Recently I was asked to translate and edit some documents about the Sendai earthquake and tsunami. I have been reading about the tragedy in both English and Japanese with great interest, because this is news that directly affects me, as it does all readers in Japan.
The document in question referred to the quake as “The 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake.” This phrasing immediately tripped me up. When the modifier (“Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku”) is so long, and it comes before the noun it’s modifying (“earthquake”), it becomes difficult for readers to determine what the main subject is. I assumed this had to be a mistake, so I edited it to read “2011 Earthquake Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku,” which is still long, but not confusing.
Later, my boss pointed out to me that “The 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake” is the official English name of the quake, as determined by the Japanese Meteorological Agency. I checked the Japanese Wikipedia entry and confirmed this. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the person who chose this name is not a native English speaker.
At any rate, no English media are using this name. They are calling it “the Tohoku earthquake” or “the Sendai earthquake,” as the same Wikipedia article notes. That’s how I would prefer to translate it into English.
But the name of the quake in English is of course a trivial matter compared to the ongoing damage and suffering the quake caused.