A source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says they’ll be stepping in to help PM Suga in future.

Japanese can be an incredibly hard language for English speakers to master, with sentences turned back to front, the need to adjust words for politeness and direct translations into the language sometimes making no sense at all.

By the same token, it’s equally difficult for Japanese speakers to master English, no matter how experienced you are or how many people you have on hand to assist you. That was made abundantly clear this month, when Japan’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, sent out a public tweet to Donald Trump and “Madam First Lady” following their positive test result for COVID-19.

There’s nothing glaringly wrong with Suga’s tweet as a whole — we’ve seen many worse examples of Engrish before — but for a world leader, many people expected much better. While a lot of native English speakers didn’t have any major issues with what was written, other than the incorrect use of “Madam First Lady”, it was widely criticised by Japanese speakers of English, who left comments like:

“‘I was worried’ suggests you were worried before but you’re not worried anymore.”
“The ‘was’ part is fine here — it’s what comes after it that sounds stiff. Everything from ‘I sincerely’ is okay as well.”
“Did they use auto-translate for this?”
“I’m embarrassed.”
“It reads like something a junior high school student would write.”
“This isn’t Suga’s fault – he should have people checking these things for him.”

This criticism of the tweet didn’t just come from the Japanese public — it also came from Suga’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Government sources say members at the LDP’s Diplomacy Section meeting on 7 October shared frank opinions about the tweet, complaining that the level of English was “too low”.

A Diet member at the meeting pointed out that “I was worried” can be “taken to mean that I am not worried now.” The tweet was also criticised for sounding too much like a machine-generated translation.

This preoccupation with the past tense of “worry” makes it sound as if the blind is leading the blind in Suga’s office, as the tense isn’t something a native speaker would really take issue with. If anything, it’s the tone created by “about you” that’s more of an issue, as “I was very worried about you when I read your tweet” sounds like something your mum would say if you tweeted about not brushing your teeth for a week.

What’s even more puzzling is the fact that Suga’s English-language tweet was followed by a Japanese version two minutes later, and its literal translation reads far more smoothly in English.

The literal translation of the Japanese version above is as follows:

“Dear President Trump, I was worried when I saw the tweet saying the President and First Lady Melania had contracted corona, but I pray you both quickly overcome corona and get back to your daily lives.”

So which one is better — the literal translation above or the English version below?

“Dear President Trump, I was very worried about you when I read your tweet saying that you and Madam First Lady tested positive for COVID-19. I sincerely pray for your early recovery and hope that you and Madam First Lady will return to normal life soon.”

It’s unknown which version came first in the Prime Minister’s office, but it’s more than likely the message in Suga’s native language of Japanese was approved first. That means somebody decided to add a “very“, an “about you“, a “Madam“, and a “sincerely” to the English message while taking creative liberties to read “saw the tweet” as “read your tweet“, “corona” as “COVID-19” and “quickly overcome” as “early recovery“.

These points suggest that no native English speakers were consulted before Suga’s English-language tweet was approved. Either that or the translation went through non-native-speaker higher-ups for approval, where keywords like “Madam” were deemed essential.

Either way, while the English tweet has a certain Japanese charm of its own, a source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says they will be responding to the problem by forming a support system for the Prime Minister.

Hopefully this support system will help to avoid any problems in future, and if they’re looking for tips on how to send out a tweet with the appropriate tone and voice of a world leader, they might want to avoid taking cues from the Twitter account of President Trump. Because then there are no rules when it comes to anything, let alone the proper use of English.

Source: Kyodo via Ceron
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