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Kyoto study finds nearly 500 translation errors for foreign tourists; new guidelines released

37 Comments
By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24

Kyoto has always been among Japan’s top tourism destinations, and with Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before, the same goes for its former capital. But with record-breaking numbers of overseas visitors coming into Kyoto, there’s an increased need for multilingual guidance signage and guidance, and a recent study has found less-than-stellar quality to the translations being provided to Kyoto’s guests from abroad.

Between December and February, the Kyoto City Tourism Association investigated non-Japanese signs, written notices, and audio announcements at 50 locations within the city, including train stations, hotels, restaurants, museums, temples, and shrines. Out of roughly 3,600 items examined, 499 were found to be incorrectly or inaccurately translated.

A greater than 10-percent chance of foreign travelers not being able to understand the intended messages is too high for the association’s liking. “Coming as inbound international travelers are returning to Kyoto,” said association spokesperson Yuya Iwasaki, “[these mistranslations] could potentially damage the Kyoto brand.”

In response, the association has enacted a number of initiatives, including seminars for tourism and tourism-adjacent businesses on how to more effectively communicate necessary information and rules to visitors who can’t read or speak Japanese. Last month the organization also released a 49-page Foreign Language Signage Guideline packet, available for free download through the Kyoto City Tourism Association website here.

Right off the bat, the guidelines caution against an over-reliance on machine/A.I. translation, giving the following example.

Screenshot-2024-05-18-at-11.47.08.png

As a direct translation of the Japanese text, “The current time is unavailable” is all right, but it’s still not something that makes much sense in English. In Japanese, it’s common to omit the subject and object of a sentence of clause if it can be understood from context, and the Japanese text is really saying “[You] cannot use [this space/thing] at the current time,” so the Kyoto City Tourism Association guideline packet recommends this translation instead.

Screenshot-2024-05-18-at-11.47.14.png

The all-caps CLOSED might look a little harsh, but the guidelines do later go on to stress the importance of making sure not to strip away the polite tone of in-Japanese text when translating it, recommending the consistent use of words such as “please” and “thank you.”

▼ The association recommends the version on the right

Screenshot-2024-05-18-at-11.47.22.png

The guidelines also include visual design pointers, such as recommending complementing text with pictograms…

Screenshot-2024-05-18-at-11.47.30.png

…making sure foreign-language text is adequately sized to be noticeable, and grouping each language’s text together in their own sections of signage.

▼ Recommended versions on right side

Screenshot-2024-05-18-at-11.47.37.png

It’s worth keeping in mind that though the study that discovered the translation errors was carried out by the Kyoto City Tourism Association, the locations where the errors were found are not necessarily administered by the municipal government. In the post-pandemic travel boom more than a few restaurants, temples, and other places that previously had only limited levels of interest from overseas travelers have suddenly found themselves becoming major tourist draws, and some inaccurate signage was likely put in place with the attitude of “We really need to put up something right away, and we don’t have a translator on staff, so just Google translate it and we’ll sort the details out later.” The study was also not limited to English translations, and the more languages involved, the greater the chance for a translation slip-up.

There is, as always, the argument to be made that it is travelers’ responsibility to study up and acquaint themselves on norms of public behavior and basic phrases in the language of a foreign country that they plan to visit. At the same time, with Japan’s inbound travel boom not likely to cool off anytime soon, clearer communication itself can only be a good thing, so hopefully the Kyoto City Tourism Association’s efforts will prove effective.

Related: Kyoto City Tourism Association

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun via Livedoor News via Jin, Kyoto City Tourism Association

Insert images: Kyoto City Tourism Association

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Japanese travelers are avoiding Kyoto as the city’s number of foreign visitors continues to grow

-- “Mt. Fuji convenience store” issues apology for bad tourist manners, adds multilingual signs

-- Japanese prefectural governor wants foreign tourists to pay special extra fee

© SoraNews24

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

37 Comments
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How much money they really spend on translation? Who is really doing translation?

-6 ( +10 / -16 )

They’ve only just realized?!

4 ( +25 / -21 )

“We really need to put up something right away, and we don’t have a translator on staff, so just Google translate it and we’ll sort the details out later.” The study was also not limited to English translations, and the more languages involved, the greater the chance for a translation slip-up.

Why pay money to the many underpaid, contract working native speaking staff to do some proofreading of English copy when you can get Kenta-kun who did a six month homestay in Melbourne?

-8 ( +17 / -25 )

500 seems 100x too low. There are many Engrish signs everywhere in Asia. Trying to figure out what they mean is part of the fun!

My brother came home from Kyoto University with a T-shirt. "University with a good taste" Thought that was funny. Never figured out the intended meaning. Perhaps they had a good cafeteria and just 1 main order was good?

15 ( +16 / -1 )

Only 500?

I always find it funny when the Japanese text is for example 10 sentences and the English translation is only 3 sentences. I guess some info is missing in the English version.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

Hire a native speaker to check translations. Really simple. Translators in Japan have serious attitude and fight over the most meaningless words in their work, especially the Japanese ones to the point people just give up and use their bizarre words. Just hiring a native speaker to read them and check solves all of these issues. The flower shop near my place sign is “Flutes and Flowers” musical instruments and flowers. lol. Fruits and Flowers were their intention but said they messed it up and it’s funny so they kept it. lol

20 ( +23 / -3 )

Ah, that alleged Japanese attention to detail is usually at odds with the English.

-9 ( +8 / -17 )

when you can get Kenta-kun who did a six month homestay in Melbourne?

Let me add “…. In Melbourne 20 years ago.”

Great comment, @dagon!

-6 ( +17 / -23 )

I hate pointing these things out because I understand how difficult it can be to learn another language, and therefore mistakes can and do happen. But the best example of this gone wrong has to be in Aichi prefecture where signs on the beach day in Japanese no barbecues. They literally have the word barbecue written in katakana. All they had to do was use the English word it comes from, barbecue and all would be well. Nope…

the signs on the beach in English read “No Cock Outs”

Someone over complicated their job and swung so hard they ended up face down in the ground.

14 ( +17 / -3 )

This is a direct consequence of the Japanese (mis)education system. It's probably not because they used "Kenta-kun" to do the translation, but because they used an MA in English from a name university.

It's ironical that the statement by Iwasaki, though not grammatically incorrect, was confusing and I had to read it twice to get the meaning:

“Coming as inbound international travelers are returning to Kyoto,” said association spokesperson Yuya Iwasaki, “[these mistranslations] could potentially damage the Kyoto brand.”

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

That first example (只今の時間は使用できません / The current time is not available) seems to come directly from Google translate.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

If only there were numerous native English speakers working as teachers in all public schools,on a government programme since 1973,with a lot of free time, available to proofread.

9 ( +11 / -2 )

I don't like all capitals. I think "WAIT YOUR TURN" is rude.

The Japanese actually says "Please wait to be seated", assuming that "annai shimasu" means staff guiding visitors to a table or the like. A customer may be first in line, meaning it is their "TURN", but they should still wait for staff to guide them. It was years ago, but when I went to Shanghai on a company trip, people would not queue up outside restaurants there and would instead go in the restaurant and stand next to the table they thought would empty first. We did this in what the Japanese guidebook said was the best shoronpo dumpling place in town. It felt really weird, but was standard behaviour in Shanghai at that time.

If anyone wants to get out of English teaching, there is good money being a travel consultant for Japanese local governments. Like English teaching in the good ol' days, you don't need to be qualified or particularly clever to do it, just a bit better than whatever is in place already.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Kyoto has always been among Japan’s top tourism destinations, and with Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before, the same goes for its former capital.

Has this article been translated? I have no idea what this first sentence is trying to say. Kyoto had a capital? It is basically gibberish.

-8 ( +3 / -11 )

I think using global signage could make things a lots simpler for everyone.

It works certainly for toilets and non smoking places.

Let's get creative.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Why is it that the train station announcement at JR apologizes in Japanese, but says, “Please be patient” in English? It’s as if JR think all the foreigners are going to start rioting whenever the train is late. There’s no, “ Please be patient” during the Japanese announcement.

-1 ( +6 / -7 )

They’ve only just realized?!

Omg too funny Thankyou !

There's translation errors everywhere i go and it's always been that way.

It would certainly help if it was understood that Romanji is phonetic latin and not English

Eventually Japan will get it figured out .

The Japanese written language is a giant cluster funk so hardly surprising translation is an issue

Then again how difficult could it possibly be to make a simple translation with all this digital gadgetry at our fingertips?

Oh well....

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Kyoto has always been among Japan’s top tourism destinations, and with Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before, the same goes for its former capital.

Has this article been translated? I have no idea what this first sentence is trying to say. Kyoto had a capital? It is basically gibberish.

Facepalm !

I guess my friend that would depend on whether on not you actually are aware of where the former capital was

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Because the flow of the Japanese language is reversed compared to English the translation can become confusing or incorrect.

And then there's Kanji lol

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Registered just for this:

less-then-stellar

Really!? in an article complaining about spelling.

Moderator: Thanks for pointing that out. It has been corrected.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I guess my friend that would depend on whether on not you actually are aware of where the former capital was

Perhaps you could explain it to me - because the article certainly doesn't.

-8 ( +2 / -10 )

And how could Kyoto have a former capital?

-8 ( +2 / -10 )

Please wait your turn still feels rough to a customer. It’s something I might say to a child but, please wait to be seated is perfectly polite.

piskianToday  10:08 am JST

If only there were numerous native English speakers working as teachers in all public schools,on a government programme since 1973,with a lot of free time, available to proofread.

we are not here to work for free or as an add on to fill a gap. We should be paid for the job! Our time is not free, and school is for school. And city work should be paid by the city. Please don’t devalue our work. Or we will all asked to work for free.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

tokyo_mT Wrote oday 04:01 pm JST

And how could Kyoto have a former capital?

I think English is not your first language, that's why the confusion, right?

The article was actually pretty clear that by 'former capital' it means Kyoto was the former capital of Japan.

Let's read again:

Kyoto has always been among Japan’s top tourism destinations, and with Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before, the same goes for its former capital.

Can you see it now? 'Its former capital' refers to the part that goes before it: 'Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before'.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

kohakuebisuT Wrote Today 10:22 am JST

If anyone wants to get out of English teaching, there is good money being a travel consultant for Japanese local governments. Like English teaching in the good ol' days, you don't need to be qualified or particularly clever to do it, just a bit better than whatever is in place already.

Not that easy. If your Japanese level is not enough for their standards, chances are pretty slim. It's not just proofreading, it's translating, which means understanding two languages. That's very different from English teaching.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I remember being an ALT a million years ago and letting the village office know some of their signage around town was incorrect or needed some small editing but it all came to nought.

When I used to go to restaurants, I'd find some pretty bad mistakes on their menus and let them know. One was "crap salad" (crab salad) but it was still there on the menu when I went back a few months later. They and many restaurants just didn't care.

Kyoto and other municipalities can just ask any native speaker to double check their signs and they'd find the weird English instantly. Japan has thousands, literally thousands, of ALTs and CIRs sitting in their board of educations, often times with nothing to do.

One of my favorite mis-signs was "In Mouth" (entrance - 入口). Like mentioned above, they never changed their sign.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"There is, as always, the argument to be made that it is travelers’ responsibility to study up and acquaint themselves on norms of public behavior and basic phrases in the language of a foreign country that they plan to visit."

This always cracks me up when I hear it, and when it has been said to me by defensive Japanese who have made very hilarious mistakes in English. No, it is not a traveler's responsibility to learn Japanese before coming, especially when the country has asked people to come and claims to be so welcoming. Just imagine the shoe on the other foot -- telling a Japanese tour group they must all learn English (or whatever the language) before going to another (English-speaking) country.

It is nice when you make an effort to learn the target country's language and engage with locals, but it is not and should never be a requirement. Following the laws, yes, and trying as much as possible to follow the social norms as well.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

"In Japanese, it’s common to omit the subject and object of a sentence of clause[sic]..." Of clause? Of course!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Only 500?I always find it funny when the Japanese text is for example 10 sentences and the English translation is only 3 sentences. I guess some info is missing in the English version.

Watch the whiskey commercial scene from Lost in Translation and you will get it. Probably on YouTube.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Kyoto has always been among Japan’s top tourism destinations, and with Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before, the same goes for its former capital.

Can you see it now? 'Its former capital' refers to the part that goes before it: 'Japan receiving more foreign travelers than it ever has before'.

While you're correct that it's referring to Japan, the original poster was also correct. The subject of the sentence is Kyoto, not Japan. The comment on Japan was an aside, separated by commas, and grammatically the part of the sentence after the aside would be referring to the subject of the sentence. And Kyoto does not have a capital.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Strangerland wrote Today 09:51 pm JST

The comment on Japan was an aside, separated by commas, and grammatically the part of the sentence after the aside would be referring to the subject of the sentence.

Not strictly always, though. Context also plays a big part in reading and writing.

English language, I think you already know, has a lot of quirks, expressions, 'broken rules', whatever, depending on the situation...

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Oops!

exceptions, not 'expressions', sorry!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The errors are often charming and make for a good holiday photo. They are doing their best and the effort is appreciated. Japan in general and the railways in particular are good at this. They probably have more English translations than France.

On rural trains you can listen for stations in announcements, count the stations or monitor your progress on Google Maps. Ad hoc announcements are inevitably Japanese only - your packed metro halts, the lights go off and an explanation is broadcast by the driver or guard in Japanese. Either 'We will pause here for two minutes. The lights will come on shortly' or 'Tokyo has been hit by a tsunami and we will all be under water in moments'.

There is less pressure if a language uses the Roman alphabet, but when you go beyond that, tourists have no chance. I'm surprised there isn't more Romaji, but the language manuals are often quite puritanical, some considering it to be an abomination that must never be learned or uttered.

Rural toilets understandably have Kanji-only signs. Two sweet elderly ladies passing (who spoke no English) realised my predicament, confirmed which one was for blokes, and went off giggling. Having catalogued endless copies of the 'Onna Daigaku' I was pretty sure, but it's not a mistake one wants to make.

Japan's biggest signage issue is being too democratic. All signs are not equal. In large railway stations and department stores, the Exit signs need to be bigger and a bit more obvious.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

To translate into English, here is a thought, hire a person who's first laguage is English. Many nations speak English as their primary language. they dont have to live in Japan, it could be done online through the internet. Or run it by an English teacher at any school in Japan that teaches that language.

It truly is not that hard.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You would think that Kyoto, which, I dare say with a probability bordering on certainty, would be a tourist-laden city, would have translations in order. And it will at least have some means to flawlessly translate the little that is currently translated and presented. The opposite is obviously true. I don't quite understand what the difficulty is. So either they spent some taxpayer funds on translation (and then it is reasonable to ask why the funds were spent with this result), or there is no translation. But an official translation with errors?

Gosh, they do get tourists from countries where English is the first or official language, or are there no such tourists in Kyoto? I mean, the easiest thing to do is something along the lines of "hey, we'll pay for your lunch and dinner and you translate/review this page for us". Win win situation. Where there is a will, there is a result.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The comment on Japan was an aside, separated by commas, and grammatically the part of the sentence after the aside would be referring to the subject of the sentence.

Not strictly always, though. Context also plays a big part in reading and writing.

At worst, the sentence was incorrect. At best it's ambiguous. And therefore either way it's poor journalism.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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