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  • Christina Theodorakis

Context, Culture, and Education Issues All in One Little Sign

Take a look at a sign we saw at a food gift shop in Kyoto Station right by the Shinkansen (bullet train) platform entrance:

"It is impossible to return ."

Have we just entered Mordor?

In case you don't understand what they were trying to say here, in English we'd say something like "All sales are final," "No returns," or "We don't accept returns" because the word "return" has a lot of meanings so, consequently, leaving out what's being returned makes the statement feel incomplete in English. That's why we wouldn't use the verb form "to return" and typically use the noun form of "return(s)" instead when writing succinctly on a sign.

This is a classic example of Japanese being translated verbatim into English. The person who wrote it was coming from a Japanese standpoint where they believed the object that would be returned -- the item purchased -- would be understood by the reader, which is common to do in Japanese. I can actually tell which Japanese phrase this person most likely input into a translation tool to get this direct translation: "返品不可," which literally means "Returned items are impossible" -- or "It is impossible to return."

The Japanese language doesn't have this problem, thanks to kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese) making the meanings of words that may have the same pronunciation easily distinguishable just by looking at the characters. For example, 変換 (meaning "change" or "convert") and 返還 (meaning "return") are pronounced the same (hen-kahn), but they have different meanings. In English, we only have the alphabet, so we can't show the different meanings of a word without other words to give context.

Now let's move on to the "It is impossible" part. As I mentioned above, I can tell that the original Japanese text that this person had in mind was "返品不可 (pronounced hen-pin fu-ka)." There's a big cultural difference between Japan and the West hidden here.

Japanese people aren't taught the expression "All sales are final" because even if the intended audience is foreign English speakers, a Japanese person will read it and think it's too direct for Japanese people -- and that's a no-no in Japanese society.

Japanese doesn't have a similar expression, and they don't learn English that's useful for everyday life in an English-speaking country in Japanese schools, so they resort to the easiest way to say the same message in Japanese judging by the cultural norms understandably embedded in them by Japanese society.

The problem is that the way Japanese people express politeness can come across in English as not only bewildering, but also sometimes blunt and rude, and it's of course the same when trying to speak in Japanese after being raised outside of Japan with Western cultural norms.

This is why the right kind of professional writers, localization experts, and cultural strategists are necessary to help with advertising, marketing, and other business endeavors you're trying to undertake in a foreign country such as Japan or with Japanese clients, and we have those writers and experts on our team for English and Japanese. If your company is trying to reach out to a Japanese audience, reach out to us for a quick chat or a free consultation!




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