Lost in Translation: Japan Edition

We had just gotten into Tokyo and I was hungry. So after wandering around the temples, we stumbled into our first 7/11. Now, the food selection is truly impressive. Each item is neatly bagged and described. Among those items are donuts, crispy puffs, onigiri (rice balls), and a host of other items (even crustless pre-made peanut butter sandwiches!). To make things even better, each one comes with a seemingly endless selection of fillings ranging from tuna to red bean paste.

Great! The only problem: none of the items have an English description. No worries: there’s an app for that. I do what I often do in a pinch and whip out my trusty smartphone. I first pull up Waygo, an app that scans Asian characters and returns English translations (much like now-acquired Word Lens). No success. On to Google Translate. I snap a photo, only to find that my puff pastry contains “two… mosquitoes” and “cheese tuna.” Wanting to avoid the pain of further scans, I buy the pastry. The pastries turned out to be pretty good, no doubt due to the mosquitoes.

This scene played itself over and over again, be it in train stations, restaurants, or bathrooms. Indeed, English to Japanese translations proved just as bad. Upon reading a question I posed via Google Translate, my waiter – previously completely polite – burst out laughing before regaining composure and answering my question.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This being my first time in a place where I can’t understand the alphabet at all, let alone the language, I will take all the help I can get. After all, vaguely understanding the language 25% of the time is better than being utterly lost 100% of the time. It’s just that I see the promise of smartphones and other devices in bridging the language divide, so it’s frustrating to have my expectations of those apps fall short.

For all my smartphone’s failings, what’s made up for it (at least in Japan) is the endless list of people who bent over backwards to understand me. One man, for instance, spent a good five minutes trying to find someone who spoke English to help translate. Another happily listened to our desperate attempts to describe our destination, going so far as to drop what he was doing and guide us to the street we needed to take.

Overall, one of the unexpected lessons of this trip has been the fact that, no matter how far technology has advanced, the best approach is still some good old-fashioned conversation and charades. No matter how fragmented and frenetic they are.

And, just for fun, here are some other priceless translations (courtesy of Google Translate):

  • Contents of an onigiri: “Off to Sochi!”
  • Description of a cheese-filled pastry: “Nerds Heaven.”
  • Instructions on a hand dryer: “Water droplets in the wind! I will skip cane please attacks.”
  • Stuffing in a red bean paste bun: “The interference above bean paste month.”
Translations of Japanese

Some of the crazier translations we happened upon

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