Anyone who has had to learn to communicate in a foreign language or who has dealt with non-native speakers (and that includes all expatriates living in Japan!) has experienced that feeling of "something seems to have gotten lost in the translation." Sometimes, it can be very embarrassing, but if we learn to laugh at our mistakes and see the humor in things that come about specifically because there are frustrating cultural barriers that we each must overcome, then we will be more able to adjust to and even celebrate our cultural differences.
Several years ago, the Alien Times ran a miniseries on this topic, and so the following includes a number of gems from that series plus a few more. Hopefully, this article will encourage our readers to submit their own articles for future issues (which we will even pay for starting next month!). If you have any more humorous tales to tell about language bloopers, we'd like to see those as well. We will, of course, need to eliminate those bloopers that are patently obscene (even though they were obviously not so intended), but there may be a few in this article as well that some may consider, shall we say, "a bit unrefined". But such is the nature of humor. We shall begin with one of those.
As anyone knows who has taught English to Japanese, they have great difficulty in distinguishing between "r" and "l", even though to a native speaker of English, they don't even seem close. This is, of course, because they have neither sound in their language, but instead have a sound English doesn't have that is roughly half way between "r" and "l" (though actually closer to "l"). Thus, even when a Japanese knows English fairly well, when it comes to writing out the sound he or she is making and having to choose between and an "r" and an "l", instead of the "light" one, the "long" one is often chosen.
Take, for example, the Japanese who passed the following note to a foreigner at a memorial service, where each person in attendance was expected to lay a flower in front of a picture of the deceased. "To show your respect for the deceased, bow before the picture and crap three times."!! Fortunately, a little observation of what other people did went a long ways towards clearing that one up!
Or take the example of a sign in a park that points to the "ravatoli" (lavatory), or the florist delivery van with "frolist" spelled out across its side. But that is nothing compared to the time when the future emperor of Japan was referred to in writing as the "clown prince"! There are also other famous r-l bloopers that are simply in too poor of taste for such a high crass publication as the Alien Times.
Likewise, the difference between "si" and "shi" is very confusing for Japanese, and so you'll sometimes see a stray "h" where it shouldn't be. A couple of Japanese girls were offering their services as "English speaking baby sitters", but that old "h" sound did just happen to stray into the last word turning their sign into a kind of "self-fulfilling prophecy"! Yes, just like the foreigner was urged to do in front of the picture to show his respects, babies do certainly tend to do that, don't they!
But lest you think that such bloopers are the sole prerogative of Japanese speaking English, you should hear some of the ways foreigners have butchered their language. Once while trying to say that I was hungry ("Onaka ga pekopeko desu" - which is roughly equivalent to "My stomach is empty"), I instead told them I had a "fluent" ("perapera") stomach (the opposite of my Japanese at the time). That, however, would likely be the result if I were to literally follow through with the conversation a friend of mine had with a shop owner when he tried to buy bean sprouts. He walked confidently up to the manager and politely asked him if he had any "koyashi". The manager seemed a bit surprised a nicely dressed foreigner would be asking for such an item, and said, "Well, yes we do. How much do you want?" My friend replied, "About 200 grams will do." Looking even more incredulous, the shopkeeper asked, "What are you going to use it for?" "Well, we need it for ingredients for a dish we're making." The look of horror on the shopkeeper's face told him that "something had gotten lost in the translation." A quick look in a dictionary revealed that he had been ordering "manure" instead of bean sprouts (moyashi)! Now that would have been the ultimate in recycling!
People who have had to ride jam-packed buses and trains during rush hour will appreciate the feelings of this harried foreigner. Finding she was having trouble reaching the door at his bus stop, she yelled out, "Koko de koroshite kudasai!" She had meant, of course, "Koko de oroshite kudasai" (Please let me off here), but that extraneous "k" sound turned it into "Please kill me here!" (I'm getting tired of riding this crowded bus!)
Japanese is a language with several levels of speech, ranging from highly honorific to colloquial and even condescending styles of speech. In English, most such distinctions are made through the tone of one's voice and body language. In Japanese, however, entirely different words and sentence structures are used (in addition, of course, to tone of voice, etc.)
One of my favorite stories along this line is that of a young, handsome American missionary who was passing out religious tracts to passers-by. He thought it would be good to use the highly honorific style to attract people's attention, and so instead of simply saying the normal "Doozo, yonde kudasai", he thought he would try the honorific "Oyomi ni natte kudasaimasen ka?" (which literally means something like "Won't you come to (the point of honorably) read(ing) this?") When he tried that phrase on a young lady, she was startled to hear him proposing marriage, "Oyome ni natte kudasaimasen ka?" ("Won't you please become my bride?") Isn't it amazing what a difference one slight variation in sound can make?
While we're dealing with some language bloopers foreign missionaries have made while trying to speak "the Devil's language", as Francis Xavier, the first westerner who tried to learn Japanese, is quoted to have said), let's look at a few gems of miscommunication. The Japanese word "kami", which means "God" or "gods", is naturally a key word in such messages.
When attempting to refer to the "God of Heaven", one hapless linguist got his "i's" and "e's" confused (as foreigners are prone to do), and his entire message focused on "Ten no kame", the "heavenly turtle". On top of that, he got the words for human "ningen" and carrot "ninjin" confused, and so he ended up telling everyone how that "great turtle of Heaven just loves us carrots!
Another missionary got his "i's" and "e's" correct, but thought it was proper to put an "o" in front of "kami" to make in honorific (after all, how much more deserving of the honorific form that the Almighty himself?). He thus came out with "Ten no okami" (with the "o" lengthened in sound, for you Japanese experts). Unfortunately, his perplexed listeners had a hard time trying to figure out why he was talking about the "Wolf of Heaven". After all, this "Heavenly Wolf's" son was supposed to be a lamb!
This same bumbling preacher on another occasion at least did not lengthen his misplaced honorific "o", but this time he also politely added "san" to this version of "God" and came out with "okamisan", which is an "innkeeper's wife". Apparently, this is the gal who takes your reservations for the "heavenly inn!
These all, however, pale in comparison to what one overzealous preacher ended up saying when he wanted to exhort his listeners to more holy living. What he intended to say was, "Anata no kitanai tsumi wo sutete, kami ga ataete kudasaru nozomi wo idakinasai" ("Put away your filthy sin and embrace the hope that Gode has given you.") Through two slight mispronunciations, however ("tsumi" becoming "tsuma" and "nozomi" becomging "nezumi"), what he actually said was, "Put away your filthy wife and embrace the rat God has given you!" Now that is what I call "radical theology!
As mentioned above, the use of "keigo" (honorific styles) frequently gets foreigners into hot water. Putting an "o", "go" or "mi" in front of a noun to make it more polite certainly has its limits. For instance, one does not put an honorific prefix on a place name. While the ancient city of Nara, the first true capital of Japan, certainly holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese, trying to make it honorific by saying "onara" is sure to bring an embarrassed laugh from you Japanese hosts (just as doing the real thing tends to do as well)! You can look it up in a dictionary if you're still stumped, but to put it in puzzle form, it reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw in the U.S. supposedly advertising a new organization for frustrated fathers: Fathers Against Radical Teenagers.
Speaking of getting into hot water, there is the old story I heard about a foreigner in pre-war Japan who had a fetish about rainwater and its relation to health. He came to the brilliant conclusion one day that filling his bath with rainwater would be good for his health, and so he was trying to tell the maid that for health reasons he wanted his bath filled with rainwater. Now "rain" is "ame" and "water" is "mizu" in Japanese, and so it seemed logical to simply put the two together. In fact, that is how it is done in Japanese, except that it's pronounced "amamizu" instead of "amemizu". Unfortunately, however, this freaky foreigner got the two turned around and he said "mizuame" instead of "amemizu". From previous experience with this "health nut", the maid, after several reconfirmations, took him seriously and filled his tub with "mizuame" as requested. Being heated from a fire below, it was even nice and hot (and apparently very inviting) as our hapless friend got ready for his bath. How far he was able to get his foot in before realizing he was in a really sticky situation is unknown, but imagine his surprise to find out the hard way that "mizuame" is roughly equivalent to "corn syrup"!
Those of you who have been to parties know that the Japanese are quite fond of "kanpai" toasts with glasses of beer, wine, etc. raised. When one American of Italian descent was asked what people in America say for "kanpai", she blithely replied, "Well, most people simply say 'Cheers!', but in the Italian-American community, we say it in Italian, "Chinchin!" (which, I gather, is supposed to mimic the sound of tinkling glasses). When mouths dropped and then turned into roarous laughter, like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz", she knew she "wasn't in Kansas anymore." "Chinchin", as it turns out, is the colloquial phrase particularly used by or to children to refer to that "unmentionable part" of the human body used to "tinkle" with! This also explains the laughter of some foreign children raised in Japan upon their mother reading to them the familiar story of the three little pigs refusing to let the wolf in by saying, "not by the hair on your chinny chin chin!
We'll close with another one that deals with the seemingly inscrutable world of Japanese grammar and one lady's encounter with the problem of responding to "keigo" properly. Just as there is the problem of putting honorific prefixes on nouns, there are also the various levels of speech one has to deal with, including using different verbs for persons of different social level, or to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects, etc.. Confusion over this led to a rather interesting scene when a Japanese official called on house of one single foreign woman. Upon answering the doorbell, he greeted the woman with "Goshujin wa orimasu ka?", "Is you husband (literally, "honorable master" at home?). Not quite knowing how to respond, the single lady replied, "Orimasen". But then she realized that would imply that she actually had a husband who just didn't happen to be in, and so she quickly tried to correct herself by saying, "Janakutte, arimasen." But then she remembers that word is not normally used when referring to people (only things) and so she tried to correct herself again by saying "Iya, irimasen!" "No, he's not." "I mean, I don't have one (it)!" "I mean, I don't want one!" But, then, who could blame her for not wanting a "master" - even an "honorable" one - in her house?!
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