Translation Theory for Anime Fans: Why You Should Care

Dying+can+be+fatal+to+your+life+seems+like+death_39d9be_4962121I’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…




  1. I personally don’t have a specific preferred translation because Im rather fine with anything as long as I can read it (lol sorry). However I truly agree with the fact that translators should be given a handful of payment and support because like what you said, damn its not easy to translate.

    I may not be that fluent and good with Japanese although I study so yeah its quite hard honestly. I do donate (to mangas though) even just a little to those awesome group translators who put their best to give us a decent English scans to read.

    • I am kindda agree with you, except they atleast have a good quality if they want.
      Think if translator as street peformancer. the street where they perform is internet and the passerby was us. And of course they would deserve a penny if they has good peformance.

      Now if the peformance is singer then they cover a song some famous singer, will they discharge for that?

  2. A very Interesting read, Froggy. Translators definitely deserve to be acknowledged for their work given how much work they do. Heck I won’t lie in saying that I do want to learn Japanese, and try watching and reading it for myself. Though, at the there is no prgress in the matter. i know some things about the language based on research that I’ve done myself but that’s about it.

    At the same time I have wondered how difficult the work involved translating is. In fact, I’ve heard that Tap, one of the biggest fan translators for SAO, has been thinking about moving on to a more relaxing series.

    Also, your talk about retaining the “Japanese-ness” of the work got me thinking about the YenPress release of Accel World. I won’t lie I am kind off sad that they don’t include honoriffics, especially in regards to Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime, since it does seem to make their relastionship seem a bit different. But there are some more interesting aspects too. Like Fuuko and how she referrs to Haru. Based on the anime, which I saw before my introduction to the novels, I figured she would have said Mr. Crow or something similar but intstead she called him Corvus.

    Now at first I tilted my head at this wondering why, but then I researched what that meant. Learning that it is the name of a constellation and comes from the Latin word meaning crow or raven. Which i found to be actually quite clever.

    • From my experience, learning Japanese only requires a bit of study every day. You don’t have to cram or stress yourself out learning it, but you do have to do it regularly.

      And yeah, some series are more challenging to translate than others. From my experience, translators sometimes spend more time researching stuff than actually translating. I know that was my experience with Oregairu. And yeah, SAO has a lot of sci-fi terms and detailed descriptions that would definitely make it difficult to translate.

      That’s a cool thing about the Accel World translation. I haven’t checked out YP’s version of it, so now I’m curious! I’ll have to check it out sometime.

  3. I think you’ve already covered one of the major aspects of why fans prefer “Japaneseness” in their translations in this article. For me, it’s the words that simply don’t have English counterparts that are used in comparable ways that need to be retained, because otherwise the culture itself can’t be fully translated. I’m probably treading over ground you’ve crossed many times before but in my opinion it’s the honorifics and family pronouns that need the most attention.

    If you don’t include -sans or -samas in your translation then what the heck do you do about the conversations following someone dropping them? And I can’t help but cringe when a character calls another “big-bro” every five seconds, because for the most part that’s just not done in English. Localization is fine, especially with jokes that an English-speaking audience wouldn’t understand otherwise, but the basic stuff pops up so often that trying to work around it does more harm than good because you miss out on arguably important content (I mean it’s significant when, for instance, a potential couple makes the decision to stop using honorifics).

    Like many manga do, translated anime wouldn’t go far wrong to have a few frames at the start of a show explaining what the various untranslated words mean.

    • Of course, this all means very little when you move to dubs and workarounds need to be carefully identified. The -sans and -chans would sound weird following English speech…or would they? Maybe if the dub quality was decent >.>

    • May I suggest that honorifics and family pronouns are so important because they’re so well known? There are lots of subtle Japanese cultural and linguistic elements that get lost in translation, like keigo and passive forms, but they don’t get talked about as much, even though they’re just as important as honorifics, imo!

      • You’re absolutely right, those were just the common examples to sprung to my mind. Anything that has an impact on the meaning of the sub should be included, ideally, though i’d imagine there are some cases where it’d be tough to do that and still make it sound good in English. My Japanese ability is still pretty average, and i’ve never tried translating, so I can’t preach about it all too fervently XD

      • What are your thoughts on when most of the Japanese cultural elements are just completely thrown out the window? An example that comes to mind is the translation of the Phoenix Wright series, which is extremely well done in my opinion. They solve the problem of the cultural and linguistic barrier by simply Americanizing the translation as much as possible. For example, most of the characters’ names involve some sort of pun which doesn’t translate well into English. The English translation therefore decides to just come up with its own punny names. Furthermore, the Japanese version of the series is set in Japan, but the setting is changed to Los Angeles in the English version.

        I personally really like this approach to translation. Since I am fluent in English and proficient in Japanese (would probably pass N1 with about 2 months of studying), I’m able to enjoy the game twice over and appreciate both English pop culture references and Japanese wordplay. I can see fans perhaps getting upset because the translation is not “faithful”. However, in the case of Phoenix Wright, the prevailing opinion is that the English translation is amazing, partly because of how Americanized it is.

        One last thought: if you played the Phoenix Wright series in English unaware that it was a translation, you would almost certainly think that the game _was_ originally in English. I think this should in fact be the goal of translations; the consumer should not regard the translation as a translation, but as a version of the work to be considered on equal footing with the original.

        By the way, I’ve been a lurker of your blog for some time now and I really like the meta / introspective viewpoint you take with your posts!

        • As for this example, I’d rather be able to play both the English version, and the original version, to enjoy both of the jokes and puns. At this stage, you may as well consider them different works.

          About another nice game translation, I think of Recettear. One of my favorite one was the skill “Cuterage” which came from, after looking up the JP name, “Combat Mode”. Actually they did not try to translate the skill name but found a really funny one matching the ingame animation/effect.

          As a non native English speaker, I can say that I do not notice “weird English”, so that’s something that does not bother me. On the other hand, if I read subs in my native tongue, I facepalm too often at weird sentences to be able to enjoy the show, so I set my default sub language to EN on Crunchyroll…

          A good sub should be one when you understand what’s happening without noticing there is a sub. But that depends heavily on both on what is being subbed, and on the target audience.

          One thing I find weird in English subs is the use of some US-only slang/speech, that gansta~ speech sounds horrible on an anime imo (well, it may fit on anime with an atmosphere like Black Lagoon, but much less in the middle of a cute-centric school life anime).

          As anime (and games) rely heavily on tropes, I think it is much more important to follow the trope than to try to use another trope from whatever local culture you’re translating to. That is not necessarily use the JP trope as is, but rather, study where this trope was used before in other translated works, and try to reuse this as building blocks to continue to build the trope in the language you are translating to.

          But the trope used in anime come mainly from fansubbing, so in order to translate “moe”, which is already his own trope in JP, you use the corresponding trope that’s been built in the Western world which is named “moe” too.

          These word transfer between languages are really not specific to anime. English transfers words everyday in new technology stuff. If you understand French, you can laugh at for trying to come up with French equivalent to “hashtag” that nobody will understand if ever somebody use it.

  4. Being killed is nothing. I got killed nine times on the way to work today.

    On a serious note, I typically like it when all of the cultural stuff is left in a translation. It doesn’t bug me one way or another how its translated though as long as its in English and done well. However, honorifics usually feel out of place when the rest of the sentence is in another language.

    Also I think anime fans prefer Japanesey translations because, like people in the comments and even you said, there aren’t suitable translations for words like “otaku” and “moe” unless you want to turn that word into an entire sentence.

    • So… you’re more powerful than a cat, mate?

      And I get what you mean about “otaku” and “moe”. While I guess you could translate “otaku” as “obsessed anime fan” or something along those lines, “moe” is a complete cipher. I mean, moe is more of a verb than a noun, right? Then there are those people who say moe is a state of being or some shit… God, where would you even begin?

  5. I really haven’t met a fan that is too fussy with the anime and manga translations as I am, as I’ve seen in quite a few fansub pages, it’s extremely rare to find someone who complains about the translation, even though the translation really sucks. I’ve noticed that most people is satisfied with an average quality translation as long as they can understand the most of it.

    I think that the fandom who really care about the quality of the translations are the, you could call them, “hardcore” fans; people who have a long way watching anime, reading manga, playing visual novels or people who are basically constant readers.

    As in my case (A really fussy anime fan) I really do care about the quality of the translations, and, as every “hardcore” fan, I like that the translations be as close to the original as possible. as a fan, I really care if the translation include honorifics, if the names are mentioned as the japanese way (Surname first), even if I feel that the words are being softened and differ from the original dialogue, etc…

    as you mentioned in the post, translation is really, really, really difficult; translate someone else’s ideas with the same intensity and feeling in a completely different language is something hard to (If not impossible) to achieve. Even if you put your heart and soul in the translation, there will always be something that would be lost in translation. That’s why I think that the fandom that prefers translations that retains the “Japanese-ness” of the original material is aware of the difficulty of translation, and reading an excellent quality translation makes you feel that you’re reading the original material.

    • I’ve noticed something kinda similar, in that people don’t tend to care so much about translation quality as long as it’s readable, but they do notice things like honorifics. Aside from what you mentioned, I think part of it comes down to the fact that not all anime fans who read English subtitles are native English speakers. So there’s no real consensus on what makes a good quality translation. Sometimes, the simpler, more literal translations are just easier to read, after all.

  6. Ooo Campione! The thing that made me into LN, lel.
    And that fish…. I wonder if its Frog-kun’s personal preference….

    Well I’ve been watching animes and reading mangas for 20+ years. During that time, I’ve watched subs, dubs, and read tons of mangas. I agree that there were ‘changes’.

    I myself also translated things here and there.
    There were some ‘guides’ of TL imho.
    guide 1 :
    Literal TL : Like really translates everything word by word. can went off as weird and rigid sometimes.
    Liberal TL : Often restructures and replace words, idioms e
    tc for more readability and flexibility. Too liberal and it will be a fanfic instead. and often loses the main essence.
    guide 2 :
    How much would u localize it : honorifics. <<- always a problem. Should I translate it So it becomes Mr. Ms. etc? Leave it as San, sama etc? Or just remove it?
    guide 3 :
    TL notes : do i need these? how much of them do i need?

    there were lots of other things to take care of, frog is more of an expert at the field…

    so all in all its a very very subjective issue since everyone has different preferences. its hard to categorize which style is prevalent right now due to the various styles of TLer. Even a TLer in a same group has different approaches.

    tho there is a bad thing : taking things for granted. if you see 'bad' TL, provide with feedback. it helps you and both the TLer to improve. a real TLer wont be pissed off but critiques instead he will improve.

    sorry for the long rant…

    • I did enjoy the kissing scenes in Campione ;D

      I agree that more constructive criticism about TLs would be great! There are lots of occasions where readers pointed out typos I made or parts that weren’t clear in my TLs, which made me feel embarrassed for a while, but was probably better for everyone in the long run.

      And no problem about the long rant. Always great to hear from someone who’s experienced in these matters :D

  7. Looking forward to the next post. :3

    I think I start this comment with talking about some translators I really admire. That is, Larethian (affectionately known as lare-tan) and Teh Ping. These two translators are some of the most prolific translators out there, and they are notable because they don’t restrict themselves to a certain genre.

    Depending on the material they are translating, they may make very different translation decisions.

    For instance, in Ping’s translation of Biblia, he intentionally decided to drop the honorifics and use Mr/Mrs. instead. And it makes a big difference on the atmosphere/mood of how it reads.

    I recall one of Larethian’s projects (unfortunately I can’t remember which), which he decided to translate in the present/progressive tense, which is against the norm of most established translators and his usual habit. He left a note on the Baka-Tsuki page to make sure no one would switch the narration back in the past tense.

    I bring this up because sometimes there will even be variation among experienced translators. Their abilities to make those kinds of decisions is pretty cool, in my opinion. :3

    • That’s a good thing to point out. There might be accepted practices, but there are still lots of variations in style among fan translators. I agree that getting rid of honorifics might be a very good idea, especially when you’re translating something outside of a Japanese setting. (Not that Biblia is one of those stories, but it still goes off that “literary” feel.)

      I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the posts! Next week I’ll be retreading familiar ground (equivalence and whatnot) but everything after that should be pretty fresh even for practiced translators. I’m very excited :3

  8. I have translated only a view short articles (not Japanese), but I guess it’s still gives some experience how is to be a translation. And thanks to it I really appreciate efforts put in work by translators.
    I found two funny things:
    1) When reading in foreign language you (mostly) understand text, but when it comes to write it down then “How the hell write it down in way it do not sound weird” happens.
    2) After finally finishing text you thing “It sounds great, good job”. Then you are getting message from raging editor about what crap he got.

    Also technical vocabulary can give you some headache, even if you are somehow familiar with field.

    Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful.

    • Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful.

      LOL you’re not the only person to have said this. It’s also why “feminist translation theory” is a thing.

      Also, I agree that translating technical stuff can give you a headache. I’ve only done bits and pieces of it, but it always requires a lot of careful research and checking to make sure all the vocabulary is correct. Even when the piece is short, it takes ages. I guess it’s rewarding in its own way, though…

  9. Everything’s gonna be daijobu

    Two cases immediately came to mind:
    1. TvTropes used to use “Nakama” as a trope, but eventually argued enough over their interpretation of the trope to be a false translation of the word. The trope was re-named “found family.” (Which brings to mind the difference in nuances of doushi vs. shinyuu. Some places translate shinyuu as best friend, other cases specify shinyuu as a trusted person you can tell anything to, which is not always the best friend. Which is all muddled by how different Japanese people may use the words differently.)
    2. The Bakemonogatari “amateurish virginity” line. (I believe that the official aniplex sub also uses the literal “amateur virgin” translation.) I’m not sure I would have understood even gg’s attempt at the line, beyond as a non-sequitur turn by Senjougahara. There’s just no easy way to get the full understanding of “shirouto doutei” as a wordplay turn in the same amount of time for them to deliver the line, as a proper subtitle should, and the fact that aniplex made the same translation choice further shows how hard it is to even know when something is an inside joke, or slang, or an expression/idiom that has much further subtext and symbolism.

    • Let’s give this “amateurish virginity” line a try:

      Hitagi: This is why you’ll be a virgin for life.
      Koyomi: For life! Are you from the future?
      Hitagi: Could you please refrain from spitting? I might get an STD.
      Koyomi: How can a virgin spread STDs? And hey, wait a moment. This conversation is advancing on the premise that I am a virgin.
      Hitagi: Yes. I admit I’m biased.
      Koyomi: At least you’re aware of it.
      Hitagi: No spitting, please. You’re still a virgin even if you’ve been with prostitutes.

      The punchline is a bit different, but I think that line still conveys all the info required to “get” the joke. What do you think? Any better suggestions?

  10. Generally I prefer things be left alone as much as possible. However, I do understand and respect the effort that has to be made to translate all the puns and misunderstandings that show up in anime. I also understand the need to keep things accessible. I do find it distracting though, when I am watching something and I realize that the character didn’t just say what the subs say they did.

    Sometimes it’s just a matter of feel. Crunchyroll’s translation of Hachiman’s quest for “the real thing” bothered me because I just liked the feel of “genuine,” as I saw it translated by Kyakka. It just sounded better, imo.

    • You know, part of it might be that people tend to prefer the first version they’ve seen of something. When you’re used to seeing honorifics and so on, it’s harder to go back to translations that exclude them, because you have a very clear idea of what is being lost.

      I agree that subs can be distracting when they don’t match the dialogue. Unfortunately, it happens more often than one might think, even with official subs!

      Also, great observation with “the real thing” versus “something genuine”. Oregairu is full of dialogue that just sounds overly vague when translated into English, and it’s hard for a translator to know when to write more precise dialogue in order to sound natural in English or when to preserve the ambiguity. (iirc I used “something genuine” as well when translating “honmono”)

  11. This reminds me of a post by Tomato (the fan translator of Mother 3) I read discussing literal translation versus adaptation and the complex issues that arise. I’ll need to dig it up again.

    Personally, I feel as if there is a happy middle ground between the two, it’s just that hitting that middle ground can be tricky.

  12. I am not especially fussy about translations – in fact I LOVE a good translation that truly manages to keep the right feeling while sounding perfectly natural in the end language. For example the Italian FMA manga translation was one of these. However I think the real problem is that level of quality is rather uncommon to find – surely amongst amateur translators, but often in professional ones as well. Always speaking of official Italian manga translations – the Dragonball one was completely ATROCIOUS. So in the end the fans probably prefer to just learn a few key words and deal with honorifics themselves rather than with the awkward attempts of a translator to find an equivalent for them in the end language. I think the difficulty with Japanese is probably specifically that it has SO MANY ways to articulate politeness and respect and so much nuance in social relationships between speakers hidden in grammatical details, and that can not be translated if not in a very subtle way which organically affects the whole sentence. Compare with the seminal case of “Piccolo-san” becoming “Mr. Piccolo” in Gohan’s mouth.

    Of course there’s also a bit of community identity (knowing the right words makes you an initiate, and who doesn’t like a bit of insider jargon to distinguish oneself from newbies?) and of exotic-ness of the sound (this especially true for attack names, which sound much more ominous if yelled in a mysterious and phonetically distinct language).

    • It doesn’t surprise me that some of those professional Italian translators are crap. The standard among professional English translators isn’t too great either and has only gotten worse as time has gone by. It’s a pretty clear case of demand far outstripping the supply.

      Of course, you do get gems here and there, but since it takes time to deliver a polished translation, I don’t really anticipate the overall quality improving in the age of simulcasts, even if more translators are getting into the business. A number of pro translators these days are also former fan translators, so there’s continuity there as well.

  13. Wow, what an excellent read. I absolutely love that you’re planning doing a post series on this kind of stuff, as I think that this stuff is just as important as some of the other analyses that you’ve written, if not more so.

    I can’t wait to see how this series develops, as I’m sure you’ll be talking about lots of issues regarding localization of translations, ethics of translating, maybe even how translations aren’t exactly the same as editing. I’m a part of the English fansubbing community and while I’m not a translator myself, I’m interested in topics like this especially when it comes to aspects like taking a translated script and using that translation to create a legible, clean copy of the product.

    As for me, I personally prefer very minimal localization and honorifics in most translations, but I’m not afraid of seeing a more liberal approach to a translation, whether that’s done through editing or the translation itself. Just like in the except that you quoted, I prefer to stay as close to the original meaning of the work as possible. I think that’s probably the most important thing a translator has to keep in mind, otherwise they risk compromising their work’s integrity by the community at large.

    There’s lots of translation groups/fansub groups that have very differing philosophies on the matter though, and I think they all have some sort of merit to them, as long as their translation is accurate. I’m sure that you’ll go into depth about that later though.

    I’m excited to see more of the series in the future for sure.

    • Thanks! I’m pretty excited as well, but it’s hard to find the time to do justice to this topic. Hopefully, it’ll live up to expectations.

      A whole lot of translation comes down to “It depends”. The whole process is just extraordinarily complex, even when you’re not actively conscious of all the decisions you’re making. After all, as a member of fansubbing community, you’re probably familiar with the demand for fast translations. You can’t afford to sit down and think everything through. Considering the speed most fansubbers work at these days, it’s amazing what good work they do. You guys have my gratitude.

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