Painful bloopers in Japanese can be valuable learning experiences

The Japan Times – Nov 21, 2016 – While working on the island of Guam in the early 1970s, I had regular business dealings with the expat Japanese business community — basically a good-natured crowd who were used to hearing locals mangle their language on a daily basis.

One day, while visiting the manager of a car rental agency, I was relating a shocking personal experience and felt it was not enough to just say 非常にびっくり しました (Hijō ni bikkuri shimashita, “I was really surprised”). To embellish my anecdote, however, I tried to inform my listener that, figuratively, I’d almost keeled over from a heart attack. But in mid-sentence I realized that the Japanese words for “heart” and “attack” used in combination were probably not going to work.

I was right. When I said ほとんど心臓突撃しました (Hotondo shinzō totsugeki shimashita), I had used “attack” in the military sense of an assault on the enemy.

えっ?心臓発作のことだろう? (E? Shinzō hossa no koto darō?, “You mean a heart seizure?”) he replied, using the correct word hossa instead of totsugeki.

The lesson learned here: Don’t count on Japanese medical terms to correspond to your own language.

Another example: In colloquial English speech, a person in a chronic vegetative state might be referred to as a “human vegetable.” I was discussing the sad fate of a mutual acquaintance with my neighbor and conveyed this literally, saying 野菜人間 (yasai ningen). My listener corrected me on the spot, informing me it should be 植物人間 (shokubutsu ningen, literally “human plant.”

If you like reading humorous anecdotes of this type, Jack Seward’s 1969 book “Japanese In Action: An Unorthodox Approach to the Spoken Language and the People who Speak It” — now out of print but sometimes available online — comes highly recommended.

In Chapter 3 of the book, Seward underscored how mispronunciation of short and long vowels in certain Japanese words can lead to some very embarrassing situations. He related the story of when an American named Peter was working as an adviser to a Mr. Sakamoto, the president of a Japanese company.

A contingent from Sakamoto’s hometown arrived at the office, but Sakamoto happened to be absent. Peter invited them to come in and wait, telling them, 私に何かできることがあれば、おっしゃってください。私は坂本さんの肛門ですから (Watakushi ni nani ka dekiru koto ga areba, osshatte kudasai. Watakushi wa Sakamoto-san no kōmon desu kara, “Please tell me if there is anything I can do (as) I am Mr. Sakamoto’s anus”).

What Peter had meant to say, of course, was not 肛門 (kōmon, anus) but 顧問 (komon, adviser). Seward relates the group’s reaction thus: “Usually the Japanese character of restraint prevents laughter from getting out of control — but not that day … Peter’s solemn statement of the anatomical position he occupied in relation to Sakamoto shattered their control asunder. They whooped, they yelled, they howled, they did everything but roll on the floor.”

Back in 1972 I was hired by a major travel agency and, until they could figure out what to do with me, I attended a tour-escort training course. The firm had an in-house 教官 (kyōkan, instructor) named Mizuno-sensei, a natural-born teacher who engaged his students, which made learning from him a fun experience.

One day he was discussing leadership and invited the class to name some qualities of a leader. I raised my hand to suggest that some leaders might be father figures. In correct Japanese that would be 父親を象徴する (chichioya o shōchō suru). Unfamiliar with this term, however, the best I could come up with was お父さんのシンボル (otōsan no shinboru, “father symbol”). Everyone in the room, our sensei included, broke out in giggles, since the English shinboru in this particular situation is generally understood to mean a phallic symbol.

Lesson learned: Use foreign word adoptions at your own risk.

After completing the course, I accompanied a tour group of Japanese academics to the Middle East. As we were exiting Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, we passed a boy of around primary school age, wearing a bright red satin skullcap and red cape, and obviously the center of his family’s attention. Back aboard our tour bus, a curious group member asked about the young lad’s special attire.

“Oh, today he’ll be undergoing circumcision,” said the guide in English, and I relayed to our group, 皆様、今日は彼の割礼です (Mina-samakyō wa kare no katsurei desu). She went on to explain that the custom, which is introduced in passage 21:4 of the Book of Genesis, had originated when the Almighty commanded the Old Testament patriarch Abraham to circumcise his own son, Issac.

I translated, trying to adhere as closely as possible to our guide’s words. But that was a big mistake, because I rendered “His own son” word for word as 自分の 息子 (jibun no musuko). But musuko also happens to be a rather crude slang term for the male reproductive organ. Hearing me say with a perfectly straight face that Abraham had performed delicate surgery on himself, the people in my group lost it and began laughing out loud. Our Turkish guide fired a nasty look at me, thinking I was making light of her religion.

Intent on damage control, I quickly backtracked and said すみません、間違え ました。 (Sumimasen, machigaemashita, “Oops, sorry. My mistake”) 自分の子供でしょうね (Jibun no “kodomo” deshō ne), changing “son” to “child” — since in this case the child’s gender would be obvious. That earned me a second round of chuckles and another nasty look from the guide.

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

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