Tag Archives: translation errors

Easy Woman

At ICI where I taught English my second year in Japan, students could buy tickets for the conversation room where they could practice their English in freeform conversation with native speakers. Each teacher took a shift in the conversation room. Most of our students were not advanced enough in their English to initiate and guide conversations on topics not in their textbooks, so a common dodge all the teachers used was to tell stories about our lives in our home countries and then ask the students about their lives in Japan. I often told stories about my family. At least a dozen different students said, after I told a story about my mother, “Oh, your mother sounds like a very easy woman.”

This is an obvious error of translation. Most words have many meanings. A word in one language might be properly translated to a matching word in another in one instance, but not in another. This particular gaff happened so often that I made up a little chart that I would write up on the white board whenever someone said my mother was an easy woman. I would work my way through the chart, adding each phrase as I explained.

amai kyandi     --->   sweet candy
                           |
yasashii onna   <---   sweet woman
    |
yasahii tesuto  --->   easy test
                           |
yariman         <---   easy woman

Yariman is a very coarse word for a woman of negotiable virtue. I always got a good payoff as I wrote the last word on the board and the offending student realized what he or she had called my mother. It’s amazing how low some people can bow.

Don’t ask about the pretty little girl in the white, frilly blouse, knee-length skirt, and Mary Janes who always introduced herself, “Hello. My name is Yuko Tanaka. I am a Kinki University Student.”