Three main mistakes with Japan-made-English

Jenglish = Japan made English

In advance of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan started speaking English. It is undoubtably a lovely thing to do, and foreigners greet the initiative with a storm of applause.

And yet more and more foreigners online say the English posters or translations are hard to understand. The Internet has already coined this phenomenon as Jenglish. I found three reasons to why Jenglish is so hard to decipher.

Japanese phrase dressed in English words

What many Japanese did was use their (Japanese) way of expressing in the English language. This gap gave birth to such memes as:

English: “According to Japanese law, customers under the age of 20 do not provide alcohol sales. Do you have any ID that shows your age, please?”

Taken from a poster in BIGcamera.

What is wrong with this sentence? Well, it does not sound like a reasonable sentence because the underaged people do not normally provide alcohol sales in a shop. There was no Japanese original, but I suspect that the word in the mind of Bigcamera people was teikyo (提供 – provide) in its passive form teikyo sareru (提供される – to be provided).

The “to be …” part in this expression is not perceived as passive voice by the Japanese mind. How should I explain, it mostly shows where the action is directed to. Like, provide to others is teikyo suru, and being provided is teikyo sareru. The “s” part of this word combination changes, and this change indicates if the action was directed at others or at yourself.

Added to this, it is uncommon for English speakers to say that an ID shows your age. In most cases it does not, because there is the same good old picture taken some three-five years ago.

Relying on machine translation with no knowledge of what to expect

Some restaurants noticed this misconception and tried to speak the language that foreigners speak. And this happened:

Japanese: 電話はご遠慮ください。(Denwa wa go enryoukudasai)

English: “Please stop calling with a cellular phone”.

Taken from a kaitensushi shop poster.

For the record, I checked this phrase in the Google translator and it is the exact translation that Google provides.

What went wrong? First of all, the Japanese phrase is very misleading. Instead of the long Tennai de ha odenwa o goenryou kudasai (店内ではお電話をご遠慮ください – Please refrain from calling in the store)they used the abridged version which literally reads are “Please refrain from the phone”.

While the Japanese version appeals to the manners in public, the English version prohibits calling the restaurant. Google translate is not as sensitive to bullshit as a real person, so here we are.

Simplifying the message by using sharp and precise words

Living in Japan for some time, you start notice that the Japanese language text is a lot longer than the English translation. Why? As far as I learned, it is difficult to express the same contents in the English language. The contents is simplified and this happens:

Japanese: 盗難に注意。貴重品や財布は身から離さず保管するようご注意ください。(Tōnan ni chūi. Kichōhin ya saifu wa mi kara hanasazu hokan suru yō go chūi kudasai)

English: “Beware of your belongings. Do not leave your valuables behind”.

Taken from a library poster in my university.

Come on! Even the Google translate said that it is “Beware of theft”! This phrase should be translated as “Beware of theft. Please keep your valuables and wallet close to you”, or “keep an eye on…”, or ….

But we have what we have because of the desire to squeeze all the information into few words. Simple is not always the best when it comes to foreign languages. My experience with the Japanese language says that it is better to be overwordy and let the native speakers decide which part of the explanation could be useful.

To conclude

With all those English translations, Japan seems to be a lover-intermediate English learner. By stripping the English phrase of the Japanese way of thinking, verifying the Google translation and using more words to express yourself the Japanese will improve their communication with foreigners both online and offline.

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