To Weeaboo Or Not To Weeaboo

Over the past year or so, I’ve seen lots of comments about translation practices, mostly in regard to Japanese to English. Some people favor heavy localization, while others prefer to be so literal that they leave many words untranslated. In essence, I think both viewpoints get too extreme. Too much localization can result in loss, while being too literal can make things confusing. It’s all made me do a lot of thinking about my own translation practices, too. I think there’s a healthy middle ground, and that’s something I aim to show. (Whether or not I’ll succeed, who knows.)

To start, there are translators who feel certain terms are above translation, like “nakama” or “henshin.” And in these particular cases (and most others), there is nothing so complex or unique about the terms that you can’t use an English equivalent. I’ve often said that if you can’t figure out how to translate a term, you’re being uncreative. (I am guilty of that myself sometimes (especially for Dragon Ball terms), but for the most part I try to practice what I preach.) Even if your usual audience understands the words as is or doesn’t care, you’d be insane to think every English speaker on the planet would understand. And if you go through the trouble of doing a full translation of a work, why wouldn’t you want to make it as accessible as possible, rather than appealing only to the niche crowd that knows what “senshi” means?

On the other hand, I think there are some terms that genuinely are difficult to translate. At some point, someone decided words like “ninja” or “haiku” were beyond translation, and now they’re fully ingrained in the English lexicon. And then there are other concepts that are mostly unique to Japan, like food items or Shintoism terms, but I’m fairly certain that the majority of that isn’t common knowledge to most English speakers. Like, I’m pretty confident that if I were talking to someone out on the street and I mentioned “onigiri,” they would be completely clueless. But if I were to say “rice ball,” they’d at least have an idea as to what the food is like. Either way, they would probably have to do research before they completely understood what it was, which suggests that replacing it with a local snack word like “donut” would be far more understandable.

But I think that’s going a little too far. I say it’s better to have to look up a term than to strip out elements of foreign culture. Research and learning is good for you. I remember hearing once that Stan Lee said something like “Is it such a crime for a kid to have a pick up a dictionary?” in response to complaints about the high vocabulary in older Marvel comics, but I can’t seem to find a source on that. Whether it’s real or not, I think it’s a good philosophy. Also, as lowbrow as a show like Family Guy is, does everyone really get every joke? I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but I didn’t know who Benjamin Disraeli was the first time I saw that episode, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. All that being said, I certainly don’t think people should abuse the idea of cultural quirks or translation notes, either. They should be used very sparingly, if at all.

Speaking of getting jokes, a lot of series have hidden (or not so hidden) meanings to character names, which begs the question as to whether or not to adapt those meanings. My belief is that a name is a name, and changing Tenshinhan’s name to Omelettericebowl is about as bad as changing his name to a more local name like Theodore. The etymology of a name is usually nothing more than bonus trivial material and rarely has any bearing on the story’s plot or dialogue. I suppose that in Sailor Moon, knowing that Usagi means “rabbit” explains a couple of jokes, but even then the big joke about rabbits on the Moon is still unknown to most Westerners. For an equivalent joke, you would have to adapt it to something about the Moon being cheese, like calling her Cheese Ismoon instead of Tsukino Usagi. But then her brother would be Shingo Ismoon, and her parents would be Ikuko and Kenji Ismoon, and Chibi Usa would be Li’l Chee (and the Black Moon would call her “the queso” instead of “the rabbit”). And if you do all that, why not make all the other astronomical surnames equally obvious, like Ami Ismerc, Rei Ismar, Makoto Isjup, Minako Isven, Haruka Uran, Michiru Nept… I mean, where would it end?

And with names often comes honorifics, which is another touchy subject. One crowd says leaving them in makes you a Japanophile, while the other says removing them is akin to cultural censorship. I don’t think either of those viewpoints are necessarily true; whether or not to leave them, adapt them, or ignore them is something that should be judged on a case-by-case basis, I say. In Dragon Ball, honorifics are so rare that I see more harm in removing them than leaving them in. I don’t think it would hurt much to drop them in Sailor Moon, but I just can’t bring myself to do that (yet). I did do one game script (which will be online someday) where I felt as though they weren’t essential, so I ignored or adapted them instead. I would probably drop them in most future projects I have planned, too.

But the biggest argument against leaving honorifics is that they’re not part of native English. Bob McBob from Texas would never call his friend Jim Jameson from Ontario “Jim-kun.” But is it really necessary to pretend people are native English speakers for their dialogue to be perfectly understandable? I don’t believe it is. In American media, foreign characters are frequently portrayed with a few common phrases from their native language. Like a Frenchman saying “monsieur” and “oui,” a Mexican saying “senorita” and “amigo,” or a Japanese saying “konnichi wa” and “Daniel-san.” I’m not suggesting that characters should all be written as stereotypes; just that there is precedent for foreign terminology working perfectly fine in domestic media.

Similarly, I see arguments that suggest terms like “Oniisan” and “Oneesan” should always be changed to the character’s name, because English speakers don’t have calling terms like that for their elder siblings. Indeed, I’ve always been called by my name rather than “Sister” or “Big Sis” or whatever. But would it actually be hard to understand for a sibling to refer to another with words like “Brother” or “Sister?” Did anyone get confused when Worf and Kurn referred to each other as “Brother” on Star Trek? Or when Goliath and Coldstone referred to each other as “Brother” on Gargoyles? I don’t see the problem with acknowledging minor differences, nor do I think translations have to make everyone sound as though they were born and raised in the US or UK or whatnot. Goliath and Worf both have perfectly normal and understandable English in addition to little quirks like that (though Goliath is technically a native speaker, being from ancient Scotland). But to leave them as “oniisan” or “oneesan” is just silly, because there are existing English words that can easily correspond to them.

As someone who aspires to be a Super Translator 2, I try my best to both be accurate to the source and be mindful of the audience, and it’s not always easy. I’m sure both extremes of these arguments mean well, but I wonder how open-minded they are about their policies. People who try to be so literal and preservationist have probably been hurt by bad professional translations (such as old dubs) that heavily altered the material. I know I’ve been through that myself, so a lot of my older work was way too literal as a result of wanting to be so accurate that I end up sacrificing English comprehensibility. But on the other end, people who want things to be more localized and natural sounding have probably been hurt by bad fan translations that needlessly leave in words like “keikaku” or “baka.” I can understand being upset by that, and lately I find myself trying to get rid of that sort of thing from my own work (and possibly even that of others if time permits). I just hope everyone is always willing to question themselves in the name of potential improvement (like Super Translator 3).

I realize this write-up probably makes me sound pretty self-important, but I do feel very strongly about my opinions (on this and most other things). Yet I’m also willing to change my mind at least partially if I were to learn something new and very convincing.

But in conclusion, I believe that translating catchphrases does not make you a racist, nor does acknowledging that a series is not originally English make you Wapanese.

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Categories: Contemplation, General

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