Mistranslations - Please be careful

Watch Your Step and Please be Careful

It is common for some countries to be courteous, if a bit wordy with their signs. A simple warning about the steps would have sufficed in English. However, this was in Yamanouchi town in Japan. Rural towns in Japan have a reputation for being courteous to a fault. This is a cultural difference, and is shared with most rural towns the world over.

However, the Japanese do have a way with words.

The sign may have been written in a passive voice, or it could have been the way the language works. Either way, this is not how a warning sign about a bad road, or an old staircase, would have been written in other countries. In most countries, the warning would have been clear, and the reason would have been secondary. In English, the sign would have been written as: “Warning: Dangerous Steps Ahead.” It implies, that without adequate attention, you might fall down, or have an accident.

There is another explanation regarding the difference in approaches. Asian culture is used to apologizing for the facility, implying that it should have been repaired earlier. That being said, the visitor is politely asked to be careful, further implying that if anything happens it is not the step’s fault.

On the other hand, in the litigious Western world, the Asian approach would be seen as an admission of guilt. It would also not be construed as a warning, because it does not follow the standard format of what a warning sign looks like. Considering that the above sign was printed on metal, and signed by the town, it looks official but it does not constitute a warning sign as far as the American eye would see it.

The only failure in the above sign is the grammar. However, the cultural conventions were carried by the translation. Unfortunately, the direct translation did not have the same impact as an English warning, especially since the target audiences are the English speaking visitors to the town of Yamanouchi.

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