"62 years ago I was killed at a midwifery clinic"

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[This is a guest post by Cyrus Shaoul]

I am a long time LL reader and I came across an interesting machine translation error today.

When my Japanese friend sent me this sentence:


I was flummoxed by the verb 授かる [VHM:  sazukaru {"be gifted / endowed with (an award / title); to be blessed (e.g., with a child); be granted / taught; to be given something of great value / a treasure, by deities or someone of higher social class"}] at the end of the sentence, so I asked Google Translate for help and lo and behold, it said:

"On this day, 62 years ago, I died at Keio University Hospital."

I laughed out loud. What could be causing the meaning of the translation to be so wrong? To investigate, I removed the location "Keio University Hospital" from the sentence:

62年前のこの日に命を授かりました。 -> "He died 62 days ago on this day."

Even worse! Years became days, and death is still knocking at the door. When I removed the phrase "on this day", I got:

62年前命を授かりました。 -> "He was 62 years old."

and when I removed the "62 years ago", I got:

命を授かりました。-> "You have a life."

and with only the location, I got:

慶應義塾大学病院で命を授かりました。-> "I received a life at Keio University Hospital."

Aha! From death back to birth! So "命*を授かる" might really mean "to be born", as the context would imply! But things are still as clear as mud.

[*VHM:  {myō / mei / inochi 命 ("lifespan; lifetime; fate, destiny") — this kanji also has other pronunciations and meanings that are not relevant here}]

Why did Google Translate think "命を授かる" meant "to die"? Was this a specific impact of substandard care that people have received at Keio University Hospital (which is actually one of Japan's best hospitals), or just hospitals in general?

62年前のこの日に病院で命を授かりました。-> "62 years ago, he died in a hospital on this day".

Keio University Hospital is absolved! The mere mention of a hospital flipped the translation back to death. What if I made the location more birthing-specific?

62年前のこの日に助産クリニックで命を授かりました。-> "62 years ago I was killed at a midwifery clinic on this day".

A truly wonderful translation.

Do you have any inkling why the words 命 and 授かる when combined with a time and/or location could cause this kind of semantic error in machine translation systems? How could "to be given a life" be mistaken for "to have one's life taken away"? Anyone?


  1. Chris Button said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:04 am

    If you put 新しい "new" before 命 to make it clear that this "destiny, fate" refers to a new one beginning as opposed to the end of an existing one, Google translate gives the following:

    "62 years ago on this day I gave birth to a new life at a midwifery clinic"

  2. Andrew Usher said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    Might I point out that perhaps the correct translation ought to be given in a case like this? I'm supposing it is "I was born at …" but can't be certain from the text of this post and the above comment.

  3. Twill said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    Ten minutes of searching led me to a singular usage of 授かる related to death: 戒名を授かる, that is, to receive a posthumous Buddhist name. But that's pretty far from "to die", and I had to sift through hundreds of variations on "being blessed with a child" to find the few occurrences I did. My only possible thought is that the algorithm is somehow reading the idiom "give one's life" into 命を授かる (which would actually be expressed with the verb 捧げる).

    All this to say, consult dictionaries, fluent speakers, non-fluent speakers, or today's horoscopes before you rely on google translate.

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

    This discussion reminded me of the old problem of the meaning of
    some 'resultative verbs' in Chinese, e.g.:
    他自殺了。(Ta zi sha le) 'He killed himself" (first reading)
    他自殺了 三次 (了) (Ta zi sha le 3 ci (le)). Lit; He('s) killed himself 3 times; actually: 'He('s) attempted suicide three times'.
    他自殺了 3次 了 ,但沒有死。Ta zi sha le 3 ci le, danshi meiyou si. "He('s)
    attempted suicide 3 times, but didn't die.
    那個東西 我買了. Neige dongxi wo mai le. 'I bought that thing';
    那個東西 我買了 3天 (了). Neige dongxi wo mai le 3 tian (le), 'I ('ve) shopped for that thing for 3 days.'
    那個東西 我買了 3天 (了), 但是我買不到. Neige dongxi wo mail le 3 tian (le)
    danshi mai bu dao; "I('ve) shopped for that thing for 3 days, but couldn't
    find/purchase it.'
    As a practical matter one just doesn't tell beginning students that 買
    MAI doesn't actually mean buy, or that SHA doesn't mean 'kill', at least
    until they have (at least partially) mastered 'resultative verb compound endings' later on. If there's a 'moral' it's just that different languages
    have different ways of patterning, that just don't correlate with English/
    Indo-European ones.


  5. Cyrus Shaoul said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:33 pm

    @Andrew Usher:

    My apologies. The correct translation of the original sentence is: "62 years ago on this day, I was born at Keio University Hospital".

    Or perhaps "My life began at Keio University Hospital on this day 62 years ago".

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 7:32 am

    Thank you. Those two mean the same; the latter would be a more formal/elevated way of saying it. One would expect to see it perhaps at the beginning of a substantial autobiography.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 8:44 am

    I don't think that they do (necessarily mean the same). An author might write "My life began at Keio University Hospital on this day 62 years ago, the day on which I first met Mary Janáček, the woman who was to become my wife. Prior to that, my life had no meaning, and I have no recollection of any part of it." Metaphorical, of course, but nonetheless the sort of prose that one might reasonably expect to encounter. "To be born" is an absolute; when one's life begins far less so — even without straying into the realms of metaphor, one could reasonably argue that one's life began at the moment of conception.

  8. Krogerfoot said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 9:22 am

    I know it's a touchy subject on this forum, but I might suggest this is an example of how kanji makes the sentence transparent. The 授 kanji is very familiar to students of Japanese and educators here from its use in vocabulary like 授業 jugyō "lesson" 教授 kyōju "professor," and in terms like 授賞式 jushōshiki "awards ceremony," renders the sentence at a glance as "On this day 62 years ago, I was given life at Keiyo University Hospital." I would very likely have mistakenly read 授かる as 受かる ukaru, meaning "pass [a test, etc.]," the intransitive form of the everyday verb 受ける ukeru "receive," but the meaning of the verb and the sentence would have been apparent.

  9. Mark Strummer said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 11:09 am

    I think what might be confusing the machine interpretation is the awareness that directionality of action plays a part in Japanese syntax. A lot of Japanese uses these indirect, passive attitudes due to cultural

    For [命を授かりました], the passive voice of "life was given" – and because there's no direct subject provided, that further compounds the passivity of the phrasing – overlaps a lot with the English expression "[they] gave [their] life" meaning that someone died.

    The core phrase contains no explicit direction of how a life was given, so while a human mind might interpret it as the obvious "if a life is to be imbued, it would mean a baby is born, especially given the setting it is taking place", a machine algorithm that is attempting to not only translate, but localize into English might take the explicit translation, and then attempt to cast it onto the closest English analog – all without the implicit context baked into the verb, but stripped out when translated in a vacuum.

    It seems that, combined with a localization designer's understanding that Japanese frequently uses indirect, passive voice to convey negative sentiments the speaker wishes to distance themselves from, would lead a machine to conclude that the closest English meaning is that someone died.

    I think it's also telling that the phrase "on that day" is used. [命を授かりました] alone translates as "gave life", so once you throw in [この日に], it would bear a striking resemblance to common phrasing in English literature.

    Just speculation, but that seems like it might explain how the machine algorithm would make that mistake.

  10. Twill said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 8:49 pm

    @Krogerfoot I think you've overstated the case. 授業 and 教授 considered as collocations hardly whittle down the possible meanings of 授, and even granting that it in 授賞式 it probably refers to the awards being conferred in some capacity, it's impossible to distinguish it there from even its semantic opposite, 受. Indeed, if the verb in question were 授ける, which actually accords semantically, you would have fudged the sentence. Such are the many pitfalls of kanji.

    @Mark Strummer It's an interesting theory, but 授かりました is actually active voice, and 授かる definitely has a positive nuance. It does seem to me that the machine can read up to the life part and is taking a stab in the dark for the unfamiliar verb (for この日に命を授かりました google actually gave me *survived* earlier).

  11. John Swindle said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 9:34 pm

    For you and me opposites don't mean the same thing. For Google Translate—what's "mean"?

  12. Krogerfoot said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 2:53 am

    @Twill I'm only reporting my impressions as a foreigner who learned Japanese in Japan. The collocations I gave as examples—to which I could add 授受 juju "transaction" and 授精 jusei "insemination"—all have to do with conferring/receiving, and the reading of 授 is identical to that of 受 and obviously share their main elements.

    I'd actually suggest that saying 授 and 受 are semantic opposites is rather overstating the case. Both share a sense of receiving/being initiated into/having something conferred upon. At any rate, I don't really understand how the process by which I correctly understood the sentence is either impossible or an example of the pitfalls of kanji.

  13. Not a naive speaker said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 3:46 am

    The online translator in our company (BizLingo):
    The life was received in the Keio University hospital on this day 62 years ago.

  14. Twill said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 5:23 am

    @Krogerfoot They're complementary, in that they describe either side of a transaction, in the same way one might describe 売 and 買 as opposites (the 授受 collocation compares very directly with 売買, come to think of it). The point I was making is that if the sentence in question was something like 総理大臣は病院長に勲章を授けました and we followed your (not unreasonable) guess that in this case 授ける was simply an alternate form of 受ける, then we end up misreading the sentence. 授かる bears 授 because of its etymological relationship with 授ける and despite the semantic mismatch of it being functionally equivalent to 受ける (such mismatches being common in Japanese). I hardly see how any of this commends kanji in any way.

  15. Krogerfoot said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 7:24 pm

    My initial comment was unclear. It's not that I guessed that 授 was an alternate form of 受; instead I fooled myself into thinking the two kanji shared a kun-reading, knowing that they have identical on-readings.

    My point is that because I recognize the 授 element from everyday vocabulary, neither the original sentence nor your example are at all ambiguous. Anyway, the kanji is a red herring, as the context of both sentences is clear to reasonably fluent humans just by context. It certainly did lead me astray in my guess about how to pronounce the verb.

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