Potential Causes of Misunderstandings of Fukushima Reactor Problems

Editor’s Note: Joel M. holds a Ph.D. in Biology and currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. He has volunteered his time and insights to the RDTN.org blog.

The panic in the media outside Japan, well, I can certainly understand that.  Totally aside of understanding the technical matters involved, I think a lot of the panic is honest misunderstandings due to translation problems.

I cannot tell you how complicated translating from Japanese to English, and vice versa, is.  Nearly every single thing is out of order.  “eastnorth” instead of “northeast”.  They count in 10,000s, not 1,000s, so that conversion can lead to errors.  The subject is often omitted so must be supplied.  If directly translated, nuance can be completely off.  There is almost never any kind of correspondence between words in English and Japanese.  For example, I was at the supermarket and there was a sign “We do not exchange money”, which should be “No change without purchase”.  I think that will give you a sense of how nearly every single direct translation is likely to be wrong or misleading in some way.  Translating directly from English into Japanese is even more hilarious.

Reading short news articles increases the confusion because of the lack of context.  After watching two hours of NHK documentaries with really detailed models and graphics explaining what was found and where, seeing pictures of the control room damaged like the bridge on Star Trek, and listening to other full explanations, when I see people abroad pick up a word or sentence and misunderstand what it means, panicking everyone, well, that is just not helpful in any way.

When this first started, it seemed that even CNN had not one person who understood Japanese because the newscasters were looking at live feeds but didnt know what they were looking at.  Japan was the second, now third, largest economy in the world, with a population of 130,000,000, and I thought that was a little strange that they had no one who understands Japanese.  At that point, even a Japanese college student in their studio would have been a big help.   Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the language barrier confusion.  Most of the translators are not scientists or engineers and have no technical background.  They are very good translators and can listen to Japanese live broadcast with headphones and speak in English in real time, but these reactor problems are straining their vocabularies and knowledge.  And on top of that, Japanese is often like a conversation between friends where many things are omitted, so the translators are having to guess and insert many things necessary to make a complete sentence in English.  It is maddening when working on paper, and it is just hell trying to do it in real time.

So, we have multiple layers of potential misunderstanding here: What TEPCO knows or does not know. What TEPCO will publicly say in view of not causing panic and misunderstandings and rumor. What is in the actual statements being made on video, including tone of voice and body language and context of everything that has been said previously. The context in which each statement is being made. How the translator understands, in technical terms and in everyday terms, what is being said. What the translator is compelled to convert. What the translator translates directly and awkwardly because there is only a split second to do it. What the translator must insert because it doesn’t exist in the original sentence (the, a, plurals, and many other things do not generally exist in Japanese). Which parts of the full translation are then picked up by a newspaper or quoted on TV because of what an editor thinks it means. How that fragment sounds and what it means to the audience at face value. What that seems to imply. Confabulation is the normal mode of human thought. Etc. And you can see how far we are from the actual data at the beginning that TEPCO has.

Normally, this kind of problem is just odd and annoying or funny, but in this case, people who are unaware of all the problems in the translations can really, and in full honesty, misconstrue what they read and hear.

What has actually happened so far is of course extremely serious, and something more serious could happen from now, but anyone reporting needs to have good Japanese translators with them reading original text and viewing video in order to have any chance at all of having a reasonable understanding of what is actually happening.  This is going to go on for a long time, so the faster we can improve understanding, the better off everyone will be.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joel M.