Localization: Why Anime Translations are so Wrong (even when they don’t mean to be)

Most of us here at Kawaii Japanese prefer to play games and watch anime in the original Japanese if we can. Even if no changes have intentionally been made the English translations usually have a  very different atmosphere from the Japanese.

Some of this is connected with the practice of “localization”, but a lot simply stems from the fact that Japanese just isn’t directly translatable into English. It says things in different ways to the extent that in many cases it is actually saying different things. The English translation is not so much a translation as something like what the original was saying.

Extreme “localization” means essentially pretending the Japanese characters are American and making them talk and think as if they were. You have probably seen examples of this. However, the problem is that the line between localization and translation is much thinner than many people realize. To a large extent one has to localize while one translates because what the Japanese characters are actually saying either doesn’t exist in English or can only be said by using very wordy and unnatural English to translate a one-word Japanese concept.

Even the textbooks and dictionaries are full of “localization”. The world oishii, for example, is routinely translated as “delicious” however, as we show elsewhere, that is only a rough and sometimes misleading approximation of its real meaning. I am not blaming the sources in question. A real explanation of oishii takes a small essay (which I wrote), but that is hardly practicable for a vocabulary list or a dictionary.

Generally speaking, where the source material is quite gentle, the English translation has to come over as “rougher” and more casual, because modern English just works that way. In fact once one tries to translate these things one begins to realize how far modern English forces one into certain attitudes and cultural “boxes”.

Which in my case, at least, is one reason for learning Japanese.

Just for fun, let’s take a very brief humorous caption to a picture (I love Japanese caption contests but please note that this is strictly for academic purposes and not just because Cure Dolly wants to post a kawaii picture of a tanuki holding a kitten).

I tried to translate the caption, and although it is only a few words long I found that I ran into various small problems. None of them were really serious, but multiply this by several thousand words and you can imagine how, with no conscious attempt of localization at all (which is rare in fan translations and pretty much non-existent in professional translations), the whole tone of a work is completely changed.

why-anime-translations-are-wrong
Tiny as this caption is, there are several nuances that are just about impossible to render in English. The English version is still fun and cute, I think, but it loses quite a bit.

Here is my English translation:

“Hey, Mama, can we keep her?”

ねぇ ne is endered in my translation as “hey” because I don’t know a closer English equivalent. It is an attention-calling word, like “hey” but its shading is a little different. Both are a bit insistent, but “hey” assumes a kind of egalitarian attention-calling, while ねぇ has a more from-below flavor to it, like a little sister pulling on one’s sleeve. It is decidedly cuter.

Actually even the first question mark (after ママ mama) represents a particular tone of ねぇ-sentence  which some of you will be familiar with. It  calls attention quite strongly before proceeding to the point. If I tried to get that across in English it would feel kind of bratty, which isn’t how it sounds in Japanese (it can, when, say, Dokin-chan does it, but mostly it doesn’t, and even with Dokin-chan it is still cute).

このこ(この子) kono ko means literally “this child” but it is not restricted in meaning to the extent that English “child” is. Maybe “this little one” would be better, but that starts to get much wordier than the original, thus losing its brevity and immediateness, and is also not a regular expression in current English as この子 is in Japanese.

飼って katte is rendered as “keep” in English and I don’t think that loses much, but 飼って very specifically means “keep and look after as a pet”. There isn’t an equivalent English word.

Taken together the English translation necessarily loses something of the flavor of the original. More interestingly though, this shows how even a very small and very simple sentence can only be rather roughly translated, even with extreme good will on the part of the translator and no desire to “localize” in the sense of virtually turning the speakers into Americans (as many Anime translations do).

This caption was not selected to demonstrate translation problems. Rather the reverse. It is a very straightforwardly translatable sentence compared to many. What it shows is how even a non-problematic sentence can’t really be exactly rendered. When you multiply this by hundreds and add in some real cultural/linguistic problems (which leave the translator with the choice of long footnotes or just re-writing the sentiments into American ones), you can imagine how far from the original even a conscientious translation will fall.

Which is one reason it is important to watch anime in the original if one can. And why, if one is learning Japanese, it is best, after the early stages, to learn Japanese words as Japanese words rather than learning their nearest English equivalent.

2 thoughts on “Localization: Why Anime Translations are so Wrong (even when they don’t mean to be)

  1. How about 飼って = being preserved…?
    It’s a bit more scientific and it sounds that you will keep an endangered species of fauna from an imminent danger of extinction lol.
    Maybe you can just say: look after. (it keeps the “keeping, patting, feeding and probably some other pet-related activities of-(insert a verb) it” feeling)
    I’m mulling for the English equivalent word, and it looks like some words apparently doesn’t have the ‘true’ equivalent or exact counterparts. I think this happens not only in Japanese vs English, but also vice-versa.

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