Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Way Things Are Done

There's a peanut-related salmonella outbreak in USA, so peanut-based products imported from there naturally become suspect. A company in Tokyo imported peanut-flavored popcorn, and the health ministry has now ordered them to stop selling the product.

But - and this is where things get interesting - no salmonella has been found in the popcorn so the health ministry apparently can't simply order them to recall the already sold product. Instead they order them to voluntarily recall the popcorn1. Which seems to require some creative reinterpretation of "order", "voluntary" or both.

Now, this is where a certain kind of writer would make hay of this. They'd wildly overgeneralize the thing into some vast gulf of mutual cultural incomprehension, wax rhapsodical about different national characteristics and maybe even have a go at the Mysteries of the Orient and the Inscrutability of the Eastern Mind while they're at it.

That would be very silly. The reality is of course much simpler and less consequential. This amounts to an alert that an involuntary recall will be ordered - with legal repercussions, bad publicity and at considerable inconvenience to everyone involved - if the company doesn't do a recall on its own. The procedural and regulatory praxis has moved on over time while the terminology has not. The resulting mismatch creates anoher small, delightful wrinkle in the language fabric, adding a bit of spice, and nicely illustrating the difference between formal language theory and living, breathing languages in actual use.

It's easy to read too much into things; usually an expression is just an expression, nothing more.


#1 No, it's not a translation error; the Yomiuri original says "自主回収を指導した" - "ordered a voluntary recall". And just to forestall an obvious objection, I have it on good authority (my wife) that while "指導" means "guidance" or "coaching" in the context of teaching, the implication is very much "order" when it involves a government agency like this.

1 comment:

  1. Or, as Michael Corleone might say, "shido" is "leadership you cannot refuse."


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