Even in famously polite Japan, the people of Kyoto have a reputation for their highly refined manners. Add in the respect Japan usually shows for senior citizens, and it must have come as quite a surprise to the management of the city’s newly opened Shimogyo Ward Driver’s License Renewal Center to learn their bulletin board was insulting anyone past retirement age.
The center just opened its doors on the first of the month, and located outside the entrance is a digital bulletin board with various notices and useful pieces of information. As a country that prioritizes safety (well, most of the time, anyway), Japanese motorists are required to attend a lecture about safe driving when renewing their licenses. The exact contents of these classes vary depending on your type of license, driving history, and age, so the center made the decision to post the schedules for different lectures on its display board, and was even so helpful as to make the sign partially bilingual by adding a few English translations.
The first group listed was 優良運転者/"yuryo untensha," literally “excellent drivers,” but the sign’s translation of “superior driver” isn’t bad either (the Japanese language doesn’t have plural nouns, after all). The linguistics got quite a bit sketchier for the next group on the sign, though, which was 高齢運転者/"korei untensha."
The kanji 高 and 齢 mean “high” and “age,” so referring to "korei untensha" as “elderly drivers” or “senior drivers” would have been the most natural choices. However, the display board went with a somewhat different rendering:
An English-proficient foreigner pointed out the error to the Kyoto Police, who then passed the word along to the license renewal center. The facility has since apologized, saying that a translation mistake was made by the display’s producer.
But how did the translation end up so far off the mark? The only possible explanation that comes to mind is that whoever was responsible for writing the English text didn’t even bother to really translate the name of the second group, and instead assumed it must just be the opposite of the first. So if a "yuryou untensha" is a superior driver, and a "korei untensha" isn’t, then he must be a terrible driver, right?
The incident is particularly embarrassing because the license renewal center’s location, right next to Kyoto Station, means it’s in a position for plenty of international travelers to be passing by its display board. Since being informed of the mistake, the center has replaced “terrible driver” on the sign with “elder driver,” which still isn’t the best translation, but is definitely a big step in the right direction. The center also issued a statement, saying “We deeply apologize for offending the elderly by not taking proper care in confirming the translation’s accuracy.”
By the way, the statement seems to have been issued only in Japanese. While that means it’s of limited use to the people who would have actually noticed and been bothered by the inadvertent insult, it also gracefully sidesteps the potential problem of an English version of the apology mistakenly closing with, “So are you old coots happy now?”
Sources: Yahoo! News Japan/Asahi Shimbun Digital via Golden Times
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