Anime Industry Reality Check: Translation Troubles


Hi, my name is m, and you hate me.


Well, okay, maybe not you specifically, but certainly there are a lot of anime fans who hate my guts. Why? Because it is (or was) my job to take the translation of an anime or manga – the literal, accurate rendition of the original Japanese – and cut it up, change it, and generally rewrite it for a Western audience.


Please put down the pitchforks.


The truth is that there’s a very good reason why people like me take a red pen to the hallowed scripts of your favorite anime. Thus, here is another anime industry reality check for those who – like me, many years ago – think writers should just get their filthy stinking paws off their anime, you damn dirty ape.


The Fantasy

The original Japanese script for an anime or manga should be left untouched and perfect in its translation. Any change made, any line cut, destroys the integrity of the work. Every joke, every expression, every common phrase should be preserved in its original form so that English audiences can appreciate the same experience that Japanese audiences have. In fact, if you could just use the literal translation all the way through, that’d be swanky!


The Reality

For those that think I’m exaggerating the fantasy people have, bear in mind that that was what I used to think when I was a teenager. The moment a subtitle or dub seemed to miss even the slightest nuance of the original Japanese, I would nerdrage with the best of them. How dare they change the script!


Then I actually started working in the industry.


The truth is that the process of localization – altering media to better suit the culture it’s translated to – is a vital part of making a successful and enjoyable anime. While there are certainly plenty of examples of bad localization, or localization run amok – One Piece, Cardcaptors and Sailor Moon come to mind – even the most faithful adaptation should be willing to take some liberties with the script. Otherwise, the result will often be at worst unbearable, at best flat or awkward.


There are several reasons for this, all bound up in the differences in language and culture between the West and Japan. For example, humor and puns are some of the hardest things to translate and often make no sense when translated literally. There are plenty of occasions in anime where there will be plays in Japanese words (e.g. “shi” means both “four” and “death”) or misheard jokes that lead to pop culture references such as comedians, catch phrases and so forth that would have no context in English. Fansubs often try to get around this with extra subtitles explaining the joke, but this can result in a screenful of text and all humor or impact lost. If the writer isn’t willing to come up with a new English joke or pun to replace it, the entire point of the original wording can be lost even as it’s kept pristine and intact.


But there are also other, subtler reasons to change up a script, sometimes coming down to just stripping one word out or changing the phrasing. Sometimes, this will be due to simple awkwardness of translation or the fact that we don’t use the phrase in the same way. For example, one common phrase in anime is “shikkari shite,” which translates to something close to, “Endure it!” This phrase gets trotted out from everything to a dying friend to someone running in a race to someone struggling with a broken heart. But really, how often do we tell someone, up front, to “endure it!” Hence, a good localization writer will often change this to something slightly different in meaning, but more appropriate: “Hang in there!” “Come on, you can do it!” “You’ve got to be strong.”  In other cases, it’s more just awkward phrasing. When I go back and listen to some of my older dubs, I cringe, because I can now hear the parts where I stayed too close to the translation and ended up with something kind of blah or weird or just… not quite right. It may seem like the difference between “We need a clear understanding,” and something like, “We need to get a better sense of what’s going on,” might be minor, but it’s quite a different thing when you’re hearing the lines delivered by English voice actors.


Lastly, in some cases, there are obvious problems with lip movement or length of speech. If the speaker says something that only translates to “yes” but takes five seconds to say it, it’s up to the writer to change the script so as to better fit the length of speech.


In the end, a good localization is not about staying accurate to the words but accurate to the spirit. If the writer changes the lines or word choice but still manages to get across the emotions of the character, the context of the dialogue, that’s what a good translation is all about.


When Reality and Fantasy Collide

In truth, the fantasy of unaltered scripts and the reality of a well-edited anime don’t tend to collide very much, due to the fact that a well-edited anime will actually feel pretty seamless. In fact, in many cases it will be difficult to tell exactly what the writers changed, and only those fluent in Japanese will be able to pick up the subtle differences between the audio and the subtitles or dub.


Unfortunately, for every good localization, there’s a bad one, and this is where the clash occurs most often… and in many cases with good reason. It’s one thing to make a Japanese production more “palatable” in terms of word choice and phrasing, but quite another to make it virtually unrecognizable. And then there’s the dubious practice of Americanization, keeping plot the same but changing places, names and other elements to strip out any Japanese nature left (because, you know, kids can’t handle the idea of things happening in countries outside their own!) To be fair, there are arguments to be made about being able to relate to events – for example, Japanese junior high and American junior high are entirely different experiences with their own unique quirks that may not make sense to outsiders – but what starts as an honest attempt to present a world that kids and fans will recognize can soon balloon out of control into renaming everything, painting over signposts, etc.


Sadly, it’s these bad localizations that spoil it for the good ones, as anime fans are often so incensed by these unnecessary changes that they start to resent any alterations, as if they are somehow destroying the original rather than reinterpreting or expressing it better. Thus you have people complaining that you dared to change something from “columns” to “pillars” or changing one name slightly because Ko and Kou are too similar to the Western ear.


Of course, you also get people complaining when things are too literal too. I still get PSTD flashbacks of “delete delete delete” from Death Note.


Can Fantasy Become Reality?

I hope not, or I’ll be out of a job!


In all seriousness, changing the scripts of anime and manga are a necessary evil of the business. As long as there is animation to bring from one culture to another, there will always need to be at least a buffer of sorts, if only to ensure that horrible puns remain a universal pain for everyone to enjoy beyond the barriers of language. Rather than hoping for that perfect dub or sub that faithfully reproduces every single syllable and reference, perhaps it’s best to look forward to adaptations which make you laugh, cry and pump your fist in excitement the same way the original would.


After all, isn’t that why we’re all here?


What are some of your favorite and least favorite changes to anime and manga?

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