Reporters’ request for eye contact goes awry.
Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe is currently in the United States for series of meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. On the agenda are discussions regarding the two nation’s deep economic and security ties, but as is always the case when world leaders meet, the pair also made time for a photo session.
And so Abe and Trump recently sat down on two tastefully designed White House chairs in front of a crowd of reporters, with a particularly large contingent of Japanese media organizations present. In the video below, through the near-deafening roar of shutters snapping a voice can be heard asking, in Japanese, if Abe and Trump could shake hands for the cameras.
Abe translates the request, and he and Trump clasp hands. As each photographer tries to capture the moment, the Japanese reporters call out “Kochira onegai shimasu,” Trump, not knowing what the phrase means, asks Abe “What did they say?”, and things get a little awkward.
▼ Trump’s question comes at the 20-second mark of this video from CBS News.
CBS News (@CBSNews) February 10, 2017
Abe once again translates, telling Trump the reporters are saying “Please look at me.” “Ah!” responds Trump, who then obliges…by gazing intently at Abe.
But what the Japanese reporters really want is for Trump, and Abe too, to look at their cameras, not each other. Judging that something has gotten lost in his translation, Abe attempts to explain by example, first by breaking eye contact with Trump and looking to the cameras. When that doesn’t work, he simply points to the reporters, but this, too, is to no avail, as Trump continues looking at the prime minster while placing his left hand over their handshake, forming a hand sandwich.
All of this highlights a linguistic characteristic how the Japanese language handles reported speech. In Japanese, when repeating someone else’s words, the norm is to handle the situation as a direct quotation and keep all the pronouns as they were originally said. Translated from Japanese into English, the reported speech would be “[They said] look at me” instead of changing it to “[They said] look at them.”
The way in which Abe keeps his eyes steadily on Trump the entire time he’s saying “Please look at me” also makes things a little vague. Still, pointing to the cameras seems like a gesture that should easily cut across cultural and linguistic differences, and when a White House staff member calls out “Thank you, press” and the handshake ends, Abe looks just a little relieved, even if the lengthy display did earn him a compliment of “Strong hands” from Trump.