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Dublin: 0°C Friday 16 April 2021

Kagawa gets lost in translation

The Manchester United was reported to have criticised David Moyes about his lack of football while on international duty with Japan this week.

Kagawa facing the media (file photo).
Kagawa facing the media (file photo).
Image: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/Press Association Images

THERE HAS BEEN bemusement in Japan over the past day or so concerning the widespread stories in the British sporting media over comments allegedly made by Shinji Kagawa in which he appears critical of David Moyes, his manager at Manchester United.

The fallout has puzzled Japanese observers not only because the 24-year-old’s reported bluntness seems out of character but also because the more damning quotes did not appear in a single domestic media source.

Those of us in the mixed zone in Yokohama after Japan’s 3-1 friendly win over Ghana on Tuesday, where Kagawa spent five minutes or so speaking in his native tongue to a packed mêlée of journalists before leaving, were moved to trawl back through audio files and transcripts to see what it was we had missed. As usual any individual interview requests had been rebuffed so we all had the same quotes and there was no sense at the time that his manner had been anything other than politely bland and uncontroversial.

So, to paraphrase Glenn Hoddle, did Kagawa actually say them things?

No, he did not. Well, yes, perhaps he did sort of but not really. The reason that infamous line – “Please ask David Moyes why I’m not in the side” – never appeared in the Japanese press was not down to any sort of cover-up but simply because Kagawa had politely dismissed the associated question and thus offered nothing that most journalists present considered worth transcribing.

Faced with a potentially loaded question about why the new man in charge at Old Trafford was not picking him, the midfielder – who rarely appears to enjoy his media engagements but is skilled enough to deal almost purely in textbook clichés – understandably opted to avoid putting words into anyone else’s mouth. A more correctly nuanced translation of his throwaway response would be thus: “You would have to ask David Moyes.”

The problem when the quotes reached the United Kingdom was with the interpretation of the word ‘please’. “Please ask David Moyes” is undoubtedly a pretty accurate, literal translation but, when taken in isolation, there is leeway within the English to see this as a plea or cry for help: For God’s sake, please, my loyal friends in the press, go all the way to Manchester for me and ask that horrible new Scotsman why he does not love me so.

Such a nuance is not present in the Japanese word kudasai, which in this instance serves to soften Kagawa’s response so as to come across more politely to his questioner when declining actually to answer. Not unlike the ‘please’ in ‘two pints of Guinness, please’, it adds no real meaning but simply prevents the utterance from sounding curt, like a demand.

A mistranslation of another quote from the interview, this time one that did appear in the Japanese press, served to exacerbate the misunderstanding. In English, Kagawa was reported to have said: “Some days the frustration is worse than others – it comes in waves.” This alone might lead us to the wonderfully evocative image of everything getting too much for poor Shinji and it all coming crashing down like breakers on the shore.

The word nami certainly does mean ‘wave’ – it is the second character in tsunami, for example – but unfortunately, in the particular instance of this quote, the nuance is closer to that of a sine wave. In colloquial English, a more familiar expression would be ‘ups and downs’. Here, Kagawa had just been speaking of his determination to take his opportunity at United when it next arrives, when he was asked if he feels under pressure at the moment. A tentative re-translation of his response would read as follows:

“Well, one always has ups and downs mentally/emotionally but I’m very much looking forwards/positively and working hard.”

One rather idiosyncratic issue here comes with contextual deletion. Translation between Japanese and English is notoriously difficult and one of the major reasons for this is the ability of the speaker within the former to omit all manner of sentence elements – subject, object, even verb – where the implied meaning is clear by context.

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Unfortunately for the translator, these generally need to be put back in again to make sense in English and a fair amount of guesswork would be required if taking the sentence in isolation. Of course, in this case the necessary context could have been restored by looking at the actual question, what Kagawa had said immediately beforehand, and indeed the “looking forwards” half of the quote which was evidently cut off by the time it made the British newspapers.

Let us get one thing straight, however – I am loth to blame the journalists present for any mistranslation and misinterpretation. For the agencies in particular, deadlines to file reports and quotes after evening matches are incredibly tight even when working in only one language.

The real crux of the matter is that there are very few people, not least within an average press room, with a native or near-native command of Japanese and English. And, as any professional translator knows, mastery of multiple languages is no guarantee of the skill to interpret accurately between them.

Even among the European languages that do translate reasonably literally with one another, international breaks have always been rife with controversies involving footballers speaking to the press in their home countries only to find – or claim – that their words have been misrepresented elsewhere when they return to their clubs.

The potential for error between Japanese and English, which are not genetically related (unlike, say, Dutch and English), is significantly greater. However, the truth is that many quotes will be gathered by journalists with full command of either original or target language – but not both – then crudely translated to be polished for publication later. Often, the hurried translation process involves little more than asking a similarly busy, in this case Japanese journalist, for the basic gist.

The potential need for specialist translation here is only now starting to become apparent as more Japanese footballers play for bigger European clubs and attract a more global profile. It is a shame, however, that a couple of genuinely benign quotes have warped to serve the ludicrous Free Kagawa agenda. Even Southampton’s Maya Yoshida, whose brief July break was not interrupted by the two club friendlies Kagawa had to play against J League sides, said last Friday – in excellent English – that only now does he feel ready to start a Premier League match again after travelling to the Far East, Middle East and South America with the national team this summer.

The United man is the kind of player who wants to play in every game but from where I was standing his clearest source of frustration after the past two Japan fixtures was that he had to talk to the press in the first place.

Ben Mabley is a freelance journalist and translator based in Osaka. He covers the Premier League for the broadcaster J Sports and can be found on Twitter: @BenMabley

This article titled “Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa’s quotes are lost in translation” was written by Ben Mabley, for

© Guardian News & Media Limited 2013

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