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.

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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.