Foreign ballplayers in Japan have had their words misunderstood for as long as there have been foreign ballplayers in Japan.
It doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes the results are humorous, such as many years ago when a former Lotte batter asked interpreter Toyo Kunimitsu for his batting tee, only to have Kunimitsu ask if he wanted sugar and lemon with it.
Linguistically, English and Japanese just don’t always play nice together, and mixups are bound to happen from time to time.
“Some Japanese expressions don’t translate well,” said best-selling author and Japanese baseball historian Robert Whiting in an email. “(Former Taiyo Whales interpreter Tadahiro) Ushigome translated ‘gambatte‘ — exhortations from the manager or front office — as ‘do your best,’ which offended some Americans, and they would answer back that they always did their best. So after a while, Ushigome learned to translate ‘gambatte‘ as ‘good luck’ and then everything was OK.”
A similar misunderstanding recently caused problems for the Hanshin Tigers.
With pitcher Atsushi Nomi on the mound, outfielder Matt Murton made a bad throw on a run-scoring play during a June 9 loss to the Orix Buffaloes. Murton was later asked by reporters if he had tried his best to stop the runner from scoring.
Probably a bit annoyed at the insinuation he wasn’t giving his all, Murton was quoted as saying, “I don’t like Nomi,” in response. It was an innocently sarcastic barb, likely meant to both imply that of course he was giving his all and that he thought the question was silly.
The nuance was lost on the reporters, and Murton was left to explain himself to the team the next day after his remarks were published out of context.
Murton has been a model citizen during his time in Japan and is well-liked by his teammates, who seemed aware a misunderstanding had occurred.
“Hanshin is a team that always gets that kind of attention,” star closer Kyuji Fujikawa was quoted as saying to Sports Nippon. “(Nomi) was laughing about it,” he said before jokingly adding, “I hate Nomi too.”
The Tigers drama had a happy ending, but it highlighted the difficulties the language barrier presents.
“One lesson to be learned is that the Japanese don’t use sarcasm the way Americans do, so you have to be careful what you say,” Whiting said. “I wasn’t there so I don’t know how the translation went down. Maybe there were some reporters there who understood English but missed the irony behind Matt’s remarks. Also, Japanese have a different sense of humor than Americans, so you have to be careful what you say.
“I remember Clyde Wright pitching in an extra inning shutout and then saying afterward in an interview, ‘I didn’t care who won or lost. I was just so tired I just wanted the game to be over so I could go home and sleep.’
“His interpreter, Ichi Tanuma, translated in a diplomatic way, ‘I did my best. I really wanted to win for the Giants fans, my teammates and my manager. I’m glad I was able to help the team.’ “
Even though most translators do their jobs exceptionally well, players have little control over how an audience that doesn’t speak their language deciphers the things they say.
“Yes, I do believe that the media can misinterpret some things,” said Jeremy Powell, a former pitcher for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, Orix Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks during his eight seasons in Japan, in an email.
“How that happens, in my opinion, is either the interpreter misunderstands us, our character, our sense of humor perhaps, or he simply can’t translate word for word and the media is left to guess what the translator is trying to say. The writer can pretty much write what they want to write, knowing that we can’t read it ourselves.”
It’s not always Japanese who misinterpret things either.
“A situation happened to my teammate and I one time with our pitching coach,” Powell recalled. “The pitching coach was a great guy and treated us very well. However, at a team get together, the pitching coach came up to us with an interpreter and tried to say that we eat too much rice, and gestured with his hands that we were fat!
“This is how the translator said it and it’s how it came across to both of us. Our reaction was very weird, I remember us looking at each other in disbelief that this guy just called us fat! A guy we like and a guy that we know just wouldn’t come at us like that.
“After a few minutes we called the translator over and explained that we weren’t cool with that. Got the pitching coach over there and cleared it up. What we came up with was that he was just trying to tell us if we eat a lot of rice, we will get fat. Just a simple comment turned into a personal jab! We all laughed and it was over. A simple ‘lost in translation’ moment, and that goes both ways on and off the field.”
It just goes to show, players may want to choose their words wisely.
“My advice to Americans is be careful about sarcasm and telling jokes because there is usually something lost in the translation,” Whiting said.