Beware of Overly Literal Translations

Last night, I was browsing an online T-shirt store when I came across this design:

faulty shirt

The phrase in pink is 古い学校, which literally translates to ‘old school’. Judging by the context of the design, I’m guessing the designer meant to say ‘old school’ in the retro sense. However, I had a sneaking suspicion that a native Japanese speaker would look at that shirt and wonder what an elderly scholastic institution has to do with cassette tapes.
A quick search on confirmed that a better translation would be 旧派.

Also, take note of the sample sentence on the right which further confirms that 古い学校 would be used in the literal ‘old school building’ sense.

Big takeaways here:

  1. Be very, very, careful about translating phrases word-for-word.
  2. When buying/selling an article of clothing that has another language on it, make sure it actually says what you think it says.

thought it would be interesting to see what google translate said and it seems that’s how they got this ““translation””


A+ points in this post!!


Maybe a little nitpicky on my part, but I remember seeing a Corridor Digital shirt translated as 廊下ディジタル, which I thought was a bit strange. I guess I don’t know the origin of the name Corridor Digital but I felt it would maybe fit better in all katakana? Searching for that image, I found another shirt that was translated as 回廊 instead. I also remember finding that google translated provided the first translation.


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I’m not sure that it really is. 旧派 doesn’t seem to imply what one is usually trying to convey with the ‘retro’ term based on the example sentences I see on Weblio. 旧派 seems to mean ‘old school’ as in this definition. This version of ‘old school’ is implying an adherence to traditional practices but without any of the notion of the nostalgia factor that comes with the ‘retro’ term. Again, using Weblio, I think the more natural way of saying it would not be any of those would but would instead be レトロ:


retro clothes 発音を聞く - 研究社 新英和中辞典


retro fashion 発音を聞く - 研究社 新英和中辞典


I think whoever designed the shirt would have taken the simple word retro into consideration, but like @Shunrin said we can probably assume they meant ‘old school’ as in the urban dictionary definition of “anything that is from an earlier era.” I think if they wanted to use retro, they would have used レトロ, but they wanted to go with a direct way of saying ‘old school’ instead.

Yes, which fits neither word being talked about. The phrases that Shunrin mentioned are ‘old school’ as in traditional. Such as saying ‘Sir Lawrence Olivier was an old-school actor’ as in he’s a classical or traditionally-trained actor. The fact that the shirt is about cassettes is clearly a nod to ‘old school’ meaning retro. Like how Transformers G1 or Thundercats are ‘old-school cartoons’. Even the first entry for old school on UB uses as an example things that people refer to as “retro computing.”

I’m not sure that’s true since the phrase they chose for the shirt looks like what one would get via a bad Google Translate rather than a natural translation. 古い学校 is a phrase literally about a school/schoolhouse that is old. For example, again from Weblio:

聞いてよ,僕らの 古い学校 がきのう取り壊されたんだ例文帳に追加

You know what? Our old school was torn down yesterday. - Eゲイト英和辞典

Also I would point you to compare the Google Image results of 古い学校 vs レトロ. The former is pretty much nothing but old buildings and the latter if you scroll enough you’ll see pictures of things like old consoles.


If they wanted kanji, maybe they could have gone for 昔は良かった
allthough it doesn’t quite mean the same thing, I think it’s closer to レトロ which I agree would have been the best choice.

Fun fact: this is also how some (edit) people choose their tattoos. (Well, after image searching for a ‘cool’ one and not realising the image is mirrored).

edit2: It just came to me: nostalgic! That’s the word I was looking for… but I’ve not learned it yet.


I was working at a Japan festival this weekend, and there was this stand selling these t-shirts with anime and manga prints on them. The shirts with Dragonball Z’s Master Roshi had 古い変態 written on them.


All right, I guess I stand corrected.
Still, I think it’s pretty clear that as it is the shirt is definitely not correct.

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Correct. The t-shirt is definitely wrong.

Agree. Would it be that bad in this particular case, though?

Not bad per se if you’re wearing around a bunch of illiterate weebs. But your shirt is gonna probably going to look dumb to anyone who knows the language. Guess it all depends on if that matters to the wearer or not. :man_shrugging:


you’re right, i think natsukashii would have fit much better

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Fair enough. More importantly, knows it well, since WK doesn’t cover nuances as well as it might be useful…

My implication was more, I guess, referring to someone wearing it when in Japan. Or maybe no one will notice or care.


It kind of depends on the intention too, right? Like, I believe Superdry uses Japanese on their clothing because the guys who founded it thought it was funny/cool how Japanese clothing lines would just slap random English on the clothes because it looked or sounded good. They decided to kind of replicate that in reverse.


True, I guess it would work if it was being ironic.


In that case where you’re evoking the feel of a bygone/nostalgic era, wouldn’t you want to go with something like 「懐かしいテープ」? Or is that too personal to be used in a generic way on a shirt?

You could. But I hear people often use retro for old tech like cassettes, old consoles/computers, etc.

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