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JACK SMITH

Dis-Oriented : Japanese Instruction Manuals Give the English Language a Whole New Meaning

September 18, 1988|JACK SMITH

AS THE JAPANESE continue to dominate our markets in automobiles and electronics, we can take comfort in the knowledge that they have not yet mastered the American language.

Anyone who has brought a Japanese gadget into his home (and who hasn't?) knows the frustration of trying to make sense out of the instruction booklet. Obviously, such booklets are written by Japanese unfamiliar with the illogicalities of American idiom.

Unlike the French, we Americans do not despise anyone who speaks our language imperfectly. We are not even very good at it ourselves, and we are pleased that foreigners speak it at all.

Despite its difficulties, English is rapidly becoming a universal language, wider in its reach than Latin and Greek in ancient times.

An article in the Economist, sent to me by Joe Brown of Coronado, notes that 330 million people consider English their mother tongue; 330 million use it as their second language, and an equal number of people speak it with reasonable competence as a foreign language.

But William Ward, writing in the Observer, notes that English words often turn up strangely distorted in foreign languages: "Especially baffling," he says, "is the European fetish for our gerund. On the Continent, they don't wear a dinner jacket or tuxedo but a smoking . No one goes jogging or running but footing . Italian business jargon has embraced il holding for a company. At a French hairdresser, you will be offered le brushing ; at a Spanish dry cleaner el pressing ; an Italian beautician will suggest il peeling for your skin, a plastic surgeon il lifting ."

The Economist illustrates the difficulty of English idiom: "Why should 'I haven't got a clue' mean 'I don't know,' but 'You haven't got a clue' mean 'You're a fool' "?

But no one seems to have as quaint a touch with American idiom as the Japanese. Perhaps it only seems so because we are exposed to so much of their English in instruction books. Japanese manufacturers evidently assume that fabricating an American sentence is just as easy as fabricating a videocassette recorder or an automatic transmission.

Laurie Losh of Montclair sends a copy of instructions for the operation of a vinyl pipe cutter made by Hanazono Tools. The manual sets forth some features of the cutter: "The section cut off very handsome and yet very easy to cut in one hand. The cutter of the pliers easily touches the surface of the pipe in one hold of its handle however the pipe may be thinner. And no need to grip the handle many times to cut off."

The instructions are set forth by the number under drawings. No. 1 is easy enough: "Open the handle with both hands." The drawing shows two hands opening the handles.

No. 2 is more difficult: "Place the pipe and slowly hold the handle. The cutter easily touches the surface of the pipe by your first holding of the handle." The syntax is not perfect, but the meaning is clear.

No. 3: "The pipe can be cut off with your hold by loosening and tightening." Well, OK.

Under the heading "Wrong Sample," it gives some Don'ts: "Be careful not to place your finger under the cutter blade because the cutter of the pliers with spings touches the surface of the pipe by your first holding of the handle."

Losh says: "I get the vision of a determined office worker of the Hanazono Tool Manufacturing Co., Japanese-English dictionary in hand, earnestly trying to translate what he wants to say in a language that makes no idiomatic sense to him . . . . As I'm sure you can attest, some manuals and instructions written by Americans in English are just about as difficult to decipher and not nearly as entertaining."

One does not make fun of foreigners who have difficulty with one's language, but the Japanese have been so successful in anticipating American wants in manufactured goods that one might think they could afford to go one step further and hire native Japanese-Americans to write their instruction booklets.

Surely there are thousands such individuals in Los Angeles.

One thing is sure: No American manufacturer would every hire me to write instructions in Japanese.

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