MOJ lost in translation

Word governors asleep in same bed

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared on
Yosha's Crying Wall, 20 July 2009

A menage a trois between bureaucrats, scholars, and lawyers
defines a lower standard of language policing

The movement to standardize translations of Japanese laws began with a government task force in 2004. Version 1.0 of Standard Bilingual Dictionary (SBD) was released in 2005. Government agencies began cooperating in the development of a foundation for promoting standardization of foreign language translations in 2006. The Ministry of Justice took over the project in 2009.

Since 1 April 2009, the Ministry of Justice has been responsible for continuing to develop the dictionary and for overseeing the translation of Japanese laws in accordance with its standards of usage. The government's aim is to improve the quality of legal information it globally disseminates in other languages.

The Nationality Law, as revised in 2008 effective from 2009, was translated with version 3.0 of SBD in May and posted in July 2009. It is a disaster, as are some of the other translations now available through the "Japanese Law Translation Database System" (JLTDS).

Japanese Law Translation Database System

JLT website disclaimers

The "Japanese Law Translation" (JLT) website appropriately reminds visitors that its translations are "unofficial" and only original Japanese texts of the laws have authority. It also makes these disclaimers. I use the plural because the Japanese and English versions are significantly different (retrieved 8 July 2009, underscoring added).


The Government of Japan shall not be responsible for the accuracy, reliability or currency of the legislative material provided in this website, or for any consequence resulting from use of the information in this website. For all purposes of interpreting and applying law to any legal issue or dispute, users should consult the original Japanese texts published in the Official Gazette.

So much for the government's pretense of wanting to improve quality and understanding through the "standardization" of legal translation.

The Government of Japan, represented here by the Ministry of Justice, will spend tax money developing its elaborate dictionaries and databases -- and crank out translations as fast as its technocrats can run the software -- yet baldly refuse to be accountable for "the accuracy, reliability, or currency" of its work.

The Japanese version of the disclaimer says nothing about the government not taking responsibility for "the accuracy, reliability or currency of the legislative material provided in this website."

But since the disclaimers are legal statements -- and since both declare that only Japanese versions of laws are authoritative -- it would appear that the government could, in fact, be held accountable for its irresponsible linguistics standards.

For more about the Japanese Law Translation project and the Standard Bilingual Dictionary, see the "Translation standards" section of Legal terminology under "Glossaries and almanacs" on this website.