Muji in Portland and thoughts about an interesting translation

By | December 27, 2019

Muji, known as Japanese in 無印良品 (literally “good unbranded products”), is a Japanese store that sells a variety of goods: clothes, skin care, sandals, containers, etc. Around a year ago Muji opened their first store in Portland, and the combination interesting products, beautiful interior design, and the Japanese element makes this one of my favorite stories in the area. The products aren’t exactly cheap, but from what I have seen the quality is generally worth what you pay for. For a lover of Japanese stuff the Muji store in downtown Portland is a must-see.

Muji is also interesting from a translation perspective because the store is filled with products whose names are often listed in both English and Japanese. When I happened to be in store recently I came across a message on a bed listed in both languages:

  • 寝心地をお試しください。
  • Try with your shoes on.

I was struck by the discrepancy in these two phrases, enough to want to post about it.

To begin with, the Japanese phrase above says literally “Please try out the sleep-comfortability”.

Indeed, this English translation is not particularly natural, especially because of the lack of a good fit for the “sleep-comfortability” (寝心地) part. One way to correct this could be:

  • Please try out the bed.

While this still omits the “sleep-comfortability” part, it is implied by the context. After all, why would you try out a bed except to see if it was comfy?

However there are still two differences between the actual Japanese translation and this phrase. The first is the omission of the “please” (ください) portion, which is actually somewhat expected since Japanese often uses the explicit idea of “please” when we wouldn’t normally use it in English. Another example is “頑張ってください” which literally means something like “please try your best” but generally wouldn’t be translated into English using the “please” part.

This second difference, however, is much more interesting: the addition of the “with your shoes on” part. I can’t say with certainty the reason for this translation choice, but my theory is that it is used to avoid the situation where people with dirty socks (or dirty feet) are exposing those to the other people in the store. As for why the Japanese text omits that, I’m guessing maybe is assumed that Japanese people are more likely to be picky about cleanliness.

Another interpretation involves deemphasizing the value of the “try on your shoes” part; what is important is that the phrase is lengthened so that is roughly as long as the Japanese phrase, and much more natural than the simple “Try.” Other longer options, such as “Try this” or “Try this out”, don’t sound that great either. (On the other hand, “Try me” sounds quite natural.)

If I had to make my best effort at a translation for this, I think I would go with something like:

  • Want to see how comfy I am? (keep shoes on please)

This sort of discussion reminds me that translation for a marketing or sales setting is an interesting field that requires some extra skills and consideration to do right.

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