Lost in Translation, The Language Posturing

Originally at this unavailable link, reposted below.

Lost in Translation

Anime fans, like everyone else, have opinions. Actually, I believe that extreme anime fans AKA otaku, have more opinions per capita than most of the rest of society. After all, check out a newsgroup and you will see the pros and cons of EVANGELION being debated, or whether SAILOR MOON is cuter than CREAMY MAMI (look it up!) And that's great—everyone should be encouraged to have opinions.

Wait. I should perhaps qualify that. Everyone should be encouraged to have informed, educated opinions. It's ok to not like a certain character, show, or even a genre, if you can give a decent reason why. For example, "I don't like sports manga because I don't like sports." There you go. That's fine. I can't argue with that. I could argue that the genre of sports manga does indeed have merit, but the overall claim is that you don't like the manga because you don't like the subject matter. I can't contest that.

I've been around a lot of different types of fans, and there is one complaint that I have heard repeatedly over the years. This is something of a pet peeve of mine, and is perhaps the surest way to make me change from my normal, mild-mannered albeit slightly off-kilter self to the crazed, Nicholson-esque insane person whom the Copy Editors regularly have to deal with at deadline time. In fact, every time I hear this particular complaint, I look around for a fire axe.

So what is this tedious tirade that I find myself forced to endlessly endure? Is it "I hate catgirls!" or "Shoujo sucks!" No, those I can deal with (although in limited capacity, lest I need more primal scream therapy.) The offending phrase is a variation of the following: "The translations are bad." And in my time, I have heard this expressed in fashions so crude that they would make 18th Century sailors blush.

Why does this particular complaint irk me so? Because, for the most part, it's either unfounded or based off of supposition rather than fact.

About half a year ago, I had someone send me e-mail about a review I had written. Not only did he allege that I was completely off base in my review ("you're an idiot" was the phrase, I believe), he further contended that this show was the greatest thing since sliced bagels (which came shortly after sliced bread) and that I completely misunderstood the storyline. So, since he thought this show was so great, I wrote back and asked him what he thought of a particular subplot I found particularly annoying, trying to explain my position. His response was something akin to "Huh?" This led me to my next question, which was "How good is your Japanese?" To which he replied he did not, in fact, speak any. That pretty much ended the argument, since he had nothing on which to base his argument. You can't argue the merits of a story if you can't understand the dialog.

The point of this slightly tangential anecdote (aside from filling up an extra paragraph in this editorial) is that viewers should form their own opinions based on their direct experiences. Don't mouth other's opinions and claim them as your own. If you don't speak Japanese, you really are not in a position to criticize the translating job in a particular anime. What you can do is compare it to another version you have seen, but unless you can speak the language, how can you be really certain which is correct? "I asked a friend who speaks Japanese" is a common response; however, doing this only provides another opinion, usually in line with your own. Unless this friend points out specific errors, one has no more empirical information than before, and is simply regurgitating someone else's opinion. And, unless this friend is fluent, their opinion is also suspect. First year Japanese students are not the best judges of "good translation."

However, even if a viewer is not fluent in Japanese, there are other areas open to critique: spelling in subtitles (a big one for me) and natural-sounding English immediately come to mind. After all, one doesn't need to understand Japanese to recognize these problems. But to condemn a translation as bad because of a few spelling errors or awkward sentences is a reach.

Few things are more irritating to me than to have people second-guessing a translator if they can't even understand the original Japanese. (And this holds true for some ADR writers who rewrite English dub scripts as well). And if everyone who complained about translations really spoke Japanese, then there would be no need for subtitles and dubs anyway. We'd all be watching our anime in the original Japanese.


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