Toyota May Sue CNN Over Translation

by Translation Guy on March 14, 2012

Toyota accused CNN of colluding with greedy litigators suing Toyota who, it claims, “manufacture controversy where none exists and use media outlets like CNN as tools to serve their narrow, self-interested agenda.” CNN is part of an attempt to “manufacture doubt about the safety of Toyota’s vehicles in the absence of any scientific evidence whatsoever.”

Last week, CNN aired this segment “Toyota Memo Shows Acceleration Concern,” about the discovery of a Japanese-language Toyota memo, with a translation that may lead to legal action.

Bertel Schmitt of “The Truth About Cars” writes, “The memo is in Japanese, and the segment documents in excruciating length the problems of getting an exact translation from Japanese to English. In the first translation, an Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) system switched on during stress testing. In the second translation, a “sudden unintended acceleration” occurred. In the third translation, the vehicle managed to “accelerate on its own.”

CNN has posted both translation source and targets, along with Toyota’s responses, so Japanese linguists with time on their hands can decide for themselves, which might be difficult without more context. You guys tell me.

CNN reported on those translations as if they were lifting a smoking gun out of the dumpster with a pencil. “Toyota engineers found an electronic software problem that caused “sudden unintended acceleration” in a test vehicle during pre-production trials, according to a company engineering document obtained by and translated for CNN. The 2006 document, marked “confidential,” recounted the results of an adaptive cruise-control software test.

The auto giant denies it. Kristen Tabar, a Toyota electrical engineer, says, “The exact translation is not ‘sudden unintended acceleration.’ This is a test referring to adaptive cruise control, so the literal translation is, ‘it can begin or start by itself,’ which is consistent with what you would expect from a cruise control, or in this case, an adaptive cruise control system.” Tabar does not speak Japanese, although her chinchaku-style composure under persistent questioning seemed very Zen-like, the fruit, no doubt, of years of kai-zen quality assurance training.

Flashback to those early days on the factory floor… “See how the washi paper slides so easily between the quarter-panels? You have failed!” Whack! Whack! Whack! Sensei raises his staff once more to strike position and asks, “Now, what have we learned?”

OK. I made this part up. But I’ve seen those Toyota guys in action, and their QA culture is truly an inspiration to anyone into ISO 9001. Now back to our story…

Toyota says that CNN keeps getting the translation wrong, so CNN has kept sending out the translation and keeps similar translations back, and Toyota has not yet produced their own version.

There is money at stake here. Perception equals profits. That the fortunes of a vast enterprise like Toyota could hang on analysis of a single translated line should not be too surprising in this age of instant information and accompanying half-baked analysis.

It looks like this document was released to the plaintiffs as part of a discovery order, a single digital needle among gigabytes of similar documents. Someone saw it and recognizing its value, made sure it got to CNN. I think it’s interesting that such a juicy bit of news would stay under wraps so long. It might have taken them this long to find it.

As it turns out, this happens all the time. During the discovery process that precedes litigation, bales of documents get scanned by both sides, hard drives get vacuumed up, cracking tools gather all kinds of files and re-assemble them into vast indexes. Sometimes rooms full of $20/hr bilingual lawyers (they are out there, believe it or not) sit before serried rows of PCs, manually reviewing the documents, or sometimes hard drives are dumped into banks of machine translation servers to translate in seconds what otherwise would take months. It is brute-force approach, and yields commensurate results —experts say these methods get about 70% of what attorneys are looking for. I’ve always been surprised that my very sharp litigation clients are willing to accept this kind of risk. The commoditization of the language in the review process can create some serious exposure issues for lawyers in multi-lingual matters.

At 1-800-Translate we are moving towards a legal translation services model where linguistic teams go beyond a vacuum-cleaner translation approach to the kind of content analysis that help lawyers find those case-winning needles in litigious haystacks. Linguistic advocacy for the advocates, you might say.


  1. Watched the CNN segment and I don’t believe the lady. I would say he foot slipped off the brake. It happens. Sometimes when I hold my foot on the brake and reach for something my foot also ends up pushing on the gas and the car revs. Probably what happened.

  2. Simon Camin says:

    I would think there is risk no matter how you look for that needle. Using machines to find what you are looking for or the $20 an hour zombie staring at a screen all day. How focused can they be?

  3. Randy Cooney says:

    I have owned Ford, Chevy, Honda, and Toyota. Every car has had problems eventually. Point is, there are more older Honda and Toyota on the road than domestics. This report, and translation, won’t sway me from buying an import such as Toyota.

  4. Tina Horne says:

    It doesn’t matter what that Anderson Cooper is talking about – I’m listening. :)

  5. If Toyota hasn’t published their own translation, then they are hiding something. Nevertheless, I still own a Toyota and I would buy another.

  6. Jaz says:

    It’s unfortunate that someone here is going to win because of a translation. Half the people in Japan probably speak English and could translate that memo.

  7. Erik Gentes says:

    This could happen with any vehicle. So many things are controled by computers and are automatic nowadays. First off, anyone driving a car should assume that there is a risk and it is a machine that may not work properly forever. Ken, you should come up with a little sign that notifies drivers of the risk and translate it into every concievable language drivers speak.

  8. Who cares what doesn’t work during preliminary testing? Isn’t that what it is for, finding out what does and does not work as intended? As long as the problem gets fixed before it enters the market, what is the big deal?

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