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Video localization professionals must strive to provide high-quality dubbing & subtitling translations to all target audiences – and Japan is certainly no exception. After all, this is a locale with a deep sense of history and a keen appreciation of its culture. Moreover, the Japanese language itself presents some challenges to text on video. So – what do multimedia localization professionals need to know to avoid issues when creating subtitled videos for Japan?

This blog post will provide 3 tips to ensure accurate, high-quality Japanese subtitles.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

Legibility and grammar in Japanese subtitling

Japanese characters are relatively complex – this is true of Asian double-byte languages in general, as well as of languages with diacritics and ligatures like Arabic, Hindi and Thai. There is much more visual information in each character than in standard Latin letters. This means that legibility of the text on-screen – whether captions or subtitles – is a key concern for Japanese subtitling services.

Still from a video -- a woman in a green sweater speaks at a warehouse, with Japanese subtitles in the lower third.

Moreover, Japanese employs phonetic characters as well as pictographic ones. Words or phrases transliterated from other languages use these phonetic characters – meaning that translated documents are usually full of them. These phonetic strings require special attention in all localization productions, including Japanese dubbing sessions – but as you may imagine, they require the most attention in subtitle and on-screen titles replacement projects.

The following three tips address these two concerns specifically.

1. Use standard fonts, or clear non-standard ones.

Some fonts are more legible than others – meaning that they’re easier to scan by the human eye. Moreover, some fonts are optimized for use on video, and “read” better in front of a moving image. Japanese fonts are no exception, in that they have varying degrees of video legibility as well.

What does this mean for your project? If it doesn’t have font style guides, you can use “standard” fonts – that is to say, fonts that are commonly-used for Japanese captions or subtitle text, and that are known to be video-legible. This is common practice on corporate video projects, in fact.

If you have a marketing video project, it’s more likely to have style guides that call for different fonts – like something more akin to a sans serif font in English, or a font that’s more delicate, or has thinner strokes. In those cases, allow time to create visual tests and run them by a Japanese native speaker. If you have an in-country staff or marketing managers, that’s the ideal review audience – and they may even have local style guides that you can leverage.

2. Use a subtitle background.

Subtitle backgrounds are exactly what they sound like –a solid or gray bar that surrounds the subtitle text, effectively creating a canvas on which it’s easier to read. Not only does this improve the readability of the more complex Japanese characters, but it also gives projects more flexibility when it comes to choosing fonts. However, backgrounds effectively “block” more of the image, and sometimes put off designers, so make sure to test them before committing to a final project look.

For more information, check out our previous post, 3 Times When Subtitle Background Boxes Are Great for Localization.

3. Manage line breaks.

Line breaks are tricky in Japanese, and they’re a hurdle for localization post-production in general. Why? To start with, Japanese doesn’t use spacing to differentiate characters or groups or characters signifying a single concept or object, including ones made up of strings of phonetic characters. Again, these strings “sound out” transliterated terms, including brand names, person names, and loan words in the tech, medical, and various other fields. In fact, they’re particularly useful for creating pronunciation guidelines for Japanese voiceover and dubbing projects.

However, this also means that a string of Japanese text can’t be broken just anywhere, but there’s no real indication to a non-native speaker where the line could be broken. For this reason, it’s crucial to use a subtitle localization workflow that allows linguists to set line-breaks manually. On top of that, it’s really important to QA the final texts once they’ve been laid back to video (if burning in), or integrated to the video stream (if delivering a text-based format). This is true of multimedia localization into Japanese in general – line-break issues are the most common mistakes caught during the QA process, whether in subs text or on-screen titles, mainly because they don’t look like errors to most non-native eyes.

Bonus tip: Use a robust caption & subtitle template

A key component to the success of any subtitles (or subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing) project is the localization time-coded template itself. A robust template needs to provide linguists information on character limits, and allow them to set line-breaks – which, as we mentioned, is crucial for Japanese projects. It also has to provide a way for teams – from the project manager, to the client in-country reviewer, to the linguist and post-production editor – to note, track and implement changes and corrections. Finally, the template has to be supported by an app or software that outputs to a standard text-based file, or supports burning the content to video. Of course, JBI Studios’ proprietary template is set up specifically to provide these functionalities, and has been used successfully on countless Japanese video localization projects.

During project setup, review your workflow and template to make sure it addresses your entire production’s needs, including the needs of your particular language set. And whatever you do, do not skip this setup. As with all multimedia localization, proper preparation is the key to delivering on time – and staying on budget.

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