I’ve talked about translation quite a few times already on this blog (see here, here and here), but I thought it would be a good idea to talk specifically about the theory behind translation – and why you in particular, as an anime fan, should give a crap.
This will be a series of posts that covers a major translation theory/debate every week with a key focus on how it applies to anime and its fandom. I’m writing this for a non-specialist, non-academic audience, so I’ll try not to sound too technical or dry. Translators might find some of this stuff relevant to their craft, but this isn’t a guide on how to translate.
Hopefully, after reading a couple of these posts, you’ll have a more informed opinion on key fandom issues such as fansubbing, localisation, faithfulness, and, of course, DUBS VERSUS SUBS.
But before we get started, we need to ask ourselves the obvious question.
What’s the point of theory?
Ah, the age old dilemma. Even though translation is an academic discipline these days, lots of translators don’t care much for the academic theories behind translation. They’d rather just get on with it. And indeed, there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that academically trained translators are better than untrained translators. However, as the famous translation theorist Susan Bassnett said: “The division is not really a division at all, for practitioners do talk about their work and can often articulate what they do and how they do it very well indeed.” (Reflections on Translation, 2011: pg. 16)
Theory is a way of verbalising something that most practitioners understand intuitively. It doesn’t necessarily make you a better translator, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, and it can help you find common ground with other translators when discussing particular problems. Even the most experienced translators get stuck all the time wondering, “What is the best way to translate this piece?” And while no theory can offer a clear cut solution, they can offer a range of possible answers, all correct in their own way.
But what about people who just read translations? Why should they know the theory? Well, as it turns out, it’s probably just as important for non-practitioners to know theory. For a start, if people had an idea about just how difficult it is to translate, maybe translators would get paid more (lol).
The main issue here, though, is that translation is, by definition, an act of communication between different cultures. We learn about other cultures through translations. We convey information through translations. One might even say that we create culture itself through the process of translation.
This is particularly relevant to the anime fandom because the majority of you reading this probably experience anime or other forms of Japanese pop culture through translation. Our fandom culture is influenced by the words used by translators, and in turn, our culture influences the translators.
Let me give you an example of this. Take all those Japanese words that have become part of the fandom lingo: otaku, moe, chuunibyou, etc. Anime fans adopted these words because they filled a gap in their lexicon. They were also simply left untranslated by many translators, which helped speed their rapid adoption. As anime has become more and more popular, the fandom has also become more insular, and the language has become more specialised accordingly.
It’s come to the point where someone with no familiarity with anime would be left confused by even the official subtitles of a show on Crunchyroll. What does all that san and chan nonsense mean? Manga is confusing as well. Imagine reading a book back-to-front! But it’s second nature for many of us fans.
In my opinion, to understand the nature of the modern anime fandom, it is absolutely necessary to understand why translation approaches to anime have changed over the years. And to understand that, you need to understand some translation theory.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Here is something the German translation theorist Heike Jüngst said about manga fans in Germany:
Manga fans are conscious of the fact that they are reading translations. Some of them learn Japanese, but as very few schools in Germany offer courses in Japanese, this is normally a private effort with a high drop-out rate. However, they expect the translations to give them something which is as much like the original as possible. The idea that there will always be losses and gains in comics translation, as expressed by Grun and Dollerup (2003), is not one these readers would be pleased with. (pg. 60)
– From Comics in Translation (2008), edited by Federico Zanettin.
This situation is one that feels very familiar to me from my observations of the English-speaking anime fandom. Indeed, with manga and anime translations all over the world, the trend has been to keep more and more of the original Japanese elements. It’s a trend that professional translators are highly aware of as well. Think of the backlash aimed at 4kids dubs and other early English adaptations. These days, professional translators are not much different from fan translators and are very often one and the same.
There are a bunch of complicated factors behind this which I will delve into with later posts, but it’s something for you to think about. Why do you think anime fans tend to prefer translations that retain the “Japanese-ness” of the original? What sort of translation do you prefer as an individual?
In my next post, we’ll look at theories of equivalence. What’s the difference between formal and dynamic equivalence, and what sort of translation style is prevalent in anime translations? If there’s no such thing as an objectively good translation, why do light novel translations suck???
Until next time…