Japanese vs English - Subbing Nightmares

(Just in case you did not come here via The Joys of Subtitling, here is the sample of subtitled script referred to later on in this article, as it looks now: 

  0:09:43.44,0:09:45.93,YUSAKU But we were talking about the UFO! 
  0:09:46.29,0:09:49.59,HIKARU You don't believe there was one? 
  0:09:50.52,0:09:53.71,HIKARU How can you call yourself one of the New Generation? 
  0:09:53.75,0:09:54.98,YUSAKU "New Generation"? 
  0:09:55.25,0:09:57.43,HIKARU Besides, there's no way Madoka-san would lie! 
  0:09:58.01,0:09:59.48,YUSAKU So it's Kasuga who's lying! 
  0:10:01.07,0:10:03.00,HIKARU That's.... Oh! 


There is such a thing as knowing too much about a topic. There is no way I can sit through a subtitled anime video the way most everybody else can. Not any more. Your average slob may casually note "its" being misspelled as "it's" or vice versa, but "So what", and on with the show. Then there are people like me, who find things to cringe about even with professionally subbed material. Anybody reading this be warned: You may be taking your first steps down a road where anything with subtitles will be a source of irritation forevermore. (Then again maybe not. Maybe it's just me.)

In English, nouns mostly have differences between singular and plural built in. Japanese does not. Because of the structure of Japanese, it is normal to leave out the subject in conversation to an extent not even pronouns are used once it has been established what the subject is. This means some colossal misunderstandings can occur in Japanese, which would be more difficult to happen in English. Alternatively, the blaringly obvious can vanish in translation. In Bubblegum Crisis one major character is a raging homosexual. This can come as a surprise to English-speaking fans of the series, because none of his double-entendres translate. In the same series there is a female character who speaks like a heavily butch male truck driver, but this does not survive conversion into English either.

It can also be a bizarre experience when a recognisable word is translated as something else entirely. A group of joggers can go by chanting the English word "Fight" over and over, while the sub-title reads "hut-two, hut-two" more in keeping with the feeling than the literal meaning.

Another English word adopted for common use by the Japanese is "lucky" often used as an exclamation of joy. It is a trifle to disconcerting to hear this word, and read the subtitle "I am happy," or "That's great!"

It is probably fairly evident that a motorist calling another a palanquin bearer is not complimenting him, but other things are not so easy. "Urusei" most often gets translated as "Shut up!" but means "Objectionable noise" and is sometimes used literally. (And sometimes not even about noise.)

Japanese people at meals tend to start by saying "Itadakimasu" (I will [humbly] receive) and finish with "Gochisosama" (An honourable feast it has been.) Sub-title that on the fly, in a way that makes it seem natural. The best thing to do is "translate" something else in that fits the situation. "Itadakimasu" can usually be safely rendered as "let's eat"...but what do you put when a would-be rapist says this to his intended victim? How do the language translator gadgets of science fiction handle situations like this, working with languages that are really alien? (Maybe Damien Broderick had the right idea in Little Tin God where the translator-computer seemed to have an intelligence of its own.)

Then there are titles. Once upon a time, one easy way to tell a character in a movie was Japanese was the way he used "honourable" about once every third word. While "honourable" does get a workout in the Japanese language (it is a simple and easily added "o" prefix) translators these days mostly do not bother with it. The true nightmare lies in the harder to ignore tags that appear on the end of people's names. They can be equated with such titles as the mercifully few English ones: Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, and more stilted Master and Mistress. Now you can equate all you like, but the titles are used differently in the two languages, sometimes in ways to cause loss of hair in the translator by way of it being torn out in frustration.

Everyone knows that "-san" tacked on to the end of a Japanese name means the same as putting "Mr" or "Mrs" in front of a name here. However, Japanese is a very politeness-oriented language, with degrees of "Mr" "Mrs" and "Miss". In the example from Kimagure Orange Road above, Hikaru uses a respectful "-san" with the name of her one-year-senior friend Madoka. (In the same example note also the lack of anything tacked on to the name "Kasuga" when it is used by his rival Yusaku. More on that later.) Her boyfriend Kyosuke always uses "Hikaru-chan" when talking to or about her as she is junior to him. She frequently calls him "Kasuga-sempai" (literally "Upper Classman Kasuga"). In our society the normal thing to do would be for her to call him "Kyosuke". So how to subtitle what she calls him? Put "Kyosuke" on the screen while the name "Kasuga" can clearly be heard? Maybe a stupidly formal sounding "Mr Kasuga"? The literal "Upper Classman Kasuga" or just the surname "Kasuga" alone? Nothing comes out sounding natural. In the end I just left the Japanese titles in without trying to explain them, for the most part. There are episodes in KOR where these titles get dialogue acknowledgement, and it seemed to me there would be less friction this way.

And how do you translate the lack of a title? Still on Kimagure Orange Road, Kyosuke and Madoka are in the same class. While Madoka uses "Kasuga-kun" (she is a female speaking to a male of equal or slightly-inferior rank) Kyosuke just uses Madoka's surname "Ayukawa", without any modifier at all. [The Japanese have a word for this dropping of titles: "Yobosite". It can indicate total contempt for a person (scum not deserving a title) or great friendship (we are such good pals we do not need to bother with honorifics with one another). In this particular case it denotes neither contempt nor friendship, but the fact that the usual "-san" or "-chan" or "-kun" would be wrong, given the levels of respect, reputation, and politeness involved. Kyosuke goes for the lesser of evils and uses plain "Ayukawa". Using her given name would be far too familiar.] During the run of the series, variations in the way these two address one another occur, which are cosmically significant to any Japanese viewer. In subtitling I treat these the same way as I treat the use of yobosite by ignoring it and bulling straight on. Somewhere out there people are asking things like "Why did she get startled when he called her 'Madoka-kun' that time he was hypnotised?" Well, they may never know.

Sometimes a character's name will be replaced by a title. For instance, the owner of a pub will frequently be called by the English word "Master". For people who like to translate titles into the character's real name, this can be a real nightmare. In Kimagure Orange Road for instance, we never are told the real name of the master of the Abacabu.

"Abacabu" is a fun word itself. In Kimagure Orange Road it is seen spelled out on a huge sign with the English letters "Abcb". The Japanese uses three forms of writing: Kanji (Chinese symbols), hiragana (a phonetic alphabet) and katakana (another phonetic alphabet, mostly used to spell foreign words.) Because the same kanji can be pronounced entirely differently under different circumstances, (as in "wood" and "lumber") the Japanese use furigana tiny hiragana or katakana alongside the Chinese character to show how it is pronounced. The sign in front of the "Abcb" has furigana underneath the English lettering to show the pronunciation is "Ah-ba-ka-boo". Most subtitlers, however, simply render the name "ABCB" and to heck with giving any clues on how to say it.

There are things that grate on me, now, which I never even noticed before doing my own subtitling. One peculiarity of the Japanese language is that holding onto a vowel can totally change the meaning of a word. (A member of the occupation forces in Japan after WW2 tried to introduce himself saying "I am General Douglas MacArthur's adviser," in Japanese. Unfortunately he held onto the first vowel in the word "komon" too long, and actually said "I am General Douglas MacArthur's backside." Fortunately it was obvious what he meant, and no-one laughed.) The usual way of translating elongated vowels into English is to place a macron (a short horizontal line) over the letter concerned...unless the letter is an "i" because then the macron can be confused with the dot over the letter, so the "i" gets written twice. Normal word processors and typewriters do not support macrons, but as all Joe Public wants is a translation, why bother inserting a pronunciation guide at all? Except some fan-subbers do! And not always the same way. Take the character Yusaku from the dialogue sample above. Because the "u" is extended, some fans write his name "Yuhsaku", although there is no "h" sound in it. This example is not too bad, but take his rival being discussed in the dialogue: Kyosuke Kasuga. (The family name, "Kasuga" in this case, is spoken first in Japanese, but is translated as last when spoken in English...but not by all translators. Which is a whole other can of worms.) "Yuhsaku" spellers like to render Kyosuke's name "Kyousuke", which would seem to indicate the first syllable would be pronounced "Kyew", which it isn't. (If the "u" for extended "o" formula was carried out in normal English, "Tokyo" would be spelled "Toukyou".)

Of course, the only thing that irritates the average anime watcher when such spelling peculiarities crop up is the sound of me grinding my teeth.

- Bruce Barnes -
July 1998     

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