Hands off My Nakama, Dweebenheimer-kun: Approaches to Translation

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"Letters from the New York Otaku"


By David Cabrera

This image, created in the Comipo 3D software (likely as part of an anonymous argument on 4chan), is a half-parodic, half-serious look at the way people translate typical anime dialogues.

The exchange is a generic 4-panel joke about a schoolgirl eating spoiled food a friend gave her. It's also worth noting that no Japanese “original” text is being translated from here. The first column (going from left to right) is the only one of the three that reads at all normally. The only peculiarity is the use of Japanese suffixes (-chan and so on ) to the character's names when they address each other.

The use of honorifics is something that has been argued between fans and translators for years. Anywhere else but anime, translators tend not to use them, but a lot of English-speaking anime fans want every possible nuance of the language preserved. It was long the standard in fan translations to leave the honorifics in the subtitles. There are those who find them out of place in an English script. Full disclosure; I'm among these.

In any case, the influence of the fan translations remains. More people who watch subtitled anime want the honorifics than don't, so it's the policy of Funimation and often Crunchyroll to leave the honorifics in the subtitles. The English dubs of the Persona series games even have the characters using Japanese honorifics in a translation which otherwise takes as many liberties as the average English dub... but the fans can't tell that!

The middle comic represents is the logical extreme of this approach and a running otaku joke about translation. As with the honorifics, fan translators will often decide a common Japanese word is “untranslatable” and just leave the Japanese word in the English script. The most famous example is One Piece fans' refusal to accept that the word “nakama” can possibly be expressed in English. There are definitely many warranted cases for a language or cultural note, but this joke isn't about those.

The translator will then leave a “TL Note” explaining the actual English meaning of the word, making the lack of translation even more absurd. The famous example of this is the fan translation of Death Note, which had Light utter the sentence “Just as keikaku.” The TL note explained: “Keikaku means plan.”

In this version of the comic, basic words “hai,” “sugoi”, “oishii”, “baka”, and “arigatou” are left untranslated and the resulting dialogue is a weird linguistic mish-mash. For “itadakimasu!” the TL note is: “If you know Japanese you should know what this means.” That's really the idea of this kind of translation: it's for the fan who needs an English translation but still wants to feel like they “know Japanese”. I don't mean to plug my own comic (http://bit.ly/uQPipJ ) twice in a row, but this translation approach is the entire basis of its joke.

The final approach is the overly liberal approach that's taken in a lot of dubs. Everything is rewritten, with as much vulgarity as can be crammed into the script. It's a throwback to Mad Bull 34 and so on, but more recently the former ADV Films were most well-known for this. Despite the accusatory title of this comic, I don't know a lot of people who actually think these dubs are at all appropriate as a serious translation.

The implication of the comic is that if you don't want the translation on the left, which the author prefers, you must want the one on the right, which is a straw man. On the other hand, while the middle comic is ridiculous, the lower-quality fan translations often resemble it pretty closely.
This fight will continue, but the fans' minds are made up and the status quo is basically decided. Even in English, anime schoolgirls will still call each other “suchandsuch-chan.”
《animeanime》

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