Mistranslations to English

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are just around the corner, and foreign tourism is increasing in Japan, as the yen keeps falling against the US dollar. These two events are creating a great opportunity. However, this does not come without challenges. One of the biggest problems is being able to service foreign tourism from a communications perspective. Inflow from as many as 100 countries is expected with the Olympics, and translating content from Japanese can be quite difficult. In addition to this, in order to seize the opportunities, Japan must act quickly and get the needed content readily available to foreigners. This falls into what we, at Idea Translations, call the “Impossible Trinity”.


Figure 1 above explains graphically what we are referring to. Out of those 3 variables you can only meet 2 at any given time. This means:

If you need it cheap and fast, it won’t be good.

If you need it cheap and good, it won’t be fast.

If you need it good and fast, it won’t be cheap.

This takes us to the next key problem with Japanese content translation.

For example, when translating from Japanese to English (Latin Script), the letters “r” and “l” are often confused. Also, Japanese is structurally different than English; it has fewer words and does not have a definite future tense. Additionally, there is the culture element. In Japan it is ok to cram as much information as possible on a label or a website and use vertical writing. This is not a common practice in the English language, leading to a series of problems.

Take for example the tea label below.

You would probably not think that this bottle of tea is “free” but you can see how this label is funny at a minimum. The confusingly named tea is a product of Japanese beverage giant Pokka Sapporo. The drink “encourages people to be free from a stress-filled society”.

Recently, Osaka’s metro had to shut down its foreign language websites after users got confused with the guidance information. Among the errors on its English page was the literal translation of Sakaisuji line as “Sakai muscle”.  As it happens, they used the same automatic translation tool for all of the non-Japanese sites. Here the problem was the lack of proper human review, as the Japanese language can create many interpretations for the same content.

In July 1945, during WWII, the Allies met in Potsdam making a declaration that demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan and threatening with “prompt and utter destruction”. After their terms where translated from English to Japanese, they waited anxiously for the Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki, to reply.

Unsurprisingly, Japanese reporters were putting pressure on the Prime Minister, and with no formal decision, Suzuki held a press conference replying he was “withholding comment” by using the word “Mokusatsu” that can be interpreted in several different ways but is derived from the Japanese term for “silence”.

Mokusatsu, a word that we could very well translate as “no comment” nowadays, or “let me withhold comments for now” was translated as “let’s ignore it”. The atomic bomb was launched on Hiroshima, 10 days later. It would be difficult to place the burden of the consequences entirely to this interpretation; whether if it was a politician's poor word choice or a translator's failure to expand on the many interpretations of the word this is very likely the worst translation error ever made.

Usually translation errors make us smirk but there can be major consequences. From full blown diplomatic catastrophes to market access failures, translations play a key role and a strategy should always be in place to avoid errors.

Are you interested in learning how we tackle Japanese translations?


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