David Meerman Scott , an American marketing strategist who has lived in Japan, has stirred things up by nominating the Tokyo Olympics 2020 bid website as the worst English language website in the world. Well, admittedly it’s not great – using “unique” twice in one paragraph (without any explanation as to what precisely is unique) in the vision statement got my goat. But there are probably worse websites out there if one could be bothered to look.
The point is of course that this is one of the most high profile “brand” awareness, world class competitions you can get into, and expectations are high. I discussed Meerman Scott’s post with one of the translators we use for our English-to-Japanese articles. She said one professional English editor she uses for her own (excellent) English writing, uses the word “childish” to describe the Japanese websites he is familiar with. We agreed that the base problem is the tendency to insist on straight translations from Japanese to English.
It takes a lot of time to build up trust with Japanese colleagues or clients before they will allow a writer/translator to deviate from word to word translations. It took me six years at Mitsubishi Corporation, and being known to work closely with the President and write his English speeches, to get to that point. Initially Japanese colleagues would even correct my English, because they thought I had missed something out, or their dictionary said something different.
The struggle to translate strategy documents into anything meaningful in English was particularly thankless. Finally, I hit on discussing the intention behind the strategy directly with the people who drafted the Japanese original, then putting the Japanese original into a drawer and writing it in English from scratch. It also helped I knew the company much better by the end of my nine years there, so could second guess some of the implicit, missing pieces.
So, it’s no surprise that Japanese companies are so reluctant to use external professional English copywriters – the Japanese original is often so opaque, deliberately vague, and requires such a deep knowledge of the company to really understand the nuances.
Not that things are going that well for Istanbul’s bid right now, but if you read their vision – “bridge together”, it is unmistakably Istanbul that is being talked about. Let’s hope the “inclusiveness and harmony” of the vision are reestablished soon. Tokyo’s emphasis on “safety” is looking more alluring now. Madrid promises a “responsible” Olympics, but spelling itself Madid on its website is worrying in terms of attention to detail. So, nobody’s perfect, but I think Meerman Scott is trying to say the Tokyo site could be so much better.
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