Please, excuse-me, thank you, sorry. Why native speakers can save your translation.

Japanese is a tricky language to translate. Not only do native Japanese speakers use widely different levels of speech and register, they also master non-verbal communication and subtle vocabulary choices that would be unnoticed by non-native speakers (unless they trained really hard).

It just so happens that one word illustrates this concept perfectly: “Sumimasen”.

The official translation is “excuse me”, and if you run it through a machine translation, that’s probably what you’ll get. Which is why having conversations translated like this one can be confusing:

Screenshot of an incorrect translation of Sumimasen that renders the text incoherent in English.
Machine Translation still has some ways to go before being able to read your mind…

What’s interesting about a word like “Sumimasen” is not only that it means several things, but that it usually says those things better and more naturally than the words a non-native translator might choose instead.

Let’s have a look at those:

Excuse me, please

If you go to an izakaya in Japan, you’ll notice people using (ahem, shouting) “sumimasen” to catch their waiter’s attention. In this context, it obviously would be correct to translate it as “excuse me”. You could use it in the same manner if you were asking a stranger for the time at the train station or needed to catch someone’s attention quickly.

Man ordering at restaurant. He would say "sumimasen".
Sumimasen! More beer please.

Sorry

If you bumped into someone on the street, you’d either say “Excuse me,” or “Sorry”. In Japanese, you’d only say “sumimasen”. It goes for both, including times when you are really sorry. Say you called in sick to go to that baseball game. When your boss finds out, you’d use it in the past tense (“Sumimasen deshita”.)

“Sumimasen”, that’s my stop. And “sumimasen” for bumping into you earlier.

But what about the other word you learned to say “sorry”? You know, “Gomen / Gomenasai”?

You’d still use it, but only with people you know well. Not your boss. I used to mix the two a lot when I was living in Japan, something a Japanese native wouldn’t do.

Thank you

Listening to Japanese people talk, you’d seldom hear “arigato”, “arigatougozaimasu,” etc. What you’d hear in most cases is, you guessed it, “sumimasen”. Not that people are apologizing instead of saying thank you, but rather that you aknowledge the fact they went out of their way to help you.

It makes sense, if you think about it. You want to thank the other person while being polite, so by using sumimasen you are doing both. It’s kind of “thanks, and sorry you needed to do that for me”.

You held the door for me? Sumimasen!

Think of all these situations:

  • Someone holds the door open for you. You thank them and apologize for the effort they needed to make for you.
  • Someone brings you souvenirs from their trip. You thank them and say you’re sorry for the time they needed to take out of their leisure time to choose that gift.
  • Any situation where making a big show of a “thank you” would be too much.

Sumimasen is just what you’d expect to hear in all these situations. Machine translations don’t always recognize that, so you need a human, but also a good translator. Here’s why:

That game translation that made no sense…

A few years ago, when I was still working in QA, a game came across my desk. It was only a one or two-day project, but had several dialogues I still remember to this day. One of which went something like this:

– This is where they keep all their files. We should find a key to get in. Take this map.
– Yes. Excuse me.
– Well, excuse me.

Any link with the screenshot at the beginning of this post is no coincidence.

It was in French, the language I was testing, but left me confused. I took a look at the source text, which was in English, and it said the same thing. Only a few moments later did we realize it had actually been translated from Japanese into English first that we solved the mystery, with the help of our Japanese tester Nobu.

Not the actual game we tested, but you get the point.

The original dialogue used two expressions, “sumimasen” and “shitsurei”. The translation had either been done in a rush, or by someone who was not sure of the real meaning of these. Who knows. Nobu, however, quickly understood the context and the way the characters were talking and gave us all the info we needed to fix it:

– This is where they keep all their files… take this map.
– Of ourse. Thank you.
– Well, I must leave.

So yes, hiring that guy who knows your target language really well might be an easy way to find affordable translations, but when it comes to it, nothing replaces an experienced professional translator, who knows the way native speakers of your source and target language would speak.

We did not have any English QA done on our end for that game. But looking online, I could not find any screenshots or indication that the incoherent dialogue had made it into the final version. So I’m assuming it was fixed. This would be another proof of the benefits of QA and proofreadings going hand in hand with quality translations.

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