Flip over when you finish

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From shaing tai, via a group on Facebook, photograph taken at the New Otani Inn in Tokyo:

Treating the lines one at a time, from top to bottom, except for the English lines, which are left to speak for themselves:

Shokuji chū desu
(I am) in the process of eating (lit., "in the middle of a meal")

O-sumi ni narimashitara kādo o uragaeshite kudasai
When (you are) done (eating), please turn over the card

It's a bit odd that the English omits "card," which is clearly stated in the Japanese, preferring "it" without an antecedent. I wonder whether this is copied and pasted from something longer, such as a string of translations that the translator assumed were going to be used together. For example: "Lay this card on the table while eating. When done, please turn it over." (Nathan Hopson)

Top line:  食事中です。shokujichū desu.\   [We] are amidst eating.  I.e. [we] are eating now.
Middle line:  お済みになりましたら/カードを裏返してください。
Osumi ninarimashitara / ka-do wo uragaeshite kudasai.
Upon (honorable) completion [of your meal] / please turn the card over.

This is the kind of card one might see on a table at a cafeteria or informal restaurant.

When this side of the card is up the staff know that the customers are still eating, and though they might not be at the table at the moment they will be back soon, probably with more food or drinks. (Frank Chance)

Qǐng fǎnfān guòlái rúguǒ chéngwéi wánle
Please turn over, if you become finished.

The awkward literal translation of the Chinese into English is meant to convey its awkwardness, which is evident in a number of respects, of which these are three:

1. omission of "card"

2. inversion of the normal Chinese sentence structure

3. the strange expression "become finished", which seems to be a strained effort to mimic the Japanese honorific

お済み "to finish" = 完了
になりました honorific ending for verbs; になる can mean literally "to become" = 成為
(Zihan Guo)

뒤집어 주세요 [need a period here] 끝나게 되면
Dwijibeo juseyo kkeunnage doemyeon (Revised Romanization)
Flip           please  finish    become-if
Please flip (it) if it gets to be finished.

The sentence would be normally written as:
끝나게 되면 뒤집어 주세요.
Kkeunnage doemyeon Dwijibeo juseyo    — awkward inversion, the same as with the Chinese

Or more naturally,
식사를 다 하셨으면 카드를 뒤집어 주세요.
siksareul da hasyeosseumyeon kadeureul dwijibeo juseyo
meal-subj all did-honorific- if    card-object flip-please
If the meal is finished, please flip the card (literal translation). (Haewon Cho)

Facebook commenters mention that the service at New Otani is exceptionally good.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Frank Chance, Haewon Cho, and Zihan Guo]


  1. Julian Hook said,

    October 18, 2023 @ 6:35 pm

    There used to be a Chinese buffet in my city (Bloomington, Indiana) where they gave you a similar card, which read: "This table is reserved. When you leave, please turn it over." I ate there a number of times, but I never saw anyone turn their table over.

  2. John Swindle said,

    October 19, 2023 @ 8:08 am

    In the summer of 1964 I ate at a Howard Johnson's roadside restaurant on the Texas or maybe Louisiana Gulf Coast. I was disappointed to see tented "reserved" signs on all the tables, but the staff quickly removed one when we arrived. My host for the trip later explained what I wouldn't have guessed: that we had been admitted because we were White.

    A sign hanging in the wind at a booth in a swap meet in Hawaii in 2008 said "DO NOT FLIP FISH (ANIMAL) OVER THEY WILL BE REMOVED". I suspect that the fish (animals) in question may have been pictures on playing pieces in some kind of game.

  3. Rodger Cunningham said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 10:12 am

    "Reverse it" could be improved simply by hanging it to "Reverse this," so I suspect that this is simply a case of getting lost among English pronouns.

  4. chris said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 11:35 am

    Reversing your meal sounds messy and unpleasant for everyone else in the dining room!

  5. ajay said,

    October 24, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    "Au contraire, as the man in the Bay of Biscay said when they asked him if he'd dined."

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