Free online translation programs have come a long way, but they’re still far from perfect.

Online translation programs can be pretty handy tools. But while they can be useful when looking for how to say a specific vocabulary word in a foreign language, they’re often not so good at handling full sentences, and even short idioms can throw a serious wrench into their operation.

Recently, we were playing around with Google Translate and decided to see how it would handle converting a selection of Japanese idioms into English. These are all commonly used Japanesephrases, but even with slow-pitch requests, it was sometime a swing and a very big miss for Google Translate, and gave us some baffling, hilarious results.

1. Good on the floor…?

▼ Master-level

Let’s start with toko jouzu (床上手). Toko literally means “floor,” and jouzu means “skilled” or “talented,” so Google Translate gave us:

But the problem with this straight translation is that it’s, well, too straight-laced. Toko jouzu actually means “to be good at sex,” sort of like the English “good in the sack.” So why is the Japanese expression version “floor?” Because before the introduction of Western-style beds, everyone in Japan slept, and made love in, futons laid out on the floor,

2. Bugs are nice…?

▼ “I-am-AWESOME!”

Next up: mushi ga ii (虫がいい). Once again, Google goes with the direct approach, utilizing the simple logic that mushi means “bugs” and ii is the adjective “good.”

But wait, bugs are as hated in Japan as they are in other countries, so why would Japanese need a phrase to express admiration for the creatures? The answer is it doesn’t, and mushi ga ii actually means “selfish” or “greedy.”

Back in the Edo period (1603-1868), there was a folk belief that bugs living inside of peoples’ bodies caused them to feel emotions, impulses, and desires. Therefore a particularly avaricious person’s bugs must be particularly powerful.

3. Skin use of unattached tanuki…?

▼ They look like a couple, so are these attached, and therefore unusable, tanuki?

Tanuki, Japan’s lovable, large-testicled raccoon dogs, show up in the proverb toranu tanuki no kawazanyou (取らぬ狸の皮算用). Unfortunately, the wisdom of this phrase is lost on anyone who relies on Google Translate’s English rendering.

Cleaning that up is going to take a couple steps. First, for some reason Google Translate converted toranu to “unattached.” Really, though, toranu is a negative form of toru, which means, among other things, “catch,” “capture,” or “successfully hunt.”

The “skin” Google Translate mentions is an animal skin/pelt. As for “use,” it somehow chopped off the first half of zanyou, which means to “use as a means of calculation,” and by extension for calculating economic exchanges.

In other words, toranu tanuki no kawazanyou means to use the pelts from tanuki you haven’t caught yet as currency to buy something else, or, in its English equivalent, “to count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

4. I will not sing and fly…?

▼ Drop the mike and no one (including whoever’s listening) gets hurt.

Google Translate isn’t exactly wrong in its translation for nakazu tobazu (鳴かず飛ばず). Nakazu and tobazu really are the negative versons of the verbs naku and tobu, which mean “sing” and “fly” respectively.

But nakazu tobazu is, in fact, not a warning against the very specific combined undertaking of singing karaoke while testing out a homemade wingsuit, even though that can be a danger to yourself and the ears of others (the “I” in Google Translate’s translation is simply it trying to shoehorn a grammatical subject into the phrase). Naku/nakazu isn’t for singing songs, but for animals, like birds, singing or calling. Imagine a bird that neither sings nor flies, and it shouldn’t be too hard to see that nakazu tobazu means “to lay low” or otherwise conduct yourself in a way that won’t draw attention to you.

5. Cat to small size…?

▼ That’s the biggest box we’ve got, so we guess we’ll just have to make the cat smaller.

Okay, it’s common knowledge that living spaces are smaller in Japan than most other countries, but does the country really need to micronize its cats, as Google Translate’s result for neko ni koban, implies?

But if you remember our previous article on cat-based Japanese phrases, you’ll know that a koban, even though its component kanji characters mean “small” and “oval,” is actually an oval-shaped gold coin from Japan’s feudal era, and that neko ni koban actually means “[to give] a gold coin to a cat.”

That might sound like the Japanese version of “pearls before swine,” but it’s actually a little softer in meaning (and besides, Japanese also has the phrase buta ni shinju (豚に真珠), which literally means “pearls before swine”). Neko ni koban is used not necessarily when you give someone something they don’t deserve or appreciate, but just something they don’t really understand the value of.

Now we should mention, what with Google’s corporate culture of constant tinkering and improvements, it might be straightening out these twisted translations as we speak. But these five flubbed transitions from Japanese to English also serve as a reminder that as far as machine translation has come, when it comes to linguistics there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned human knowledge.

Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso, SoraNews24 (via Google Translate), Pakutaso (2), Wikipedia/663highland, Pakutaso (3, 4)
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[ Read in Japanese ]