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How would a black woman speak in anime? A case study of Little Women

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-13h55m09s57On the whole, black characters are quite rare in anime and manga. Plus, it’s been pointed out before that the majority of them are based on racist stereotypes. Although there is a black population in Japan (in fact, the current Miss Japan is half-black), most Japanese people are only exposed to black people through the media, which tends to reinforce their ignorance. As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find an anime that focuses specifically on black issues.

The Little Women anime (1987) is one of the exceptions, as it goes out of its way to educate its young viewers about slavery and the American Civil War. The notable thing about this production is that it actually adds black perspectives that were entirely missing from Louisa May Alcott’s novel. The character of Hannah, the family maid, was changed into a black woman, and there’s also a subplot in the early episodes focusing on an escaped slave named John. [1]

As great as this is for people who like some diversity in their anime, it still remains that these perspectives are included for the benefit of a Japanese audience, not for an African American or even a White American audience. These representations are drawn primarily from second-hand sources. Moreover, the distinctive qualities of “Black vernacular” are completely erased through translation, which serves to obscure the complex relationship between race, gender and class.

If anything, this anime makes visible the uncomfortable politics of Alcott’s original novel, for by depicting black bodies without their voices, Little Women affirms a sanitised version of racial relations that revolves entirely around the white, middle-class experience.

This is a post about translation. It shows how all translation is, in the end, a matter of representation. I’ll compare how the white characters and black characters in Little Women are “represented” in Japanese, with a particular focus on women’s speech (which makes sense since this is a show about, you know, little women). But before we get to that, let’s go over some basic concepts in translation and sociolinguistics.

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