On 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. 
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.
In the 1980s and 1990s, translation theorists discovered social justice. It became very popular to talk about what it means to be an “activist translator” and the ways we can use translation to make marginalised minorities more visible. We call this the “cultural turn” of translation studies.
Sociology is still the dominant paradigm for translation theories today. This should come as no surprise if you think about it. Translation is an act of cross-cultural communication, so all the major sociological theories are a natural fit. In fact, I took up translation studies after majoring in Japanese language and cultural studies, and I’ve also taken courses in history and sociology. Postcolonialism and feminism are not new concepts to me.
Feminism… well, everyone knows what that is. (Or, at least, everyone thinks they know what that is.) I don’t want to get into any internet arguments about it so I’ll just say that feminism is about women’s rights and leave it at that.
Postcolonialism doesn’t get talked about so much in pop culture, but it’s just as important when it comes to social justice. Postcolonialism is the study of the cultural legacy of colonialism. As we know, there was a period in time when European powers colonised much of the known world, and the ongoing effects of racism and imperialism are still felt today.
This post is a short compilation of some of the more detailed essays and reflections I’ve written about the subjects. I did them for my translation theory class so the language is pretty academic. But I do talk about a lot of my personal experiences as well, so I hope you find them interesting.
Fan translation is an interesting subject for media scholars. The whole practice is a demonstration of how our media consumption habits have been changing thanks to online technology. Fans have always been creating their own content, but now they’re able to distribute them much more quickly and more widely than ever before. A lot of the academic debate has centered around the ethics of fan translation and its relationship with piracy, which is a very fascinating subject that will get its own post one day.
Ironically, what gets less attention is the actual translating aspect. There have been scattered observations about the translation strategies used by fan translators, but very little empirical research. How do fan translators compare with professional translators? No one can answer this for certain. The question has only become more difficult to answer as the boundaries between “fan” and “professional” in the anime/manga/VN scene become increasingly blurred.
Today, I’d like to share with you guys a case study published in 2008 which directly compares a fan and professional translation. It’s not perfect (the scope of the study is extremely limited, and not to mention the study was published seven years ago), but what’s interesting was the author’s conclusion: the fan translation was considered just as competent as the professional translation.
Let’s start today’s post with a Youtube video.
What’s interesting about this guy’s take on fansubbing is that he brings up translation theorists in order to justify his argument that fansubs are Objectively Bad Translations. This is something you should probably take with a grain of salt. It’s really easy for an academic’s work to be oversimplified when it’s being talked about in a non-academic environment. Even if the argument itself is presented accurately enough, the context around it might not be. In other words, someone might present an academic theory as fact when a theory is really just a theory.
This is relevant to the world of translation because, if you read any of the modern theories, they’re pretty much all in agreement that what makes a good translation is… um… well… it depends.
Seriously, that’s what it comes down to.
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.