Lost in Translation

Have you ever seen the movie “Lost in Translation”? Although the movie seems to exaggerate certain things about living in Japan, it does offer glimpses of how difficult life could be for someone who doesn’t know the language, not to mention the culture.

There was a time, in Akihabara, when I rode the elevator and was asked, “Dochira made desu ka?” – Where are you getting off? It would have been easier for me to respond had the person asked, “Nan-kai desu ka?” – What floor? “Kai” is the suffix used when counting floors. But in my haste, I answered, “Roku-sai desu.” “Sai” is the suffix used when counting age. Effectively, I told the person that “(I am) six years old.” Gaah. I should have said “Rokkai” instead, which would mean, “sixth floor.” When I realized my mistake I was so embarrassed that I wanted to get off the next floor and just take the stairs, hahaha. 😀

In fairness, there are many signs and instructions written in English, so a tourist in Japan won’t feel so lost as he/she weaves through the city. In train stations, all the station names are also written in “Romaji” or alphabet characters. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts, there are just too many English translations that are so bungled that they end up very confusing. And yes, most of the time, hilarious! That is why sites like Engrish.com never run out of supply.

For instance, consider this:

A position is the ground the first floor at present.

Ahm, which position are we talking about again?

Or how about this:

Teacher to student: Don’t mess with me now, I will and can use this against you!

Note, it’s not a pencil eraser; it’s a student eraser. 😀

Written in bold font is “WARNING: Stop using it for the cunning by writing rules on it.”

Actually, this is a warning for students to NOT write their kodigo on the eraser. Wow, that’s so cunning indeed.

Here’s another one:

For all your fleshy cravings. Absolutely not for vegetarians.

There is no “L” in Japanese language, so this is replaced with “R.” As a result, L’s and the R’s are usually confused and interchanged with each other. The day actually came when I myself began having difficulty saying “wonderful.” I tend to say “wandafuru” instead. Sigh. I’ve been in Japan for too long. 😛

Here’s a trivia quiz for you – can anyone figure out what is the equivalent English word of the following (those who are in Japan are exempted!):

1. Oraitto
2. Konpyuta
3. Bo-rupen
4. Panfuretto
5. Buranku

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42 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. You can’t say the Japanese don’t try, even with their crooked Engrish. :)

    There was a time, in Akihabara, when I rode the elevator and was asked, “Dochira made desu ka?” – Where are you getting off? It would have been easier for me to respond had the person asked, “Nan-kai desu ka?”

    Should this be “It would have been easier for me to respond had the person asked, “Dochira made desu ka?”? I could be wrong though.

  2. kathy says:

    Oh yes, absolutely. I’ll give them an A for effort. :)

    That incident in Akihabara happened many years back when I was still taking up my Japanese lessons. If the person had asked “Nan-kai desu ka?” I would have been reminded of the proper suffix. I was still very much confused about the counters then. 😛

  3. annamanila says:

    Let me see .. oraitto must mean alright; konpyuta is computer; bo-rufen is ball pen )or boyfriend? LOL), then the next is pamphlet. Buranku? Uhhmmm give up. How many items did I get right? tell me ha.

    So you’re in Japan. Yup, many things lost in translation. But I think it helps that the Japanese are usually so very helpful of foreigners di ba? At least that is my memory of them.

  4. Hehe, in my case I would have easily mistaken “nankai desu ka” for “nansai desu ka” rather than “dochira made desu ka”. of course, asking someone “nansai desu ka?” inside an elevator is rather strange. :)

  5. Prab says:

    Annamanila made me remember wai-sha-tu (tama ba, to, Kathy? I’m not sure anymore) and what you wrote made me remember gochisusama desuka (Again, not sure if it’s right) from basic Jap a few eons ago.

    OF course I can’t forget this: Ittadakimasu! 😀

  6. Prab says:


    Buranku = blanket?

  7. pining says:

    I don’t know any Japanese(except harigatu?) so pass.. on the questions.. I didn’t know there’s no r in Japanese, I learn something new everyday.. ignoramus me!

  8. Belle says:

    hi Kathy,

    I have zero knowledge of Japanese language. I know of a few words only like sayonara, arigatu, and what else?

    Just curious if they were correct with their translations?

  9. kathy says:

    Haha, unless it’s some pervert hitting on you. 😛

  10. kathy says:

    Bravo! You got 4 out of 5. Bo-rupen is ballpen.

    Overall, the Japanese are quite helpful in assisting foreigners (especially those who just look so helpless). But sometimes there are also some weirdos, like the one encountered by my sister in Tokyo. Somebody was “kind” enough to assist my siter find her way to the correct station. But after that, he politely asked for 200 yen payment, for his train fare daw! Yikes.

    Thanks for dropping by Anna. :)

  11. kathy says:

    Prab, what is “waishatu”? The nearest word that I can think of is “waishatsu,” which means “white shirt.”

    LOL, you remembered the things they say when eating food. :) Also, it should have been, “gochisosamadeshita.” That’s what they say after they’ve eaten to thank those who prepared the food.

  12. kathy says:

    Close, but not right! Blanket would be “buranketto.” 😀 Want to try again?

  13. kathy says:

    Hehe, that’s alright. But sometimes the younger ‘uns in Pinas amaze me. They know so many Japanese words and phrases, probably because of their exposure to manga and Japanese anime. :)

  14. kathy says:

    So far, annamanila has given the correct answers to #s 1-4. I’m still waiting for someone to give the correct answer to #5. :)

  15. Prab says:

    I got it right then, I think I still remember that thing on a flash card by my professor. lol

  16. Prab says:

    If it’s not that, then the only thing I can think of is “blank,” ‘coz that’s what my mind is right now after thinking it through, blank. 😀

  17. Jaypee says:

    Haven’t seen that movie yet.

    The only words I could guess was Computer and ballpen. The rest, I’m clueless! Hehe

    Japanese is one of the languages that I really wanna learn to speak. Aside from Spanish & French. :)

    Btw, thanks for dropping by my blog.

  18. kathy says:

    Buranku = blank
    You got it, Prab! Ang galing-galing. Uno ka ba sa Nihonggo mo non? :)

  19. kathy says:

    Lost in Translation is a nice movie – Bill Murray’s deadpan comedy was so right for the character and quite entertaining (for me, anyway).

    It takes a lot of effort to learn Japanese – I am still in the process of learning, actually. I think my vocabulary is about the same as my 4-year-old daughter’s. 😛

    Thanks for dropping by, too!

  20. Prab says:

    I wish. But I wasn’t able to finish the subject. So I got a grade of incomplete. Hahahaha! But my standing before I got the incomplete grade was at a one, so I guess yes. :)

  21. dimaks says:

    Well, I think Japan is very symbolic too.. add those amazing symbols on the engrish translations and you will have a nice day to live by while in here :)

  22. sexy mom says:

    your post reflects the many filipinos who are everywhere in the world. we may be lost in translation, but what is amazing is that we are always able to cope.

    in one tourist place in bangladesh, i went to the toilet for a pee. i almost shreiked! i didn’t realize that i was inside a men’s toilet, imagine!

  23. kathy says:

    Yeah, symbols and kanjis – they make Japan a very challenging, yet interesting place to live in. 😉

  24. kathy says:

    Hello sexy mom – wow, what a cool nick! Thanks for dropping by.

    In both language and culture, we have proven time and again that we can adapt.

    Was there anyone in the toilet? Yikes…but I guess it must have been hilarious afterwards! :)

  25. Prab says:

    I still can’t get over the flesh taste picture. I different thing comes into mind. lawl! 😀

  26. Gina says:

    I saw that movie, and liked it! When we visit my in-laws , sometimes Tony (hubby) & his parents would go into these discussions (always sound like heated conversations kahit hindi naman) ~0~ in Italian, ayan , lost in translation na ako. That why, it pays to learn the language that you hear each day!

  27. herb says:

    hmmm… i didn’t really like that movie. the people seem so negative and i just felt depressed after watching it. it was a depressing movie… i guess it’s one of those hate it or love it flicks.

  28. bw says:

    Gosh, I couldn’t figure out 4 and 5 ! What is 4 by the way ? :) Is it french fries? LOL :) 5 was a wild one :)

    You know I remember a while back when Aurora Pijuan’s name was called by the Japanese emcee it sounded like ” Alolang Pigeon” :)

  29. niceheart says:

    Japanese looks like a very challenging language to learn.

    I like Scarlett Johannson in that movie, and any other movie that she’s been in. :)

  30. kathy says:

    lol – that makes two of us! :) Imagine, I’ve kept that picture all these years, and yet when I look at it I still couldn’t help but laugh!

  31. kathy says:

    Ohh, Italian pala husband mo. I could relate somewhat. My husband’s native tongue is Cebuano, and whenever we visit their hometown, I am the one “lost in translation.” I’ve learned quite a number of words, though. But still not enough to make a lengthy conversation with my mother-in-law (who only speaks Cebuano).

  32. kathy says:

    Yeah, our names here also get a lot of beating. When I first got here, for the Japanese version of my name our Japanese teacher asked me to choose between “Katorin” and “Kyaserin.” I thought, geez, neither one sounds like my real name at all, and they both sound horrible. 😀

    Here are the answers, in case you haven’t figured them out yet: #4 is pamphlet; #5 is blank. 😛

  33. kathy says:

    I didn’t find it depressing at all. Well, different strokes for different folks. :)

  34. kathy says:

    Learning Japanese is like turning your brain inside out. 😀
    Scarlett Johansson is such a beauty, isn’t she? She looked so young and childish in The Horse Whisperer, but look at her now!

  35. Saw that movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson — bittersweet. I can imagine how lonesome Tokyo can get, especially if totally if not well-versed with the language and culture.

    I once attempted to learn Japanese but without any success.

  36. verns says:

    Anyong Haseyo!

    ay! Korean pala yun hehehe

    Anyway akala ko yung Buranku ay short cut ng “burara ako” hehehe

  37. kathy says:

    You hit the nail on the head! Anywhere in Japan can be terribly lonesome – I myself had to go through this ordeal during the first few years of my stay here.

    Japanese is a really tough language to learn. I am still learning. :)

  38. kathy says:

    lol! verns, i can’t blame you. they almost sound the same – japanese and korean. the sentence structure is also the same. that is probably one of the reasons why koreans seem to master japanese faster. well, at least most of the koreans i know are good japanese speakers.

  39. Abaniko says:

    Haha. Funny translations. About the items you want us to guess, here are my answers based on how they sound (I haven’t read the comments here yet, okay?):

    1. Oraitto – All right?
    2. Konpyuta – Computer?
    3. Bo-rupen – Ballpen?
    4. Panfuretto – This is difficult, Pamphlet?
    5. Buranku – Blank?


  40. verns says:

    Kathy I’ve heard the Koreans “hate” the Japanese people…they don’t have Japanese cars there hehe

  41. kathy says:

    Abaniko! Ang galeng-galeng mo, naperfect mo ah (assuming that you really never peeked at their answers ha). Uno ka rin ba sa Nihonggo mo tulad ni Prab (standing lang daw, but it’s almost the same thing)? :)

    Anyway I hope you had fun with the quiz! :)

  42. kathy says:

    Verns, I think that there really is some tension between these two countries because of historical reasons. I also noticed the absence of Japanese cars in Korea when we visited there. But hey, maybe one reason is that they really just patronize their own products (think Samsung, Hyundai). That was my impression, anyway.

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