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Bad (and Hilarious) Translations and Why They Happen

Why is Engrish so different from English?

By 4 min read 10

In the beginning stages of your Japanese language studies (be they current or past), have you ever attempted to string together a sentence in Japanese using only an English to Japanese dictionary? Perhaps you were as proud of yourself as I was when I did exactly that nearly 10 years ago.

I have had many experiences with these attempted phrases, one of which being the welcoming “my house is your house”, indicating a sense of hospitality for the guest to use the host’s house as if it was his or her own. Unfortunately, “私の家はあなたの家です” (watashi no ie wa anata no ie desu) just resulted in a confused look from my then beginner’s Japanese teacher when I ran it by her with no initial explanation about its meaning.

So what did I do wrong? Well for starters, I made a very common and novice mistake: taking a very colloquial phrase from my native language and translating it directly over to the target language.

Pronouns like “you” are not used in Japanese nearly as much as in English, so direct English to Japanese translations end up looking strange being littered with these pronouns. Restating pronouns again and again as English does is a feature of an explicit language which is high content and low context.

However, Japanese is a language which states the subject/pronoun once or not at all and will likely not mention it again barring that the subject stays the same, a feature of an implicit language which is high context and low content. As such, when these “pronounless/nounless” phrases are translated over to English, oftentimes the filled in pronoun or noun ends up being “it” when it should have been “you”, “I”, or “he” (see “sunglasses” example).

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As responses from natives of the target language can range from scratching their heads in confusion to uproarious laughter, it is apparent that direct translations cannot be trusted in terms of grammatical accuracy or correct word usage.

The reverse situation, as can logically be expected, is equally true. Direct Japanese to English translations should not be relied on and tend to come out strangely. For some excellent examples of these translations, you should check out fellow GP writer Grace Buchele Mineta’s recent article about some humorous “Engrish” found in 100yen shops.

While many of us may be used to the “Engrish” phenomenon, all of this still begs the question: Why are direct translations between English and Japanese so strange in the first place? There are a few dynamics in particular that lead to this result.

The first and arguably most obvious is the fact that each language carries along with it its own variants of word usage and grammar. English is a language that uses the SVO sentence structure (sentences follow the order of subject, verb then object) and Japanese follows SOV (subject, object then verb.)

While the basics of these grammatical differences are generally understood by Japan’s would-be “English-sentence makers” for various products, we have seen on numerous occasions that this understanding of English grammar is simply not enough to make a native English sounding sentence because of incorrect word usage.

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One form of incorrect word usage is a word that sounds the same in Japanese pronunciation with “katakana-English” but is spelled differently and has a completely different meaning in English. One such word is in this supermarket sign example reading “Please Fill Free to use our Shopping carts!”

You probably understand by context that the word they intended to use was “feel” instead of “fill”, but both words have the same pronunciation, “フィール” (fi-ru) in Japanese. It is likely that a Japanese person heard this phrase but was unsure of the spelling, resulting in this sign.

Another such word that falls into this category is “ソース” (so-su), which comes out in English as either “sauce” or “source”. Imagine my surprise when I saw a kebab cart in Sapporo with “Special Garlic Source!”

Another form of incorrect word usage is the Japanese word that could mean multiple things in English. For the cup example, let’s ignore the “The Art of Hot” as it is not applicable to this point.

“Side by side, I’ll be yours forever. Because please don’t weep.” The first sentence checks out, but the second is kind of strange.

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Why was “because” used here when “so” would have been a much better choice? To put it simply, the answer is “だから” (dakara). The Japanese word だから can mean either “because” or “so”, depending on the sentence in which it is used. In this case, “だから泣かないで下さい” (dakara, nakanaide kudasai) was most likely the sentence this example is based on.

Imagine differences like these, but spanning all over the language; doing so should help you understand how and why these translations come out so strangely, and maybe even become a bit more forgiving about these mistakes.

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  • Kira Naru says:

    Engrish always made me laugh a lot xD Once I saw, in a restaurant, something like “tomato source” hahaha other confusion that made laugh was when an acquaintance confused message with massage lol it was like “thank you for the massage” hahaha

  • John Braden says:

    What’s wrong with Swallow Queen II? I mean, apart from your mind being in the gutter? Swallow is a BIRD, and there is a baseball team named the Swallows. Can’t they have a queen? Wrong photo for Engrish….

  • Tan Liang Cheng says:

    Interesting article! Its the first time that I’ve come across the languages being described as implicit and explicit… came to this article from your other “Aimai” article…

    Do you think that being conscious of the implict/explicit nature of the languages aids in translation/conversation?

    Coming from English as a first language

  • Lisa Niven says:

    I moved to Osaka in August for college and I have been running into these bad English translations since. I actually can’t believe the ones I have seen on clothing items that people actually buy and wear. I have started taking pictures of them to add to my blog. It amazes me each time I see one.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      Yes Lisa, the translations that end up on various products can be quite astounding! Always remember though that #1 many of them are likely direct Japanese to English translations (which are usually silly!) and #2 most Japanese people don’t usually even try to read the English on shirts and the like. They tend to buy these things for aesthetic appeal of something with English on it.

  • George McNair says:

    My daughter works in Korea and reports the same kinds of bad translations. The cause would appear to be these eastern countries feel they are superior to westerners, so they don’t ask native English speakers to do the translations.

  • Adrian Rodriguez says:

    Nifty article. Good read! :]

  • Carlos Roman says:

    What kind of bad incidents happen because of these mis-translations?

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      Thanks for your question, Carlos! While I’m sure that sometimes unfortunate incidents have occurred due to botched translations like these, most of the time it has bad effects when it is a mistake in a professional grade translation.

      For English translations that Japanese companies use for product descriptions/signs or just a meaning they think sounds neat for a T-shirt, the worst that usually happens is either laughter because the translation is silly sounding or it simply makes no sense.

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