Rebecca Suzuki ◆ April 29, 2015
Awkward moments pretty much rule my life, but not a single awkward moment tops the time my Japanese uncle held out a shirt with a very sexual message on it and asked me to translate it into Japanese.
How did I get myself into this situation, you ask? Well obviously I consented to it: moments before, I was having dinner with my aunt, uncle, and two cousins when my uncle suddenly remembered an important task he needed me to accomplish. “Hey, do you think you can translate some English on a T-shirt I got the other day?” he asked. I didn’t think much of it—I thought it’d just have a simple message or phrase, like “live life to the fullest” or something cheesy like that. “Sure,” I had said…
I’m pretty sure my face matched the color of beets, and I did the only thing I could think to do in such an incredibly awkward moment: laugh hysterically. My uncle’s curiosity conveniently skyrocketed at this point and he tried harder to get the meaning out of me, but I kept telling him that I couldn’t say it. Eventually, my aunt and cousins came to the rescue and told my uncle to stop nagging me because obviously, it was something that I couldn’t say comfortably in front of him. I told him to never wear the shirt and if possible, to burn it.
Japan is a wonderful, advanced country that also happens to not be particularly skillful in English. I’m not trying to be imperialistic here—Americans should definitely also learn a thing or two about the Japanese language… It’s not “kora-ree,” it’s “ka-ra-te,” and what is “karee-o-kee?” it’s definitely “kara-o-ke.” But I digress. I’ve travelled a lot in Europe, and I didn’t really struggle because every sign and everything essential had English translations on it. Japan has followed suit on this and most important signs and things now have English translations on them, but a lot of the times, the English is actually so completely off that it becomes a source of jokes for us crude English speakers.
One time, my friends and I went to an Italian restaurant in a small town in Japan. There, I ordered some pasta with tomato “source.” At a café in Nagoya, I enjoyed some tea with “honny.” I was very close to buying a sweater with a whale on it that said, “I’m whale.” And then there are signs meant for serious messages as the photo shows, but instead, they leave me chuckling.
Recently, I’ve been asked by several people here in Japan to either look over something they have (tried to) translate into English or to help them translate something they cannot for the life of them figure out (i.e. how do you translate mochi rice? Is it gluten rice??). I’ve gone to a restaurant where the chef/ owner handed me the English menu he’s working on to see if everything was correct. I’m happy to help, but now I’m thinking perhaps this will be a lucrative business… Perhaps there is a future in this… But the other more sinister side of me really enjoys the terribly mistranslated signs and menus and thinks they are fine just the way they are.