It seems like a simple question. I’ve heard people mockingly say, “You’re writing English, not wapanese, it’s that easy.” Now, I’m an analytical person, and I’ll be the first to admit I tend to over-analyze and over-think things. But I have to wonder if it’s really that simple.
Before getting into that, a few things about my previous post:
I made an update to the post mentioning this, but not everybody may have seen it so I’ll mention it again. I got a bit curious afterwards because I couldn’t remember where I’d heard the Associated Press alphabetical rule. Turns out it was probably a myth I picked up somewhere. It still works as a hypothetical example, but it’s probably not true.
If you want a better real-life example of a rule that’s followed just out of consistency, the legal age is probably a good one. Governments can’t do a psychological assessment of every single citizen to determine when they’re mature enough to vote/drive/drink/gamble/smoke/be tried in court as an adult. So they set an arbitrary age: in the United States it’s 18, in Japan it’s 20, and for wizards it’s 17. It’s not completely arbitrary; I doubt any government will set it at 5 or at 60. But why choose 18 instead of 19? Simply because that’s the rule, and it works because everyone follows it.
As for conventions, I want to emphasize that the distinction I made between conventions and accuracy is purely academic. Practically speaking, there is no clear dividing line; it’s simply a way of thinking about translation. I wanted to emphasize that even once you’ve correctly understood the original sentence, there’s still a long way to go before you get to the final translation. A translator must make plenty of important decisions and judgment calls first, and these are what I refer to as “conventions.”
Now on to one of those important decisions: what words, if any, should not be translated?
To those still doubting that this is not an easy question, allow me to try to demonstrate. We usually think of two languages as being pretty separate, but how strict is the dividing line? Many Slavic languages are mutually intelligible; I once knew a Bulgarian fellow who could understand Russian decently, even though the languages have many differences. On the other hand, speakers of two different Chinese dialects could have a lot of trouble understanding each other—even though they’re both technically speaking Chinese!
“So fine,” you say, “but for the languages you’re dealing with, namely English and Japanese, surely there’s not as much overlap with as Bulgarian and Russian.” And I agree. But the dividing line is still less clear than you may think.
You may have heard that last year the Oxford English Dictionary officially added the word “hikikomori” (I’m not going to bother defining it here because it’s in the damn dictionary now, so go look it up). In fact, just this year they added “hentai,” to much rejoicing, I’m sure.
Of course this is only a guess, but if I were to ask a room full of anime fans, “Who here knows what a hikikomori is?” I’d expect only people who have seen Welcome to the NHK and maybe a few more who have heard the term elsewhere would raise their hands. Now assume I ask the same room of anime fans, “Who here knows what a tsundere is?” Or even better, “Who here understands honorifics like -san or -kun?”
I hope we can agree that on average, more anime fans know how honorifics work or know what a tsundere is than know what a hikikomori is. But hikikomori is English now, and neither tsundere nor any of the honorifics are (…yet). So when I translate, since I’m writing English, I should translate “tsundere” as “bipolar” or something, but leave “hikikomori” as it is, right? And honorifics are of course out of the question, since they’re not English. And, oh yeah, if someone yells, “kono hentai yarou!” I can get away with translating that as “you hentai bastard!” since hentai is English now.
So far all I’ve done is ask a bunch of questions, but I haven’t stated my own opinions or recommendations on the matter at all. So why don’t we take a look at a specific example?
Let’s take the word “oni.” Big, scary, ugly things in Japanese mythology. In fact, mythological terms in general are a good example, but let’s focus on this for now.
Common translations for “oni” include “ogre,” “demon,” “troll,” and so on (let’s not laugh too hard at the last one now). But if you ask me, whether to translate “oni” as one of those or leave it as it is depends on the situation. And here’s where smart conventions come in again.
One of the first questions to ask in any translation is “what’s the context?” Are you translating a story that is heavily reliant on Shinto mythology and Japanese traditions? Are you translating Mushishi, or Natsume Yuujinchou, or Kamichu? If so, then the way I see it, the names of mythological creatures should be left the way they are. When we talk about Greek mythology we use words like “centaur” and “satyr” instead of “horse-person” and “goat-person.” If we’re talking about Japanese mythology, why wouldn’t we say “oni” and “youkai”?
On the other hand, what if what you’re translating is a perfectly normal school-life story, with no mythological creatures roaming around at all? For example, imagine there’s this school with a really mean teacher, and one student comments, “That teacher’s like an ‘oni’.” In this situation, what’s more important: the fact that an oni is a creature in Japanese mythology, or the fact that the teacher is as mean as a monster? Is it more important to the story that this kid made a reference to mythology, or is it more important that the kid doesn’t like the teacher?
I’m sure you can come up with exceptions (what if the kid’s part of the mythology club, and it’s important that he keeps making references to mythology?) but normally what matters is that the teacher is mean, and it’s perfectly fine to translate the sentence as, “That teacher’s like a demon,” or, “That teacher’s like an ogre.” In fact, it’s better to translate the sentence that way than to bother with using a word from Japanese mythology which might confuse your viewers, especially because that reference to mythology is most likely never going to be important again.
Let’s return to the anime where mythology is a main theme. I could argue about how the viewer probably knows what to expect or might have an interest in Japanese mythology, but these are all rather weak arguments. Instead, I’m going to draw a parallel with fantasy.
I’ll admit it: I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings books. I’ve only seen the movies. I’m sorry, I have The Hobbit on my shelf at home, and I’ll read it eventually. In any case, when I started watching the first movie, I had never heard of a “hobbit,” nor did I have any idea what an “orc” was. I had some idea what dwarves were but I still thought of elves as the little guys that made Keebler cookies.
Yet I watched the movie and immediately figured out what a “hobbit” was and what an “orc” was, and then later on figured out what a “Nazgul” and an “Uruk-hai” were. In fact, millions of people who hadn’t read the books before watched the movie and were easily able to figure out these made-up words that they’d never heard before.
Why is this? The simple answer: because they were shown on screen! So maybe the first time a character mentions an “oni” the viewer won’t have any idea what it is, but once the first oni pops up and starts attacking the heroes, the viewer sure as hell is going to know what an oni is. On the other hand, in the hypothetical school life anime I mentioned earlier, the teacher is probably not going to transform into an actual oni and start rampaging around the school (or maybe he will. I would watch that show).
The purpose of localizing unfamiliar terms to something the audience is more familiar with is to prevent confusion. However, sometimes sticking too close to a localization convention means you end up confusing your viewer instead. Let’s say you translate “oni” as “ogre.” All of a sudden the first oni pops up on screen, and suddenly you have some viewers scratching their heads and saying, “That’s not like any ogre I’ve ever heard of.” Or maybe you translate it as “troll,” and when the first one walks on screen some of your viewers will be thinking, “But aren’t trolls made of stone? Don’t they live under the bridge and try to eat the three billy goats gruff?”
On the other hand you use the word “oni,” and viewers may at first wonder, “What’s an oni?” But then the first one walks on screen, and characters start screaming, “Ahh, it’s the oni!” and the viewer says, “Oh, I see, so that’s what an oni is.”
This might not be the greatest example because the mythological “oni” fits the Western description of an ogre or a troll decently well, and viewers probably wouldn’t be confused. Allow me to provide an actual example, one that happened to me recently, where I really was quite confused.
When I was watching Yumekui Merry, I tried translations from two different sub groups, and both of them translated “baku” as “tapir.” The first line I saw it in was something like this:
“Hey, Merry, you know that mythological dream-eating creature, the tapir?”
This threw me for a loop because I thought to myself, “Wait a second, the tapir is a real animal, and last I checked it doesn’t eat dreams.” So I opened up my favorite J-E dictionary and Google and looked up “baku.” Turns out that the mythological baku and the tapir aren’t just words that sound the same in Japanese—they’re actually the same word. It’s similar to how the English word “salamander” can refer to the mythological fire creatures as well as the real life lizards (not quite, but the details aren’t worth getting into).
But hang on a second here. The English word “tapir” has no such double meaning. The Japanese word may refer to the real animal or the mythological one, but the English word refers exclusively to the real one. If this were just some one-time reference like the oni schoolteacher, and the mythological details didn’t matter, then I could understand the argument for translating baku as tapir. But not only do the mythological details matter, there’s an even more overwhelming reason:
He defines what a baku is right there in the same sentence!
“Hey, Merry, you know that mythological dream-eating creature, the baku?”
Even if you’ve never heard of a baku before, you now know all you need to know about it to understand the story. Translating it as “tapir” is going to confuse the people familiar with the real animal, but leaving it this way is going to confuse no one.
Finally, I’d like to mention a positive example. One of my favorite recent fan translations would have to be Mazui’s translation of OreImo. They had some clever localizations that I would have never thought of and their script had very good English, but they also left most otaku terms untranslated, which I thought was a very good decision. Granted I thought they went overboard once or twice (“nekomimi” could have been “cat ears” just as easily) but in the end, this is a story about otaku, for otaku. Not only will most viewers be familiar with the terminology and appreciate it more untranslated, it also works for people less familiar with otaku terminology who may be watching the show.
Why? Because the main character, Kyousuke, is not an otaku (at least at the start of the show), and some of the stuff his sister and her geek friends say may as well be a foreign language so far as he’s concerned.
This is the sort of thing that I mean when I say “smart conventions”: thinking of the consequences of your translation choice, and keeping the goal of your translation in mind, instead of following localization conventions just because it’s what you’ve always followed, or picking conventions for no particular reason. I’ve shown instances where not localizing a term would confuse the viewer, but I’ve also shown instances where localizing too much can be just as confusing. In the end, what I’m advocating is using your judgment and thinking out every decision you make in a translation. You can’t please everyone, of course, and it’s certainly easier said than done—but it’s the ideal that I work by.