Translating Hikigaya Hachiman
As you may or may not know, I recently translated volume 2 of Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru on Nano Desu Translations. You can read the first two volumes of the series here.
Before you ask, yes, I have plans to continue translating all the published volumes of Oregairu. But for now, I thought it would be interesting to walk you readers through the translation choices I made. How exactly did I set out to capture the “voice” of Hikigaya Hachiman?
As I explained in my earlier post about translating light novels, the translation means everything when it comes to the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Novels live and die by the strength of their prose. There are minimal visual elements to distract the audience from the writing quality. Even though LNs aren’t a branch of literature renowned for their elaborate prose, they are written as breezy and enjoyable reads. I’d already translated a light novel before, so I more or less had an idea of the language I was dealing with.
This time, I wanted to go further than just a readable and flowing translation. For those of you not familiar with Oregairu, the appeal of story comes through the witticisms of the protagonist. The novel is told in first person, so when you’re reading Oregairu, you’re really reading Hikigaya Hachiman.
I perceive most attempts at first person storytelling in amateur literature as shallow – you don’t actually learn much about the narrator from the way he or she chooses to put words together. I agree with Guy Shalev that this is symptomatic of LNs in general – at least the ones popular with the male otaku crowd. They’re full of exposition dumps and (if it’s in first person) the narrator explaining his feelings, rather than letting these feelings come across organically through the prose.
Oregairu is a little bit different in that, while these elements of amateur writing are still noticeable, Hachiman’s personality comes through very strongly in the Japanese. So to write a translation that could capture the essence of the work in English, I needed to think very carefully about what sort of language fit the characters – in both the dialogue and the narration.
Anime Subtitles and Other Translations
What really helped me out in my case was that I had access to a wealth of other translations of Oregairu-related material, even if nobody had written a full translation of the particular volume I was translating. The translator of the first volume, NanoDesu, sent me a short document with the translation conventions he chose. I read the first volume very closely, particularly in regards to the localisation decisions NanoDesu made. I wanted to keep as much continuity between the two volumes as possible, even if our writing styles are different. (It’s a very solid translation, so hats off to NanoDesu!)
I also watched the anime and read the subtitles very carefully, especially for the scenes I was covering in my own translation. I decided that out of all the subbed versions I watched, Commie’s translation matched my image of how the characters spoke the most. While there were iffy lines and outright mistranslations here and there, I thought their translation captured the tone of the dialogue very well. As a result, some of my lines are influenced by Commie’s translation.
One area where my translation is very different from Commie, however, is with honorifics. I kept all honorifics in, and I even left terms like “riajuu” untranslated as well. I thought the translation of “riajuu” as “someone who lives a fulfilling life” was rather clunky and that it didn’t really express Hachiman’s angry nerd personality quite as well.
Of course, the anime translations only apply to the dialogue and certain monologues. I was on my own when it came to the prose. As always, this was the hardest part of translating a novel.
Hachiman’s Literary Voice
There were two things I noticed straight away about Oregairu’s prose. Firstly, Hachiman was very adept at changing registers, sometimes in the same paragraph. Sometimes, he wrote with very rough, masculine slang. Other times, he wrote in a very feminine way, often to be sarcastic. Occasionally, he used more literary language, including metaphors and complex kanji. He was also a great fan of puns and Japanese wordplay. Some examples are below:
Yuigahama folded her arms and scowled. “I went around asking everyone where you were,” she complained. “Everyone was like ‘Hikigaya? Who’s he?’ It was sooooo weird.”
“You don’t have to tell the world about it.” Just how did this chick manage to shoot a bullet through my heart every time? She wasn’t even aiming. Was she some genius sniper or what?
“It was sooooo weird,” she repeated herself for some retarded reason, frowning. Thanks to her, the knowledge that no one at school even knew who I was gouged my innards for the second time.
Now I feel sorry for my former try-hard self who spammed emoticons in every text. I thought using love hearts was disgusting, so I used stars and smilies and musical notes. Just thinking about it sends shivers down my spine zomg srsly.
Hayama bit his lip in vexation. He had probably never imagined something like this before: that there was hatred right under his nose, or that dark emotions were swirling underneath the smiling veneer of those whom he trusted.
The second thing I noticed was Hachiman’s fondness for dumb references and Internet memes. There’s even a reference to Naruto’s catchphrase “dattebayo”, which of course I just had to translate as “Believe it!” If you can read moonrunes, there’s a list of references in the novels here, and that doesn’t even cover everything. Some Japanese fans even have blogs dedicated to decoding the references and memes in Oregairu. It’s crazy.
I had a few conversations with my editor about how to handle this sort of language. He was of the opinion that blatant memes take the reader out of the story, and I wasn’t sure if the Japanese has the same effect. After all, as a filthy gaijin, I had to look most of these memes up, so my reading pace is a lot slower than the average Japanese reader.
In the end, I decided to use English memes in replacement of the Japanese memes. I knew I was writing for an audience who was familiar with this sort of language, and, more importantly, it did fit Hachiman’s character. His character seems to resonate particularly with netizens, so I made him speak their language.
It wasn’t particularly hard to use this writing voice since it’s pretty close to how I normally write on the internet, although the language is a bit more simplistic for the most part. As a twenty-year-old, I still have intimate familiarity with teenage slang, so I had no trouble getting in touch with my “inner Hachiman”, so to speak.
That said, I used a much more sophisticated vocabulary than I would normally use for an LN translation, especially compared to my work on Henneko. I wasn’t afraid to use words like “consternation”, “perfunctory” and “schadenfreude”. (After all, it wouldn’t hurt to make LN readers pick up a dictionary every now and then, heh heh.)
As much as Hachiman is an internet wise guy, he’s also shown to be unusually talented at Japanese. He’s ranked third in the school at Japanese, and he’s also a voracious reader. His competency is naturally reflected in his word choices. While the lexicon isn’t too difficult, his wordplays are a bit more sophisticated than what I saw in Henneko and he’s adept at metaphors as well.
When translating Oregairu’s prose, I drew conscious influence from The Catcher in the Rye, which I studied carefully for its use of first person voice. Putting aside the obvious similarities between Hikigaya Hachiman and Holden Caulfield, I think The Catcher in the Rye is a masterpiece in capturing tone. As I reread the novel, it occurred to me that so much of the nuance of the tone comes through the syntax and the run-on sentences, so that even seemingly neutral words developed sarcastic connotations in Holden Caulfield’s train of thought.
When translating, it’s easy to just fall back on the dictionary translations of words without paying attention to how context and the syntax of the sentence provides meaning. As a result, it is common to find translations which are grammatically correct and accurate to the literal meaning of the original, but fails to capture the voice of the work. Oregairu isn’t nearly as prose-heavy as The Catcher in the Rye, but I do think the prologue of the second volume showcases the rambling spirit of Hachiman’s writing style. Compared to the rest of the novel, it took me a lot of rewriting before I was satisfied with the opening.
“I Hate Nice Girls”
Volume 2 of Oregairu is covered in episodes 4 and 5 of the anime. I personally think they’re two of the weaker storylines in the overall scheme of things, but I was really looking forward to translating Hachiman’s infamous “I hate nice girls” monologue, which happens at the end of episode 5. I distinctly remember this as the moment that turned me into a fan of the series, not because I agreed with Hachiman’s ideas, but because it treated his isolation and cynicism with empathy.
Hachiman is a more pathetic, unlikable human being in the light novel. His creepy love for Totsuka is more emphasised and so are his siscon tendencies. There is literally a chapter in the volume called “Hikigaya Komachi Will Marry Her Onii-chan For Sure When She Grows Up (I think)”. He also comes across as more openly lecherous and racist.
As anime viewers are aware, much of the humour in Oregairu comes from poking good-natured fun at Hachiman. In chapter 1, Hachiman professes to have been that creepy guy who keeps ringing up a girl, assuming that she likes him just because she gave him her number. Yuigahama and Yukinoshita both make fun of him for this. Then, in chapter 3, we see the “nice girls” monologue, only in a completely humorous context where he’s assuming the love between he and Totsuka will never be. In the last chapter, the same lines are repeated, but with total seriousness. In that moment, the pathos underscoring the humour comes to the surface.
For a moment there, I was keenly aware of how roughly I spoke. I practically snarled those words at her. I wondered why I did that. It wasn’t something to get so riled up over.
I scratched my head as a way of hiding my irritation. That was the desperate sound of clutching at straws. The silence rang out between us, an extension from the stillness of before, and it made me sick.
It was the first time I was unable to stomach the silence.
The novel’s got more edge than the anime in that regard. I felt like the writing really elevated itself in the last chapter. Personally, as a translator, I enjoyed writing the melancholy moments in the story best of all.
As for how I chose to render the “nice girls” monologue, you’ll have to read the novel if you haven’t read it already!
Localisation Choices – Why British English?
From a pragmatic perspective, it really wasn’t a sensible idea to translate Oregairu into Australian English (i.e. British spelling). The first volume is written in American English, after all, and I know from the site stats that most of the readers are from America.
Problematic at times was my use of slang. Sometimes, I had no idea I was using Australian or British slang, which left my (American) editor baffled at my translation choices. For example, I’m a bit distraught that Americans don’t use the word “whinge” – it is an extremely useful word. In those cases, I had to revert to American slang, or at least more neutral slang.
I also stuck with the American “cell phone” and “elementary school”, which in Australian English would be “mobile phone” and “primary school” respectively. If I did use the Australian alternatives, it would have shifted the setting to Australia, which is bad localisation for a number of reasons. I certainly didn’t want Hachiman to be saying things like, “Yeah, mate, put another shrimp on the barbie!” in a broad Australian accent.
Basically, while I used Australian spelling throughout, I made sure to restrict my vocabulary to words an international audience would be familiar with. This was a tentative juggling act, as you can imagine.
So why bother with the British spelling in the first place when I obviously know American spelling (which is, honestly, a more sensible spelling system in every way)? In the end, it was really just a small act of egoism on my part. I wanted to leave my imprint on the work to remind readers, however subtly, that this novel went through someone else’s hands before it came to you. As much as I wanted my translation to do justice to Watari Wataru’s writing, I also wanted it to reflect a small part of me as well. I hope readers can forgive that artistic impulse of mine.
If you want to read more about my thoughts about the translating process, check out this interview I did with Cho on English Light Novels. That article focuses mainly on Henneko.
Overall, I enjoyed translating Oregairu more than I did Henneko, and that could be a result of me improving at translating (it only took me two months to finish a volume this time), but mostly it’s because I love Oregairu and it’s one of my favourite series ever. I focused a lot on Hikigaya Hachiman in this post because his writing voice presented the biggest challenge as a translator, but my actual favourite character in the series is Hayama Hayato. He got a lot of attention in volume 2 and I really enjoyed translating his scenes.
As I said before, I am committed to translating the rest of the novels, but probably at a slower rate since I have some other priorities besides translating.
One of my biggest areas for improvement as a translator is my less-than-perfect proficiency in the Japanese language. I’ve made some big leaps and bounds this year, but I still have a long way to go. I submitted part of my Oregairu translation for a university translation course I was doing last semester, and while I scored perfect marks in “readability” and “appropriateness of translation choices”, I did slip up with minor accuracy-related issues. I also spelled Zaimokuza’s name wrong. In the end, I got a 92.
I’m confident that I know what I’m doing as a translator. But because I am a perfectionist, I have been getting stressed over my translations and frustrated with my Japanese ability, especially because I also want to be a speedy translator. So my number one priority for the rest of the year is to improve my Japanese. I want to do justice to the series, and if I rush it, I might just get things wrong.
I also want to blog more and, well, have a bit more of a life. For those of you who are following the Oregairu translation, sorry for the delays. That being said, the first chapter of volume 3 should be done by next week. I’m working on it!
Anyway, until next time, guys!