My Multilingual Puzzle

Follow me through an arduous, 2-week journey as I learn to harness the sometimes unreliable, but awe-inspiring power of Google Translate to discover the true meaning of a Japanese restaurant’s name.

Two weeks ago, I visited Japan, where I developed a habit of Google Translating anything I couldn’t read (which was basically everything). I barely knew basic Japanese, but more frustratingly, I couldn’t (and still can’t) read Japanese characters, so sounding out words and typing them using western characters wasn’t an option. Because of this, I made use of Google Translate’s OCR and handwriting features quite frequently.

While I was in Tokyo’s Ginza district I saw many department stores with the same sign:


Using the Google Translate’s handwriting feature, I translated the above to entrance or iriguchi in Romaji (Japanese written using the western alphabet).

A few days ago I walked into an H Mart (a Korean grocery store) and saw the same sign. I figured that the sign must mean the same thing in Korean, using Google Translate to confirm. After doing some research I learned that the characters were written in Hanja, Korea’s old writing system which was based on Chinese. This makes sense because the above characters are written in Kanji, which are Japanese characters based on Chinese. According to this article, Hanja characters are more commonly used for entrances and exits in Korea instead of their Hangul (Korea’s current writing system) equivalents.

Today, I went to a Japanese restaurant in New York for lunch. A seemingly familiar two-character sign in Japanese near the kitchen area caught my eye:


Quickly realizing the sign didn’t say 入口 (iriguchi, entrance), I decided to Google Translate the sign. Due to the sign’s placement, I didn’t think it could realistically mean anything other than kitchen so I started with English to Japanese instead of the usual Japanese to English OCR method.

The first translation that came up was the cognate for kitchen (キッチン), but luckily under Alternate Translations I saw the two familiar characters — 台所. I clicked on it to confirm that 台所 (daidokoro) indeed means kitchen and instantly recognized the word. On my last day in Tokyo I ate at a yakiniku (barbecue) place called Han no Daidokoro. It also helped that I typed the restaurant’s name into Google just shy of 1.4 billion times beforehand.

The beef was good.

When I looked up reviews to the restaurant, there were mentions of how the food was Korean influenced. I knew that Đại Hàn in Vietnamese means Korean and that Vietnamese and Japanese are languages that borrow a lot of words from Chinese. I also knew from anime that no means of in Japanese (half of you are muttering, “fucking weeb” right now). Knowing all of this, I had a suspicion that Han means Korea. While I was at the restaurant, I translated Korea from English to Japanese but it returned 韓国 or Kankoku. No dice. By then my curiosity’s feeble cries were drowned by richness of the Wagyu Beef’s buttery, marbled fat.

It wasn’t until today when I learned the meaning of daidokoro (kitchen) that I had the missing puzzle piece. With this, I pulled up the restaurant’s Tabelog page to get the restaurant’s name in Japanese (韓の台所) to copy and paste into Google Translate. Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed. Han no Daidokoro means Korean Kitchen.

After listening Google Translate’s pronunciation of the restaurant’s name, Han sounded more like Kan (the first character in Kankoku), which made me realize that they are the same character.

Suddenly, everything made sense. My initial search actually confirmed what I originally thought—I just didn’t know it at the time.

This experience made me realize how incredibly obsessed I am with foreign languages. I can’t stand the idea of not knowing what something means — especially if it’s from a language I’m interested in. I look forward to my next multilingual mystery. Google Translate and I are ready.

Thanks for reading!