What Does Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” REALLY Mean?

Japanese tidying and organizing guru Marie Kondo (aka Konmari) has a new Netflix show out where she helps people around the United States unclutter their spaces and, potentially, their lives. Predictably, the series has generated mixed opinions, as those who love having “stuff” are resistant to the notion that throwing things out could lead to happiness. One particular point of contention comes from Konmari’s core idea that we should only keep things that “spark joy.” This has been especially controversial among book lovers, as the notion that one should only keep books that “spark joy” is viewed as antithetical to the purpose of books.

This actually isn’t the first time this backlash has occurred. Back when Kondo’s book first came out in English, it was received with similar skepticism.

However, is sparking joy—that is to say, “create a feeling of comfort and placidity—really what Konmari is trying to say? What I’ve found is that the phrase “spark joy” is a somewhat narrow translation of the original Japanese. Instead, in the original language, Konmari uses the terms tokimeki and tokimeku (the meanings of which I’ll explain below), and knowing this can potentially change how one views her Konmari Method.

(Note that this is not meant to be a scathing criticism of the book’s English translation so much as it is a lesson in the difficulties of translation and localization that are inherent to the whole process).

Tokimeki in Japanese means “throbbing” or “palpitation,” but is probably better translated as “heart-pounding excitement.” If you follow Japanese anime, manga, and video games, you might see the term pop up quite often: Tokimeki Memorial, Tokimeki Tonight, etc. Tokimeku is a verb form of this—”to induce heart-pounding excitement.” While that overlaps somewhat with “sparking joy,” the two can carry very different meanings, and tokimeki doesn’t necessarily hinge on a sense of bliss or unabashed happiness that the word “joy” can imply. Things, including books, can disturb and perturb and still create excitement.

In fact, the Japanese title of her first book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in English) translates literally to Life’s Heart-Pounding Cleaning Magic. In other words, tokimeki is a part of the title itself.

Personally speaking, I can’t go all in on the Konmari Method, as I love collecting things, on top of also believing in having a strong library for both reference purposes and personal satisfaction. However, when it comes to books in particular, I’ve recently thought over how I view books and their importance. The purpose of a book is to be read, and whenever I finish a book, I find myself wondering, “Is this book better off on my shelf within arm’s reach, or being out there in the world for someone else to find?” There’s never a consistent answer, but I find it’s an important question to ask myself. Those who think letting go of their books is an inherent problem might consider how books that don’t excite them might find a home with someone else.

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Little Witch Academia Translation Trickery

Little Witch Academia has been out on Netflix since last year, and it’s a wonderful show worth everyone’s time. Having watched it with English subtitles, I’ve noticed a few hiccups here and there when it comes to the translation. These are not deal breakers, but it does speak to how translation is more art than science, and it’s worth looking into the fact that translating for anime and manga comes with its own share of unique pitfalls.

One unusual aspect of the translation that even non-Japanese speakers might notice is a tendency to avoid repetition despite it being present in the original Japanese. For example, a character might say, “Witches.” Then another character would ask “Witches?,” in response. In the subtitles, the first character would still say “Witches,” but the second might respond, “What are you talking about?”

This has partly to do with the fact that using the same word over and over again is not necessarily considered bad writing in Japanese, but in English (which is famous for its sheer amount of synonyms), this can make dialogue sound extremely awkward and unnatural. Changing up the vocabulary for English not in itself a bad idea, but it can run the risk of introducing ideas or words into a character’s speech that might not reflect who they are or what they would say. It creates room for inaccuracy even as it ends up sounding a little more natural, and it’s a tricky balance to maintain.

What’s worse is that sometimes the desire to make the English sound good can backfire. Anime and manga come out on a pretty constant schedule, with little lead time between chapters and episodes. Japanese as a language thrives on context to shape meaning, and terms or phrases are often left intentionally ambiguous, becoming clearer as the series goes on. Sometimes a phrase can be so awkwardly ambiguous when translated directly that a translator might feel compelled to massage it, only for it to bite them in the ass down the line. For example, a character whose gender is unknown can get away with never being referred to by gender in Japanese pretty naturally, but someone who doesn’t know this is an important plot point might assign a gender because gender-neutral pronouns in English are not entrenched into the language.

In Little Witch Academia, to a certain extent, one of the series is a quote from the character Shiny Chariot, which translates literally as “A believing heart is your magic.” It sometimes appears in the show itself, in English, so a simple solution would have been to use that directly, but it does sound a bit clumsy. The translator decided to go with “Believing in yourself is your magic.” Initially, this makes sense, as what exactly the heart believes in is unclear, and the heroine Akko uses it as a refrain to keep soldiering on. However, by the end of the series, this turns out to be somewhat inaccurate; it’s not necessarily that Akko believes in herself, but that she is able to believe in what’s possible.

Given that Little Witch Academia was released all at once on Netflix, there was the potential to go back and fix this, but I don’t blame the translator for not doing so. I don’t know what the schedule or system is like for subtitling on Netflix. It’s just a strong case of why translating is a tricky beast.

AnimeNEXT 2017 Interview: Yuri!!! on ICE Staff

This interview was conducted at AnimeNEXT with guests Tatenaka Junpei (co-lead figure skating animation supervisor), Ito Noriko (animator), Ogawa Takahiro (production desk manager), Hirose Izumi (color designer).

Creating animation, especially for television, is a very time-sensitive endeavor. You have to work hard to get things on time. So when you were working on Yuri!!! On ICE and you were running low on time, what did you prioritize? What is most important?

Tatenaka: When creating animation, the difficult thing is that you can’t skip any parts. You can’t skip the voice, you can’t skip the music, you can’t skip the art. You have to prioritize everything.

What about terms of style, say, going for better movement or more detailed artwork during figure skating scenes?

Tatenaka: I animated the figuring skating scenes. For the first episode with Victor’s free skating, we had three chances for trial and error to fix it up. And when time is sensitive, we do one check and send it out. Most of it is just, draw it and then it’s out for production.

Maruyama Masao has been a guest at cons in America for a number of years, so there have been plenty of opportunities to get his impression of animation. What is it like working under Maruyama-san, and does he resemble the character that’s based on in Shirobako [Marukawa Masato]?

Tatenaka: Maruyama is very unique. He gives us a lot of control. The most unique thing about him is that, instead of picking what’s going to be the winning formula, he picks unusual combinations and tries them out. It’s like the chemistry of two items, two characters, two of anything that might not work—he likes to experiment with that sort of thing. So it’s either a very big win or a very big loss.

Yuri!!! on ICE has received praise from a lot of pro figure skaters. Is there anything that went into animating Yuri!!! On ICE that differs from other sports series?

Tatenaka: The most difficult and challenging part of animating Yuri!!! is that there are no pauses in movements. In baseball, there’s usually a pause, but in figure skating the characters are constantly on the move, so you have to keep drawing each sequence. All of the poses and the movements are things I haven’t drawn before.

During the skating scenes, the characters have thoughts running through their heads. Did you do research into what real figure skaters are thinking about as they perform?

Ogawa: It’s probably something Director Yamamoto came up with. Because she loves figure skating.

Hirose: She actually did interview some real figure skaters to ask, “What do you think about while you’re skating?”

This next question is about the film In This Corner of the World. In between the chapters of the manga, there are a number of quirky little guides, like how to make your rice last as long as possible by adding as much water as possible and mashing it. Are these funny little moments also in the movie?

Ito: Not all of them because there are a lot of those handwritten notes, but for most of them the characters will have a line explaining why they’re doing something. In the movie, the animated sequence about cooking in the kitchen is done very meticulously. You can see what’s being done while she’s explaining.

This is a question for the female guests here: are there any unique challenges to being women in the animation industry?

Hirose: I have a child. Being a mom and doing production in a tight schedule is very hard for me.

Ito: Not being able to go home. Not being able to shower. I don’t take naps at work because I don’t want people to see me sleeping at the office. But a lot of the male workers don’t care. They’ll sleep on the chairs and on the floors. But I can’t.

Thank you for the interview. I wish you the best of luck on your future projects!

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When the Nakama Are Feeling FRUSTRATION: Translation and Use of Foreign Words

One of the big bugaboos of Japanese to English translation has been the use of untranslated words. Whether it’s senpai (“upperclassman”) nakama (“comrade”), or the utterly fictitious zankantou (“colossal blade”) the question of whether words should be left as is or fully adapted to English rages in arguments between fans, translators, and everything in between. Of course, there are no solid rules, and determining where in this spectrum your translation should fall is very much a case-by-case basis. However, what intrigues me about this debate is that, when you look at the Japanese language and how it’s used in anime, advertisements, and more, there is a very intentional sprinkling of foreign words with the clear idea that they are used for their exoticism.

The show that actually got me to think about it was, of all things, Show By Rock!! Here are the first lines of the opening:

Ren’ai inochi VERY VERY HAPPY!
Yuujou inochi hajikeru JUMPING!
Bouken inochi dokidoki OK?
Seishun ouka COM’ON READY? LET’S GO!

I’m leaving it untranslated just to show the clear use of English vs. Japanese. They didn’t have to use English words but they did. Similarly, let’s look at the popular One Punch Man opening:

ONE PUNCH!
(THREE! TWO! ONE! KILL SHOT)
Sanjou!   Hisshou!   Shijou saikyou
Nan dattenda?   FRUSTRATION   Ore wa tomaranai

One concession is that a lot of these words are very simple, like “HAPPY” and “JUMPING.” They’re not terribly complex and don’t carry a great deal of cultural baggage like senpai (though one might argue that ren’ai (romantic love) being originally a concept introduced from Europe to Japan falls into that range). However, I think where the actual big cultural difference comes from is that Japan has been open to receiving a lot of foreign words and maintaining them as emphatically foreign, as opposed to fully integrating them into the language. So while English has its fair share of Japanese loan words, from sushi to karaoke, they don’t maintain as much of their exoticism. It’s just a very different environment for sentences and words themselves.

What’s funny is that English wasn’t always this way, especially when it was not the lingua franca of the world. Prior to World War II, French was the most dominant language in diplomacy, and (correct me if I’m wrong!) throwing in French words with the expectation that only a few would understand it was not uncommon among the educated. Of course, this is different from the use of “HAPPY” and “JUMPING,” but I do think that the English language’s ubiquity leads to the sense in us users that it doesn’t have to bend to the will of others.

Translating to English often assumes that English is important. That sounds like a no-brainer, but what I mean specifically is that English speakers value their own native language so highly that it comes across to some extent as a rejection of foreign influence. France today for example is known for trying to keep foreign words out of its language, preferring to take existing French words and modify/combine them accordingly to eschew the need for new loan words.

I’m not saying translators who do not use senpai or whatever are imperialists anymore than I think that using nakama means someone is fetishizing Asian culture. Moreover, the exotic aspects of English usage in Japan come with their own sets of considerations and concerns. Rather, the seeming need for everything to be transformed into English might say something about how we as English speakers look at ourselves, and that this differs depending on how we individually approach that self-reflection.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Gone with the Wind, and Translation

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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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Waku Waku +NYC Blog: Let Your Imagination Soar with Onigiri Rice Balls

I wrote a short post on onigiri over at the Waku Waku +NYC Blog. Why not take a look, and then think about what you’d like to put in a Japanese rice ball?

Waku Waku +NYC Blog – IPPUDO’s Ramen King on What It Takes to Run a Ramen Restaurant

I wrote a small post on the Waku Waku +NYC blog, translating a couple of choice quotes from the founder of the ramen restaurant chain IPPUDO.

IPPUDO is going to be at Waku Waku +NYC so if you want to enjoy anime, cosplay, and more while eating authentic Japanese ramen, tickets are on sale now.