What can you do with a BA in Japanese? The Struggles and Successes of Translating Mobile Apps

Starting to study Japanese in undergrad or high school, I think a lot of us imagine translating our favorite Japanese video games, anime, and movies. When I started studying Japanese in college I had a vague image of my future self working in an international business or “maybe doing some translation”. Since graduating I’ve done all kinds of translation including company pamphlets, event fliers, websites, legal documents, and most recently, smartphone apps!

Over the past 4 years I’ve worked helping to translate and localize several apps from Japanese to English and every project has been both a fun and rewarding experience. Today I’d like to share some of my experiences with you so you can get an idea if app translation might be something you would enjoy as well!


For Starters: What’s it like translating an app?

App translation is done in many ways depending on the size of the company and team behind the app.

App companies will often hire translators freelance or for contract positions to work translating one or two apps. In this case you may or may not ever even meet the team behind the app in person, though you will probably chat through Skype or other methods to exchange details about the app and receive files of all the text that needs to be translated.

It is also possible you might be hired as full time staff, like an “in house” translator, however you will probably be involved with more than just translation. Many app companies are fairly small or straight up start up companies so as someone who speaks multiple languages you might find yourself handling customer support, community outreach, marketing, advertising, publicity, debugging, testing and more! This can be a great opportunity to learn more about the mobile app world and gain new skills and experience if you are interested in doing more than translation in the future.

App translation can start at various stages of the app’s life. If an app is still under development you may be doing translations based on design images rather than actual screenshots and you may not be able to check or experience how the app works for yourself. If an app is already released and they are just translating it as is, you will be able to use the app as you translate to check screens and determine whether your translations are optimal. In other cases the app may be partially translated already (perhaps by volunteer users or a past translator) but new things to translate have come up so you will have to build off the base of translations already available and match the vocabulary and tone used there.


English and Japanese may not be the only languages the app is translated into.

The Basics: Getting Ready to Translate an App

So you’re in a position to translate an app. Cool! Before you get translating, start by familiarizing yourself with the app. If it’s available for you to use, try it out. Press all the buttons and see what happens. Even if an app is not yet publicly released the development team may be able to provide you with a pre-release version to try out so don’t hesitate to ask!

But remember, an app is often more than just an app. Do they have an official website? Social media accounts? Check out the company or app’s online presence and take a look at what they’re posting. Look at what kind of tone they’re using and think about the impression you get from their online presence. Are they a fun, joking, and casual? Or are they more serious and utilitarian? Keep this in mind as you translate so you can project the same image and feel in the translation.

If you have time I would also recommend checking out their competitors to see what kind of services they provide and how their app works. If there are competitors in the language you’re translating into these can also give you hints of how to (or how not to!) translate things to make the app easy to use and understand.

Translating: In-App Content

So what do you actually translate when translating an app? The first thing that comes to mind is of course the in-app content! This will be the bulk of what you’re translating at first.

Think about an app you use regularly– your favorite SNS or maybe your favorite game. Now think of all the words on each screen, every button, the tutorial or FAQ, all the settings and feature descriptions, every possible error message. That’s exactly what you’ll be translating! Even seemingly small and simple apps can have a lot to be translated.

It may see a bit overwhelming at first but just take it one screen at a time. You’ll find a lot of words and phrases repeat, and a lot of error messages or basic words will be easy to translate, so have fun with it!


Everything in the App Store has to be translated too!

Translating: App Store Descriptions, Promotional Images, Websites

Although the bulk of what you’re translating will be in-app content, depending on the job and your position you may find yourself in charge of translating much more than just what you see in the app itself.

Some examples of additional translation include the description and title used in the App Store or Google Play, text on screenshots or promotional images used in app stores and press releases, an official website or landing page, advertisements, press releases, an FAQ or help center, push notifications, and more! App titles and descriptions often have character limits, so check the Apple and Google developer websites or ask your project manager for details about the restrictions.

Also note, some app companies will actually translate the App Store and Google Play descriptions into multiple languages even when the app is not yet available in those languages yet! You may find yourself asked to translate app descriptions or website content, even though the app is still only available in Japanese. Many games and simple utility apps can be used even if you can’t read ever single button, so companies will translate just the store description to get more downloads and to “test the waters”. If they see a spike in downloads from users using that language they might then consider getting someone to translate the entire app or hiring someone to handle that market.

Translating: App Store Keywords

When translating an app you may also be asked to translate the “keywords” for the iOS App Store. These keywords are extremely important because they directly affect an app’s ranking in the App Store and whether or not it is displayed as a search result for those terms.

Ideal keywords are words that native speakers of that language use to search in the app store. What works in one language or one country might not be be natural in another. This is one clear instance where direct translation is NOT the answer!

You also have to be very careful because the keywords you choose can only be up to 100 characters long. In Japanese they might have over 20 keywords, but in English you may only be able to fit in 15 or so words. If you translate all the Japanese keywords as is, it is highly unlikely they’ll fit in the 100 character limit!

To really do App Store keywords right you need to analyze competitors in that language, look at search trends online and on mobile, think of cultural nuances for each country you are targeting, and more. This goes beyond the scope an average translation job and isn’t worth your time if you are only getting paid a few yen per character translated. Be sure to talk with your project leader or boss about how much effort they want you to put into this, and what their App Store Optimization (ASO) strategy is.

You can read more about the iOS App Store keyword system here on Apple’s website: https://developer.apple.com/app-store/product-page/
(Note: Search ranking works differently for Google Play and there are no set “keywords” entered for Android apps)


Make sure to look at things in context, direct translations don’t always work the best!

In-App Translation Struggles: Conveying the Same Message while Thinking Inside the Box

Two struggles you’ll face specifically when translating apps from Japanese to English in particular are fitting the English translation inside the same borders and conveying the same message as the Japanese.

When it comes to translating Japanese apps, you have to learn to think inside the box– by which I mean the literal app screen and all the buttons and areas in the app. Kanji allow for many words in Japanese to be short and simple, while their English counterparts can get lengthy. It’s easier to translate an English app into Japanese than a Japanese app into English for this reason. Apps that start in Japanese often aren’t designed with longer languages like English or German in mind, so screens might look cluttered and text areas might not be big enough to include all the same words.

When translating text documents slight differences in length are rarely a problem, but with apps even just one letter too long and the word will end up truncated (displayed with a “…” or just cut off) which leads to a bad experience for the users. Imagine if you downloaded an app and the Save button just said “Sav” or the button to build a new character said “Build a new ch…”. Oops!

When working to translate the Japanese food app “SynchroLife” from Japanese into English, Korean, and Chinese, my team encountered the issue of word length countless times. It was especially an issue with header text and buttons! The English or Korean would be too long and we’d have to rethink the translation or design in order to make things work.

For example, in the Japanese version of SynchroLife restaurant pages have a button labeled “店舗情報の編集を提案”. This is a mouthful even in Japanese, meaning “Propose an edit to this business information”. Needless to say, that translation is not only wordy and awkward, it’s too long to fit on the button or on the header of the screen displayed when you tap that button. After considering several translations and referencing similar English restaurant services, the English translation was changed to “Edit Business Info”. Although the nuance is slightly different than the original Japanese, it’s short enough to fit in the space provided and the overall message is the same.

Another issue you will face when translating apps is conveying the same message throughout different translations. This is especially important in apps where users using different language versions of the app communicate or play together in the app. If the message, meaning, or nuance of your translation is even slightly different it may lead to confusion amongst different language users.

Our team translating the dating app “Festar” from Japanese experienced this first hand when the Japanese word “飲み会” was translated as “party” in the English version of the app. Festar matches users based on their interests for a 10 minute chat, and at the beginning of the chat an icebreaker message is sent to both users. A Japanese and English speaking user was using the English version of the app and received an icebreaker asking about “parties” while their match (an only Japanese speaking user) was sent that same message in Japanese with the word “飲み会”. When the two users started chatting the user using the English version of the app messaged the other user in Japanese talking about how they love parties, but the Japanese user was confused because “パーティー” and “飲み会” have different nuances in Japanese.

Even just slight differences like “飲み会” and “party” can cause confusion between users, so when translating apps where users will be interacting together you need to be careful there will be no misunderstandings when users of different languages interact.


How would you translate these phrases to fit in the same bubble?

Store and Promotional Translation Struggles: An App Translator Wears Many Hats

Translating the store text and promotional materials for an app means you’re doing a lot more than just translating. You are essentially the marketer, copywriter, and lead advertiser for that language of the app. It’s not just translation, it’s localization.

All users who stumble across the app in that language will be reading your words and basing their decision whether or not to download largely based on that. Direct translations are a nice start but you really need to think about how to present the app in an easy to understand and appealing manner, even if that means the translated text will be considerably different from the original! For catch phrases or taglines, feel free to ask the team about what kind of users they want to target and what other marketing and advertising catchphrases they’ve used before. Reading up on basic copywriting or studying advertisements for other apps and internet services also might be a great way to get ideas.

Job Hunt: Where to Find App Translation Work

So are you interested in app translation? If so you’re probably wondering where to start your job search. Luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it, it really depends on the company and to my knowledge there isn’t really a single standardized way of finding these kinds of jobs.

The mobile app industry is extremely varied with solo developers, small start up teams, medium sized companies, and even huge international companies all making apps. Some teams or companies base their whole business around a single app while others make many different apps, and to others the app is just a part of a larger online business or loyalty program. Obviously each kind of company will handle the translation of their apps differently, but here are some ideas on where you can get started looking for app translation work.

– Check the official website or contact the developer of an app you already love
If you already have several apps that you love and use regularly, check if they have an English or Japanese version available. And if they don’t, check out their official website or contact them and ask if they would be interested in having their app translated! For solo developers and small startups, translating an app can seem daunting or expensive. But if you’re already a user who loves the app and knows it well, they can trust that you’ll do it justice in translation and might be interested in having you help them translate it. I got my first app translation job from a posting on a developer’s website saying they were looking for part time translators. I already used the app regularly and was happy to help!

– Search the usual job sites for app marketing, translation, localization related jobs
If you are looking for more full time work, larger companies and some start ups will hire multilingual people to join their business teams. Depending on the size of the company the scope of your role may be very narrow or very broad. You might just be doing translation and localization, or you might also have to do customer support, marketing, advertising, bug testing, social media management and more!

– Join a freelance app translation service
While sites like Gengo (https://gengo.com) specialize in all kinds of translation, there are similar sites that specialize specifically in app translation. Joining these sites as a translator you’ll be put in with other translations who compete or work together to complete any app translation requests that come in. Some examples include OneSky (https://www.oneskyapp.com), Tethras (https://www.tethras.com/translator), and OnTranslate (http://ontranslate.com/). Please note many of these sites have small translator pools or require knowledge of apps beforehand, and they are not always be hiring.

– Join a freelance site
If you have some experience, you also might be interested in putting your services out in the open as a freelancer. In Japan two of the biggest freelancing sites are Lancers (http://www.lancers.jp) and CrowdWorks (https://crowdworks.jp), and you can add your resume and search for freelance jobs easily there. There are also many English based freelancing sites like Upwork (https://www.upwork.com) or even Fiverr (https://www.fiverr.com), but if you’re interested in translated Japanese to English you will probably have the best luck on Japanese sites.


My coworker testing SynchroLife when English translations were halfway done.

Success: The Struggle is Worth It!

Despite the struggles you may face in translating apps, it’s all worth it!

One of the best thing about translating apps is once it’s out there in the app store you can see your work in action afterwards. You can use the app yourself and thousands of other people will be using it to. Depending on what kind of app it is you may be able to see posts by users in your language, play games with them, or even chat with them. You can share your work with friends and family, and add it to your resume like a portfolio piece as well.

And hey, it feels pretty cool to have an app you worked on in your phone!

I’ve worked on a lot of translation projects over the years, but apps and websites have been some of my personal favorites because I can share and experience them when I’m done. Most recently I have been both a translator and manager for the overseas releases of SynchroLife and Festar, and I’m excited to keep working with the marketing and design team to perfect the translations for both apps in the future!

About SynchroLife: http://synchrolife.jp/
SynchroLife is a free iPhone and Android app where users can share their food adventures worldwide and get personalized restaurant recommendations and search results. SynchroLife uses AI to learn from user behavior and curate restaurants personalized to each user’s individual lifestyle and tastes which allows for fast and easy discovery of delicious restaurants. Browse the hot feed to check out trending restaurants, bookmark places to visit later, post mini reviews and photos, chat with other foodies, and enjoy good food and good friends from all around the world with Japan’s smart food app, SynchroLife.

About Festar: https://festar.jp/en/
Get matched in real time with other users who share your hobbies and interests with Festar, the hot new dating chat app from Japan. No more playing games with profiles and selfies, get chatting right away to find your true match! Recommended for anyone who likes meeting new people they share hobbies with and anyone tired of looks based dating apps. The magic starts with a 10 minute chat! Festar is currently available in 13 countries for iPhone and Android phones in English, Japanese, and Korean.

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2 Responses to What can you do with a BA in Japanese? The Struggles and Successes of Translating Mobile Apps

  1. Translator says:

    A nice basic overview of app localization.

    However, the websites cited (Gengo, Tethras…) are all really bottom-feeder stuff. While I understand that realistically this blog will be catering to inexperienced and most likely unqualified translators looking to break into the industry, it’s pretty unethical for the author of this article to recommend crowdsourcing sites that pay not even half of standard translation rates (yes, even “Pro” at Gengo is paltry). Lancers already has an established roster of translators, and the rates that a handful of new applicants might receive after spending empty time bidding will most likely be atrocious. It undercuts the market and generally produces shoddy work. Listen, I get it, everyone has to start somewhere. But when you’re working for corporations, it’s wrong to sell yourself so short, and bad for the client who doesn’t know any better.

    Not to be overly critical, but this is supposed to be an educated forum for constructive insider information, rather than a platform for an extended PR pitch for the Japanese parodies of Yelp and Tinder.

    • Laura says:

      Hello, thanks for your comment. This post was meant to be an overview of what goes into app translation and localization to give people unfamiliar with the genre a look at what goes into the project besides just translating buttons in an app 🙂

      I agree with you that with you that many of the freelance sites do not offer appropriate compensation for the projects listed. This is why I mentioned directly checking a developer’s official site or looking on normal job offering sites first. Sadly I have spoken with many start ups here in Tokyo who specifically said they crowdsourced translations on some of the freelance sites I listed though, so although it things are not competitively or fairly compensated the reality is there are projects going up there. In retrospect, I should have included a heads up about the reality of the low compensation and rushed deadlines those sites often have, I apologize if my introduction of them felt inappropriate to you.

      Myself and several other native English speakers I know in the start up scene in Tokyo got their start responding to developer blog posts, tweets, and job listings, so that is the biggest advice I can give. However none of us work as full time translators now, we work doing a variety of business development, design, and even engineering tasks along with our translation work. This is also something I wanted to include in the article, as I know some people who have been surprised by how little translation work they ended up doing after being hired and that may not be appealing to someone who wants to only do translation work.

      The apps referenced in this article belong to the company I currently work for so I had full permission and rights to share screenshots and examples. I am sorry if this article came off as a PR plug to you, this was done completely volunteer as were my other articles on this site.

      It sounds like you may have a lot more experience doing pure translation and localization work than I do, and with large corporations too. If you wouldn’t mind writing about your experiences, I highly encourage you to contact Shinpai Deshou. They are always looking for people to share their experiences in Japan-related work and study, and I am sure they would love to have an article from you! I would love to hear more about the corporate situation too as I have only ever worked with small start ups.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!

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