinese and Japanese parties as well as China’s track record in respecting IP rights of foreign entities.

The above should make it clear that a bit more thought needs to be given to selecting and believing the claims, implicit or explicit, made by translation providers. Although the buyer still needs to beware, in general a smaller translation provider more likely involve fewer of the above surprises and risks than a high-volume translation broker of the type that does most of the discovery document Japanese-to-English translation in the US.