Why Are Common English Loanwords Mistranslated So Often?

by Justin Sevakis,

Juliana asks:

Why, when handling an English loanword, do translators so often use the literal English source-word, rather than the meaning the word most commonly has in actual Japanese usage? I can't think of a recent show that didn't render jusu (soda, soft drinks) as “juice” or hippu (butt) as “hip” (which ruined a couple of the dirty jokes in To Be Hero), and just yesterday I saw an episode that translated supattsu (shorts, in this case) as “spats”, which made the line nonsensical. Translating feminisuto (gallant, chivalrous) as “feminist” has also led to some unintentional humor in several series. Coming from amateurs with a weak grasp of colloquial Japanese I could understand the confusion, but I see this all the time in official, professionally-produced subtitles.

This drives me nuts as well, and it happens ALL THE TIME. "Buruma" gets translated as "bloomers," despite in no way resembling the clothing piece we refer to as "bloomers." "Mekaa" becomes "maker," even though it clearly means "manufacturer." Even Engrish expresions like "donmai" get translated as "don't mind," as if people actually talk that way in English. Western otaku sometimes complain about translations in spectacularly misguided ways, but these are clearly wrong and need to be corrected.

Ultimately this is a clear and obvious mistake that absolutely falls under the purview of translators and their editors. While on occasion one of these issues is caused by oversight over translations by a Japanese licensor who doesn't know English well enough, that's pretty rare. Frankly, I sort of see this as a side-effect of anime fandom at large being so indescribably kvetchy when it comes to subtitles.

When anime was still a new thing in the US, translations generally fell into one of two categories: the sort that were translated like foreign films and literature, and the sort that were translated by fanboys. Neither were very literal. The professional subs tended to heavily adapt Japanese concepts and jokes into something Westerners would understand. The emphasis wasn't so much on maintaining the exact meaning of the original lines, so much as giving the English-speaking viewer a consistent, smooth-reading experience that approximated a Japanese person viewing it in Japanese.

A few companies in this era (ADV especially) were run by fans, who in that era tended to be a little overzealous about putting themselves into a script. Jokes were added, dialogue was punched up, and song lyrics were translated by ear (and tended to be COMPLETELY wrong). The industry eventually curbed this practice, and as fandom matured, things settled down into a relaxed version of the literary translation method. Nobody kept name suffixes, and jokes were usually modified to work in English, but overall things didn't diverge too often.

When the digital fansub scene exploded in the mid 2000s, fans suddenly started demanding a LOT more literal translation choices. They would send angry, vengeful screeds to the anime companies, demanding to know why the DVD they just bought didn't match the translation from the fansub they'd torrented. Sometimes the fansub was wrong, sometimes the legitimate translation was wrong, but very often either one was a valid interpretation.

But to some of the loudest, angriest fans, this didn't matter. To them, the fansub was ALWAYS right, because it was more literal. When English loan words and name suffixes were reproduced exactly in the translation, a fan with a tiny knowledge of Japanese could follow along with what they were hearing. In their mind, they were "checking" the translation. When those fans saw professional subtitles that didn't include name suffixes and interpreted the dialogue in a more literary way, it was just plain wrong to them.

Many of the current generation of translators came into the business in this era. To appease the fans, the anime companies adapted, and translations overall became a lot more literal. There is a lot less interpretation of dialogue these days: everything is very literal, even at the cost of nuance. This is handy, because literal translations are also a bit easier to produce. There's a lot less discussion, a lot less thought involved in making dialogue seem naturalistic or smooth to read.

And here's where the mistakes come in: if a translator is going fast, deadline pressure is on, and their default position is "super-literal," anything that's originally an English word is going to simply pass through to that translation as that word, even if it doesn't mean the same thing in English. You could call it sloppiness, and that could be accurate. But when you're processing so much text so quickly, it's inevitable that certain things slip through the cracks. This is just one of those things that do so easily.

I'm not super upset about where we are today. Anime fans are a lot more educated on Japanese culture than they were in the 90s, and being able to be as literal as translations are today and still be understood is a luxury that comes with having an educated fan base. But with the speed at which content is being translated, there are absolutely things that could be done better. This is one of them.

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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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