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Mantaphrase's Japanese Heritage

November 07, 2012

Ideas come from many different places. For me, Mantaphrase was based on my own experiences being clueless in Japan during a 9 month exchange program. I think my story provides a good perspective on what problems we’re trying to solve.

School Life

I first left for Japan in April 2011 as an exchange student at Tottori University, which has a long-standing relationship with my department (Systems Design Engineering) at the University of Waterloo. You’ll notice that this is almost immediately after the Eastern Japan earthquakes, which accounted for the unusually low number of exchange students that year. (I wasn’t worried since Tottori is over 600 km away from Tohoku.) Tottori is the smallest prefecture of Japan and is quite rural. Its most famous feature is its sand dunes.

As you can imagine, English in rural Japan is not particularly good. In fact, I’d count myself lucky to hear more than 2 words strung together at a time. Thus, I had many of what I call “Google Translate conversations.” They went something like this:

  1. Type phrase out
  2. Show it to Japanese friend
  3. Japanese friend seems confused
  4. Repeat steps with slightly different phrasing

A simple example involved me asking a graduate student if a classroom was free so that I could use it for group work. Unfortunately, Google Translate interprets this instance of “free” as “without cost.”

Another key problem was my inability to get straight answers in simple situations. As I later learned, a polite person in Japan must only say no when responding to compliments. Unfortunately for me this made answers to simple questions such as “Can I use put this here?” quite difficult to decipher.


Though I could use Google Translate at school where there was Wi-Fi, I was stuck with offline solutions while travelling. This principally consisted of phrasebook apps, such as those offered by Lonely Planet. The following process was the norm:

  1. Attempt to use audio to play phrase
  2. Not loud enough; attempt to read out phrase
  3. Japanese helper seems confused, looks over at phone
  4. Japanese helper reads phrase, responds verbally
  5. I can’t understand and start gesturing

Another tactic was copying down place names beforehand on a piece of paper. While usually effective, my poor command of Japanese writing sometimes made things illegible, as I discovered more than once with people trying to help me find where I was going.

Putting it all together

Mantaphrase was built to address all of the issues I experienced. An illustrative example highlights the improvements. Let’s envision shopping at a clothing store and wanting to try something on. There are many difficulties with this situation:

  • No Wi-Fi available
  • Unclear verbal yes/no answers
  • Inability to clearly pronounce Japanese

Mantaphrase addresses these concerns with readable text, clear responses, and fully offline capability. Not to mention the ability to follow-up with another question immediately.

Get Mantaphrase

Mantaphrase is free and available on the App Store for your iPhone or iPod Touch. We currently support English, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), and Japanese. You can try the app for free, and then purchase a language to gain access to all of the phrases in that particular language.

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Patrick Tardif
Data Hacker, Business, Marketing. @pltardif

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