A few months ago on Twitter, a number of manga translators and readers threw their hats into the ring to discuss the persistent issue of “authenticity” vs. “localization.” The central point of argument was whether the fact that the English translation of the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga kept antagonist Dio Brando’s signature catch phrase untranslated (MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA / USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS) is a sign of faithfulness, Japanophilia, or something else entirely.
There’s no real right side to all of this. As the Reverse Thieves explained well, there are many facets to consider, and translation is more an art than a science. For example, people who argue that translations should be as localized as possible so as to remove the sense that it comes from another language would assume that the primary audience is a broad, general readership. What if it isn’t, however? Academic translations for instance tend to be filled with footnotes and marks and other things because you’re supposed to be fully explaining the nuance of meaning through translation.
What’s even more fascinating, however, is seeing the problem of translation from the English to Japanese side, and the challenge that is posed to English translators in Japan. For example, let’s look at one of the on-going controversies within this greater Japanese to English translation debate: whether or not to include Japanese honorifics in English translations. After all, while “-san” might be already known to fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other similar works, for the most part it’s the realm of the manga fan, so to speak. When the decision is made to remove them, a translation either has to compensate for the loss of immediate information pertaining to how two characters relate to each other through a more liberal translation, or ignore that aspect entirely.
What about English to Japanese? From that perspective, the problem is completely flipped around. Suddenly you go from a language with no honorifics to one where they’re a part of everyday life. Let’s take a movie like Gone with the Wind. How would you translate Rhett Butler’s speech? The official translation has him use “Ore,” possibly to show that he’s both masculine and skirts standards of politeness and pomp. Is that the right decision?
If you were in charge of translating Gone with the Wind to Japanese, what honorifics would Rhett have to use when talking to other characters, if any? Would they change over the course of the movie? The change or removal of honorific usage to determine the progression of a relationship between two characters is a classic trope of manga and anime, and something English translators have to be constantly wary of (as is switching from last name to first name), but here with Gone with the Wind it’s potentially something that the translator has to build into the story where it once did not exist. The decision could be made to ignore honorifics specifically, but then a lot still has to be done to adapt characteristics and speech patterns to particular personalities. Rather than having to subtract, the English to Japanese translator has to consider additional components if they want to go for a “natural”-sounding language. Or do you just get rid of them all because it takes place in the US, or to show again that Rhett doesn’t have much use for politeness?
Of course, that’s not to say that Japanese to English translators also don’t have to create what ostensibly isn’t there to get the meaning of a line across. In both cases, there are things to be gained and lost in the decision to interpret lines in certain specific ways.
There are even multiple different translations of Gone with the Wind, each of them taking different liberties. Rhett’s famous “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” has been variously translated as 「俺には関係ない」(Ore ni wa kankei nai, “This has no relation to me”) and 「俺の知った事か」(Ore no shitta koto ka, “I have nothing to do with that”). Notably, both do not bother to preserve the cultural meaning of “damn,” nor the “Frankly my dear” part. The frankness is in the lack of formality and the general implied rudeness of the sentence construction.
Suffice it to say, translation isn’t easy, and the decision to keep or remove cultural elements is a unique challenge that perhaps few other fields have to contend with. Whether you’re a translator or just a reader, it might be helpful to express how you feel about the work that goes into translating.
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