Lost in translation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020 this summer, Tokyo is facing a lot of problems, and solutions for them must be found and implemented sooner rather than later. Some of the technical issues include the high threat of heat strokes among the athletes and fans in the scorching heat of Tokyo’s summers and the considerable amount of bacteria present in Tokyo’s waters. These particular setbacks have already been addressed and are largely resolved as a result. A massive inconvenience that remains, however, is the language barrier in Japan, and the incomprehensible translations of signs, informational stands, and apps. Are Japanese authorities working on these issues, and if so, what solutions have they come up with so far?

Main problems in handling the translation of Japanese to English

The Japan Tourism Agency has recently published the results of a two-month investigation into the accuracy of foreign-language signage in towns and cities. Unfortunately, the results have been largely disappointing.

One transport company refers to children as “dwarfs” in its signs, while a sign at Jimbocho subway station in central Tokyo reads “The Toei Shinjuku and Toei Mita Lines can’t take it”. You can also get a genuine laugh out of a sign at the former prison in Hakone, which reads “Put off your guilty shoes and come in the prison politely.”
The main problem in these misinterpretations is not that there aren’t enough good translators, but the fact that most companies don’t allow people the opportunity to provide corrections. This happens mainly because of the loss of “face” that might result for the person charged with producing the translation, which subsequently turned out to be incorrect. Adding the fact that translation and interpretation are long and expensive processes, most of the “Japlish” signs remain unchanged to this day.

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What plans do the authorities have when it comes to making the city more welcoming for tourists?

Tokyo Olympics 2020A mere 7.1 million foreigners visited Japan in 2011. That number has since soared past 30 million in 2018, and the nation is well on course to hit its government-set target of 40 million by 2020. These rapidly rising numbers suggest that more steps should be taken in order for tourists to be able to easily navigate Japan’s accommodation, museums, and transportation systems – and Japan has been listening!
Ever since its election as a host for the 2020 Olympic Games, Japan’s been taking advantage of its future role as host of the most prestigious global sporting event to reshape its multilingual dialogue and international communication industry — all in order to provide increased access to language services and facilitate interactions between Japanese and foreign athletes, officials, and tourists.

Japan is preparing to provide the best visitor experience to guests from all over the world, including specialist sports and general assistance interpretation services, ensuring that everyone can communicate properly and enjoy their visit, no matter what languages they speak. According to the Tokyo Olympics 2020 organizing committee, more than 35,000 volunteers and professional interpreters will be on-site of the events to offer language assistance.

Apart from that, Japan is hoping to impress the tourists that will visit the event with a very advanced translation device. The new tool is supposed to translate Japanese voice recordings into English without a significant delay. According to the team that’s currently developing the tool, the biggest downside of the existing Japanese-English translation software is the time lag that occurs. This delay is still present largely because of the very different sentence structures the two languages have. In Japanese, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, so the longer the sentence is, the longer the automated translation takes to be processed.

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So what do we say?

From our experts’ point of view, we strongly suggest that all translations should go through professional linguists, who are well acquainted with the context of the local culture, in addition to being open-minded and capable of understanding people from different backgrounds — because all manner of people will be coming in from all around the world. Despite the numerous translators and interpreters on-site (and the high-tech translation device), all the signs, communication, information leaflets and so on must be carefully translated, localized and adapted in advance by a professional team of translators, rather than generic machine translation. This must be done in order to ensure that the target language is properly adapted and can be easily understood by diverse audiences.