What's Lost in the Translation?

Last night I was watching "Trigun" DVDs that I'd borrowed from a coworker, and marveling at the terrible quality of the English subtitles. I'd guess they were inaccurate or wrong at least half the time, and 75% of the time I knew I could've written a better subtitle myself. But, accuracy aside, that got me pondering about all the things that are lost in translation from Japanese to English, whether in anime or manga form. I've occasionally mentioned this data loss, but I figured I'd try to write out more completely some of the nuances that are lost.

The Japanese Language

The Japanese language is well-known for both the complexities of its social nuances, as well as onomatopoetic qualities (having words that imitate natural sounds). I'll discuss the social nuances first, since it is by far the more profound in terms of loss of information in translation. After that, I'll have a look at written sound effects in Japanese - there's not much to be lost in translation, but I wanted to know, why do English sound effects feel stilted in comparison?

Social Nuances

The social nuances of the Japanese language often mean that every speaker identifies gender, social status, the listener's social status, and the type of social situation, purely by the choice of words.

"I" and "You"

For example, there are many different words meaning "I" in Japanese, and likewise many different words used for "you" - and each word has different implications about who the "I" is and who the "you" is. Just to give you a better idea, here are some versions of "I" and their social implications:

The word choices for "you" must also be heavily geared for the target of the word and based on situation:

(This website has more on these words.)

(Side note: It is also very difficult to create a mysterious, gender-neutral, societally ambiguous Japanese character, because the person's choice of words for "I" and "you" and so on would naturally betray a lot about the person's social standing.)

More Nuances

In addition to all this, the sentence structures and verbs convey a lot about why something is being done - for example, "I'll do it for you" in Japanese may well have connotations of doing a favor for someone - or, depending on word choice, connotations of being honored to perform a service for someone of higher rank. There are probably a half dozen ways, also, of saying plain old "Go." For example:

Now we add a "please" to that "Go" and get these variations:

Even Laughter Has Implications

Even laughter can convey a great deal more than how "Ho Ho Ho" usually means Santa Clause to Americans. In Japanese, some of the forms of laughter commonly seen in manga and anime are as follows:

Sentence Endings Add Character

In addition, there are sentence endings the Japanese use to convey a lot of information about the speaker. Women, for example, are expected to end most sentences in "wa" (e.g. "soudesu wa"), which adds a distinctly feminine touch. Men may use "zo" or "ze" (e.g. "iku zo!") to add a rough-and-tumble masculine edge. Cartoon characters add their own distinctive sentence endings, including sadly stereotypical ones (the Japanese popular thinking seems to be that Chinese will add "aru" to the end of sentences), to weird personal touches (such as "nyan" (meow) being used by cat people).

Dialects and Formality

Finally, as noted with choices of "I" and "you," there are also regional dialects. Just as "ya'll" is a characteristic of the stereotypical American South, or "eh, what?" is characteristic of parts of Britain, there are forms of speaking that are typical of different regions of Japan. These, too, will tend to be lost in translation unless the translator can successfully map Japanese regional dialects to American character stereotypes.

Also, very formal Japanese is almost as striking as another dialect. It's rarely used (though common in some comics), and it has a lilting, poetic quality that makes it the equivalent of speaking with "thee" and "thou" and other such more historical forms of English. The difference between the "feel" of a King James Bible versus a modern American-English text is a fair comparison, though a big difference is that highly formal Japanese is still considered modern Japanese (last I knew, at least).

Summary: What ARE We Missing in Translations?

Hence, in a simple exchange of, "What are you doing?" and "I am waiting for someone," a Japanese dialogue can convey gender, social status, who's higher ranking than whom, where the people are from, and, with a few words, can also convey if one of them is doing a social favor for someone else or vice versa. A reader of written dialogue can delight in the refined and poetic language in a phrase as simple as "What are you doing?" - or can cringe at the crudeness and raw masculinity in a phrase as simple as "I am waiting for someone." In phrases this short, it would be very difficult for a translator to carry the full poetic beauty or the full crudeness over into English. (For the latter case, shortening "I am" to "I'm" and changing "waiting" to "waitin'" is a step in the right direction, but still conveys only a minute fraction of the impact, comparatively.)

As you can see, a lot of social data can be lost in translation. It's easy to miss things like female Ranma's jarringly male speech ("Ranma 1/2"), Vash's humble speech, Meryl's refined sentences, and Wolfwood's "country" accent ("Trigun"), Oscar's highly respectful and aristocratic speech with the queen, contrasted with her rough and masculine speech with her troops ("Rose of Versailles"), Kenshin's charmingly distinctive and archaic speech ("Ruroni Kenshin"/"Samurai X"), Amuro's notably polite form of "I am going" when launching Gundam (in the original "Gundam"), and so on.

A lot of personal relationship information is lost as well. The gentle maternal relationship of an elderly character to a younger character can be expressed, in Japanese, in the simple choice of words in saying "You go on now" - but is more difficult to convey in English. Likewise, a literal translation of an exchange between a couple - with the woman saying "you," and the man saying the woman's name - would fail to convey the familiar, family-oriented, comfortable relationship implied in their choice of words. And, of course, the common scene in which the hero screams "YOU!" at the enemy loses much of its emotional energy if one doesn't realize how much anger and resentment can be invested in the choice of which "you" is used.

So, while a good translation would manage to preserve the general meaning of an anime or manga, it would truly take very careful and thoughtful translation to even begin to transmit the hidden cultural information, the message behind the words. And, coming from a society like Japan, there is a lot of cultural and social information to be lost in translation!

Finally, of course, flowing, poetic Japanese text can only be fully re-created by a translator who can create flowing, poetic English text.

Sound Effects in Manga

Note: I am not a linguist; the below is simply an amateur effort on my own part to compare and contrast Japanese and English sound effects. It reflects my limited experience, and some of it is pure conjecture. My primary question to myself has been: Why do I find English sound effects stilted in comparison to Japanese sound effects?

Written sound effects in Japanese are a splendid affair. In the same way that English has words like "crunch" or "gurgle" or "splash" or other words that try to imitate sounds through onomatopoeia, Japanese likewise has words that do so. However, Japan relies on these words in a somewhat different way.

Have a look at these two paragraphs:

"The rain splashed the street, and the child trotted up to the door. She rang the doorbell. She dug a candy out from her pocket and crunched it while she waited. A dog barked nearby."

"The rain fell pitter-patter on the street, and the child ran trot-trot-trot up to the door. She rang the doorbell: ding-dong. She dug a candy out from her pocket and ate it, crunch-crunch, while she waited. Nearby, a dog barked `yap yap.'"

The second one is obviously awkward in English, but also provides more immediate and direct sound effects than the natural English version (even though both versions use a lot of onomatopoetic words). It is also a fairly natural way of speaking in Japanese (e.g. "Onna no ko wa, ta ta ta to doa ni hashirimashita."). Direct sound effects that have yet to be turned into verbs are the norm in Japanese (I mean for example, "gulp!" versus "he gulped," "crunch!" versus "he crunched").

In a language that's so dependent on sound effects, then, it's no wonder that sound effects flow naturally in the pages of manga, too. Japanese manga overflow with sound effects for big and little things: the clink of a teacup on a table, the steady throbbing sound of helicoptor rotors, the deep rhythmic thrumming of a giant starship engine, or the gasping breath of the worn-out hero. But, for depicting these sounds, it winds up being less awkward to say "thrum-thrum-thrum" or "gasp - gasp - gasp" in Japanese for the same reason it is MORE awkward in English to do so. It's simply natural and commonplace in Japanese, and not so natural in English.

For another example, consider how Americans describe sound effects in casual conversation. It seems to me that few people take "bam" or "pow" seriously as a realistic sound effect; people are more likely to imitate, parrot-style, the "whpsh!" or "pbhhk!" or "hfh, hfh, hfh" sounds from the movies. In contrast, I think (I could be wrong) that the Japanese tend to verbally rely more heavily on Japanese-syllable-based sound effects, which are "close enough" and yet also easily spelled and easy to read (contrast with the "whpsh" I wrote above, which is not easy to spell in a traditional sense).

Here are some Japanese sound effects and their English equivalents. Perhaps you can draw your own conclusions about some of the differences between Japanese and English:

But it's not just sounds that have sound effects. These are not exactly sounds, but they have their own onomatopoetic terms. I've tried to find English equivalents:

Anyway, while English does have almost as large a selection of onomatopoetic words, somehow the immediacy of the English "cough!" feels to me, personally, as if it's one step removed from the reality compared to the Japanese "goho!" and the same with many other words. It may, of course, simply be personal bias, exemplified by the fact that, if you listen to an American sneeze, odds are he will say, "Ah-ah-ah-choo!" - while the Japanese will say, "Ha-ha-ha-ksho!" And there, at least, nothing will be lost in the translation.

Copyright 2005 Eri Izawa

Back to Rei's Anime and Manga Page