Lost in translation

Staff corner-cutting helps cause all sorts of confusion


A few summers ago, while on an obligatory trip back to my homeland, I found myself at the center of the attention of a small crowd of curious Canadians.

I was at birthday party for a friend, and someone had asked me what I did in Japan.

“A little bit of writing, a little of translating, that kind of thing,” I said.

“Translating!” blurted out one of the guests as he rounded on me. “So you’re the reason why I have so much trouble figuring out my #@&%# Japanese-made gadgets!”

The room fell silent.

“Their manuals are written in the weirdest kind of English,” he explained to the gathering crowd, “and I can’t make head nor tail of it.”

People nodded. Clearly some of them too had been victims of that notorious Japanese export — warped English.

“Umm,” I said meekly, “that’s not actually my fault.”

I went on to explain that the vast majority of translators in Japan who translate from Japanese into English are not native speakers like myself, but are Japanese, and often ones with dubious English skills. It was probably their words, and not mine nor those other gaijin translators, which had befuddled them.

From that point, I extricated myself from the indignant crowd to enjoy the party.

Still, the experience was an eye-opener: Even people overseas with little interest in Japan or knowledge of it are keenly aware of how awful the quality of translated English can be here.

Of course, no one knows that better than us gaijin who live here. I’m not talking about those advertising catchphrases (“Beautiful Human Life,” etc.), but serious stuff, like documents, Web pages and corporate pamphlets.

Take this sentence, which I found on the English Web site of a Japanese engineering company, explaining its business activities:

“These industries therefore, require so to say new technologies in the morning and newer ones at night.”

The company, believe it or not, exports many of its high-tech products throughout the world.

Another well-known company included in the manual for one of its alarm clocks the instruction: “Plesed do not clean the clock case by using paint thinner or other chemical materials. Neuter soap or cleanser as cleaning liquid is recommendable.”

And the makers of my swimming goggles proudly proclaim on their packaging that “v-3 swimming goggles are compactly designed to offer swimmers who feel that regular size goggles are large.”

Meanwhile, my local gym, offering information for those “nonmembers (eager to become members) of our training room,” stipulates that only those “limit sound peoples of the high school and up” are eligible to join.

Having made the decision to then get in shape, prospective “commuters” can join by “filling out an application blank and paying the appointed charge in each step to the receptionist.”

Still, the often appalling quality of English translations shouldn’t come as a big surprise when you consider the demographics of the translation market in Japan.

William Lise, a veteran translator and founder of the Japan Association of Translators, reckons that 500-800 native English-speaking translators are working in Japan, plus many others who translate on the side. The number of Japanese nationals doing the same kind of work, however, is many, many times higher, somewhere around 10,000, he says.

From my own experience of working in the field, I’ve also detected a big reluctance on part of the Japanese employers to use fully the talents of non-Nihonjins.

“My agency doesn’t use foreigners to translate,” a Japanese translator acquaintance once told me in a boastful tone of voice.

“It takes too long. The Japanese translators can read the Japanese faster than foreigners can so the work gets done quicker,” she said, adding that foreigners at the agency are only used to ‘check’ the English text.

“So then by the same token,” I said, “you must use foreigners when you translate the other way around, from English to Japanese.”

“Why would we do that?” she asked, looking utterly perplexed.

Because the native English “speakers can read their own language faster than Japanese.”

“No, it doesn’t work like that,” she said.

“Why not?”

Why not, indeed. She had no answer.

Lise, who has evidently spent a lot more time thinking about this issue, argues it’s clearly preferable that the people writing the translations are native speakers of the target language (the one which the text is being translated into).

That’s because it’s extremely difficult for non-native speakers to learn to write like natives. By comparison, it’s much easier for non-native speakers to comprehend the text of the original language to the same extent as that of a native speaker of that language.

Yet many translation outfits think they can get around the problem by using native speakers to simply ‘check’ the writings of non-native speakers, which can cause problems.

During a stint as a copy editor in a Tokyo newsroom, for instance, I recall seeing stories that described a “tobacco tax,” which was, in fact, a tax on cigarettes and not tobacco. In Japanese, the word for tobacco and cigarettes is the same. You would only be able to differentiate the two by spotting the counter for cylindrical objects in the Japanese text, something a rewriter would not be able to do, unless he could read Japanese and perused the original text.

The upshot of this is that Japanese companies, organizations and media, through using this two-layered translation system, regularly publish information about themselves and about Japan that is factually flawed.

So will things ever improve? Certainly, the quality of translated English material is better now than during most of the postwar period.

Even so, the bursting of the economic bubble in the early 1990s has forced many companies to restructure. That has meant that more and more employers are diverting their material to their in-house, non-specialized staff.

So unless the economy improves or employers take on a whole new attitude when it comes to publishing English material, bad English will still be with us for a while yet.