CNN's Translation of Japanese Memo Contested

Has CNN found Toyota’s smoking gun, or is it just a case of incorrect translation?

From 2009 to 2011, the Japanese automaker issued a series of recalls prompted by reports of “sudden unintended acceleration,” in which cars seemed to accelerate of their own accord. Investigations by NASA and the National Highway Safety Association found that the problems were due to defects in the cars’ floor mats and accelerator pedals, but some consumers and consumer advocacy groups have accused Toyota of hiding a problem in the vehicle’s electrical systems.

Last week, CNN broadcast a special report that seemed to prove them right. The report was based on a confidential memo, originally written in 2006 in Japanese. When CNN had it translated, the translation appeared to imply that “Toyota engineers found an electronic software problem that caused “sudden unintended acceleration” in a test vehicle during pre-production trials.” The memo was not provided to the appropriate US government agencies during their investigation of Toyota.

Understandably, Toyota is less than pleased with CNN’s report, which they called “grossly inaccurate” in a press release. They claim that CNN’s translations (all three of them) are wrong and misleading. According to Toyota, the seemingly damning phrase “sudden unintended acceleration,” present in the second translation of the document, never appears in the original Japanese text:

“The translation of “勝手に,” which appears in the document, actually translates to “by itself” (as it does in the first translation by CNN) or “on its own”… and “ 発進” correctly translates to “starts out.” This phrase “starts out on its own” is used to refer to the fact that the adaptive cruise control (ACC) was preparing to resume its pre-set speed. This is not a reference to sudden unintended acceleration. In fact, notes from the translator hired by CNN explicitly acknowledge that: “I added these words based on my understanding of the context.”

Toyota also argues that the memo has been taken out of out context, saying that the test it described involved a situation that was completely unrelated to the vehicle recalls, and that the car in the test not only never accelerated, but never even moved forward at all.

Regardless of the truth, this situation highlights how important it is for translators to have as much context for their translations as possible. This is even more true when it comes to highly technical documents. In the second translation especially, you can see that the translator was at times quite unsure as to the intended meanings behind some of the Japanese characters.

Image CreditAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Toyota Motor Europe

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