(Whether) to dispose (of) or not to dispose (of)

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From Florent Moncomble, a language academic in France:

My father came back recently from a trip to Japan and was intrigued by the following notice, which he found in his Tokyo hotel room one day. He gets by in English but could not make out its meaning and was wondering whether the fault lay with him or with the message — obviously the latter is the case. My interpretation is that this sign is left by the cleaning staff to apologise whenever they are unsure whether or not to dispose of (half-)used equipment such as towels and toiletries, and leave them in the room.

The Korean version does not sound as strained and fractured as the English one, although it does sound a little off. It literally means, "About the items (hotel amenities) that the customer is using, we left them as they were because it was difficult to decide if it would be okay to dispose of or not".  Perhaps a better interpretation would be:  "We left (half-)used hotel amenities as they were (in the room) as we were unsure whether or not to dispose of them."

kokayknimi sayongcwungin mwulphwumey tayhayse chepwunhayto kwaynchanhunci phantani elyewe kutaylo twuesssupnita    (Yale romanization)

고객님이 사용중인 물품에 대해서 처분해도 괜찮은지 판단이 어려워 그대로 두었습니다.

Usage notes by Haewon Cho:

At first, I thought it was a little off because it uses big words such as 처분(處分)하다 (chepwunhata, meaning: "dispose of"), which is a  formal version of 버리다 (pelita, meaning: "throw away"). On top of that, the Korean translation does not use the proper honorifics. The sign would sound a little better if it were rewritten as "고객님께서 (께서 kyese, the honorific subject particle, is used instead of 이 i, the regular subject particle) 사용중이신 (sayongcwungisin, 시 si, the honorific suffix, is added) 물품 (kokayknimkkeyse sayongcwungisin mwulphwum, the items that the customer is using)."  In conclusion, the translated version does not sound too weird and delivers the intended message, but it still requires fine tuning to sound more natural to native Korean speakers.

This is undoubtedly not what the original Japanese might have been (particularly in the second clause), but it certainly would have given the English and Korean translators less trouble than whatever circuitous wording they were working from:

Goshiyō-chū no mono ga arimashitara, seisō-gakari ni oshirase kudasai.


Please inform the cleaning staff if you have things still in use.  (Thank you.)

After I had already finished the first draft of this post and was about to put it online, I found the following suggestion for a better English wording in the Sagan Speak / Alphabendi Newsletter (2/25/11):

Unfortunately we could  not recognize whether this object is still in use or not, and left it undisposed. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused.

Think how many thousands of people have been mystified by the English wording since at least 2011!

[Thanks to Florent Moncomble, Hiroko Kimura, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Miki Morita, and Nathan Hopson]


  1. Kimchikraut said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 12:39 am

    So I guess that they are assuming that if you can read the Japanese, you can communicate to the staff what not to throw away though I don't know whether you are supposed to write them a note or wait for them to show up so you can tell them that you are going to use that Q-tip again.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:34 am


    Problem is, I don't know whether anyone has ever seen the original Japanese, or whether one actually exists in writing somewhere.

  3. Robert Andrews said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 7:50 am

    Google or Line Translate is probably the culprit here.

  4. Seonachan said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    This reminds me of the Shelley Berman bit (later passed on as urban legend) about hotel soaps.

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    The Korean would sound more natural if it had 물품을 mulpum-eul (mwulphwumul) with the direct object marker 을 eul (ul) instead of 물품에 대해서 mulpum-e daehaeseo (mwulphwumey tayhayse) "with respect to the item", since 처분하다 cheobun-hada (chepwunhata) "to dispose of" takes a direct object. English might be fine with saying "with respect to the item" and following it with a phrase that takes "the item" as the direct object, but this is more awkward in Korean. It has to be said, however, that this sort of agreement error (using the term loosely) is often produced by native speakers themselves when they are attempting a more formal register, where constructions like ~에 대해서 -e daehaeseo (ey tayhayse) "with respect to" are more frequent.

    I've tried to provide the Yale Romanization (YR) next to the Revised Romanization in parentheses, but I followed Haewon Cho in using wu consistently for 우 instead of using u after the bilabial consonants. According to the latter rule which is often given for YR, 물품을 would be mulphumul, which wouldn't distinguish between the first and last vowels… The rationale given is that Korean 으 /ɯ/, written u in YR, does not appear after bilabial consonants except after loanwords. This may be true within morphemes (due to regular diachronic sound change), and may even have been true in general for some varieties of Korean, but in today's Standard Korean 물품을 is [mulpʰumɯl] with the first and last vowels distinguished. We could write mulphum ul to clearly separate morphemes and come up with a rule to explain why the first and last u represent different sounds, but it would be much better to be consistent in representing 우 /u/ as wu everywhere without exception.

    By the way, 께서 should be kkeyse, not kyese.

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

    By the way, Shinjuku 新宿区 is written in Korean as 신쥬쿠 Sinjyuku (Sincywukhwu) in the sign. The official spelling is 신주쿠 Sinjuku (Sincwukhwu), because the yod is not allowed after affricates in loanwords. In native Korean words, the yod may appear in spelling to reflect contractions, but are not actually pronounced. Nevertheless, many people write affricates and even voiced sibilant fricatives (adopted as ㅈ j (c) in Korean) in foreign words with the yod in Korean, so you often see spellings like 쥬스 jyuseu (cywusu) for "juice" instead of the standard 주스 juseu (cwusu).

  7. tabkhgames said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    i strongly agree that English accent differ from city to city even in same city

    thanks Mair to translat to us this an amazing story

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