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Translation Error Creates Perception Gap on Japanese Nuclear Crisis

April 6, 2011

IN a recent blog, we discussed recent global events like the Japanese earthquake and  nuclear crisis, and the importance of accurate translations when covering breaking news. A Wall Street Journal article describes how foreigners have been far more panicked about the nuclear drama than the Japanese, most of whom “are going about their daily lives and routines as normal.”

How to explain the perception gap? No doubt culture is a significant factor–this is a nation well-known for its stoicism, and even the Japanese themselves have been amazed by the bravery and endurance in the disaster-struck north.

But it turns out that the translation of a nuclear term from Japanese to English was also a culprit:

Contributing to the perception gap is the difficulty translating certain nuclear terms that have different meanings in Japanese and English. Top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano kept using the Japanese word “yo-yu,” in reference to the fuel rods in nuclear reactors, which means the rods are melting. However, many journalists translated this term as “meltdown”, which has much different implications and stirs up strong emotions. Mr. Edano, later clarified that the situation the plant faced was “quite different from what’s generally described as a meltdown” in English.

Clearly, part of panic in the West was due to the perception that a Japanese nuclear plant faced a meltdown, and this was the result of translating a Japanese word incorrectly. The Japanese were less alarmed because they received their government’s message in their native language, and understood that only the fuel rods were melting–still a disaster but one on a different scale than a meltdown. It is very likely that there would have been a perception gap regardless, but the fact that the Japanese government’s message was lost in translation added to the confusion.