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New Japan era name mistranslated by sign language interpreter who was given no prior info

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga holds up a frame with the new era name, Reiwa, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- At an April 1 press conference in which Japan's next era name was announced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the sign language interpreter misheard "Reiwa," and signed "Meiwa."

A sign language interpreter stands next to Suga at press conferences and delivers his remarks via sign language to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. When Suga announced that the next Imperial era name would be Reiwa, the sign language interpreter signed the syllabic phonetic characters for Meiwa. After seeing the written era name that Suga held up, the interpreter corrected the era name to the phonetic characters for Reiwa, but the mistake created a buzz on the internet and elsewhere.

So how did the mistake even occur?

The Cabinet Public Relations Office explains that sign language interpreters are asked to interpret what they hear at press conferences. Because the method was used in the announcement of the next era name, the interpreter misheard Reiwa and thought it was Meiwa.

When sign interpreters cover lectures and other events, they commonly are given the contents that the speaker will be giving in advance, and other resources related to the lecture or talk so they can look up and check specialized vocabulary and otherwise prepare for the event. According to the Cabinet PR office, however, information on news conferences has not been given to sign language interpreters in the past, and was not given in the case of the era name announcement.

Therefore, the mistake could have been avoided had the government given the necessary information to the interpreter prior to the news conference, a measure the government does not take. Now calls are being made for the government to change its procedures to improve the accuracy of information delivered via sign language.

"I don't mind that the interpreter made a mistake," says a 45-year-old deaf woman who lives in Tokyo. "But I wish steps had been taken prior (to the press conference) to make sure that accurate information could be released."

Nobutaka Kamei, an anthropology professor at Aichi Prefectural University who is certified as a sign language interpreter, says, "Interpreters have a duty of confidentiality. If they had been told the era name several minutes before the announcement, the mistake could have been avoided. I hope the government changes its ways after this incident."

During public broadcaster NHK's live broadcast of Suga's era name announcement, there was a moment when live footage of the framed rendering of the new era name written in Chinese kanji characters being held up by the chief Cabinet secretary was covered up by live footage of the sign language interpreter.

The Japan Federation of the Deaf and two sign language organizations released a joint statement April 5, explaining their concern that such blunders becoming a hot topic of discussion among the public could come in the way of the wider adoption of broadcasts with sign language interpreters.

The statement praised NHK for broadcasting the announcement live with the sign language interpreter visible, even though other broadcasters did not. It also praised the government for having a sign language interpreter at its press conferences. But it also pointed out that Japan still has a ways to go. "In other countries, it is increasingly common for television broadcasts to come with sign language interpreters, but there has been little progress in Japan. We call for prompt action," it said.

(Japanese original by Masanori Makita, City News Department, and Sooryeon Kim, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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