Japan Today



Local governments seek solutions to fixing mangled English


"You really ought to laugh, but you can't," begins the article in Yukan Fuji (May 16). The topic is the English translations of the contents of local governments' home pages and signage on the streets. Which, it points out, are full of incorrect translations or non-idiomatic expressions. 

For foreign residents and visitors, of course, this is nothing new. Since the 19th century, mirthful examples of bungled English have been observed in the Land of Wa. Including whoppers like "We play for MacArthur's erection." Or the sign posted above a urinal that read, "To stop drip, turn cock to right." 

Yukan Fuji isn't laughing. It starts off with these four examples of mangled English: "No Entrance Bicycles," and follows this with "refuse stock," "book manager" and this mystifying expression, "doctor ryo engine." The correct English should read: No bicycles allowed; discarded waste; general manager; and medical facility. 

The need for accurate English is all the more essential due to the current pandemic, when understanding can literally mean the difference between life or death. 

A woman identified as Patricia Hayashi, who belongs to the committee of foreign residents in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, remarks, "The first materials posted on the city's home page regarding what to do if one develops symptoms of the coronavirus were incomprehensible." 

While it's not always easy to determine which is which, the two underlying causes of Urayasu's erroneous English appear to be use of computer translation and arbitrary translations by city employees. Neither, needless to say, are subjected to checks by native speakers -- and hence the confusion. 

Fortunately efforts are now under way to remedy the situation. Last November, Masayo Shiroki, holder of an MBA degree from New York's Columbia University, and former chair of the Urayasu International Friendship Association, and the aforementioned Hayashi, set up a working group to review English translations. 

After reviewing 53 examples of translations, they determined about 70% were simply incorrect, and only two of the 53 required no corrections at all.

Shiroki was quoted as saying she was not opposed to computer translation outright, "because a lot of labor is required to translate everything." But workers have not put into place a system by which errors can be avoided. 

Another problem is that particularly in Japanese, the language of the bureaucracy tends to be repetitive and packed with vague and specialized terms, posing added challenges for both human and machine translation. 

This resulted in the city bringing in native English speakers to conduct periodic checks, as well as others who, during disasters, could produce materials in "easy Japanese." 

It has also been observed that the home page operated by Kobe City relied upon machine translation from Japanese to Chinese, which among other problems led to incorrect conversions of kanji characters, even for the names of the city's ward offices. At least as far as urgent measures such as tackling the coronavirus pandemic, action was taken to bring in skilled translators, and pages were produced individually for each foreign language. 

"Computer translation will become more accurate in the future," Professor Emi Uesugi of Meikai University in Urayasu and a member of the committee, tells Yukan Fuji. "To harness it efficiently when dealing with matters that impact on people's lives, however, it will be necessary to adopt a system by which workers check the translated materials."

Whatever the language, the article concludes, it's stating the obvious that contents need to make sense.

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Had a t-shirt from Kyoto U :

"Kyoto University

A University with a good taste."

Translations are hard and fail very often. Only a native speaker in the target language can ensure idiomatic use.

"The good taste and spent a pleasant moment you wish the owner and staff."

Perhaps they could gamify the translations? Some "Learning {insert language}" apps try to do this, but if they could sneak in some needed translations with a "make it better" button, then better translations would be volunteered? Could be a win-win.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

How about starting with the government's, Go to travel? With all the elite university graduates in the government, this was all they could come up with?

10 ( +12 / -2 )

Businesses are no better. I still laugh when I remember the sign at the concierges desk of Singapore hotel we were staying at. It was a laundry drop off with a sign that said "For best results, drop trousers here".

7 ( +7 / -0 )

My wife likes these small but powerful Japanese canister vacuums such as our Panasonic MC-PA22G. However reading English translations of their web pages I figured out what "tool for the gap" is, the crevice tool, still haven't figured out what a "garbage dash" is.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Part of the problem is that even when local governments get a native speaker to translate or check the translations, someone in the government office thinks they know better and changes it back to something ridiculous.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

"To stop drip, turn cock to right."

I'd love to know what the original Japanese wording was. As punishment, they should re-translate these back into Japanese using google and use those.

Part of the problem is that even when local governments get a native speaker to translate or check the translations, someone in the government office thinks they know better and changes it back to something ridiculous.

Yeah. You've got to wonder, why bother hiring a native speaker in the first place?

4 ( +5 / -1 )

still haven't figured out what a "garbage dash" is.

Is it a bagless machine? If so, "garbage dash" may be "garbage dish", which could be the dust container?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Google Translate is by no means perfect. But, it is the best machine translation compared to others I've seen, such as Facebook, Bing/Microsoft, and especially Japanese products.

My local gov't uses some domestically engineered translation system. It's not very good. I just use the JP site, and have Chrome translate automatically. Much better that way.

Even worse are the maps. Like many JP websites, they use a horrible domestically engineered map plug-in. It's just dreadful. Luckily, many commercial JP sites are using Google Maps now, which is always a welcome sight. (and site).

Maybe gov't-related sites feel they need to use a domestic product, even if it's not nearly as good, as opposed to what's best.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Hire better translators?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

It's why I still have a job. I do translation of scientific articles for graduate students hoping to be published in international journals or international presentations. Perhaps AI will eventually catch up with it, but not in my lifetime.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

As everyone has said, they need to just hire some translators if they want it done correctly.

If they don't want to spend money, then it will continue as it is. It seems like they don't actually care too much, unless it causes them public embarrassment. Then they can just blame it on some poor employee, they get a good talking to, and the cycle continues.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

...someone in the government office thinks they know better and changes it back to something ridiculous.

@Gooch Completely agree. As a translator, I actually have experienced this several times myself.

Hire better translators?

A large part of my job is simply convincing governments and well funded organizations that they have major translation errors that not only look very unprofessional, but also make things incomprehensible, and that they should fix it.

But they want it cheap, yet can't understand the logic of "you get what you pay for".

And since they can't read or understand the badly translated results themselves, they gladly pay for such garbage thinking they accomplished their goal.

And its one thing to botch a website, which can more or less be readily fixed, but over and over I've seen fresh stacks of 10s of thousands of brochures printed, newly made series of promotional posters, and well crafted things like menus and guide maps, all with massive errors.

It then becomes a very delicate job (like communicating with a child... or Trump) to point out how they just wasted huge amount on printing costs while (maybe) saving a few yen on translation, but usually they just get angry at me for pointing out their incompetence and refuse to fix it and/or never want to hire me.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Part of the problem is that even when local governments get a native speaker to translate or check the translations, someone in the government office thinks they know better and changes it back to something ridiculous.

I hear you. It's called arrogance. I deal with it sometimes at work from Japanese English teachers who say things like "I graduated from Kansai University, Kyoto University, or I studied at Cambridge, etc. At first, I was upset by this. However later, I just let it go and sometimes got the last laugh. Regarding the article, computer translators are okay during certain situations and helpful, but they are not the correct fix. Computers don't have instinct or feelings, so they can't detect nuances or the context of a document.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Laguna, I don't know how old you are, but I give AI about 10 years to become of par with top translators. The speed of the developments in machine learning is unbelievable

-4 ( +1 / -5 )


Assume you mean, 'on par with...'.

Anyway, a business opportunity for someone who likes proofreading.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Laguna, I don't know how old you are, but I give AI about 10 years to become of par with top translators. The speed of the developments in machine learning is unbelievable

I've learned that any claims of "10 yrs away" should be translated to 30+ yrs. "20 yrs away" should be translated to 50+ yrs.

I've read that IBM has near real-time voice translation internally. OTOH, 30 yrs ago, we were supposed to get 1cm cubed optical storage devices with 100TB for $200 in 10 yrs. Hasn't happened yet.

AI is nearly all marketing hype. It handles the easy stuff great, but is confused by the complex stuff. For example, find the puppies in this image:


That image will provide a very quick, clear, example, about subtle recognition difficulties.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think you underestimate the profound impact that data science and AI is bringing to our society. I believe 10 years is a generous estimation. As a guy involved with science, I can tell you that research in all areas of science is hugely impacted, and it is my understanding that economics, politics, etc. are also strongly impacted.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

My favorite computer boner involved the Japanese phrase "Mata o-me ni kakarimasu," which it translated as "I will hang before your eyes."

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Time to bring out our favorites:

At Jimbocho Station (Hanzomon Line entrance), there is a sign that says, 'This is Hanzomon Line. Toei Mita Line and Toei Shinjuku Line can't take it' ! And that annoying announcement at Shibuya that says something like, 'This is the something line, the other lines are not available'., which makes you think the lines have been shut down or something.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It helps to have a sense of humor. MacArthur probably enjoyed a good laugh as much as the next person.

Here in California, with so many speakers fluent in both Spanish and English, it amazes me how often public translations are bungled.

We have many relatives in Europe, and I am surprised at how competent their translations into English tend to be.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If you are a resident in Japan, one must, head down, learnt to communicate clearly.

Not in English. But the national spoken language.

If a tourist wave your arms around, don't be put off or frightened.

Try a few words.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The people will be impressed.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To be truly global, Japan must start with the correct English. No more excuses. Be ashamed when one do not speak, read and write English.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

It’s also by far not always perfect in your home country, so don’t expect a 100% perfect English here in Japan and don’t complain about it. Those sometimes bigger typos and errors are very funny, can make your day and are really quite unique, so I personally like them and don’t want to miss them. My local favorites, ‘Tonkatsu is justice’ , maybe something like ‘our Tonkatsu is just right’, who knows...and even more famous, supermarket chain HalloDay’s sub-slogan ‘food holes’. Maybe, they mean halls or wholesale, I am not so sure...lol

0 ( +1 / -1 )

As some hinted "Janglish" can be refreshingly funny - eg when it's on t-shirts and the like.

On professional, business and official documents though it can indicate a lack of awareness, a lack of thoroughness and in some cases a feeling of cheapness. The rare slip can be excused but not when mistakes are repeated.

My wife and I have done a handful of commercial translations over the years( not a favorite past-time) I recall in particular the president of a firm wishing to enter the Asian market with it's recycling materials technology and processes.

He took us to task with the wording that went something like this.

"If you have any queries at all, we would be happy to talk with you". He said why is happy in there? There's no happy in the original Japanese. One dimensional.

Or the #1 high school in the prefecture I used to teach at.

Every year in October they'd have the "21st, 22nd etc Regular Brass Band Concert" written on banners, pamphlets, programs etc. I told the appropriate teachers that the natural English word to use is Annual as in "The 23rd Annual Brass Band Concert". Many times I suggested it - Deaf Ears.

However there is no doubt that translation software will make leaps and bounds over the next decade or so.

But always, and yes I mean always there will be a need for proof-reading / editing as a minimum requirement for human input.

Where for art thou...!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"We play for MacArthur's erection."

at least it was for and not with. THAT would have been awkward.

"To stop drip, turn cock to right.

Maybe it was referring to MacArthur's erection?

Anyway, at a gym 20 years ago, a chubby girl I knew came up to me and asked me what her shirt meant. She was wearing a white shirt with one word in bold black capitals-


Same gym, a few months later, a guy I knew came in with a shirt with the Mastercard logo on it but instead of Mastercard, Masterbation was boldly displayed on the shirt.

Japan is in need of serious help when it comes to English.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


is a resource to ask Native speakers for help, but a high level of skill in the language is needed just to ask/understand a proper question.

Plus, there are different acceptable phrases based on the locality. American English is different from British in some ways.

Maths -- Math (Americans only learn 1?) https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/990/which-is-correct-math-or-maths

"In hospital" -- "at a hospital" (Americans think of a hospital as a building, not a state of being) ; I admit to not fully understanding the British version meaning. https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/333422/which-is-correct-muhammad-ali-died-in-hospital-vs-died-in-a-hospital

But those examples are subtle compared to the mistakes commonly seen.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't think there are any English materials (except for just writing things in Romaji) here in my city that aren't wrong. And they even occasionally mess that up with things like "Mount Hakodate Yama". My favourite was at the movie theatre with the sign saying, "Please don't kick the front sheet. It wight irritate your neighbon."

I still don't know why they don't just ask a native speaker to at least glance at the translations. Someone on fiver would probably do it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

How about hiring me as Minister of English?

I can pledge to end regrettable phrases and signs and make Japan not funny again.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

how about, like, hiring professional translators?

with all the money they throw away every year they surely have the budget.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A little late to the party in commenting but, as a part-time freelance translator from Japanese to English, one of the most frustrating things to deal with are arrogant clients who, just because they know some English, think they know more than the native speaker and "correct" the translator's English.

The main obstacle for getting more natural-sounding English in this country isn't to just hire professional translators but to hire them, trust them to do their job, not be arrogant just because they know some English, and not make silly corrections that often sound unnatural and stilted.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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