Do Dubs Really Contain More Swearing?

by Justin Sevakis,

Eric asks:

So I have an acquaintance who says he prefers to watch subbed anime over English dubs because the English translators add too many swears to the dialogue. Now I usually don't care why people prefer dubs or subs (and in this case I hate excessive swearing too), but I find this claim head-scratching because in my experience it seems like the opposite is true. The shows I've watched typically seem to have more swears in the English subtitles than in the English dubs unless it's a show with a more intense tone (e.g. Future Diary seemed to have similar amounts of swearing in both formats). From what I've been told Japanese technically doesn't have swears but it does have words considered more harsh or crude in their society, and it seems like the English subtitles for shows usually reflect that. This made me wonder, just how does Japanese society view harsh language compared to the U.S. and how is this reflected in anime?

"Swearing" means different things to different people and different cultures. In the US we usually refer to swearing as the "seven dirty words" that can't usually be said on network television. Most of these are usually used as expletives or insults. Others refer to sex or sexual anatomy in a crude way.

Japanese does have words you can't say on television, but they don't fit into the same category as English swear words. Expletives, while crude, don't offend people enough that you can't say them on even children's television programs. Most insults are the same. In fact, I chuckle a little every time I see a list of "Japanese swear words" because nearly all of them are things that you can say on a TV show aimed at 7-year-olds. There are a few anatomical words that get bleeped on Japanese TV, but since sexual discussion THAT frank and raunchy doesn't really come up on broadcast television shows that much, it's not much of an issue.

So what IS verboten? Mostly words and phrases that are insulting -- slurs, or outdated and politically incorrect names for sensitive topics. "Gaijin" (foreigner) is now verboten -- they now use the more polite term "gaikokujin." Kuronobou ("Blackie") -- which used to refer to dark suntans, is now completely inappropriate. "Kichigai" (crazy) is extremely offensive, as is "Ai no ko" (interracial child) -- the latter of which was replaced with "konketsu" (mixed blood) in the 70s. Nowadays, interracial people are often referred to with English words: "half" is the most common, but the new PC terms in Japan are "colored," "mixed" or "double." Yeah, I had that reaction too.

There's also a bunch of politically sensitive terms that no broadcaster would touch, such as referring to Korea by its WWII Japanese occupation name, "chosen", referring to liberals as "Aka" (red), referring to Taiwan's government with the word for a sovereign power ("seifu"), and other things that basically only come up during news talk shows.

So with that in mind, 95% of the words that you would translate with an S-word or an F-word simply aren't all that big of a deal in Japanese. As a result, there's basically no rule in how to translate them. A character muttering "shimatta" could translate as anything from "sigh" to "F---" and both could be equally accurate. How soft or how coarse a translator makes their interpretation depends entirely on context and delivery. If it's being said by a yakuza or a thug, they'd be more likely to go with a swear word. If it's a cute little girl, maybe not.

Different translators, different editors, different ADR writers and different publishers all have their own thoughts on the matter. Early dubs by Manga Video UK back in the 90s would intentionally punch up their dub scripts to have as much swearing as possible, so they could get a higher BBFC age rating and market their VHS tapes to edgy youth. Conversely, any company hoping to get their dub on television is more likely to go in the opposite direction and keep the dub as clean as possible. These days, the latter is far more likely.

Everybody is going to have their own levels of comfort with coarse language, and a different point at which swearing stops being realistic and starts being distracting. However, accuracy to the Japanese is not a real concern. The instances in which someone would swear in English and the instances in which Japanese dialogue would be offensive are completely different, so the use of foul language in an English script is completely subjective. It's fine to dislike a dub or subtitle because of its translation choices, but this isn't one of those details that automatically makes a translation more or less authentic.

Translation is an art, not a science.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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