• Ailsa Wylie

A rhinoceros at a ski resort

Soon after moving to Tokyo, I joined an outdoor club. I loved organizing day hikes, cycling trips and ski/snowboarding weekends. One of my favorites was a weekend in Hakuba, the main venue for the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics meant that, compared to most other Japanese ski resorts in the early 2000s, Hakuba had much more variety in terms of food and nightlife. (It actually had nightlife.) And there was a little pension that I loved. The owner, Mr. Y., was super-friendly and spoke reasonable English. He and his family went to Whistler every year, and he loved having non-Japanese guests at his place.

Speaking a foreign language, however, doesn’t always mean being able to write well in it, so occasionally Mr. Y. used some kind of early translation software.

Now, although it has improved greatly, machine translation still has a long way to go, especially between languages as different as English and Japanese. Back in the early aughts it had even more entertainment value. I once tried to figure out the New Year’s Eve all-night train schedule by clicking a button for “English”, only to find all the station names translated into things like Pond Bag (Ikebukuro, 池袋), New Hotel (Shinjuku, 新宿) and Meal Competence (Hanno, 飯能). Elementary school students (小学生) had become “small study raw”.

It was good for a laugh, but not much help to anyone who didn’t know what the Japanese station names meant.

One day I received a promotional email from Mr. Y. It was bilingual and he had used his trusty (ahem) MT to helpfully provide English content for his non-Japanese guests.

Most of it was...comprehensible. Until the last sentence. To this day it has lingered in my mind as both an amusing anecdote and a warning.

“In the case of a reservation, under a proposal, rhinoceros.”

Reader, I fell off my chair laughing.

When I finally picked myself up off the floor, I searched for the source of this unexpected African wildlife that had charged without warning into an email about a place known more for winter sports than safaris. I scrolled back up to the last sentence of the Japanese version.


(go-yoyaku no baai, o-moshide kudasai)

If you can read Japanese, you’ve probably already figured out what happened. If you can’t, I’ll break it down for you.

ご要約 (your) reservation

の場合 in the event/case of

お申し出 proposal/application

下さい please

What Mr. Y. meant to say was, of course, “Please contact us if you’d like to make a reservation”. So what went wrong?

The problem is all in the word 下さい, kuda-sa-i, which means “please”. It combines kanji or Chinese characters and the syllabic hiragana characters. It is also often written ください (all hiragana, ku-da-sa-i). Maybe Mr. Y. should have stuck with that. But then I wouldn’t have this story to tell you.

The MT had broken up this extremely common word into two separate parts. 下 by itself means “under”, while さい has multiple homonyms and, if not written in kanji, it becomes a wild card. It can mean at least 8 different things and that day I searched my dictionary to see if “rhinoceros” was one of them. Reader, my suspicions were correct.

The moral of the story? MT is a tool. It’s useful to get the general gist of a text (sometimes). These days it will most likely get 下さい right. But as a way to get your message across clearly and professionally in another language?

Use at your own risk.

(P.S. That’s how I learned how to say “rhinoceros” in Japanese.)

(P.P.S. Ask me about the “peach big length husband”.)

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