Learning a second language is so powerful an experience that I recommend everyone do it. It doesn’t matter which language you chose; all will give you the same depth of perception and insight into another culture that is needed to create a well-rounded individual. Or at least, it should. If you pour your whole self into studying another language the experience changes your life. Unfortunately some people stop their studies half-way but still expect to work as professionals. (See our Kodansha Error Reports for examples)
Recently I was asked for my opinion of the manga industry trend to include in translations Japanese honorifics, suffixes, and some whole words words intact. One of Miss Dream’s frequent visitors, user Thereisnospoon303, asked how translators could possibly capture the levels of respect represented by Japanese honorifics without reference to the honorifics themselves. He also asked why the inclusion of suffixes and honorifics in manga translations has become standard practice.
Both of these questions are good, and so I’m going to take some time to address them here on Miss Dream. Several users at the forum the questions were originally posted on responded well to my insight, so perhaps it might be useful to people visiting here as well.
I work as an interpreter and translator for a Japanese semi-conductor firm. I have several years of experience translating highly technical documents related to semi-conductor technology for engineers. I also do live interpretation service for business meetings, and general interpretation for Japanese expatriates relocating to New York. (IE: I translate Japanese immunization records, school records, birth certificates, and other government documents, as well as helping people with simple tasks like leasing apartments, etc.)
Previous to my current line of work I freelanced for a number of years – translating everything from unknown manga series to pornography and operations manuals. During college I also worked on editing translated publications related to Buddhism in the academic journal Monumentica Nipponica by Sophia University. On top of that, I’ve been involved in fansubbing for the last couple of years and so I have a pretty good perspective on how amateur translations differ from professional ones. I like to think that I have a wide-range of experience when it comes to working as a translator and interpreter in business, academic, and amateur environments.
When did manga publishers begin to include Japanese suffixes and honorifics in their translations?
This trend started with Del Rey. Del Rey Manga was a sub-branch of Kodansha – three parent companies beneath it, to be precise. It began publishing translated manga titles in America in 2004 and recruited most of its translation staff from anime conventions1, as well as from other manga publishing companies; like the now defunct Tokyopop and Bandai Entertainment. Del Rey originally started out as a publisher of science fiction and fantasy genre works. They came into the manga publishing business as a way to bolster waning profits in a market that was squeezing them out. To say that they were inexperienced with manga translation is an understatement; they went belly-up in early 2011 after several years of bleeding money.
Luckily most of Del Rey’s titles were rescued by its immediate parent-company, Random House, which in turn sold the titles to the newly formed Kodansha Comics USA – a subsidiary of Random House’s staffed primarily by leftovers from Del Rey2 and Viz Media (specifically, Dallas Middaugh – former head of publication at Del Rey, current head of publications at Kodansha Comics USA). With the newly created Kodansha Comics USA being structurally closer to Kodansha Japan, getting licenses to translate series in English became easier. Considering that all of the Executives of Kodansha Comics USA (Dallas Middaugh, Kumi Shimizu, John Fuller, etc.) have decades of combined experience in publishing manga in one form or another in the U.S. – getting this new company off the ground running shouldn’t have been a problem.
Instead, the trends that led Del Rey to its ultimate failure have carried over to Kodansha Comics USA – shoddy translations, terrible editing, poor graphical design work, issues with printing and press work leading to consumers buying books with missing pages3 or improperly bound spines4, very slow serial publication, etc. On top of this, their marketing for new series has been terrible. Unless you are a hard core fan of Sailor Moon or happen to run across it while browsing a manga section in a fortunate Barnes and Nobles that is carrying the new release, you might not know that Kodansha has been releasing a newly translated Sailor Moon manga series. Fans have been unable to reach Kodansha Comics USA for comment about the many issues that have so far been documented in the Sailor Moon manga. There has been lots of negative fan reception of Kodansha Comics USA based on their unwillingness to participate through social media with their fans5.
While the multiple challenges facing the business model of Kodansha Comics USA are all worth commentary, I’m going to focus specifically on their style of translation, which is directly lifted from Del Rey’s original model. Back in the early 2000’s, manga publishing companies realized something about their market demographic: they’re nerds. Not just in the sense that they tend to become overly fanatical about whatever their pet series is, but that usually they are interested in learning Japanese language. Most of the time this demographic has no access to learn Japanese language and their only exposure to it is through media they are purchasing from these companies. This new generation of fans wanted to become enmeshed in Japanese culture. The companies quickly realized that they could market an “authentic Japanese cultural experience” to this demographic by keeping suffixes, honorifics, and some whole words intact without translation. Many long-time fans of the medium, like myself, were already familiar with these terms either because we had learned some Japanese on our own or because we had run across the terms while viewing fansubs or scanlations online – where amateurs had included them.
So Del Rey did away with traditional Japanese-English translating methods. They began to include honorifics, suffixes, and sometimes whole words like sempai in their publications. The so-called “weeaboo” demographic ate it up; and since the manga crowd was already such a niche market, the fact that this shift excluded a small population of readers from understanding every word in their books was not a big deal. Other publishers saw how successful this model was and began to copy it. Nowadays it’s common to walk into an American bookstore, pick up a manga from a shelf, and find suffixes like san and chan throughout the pages. The industry has changed.
But what’s wrong with including Japanese honorifics and suffixes in published English translations?
The problem with this model is that it’s lazy. It’s much more difficult to produce an English translation of a Japanese work without relying on suffixes and honorifics; a translator must be much more adept at using English vocabulary and grammar to get the point across. Translators working in this field (and by working, I mean freelancing, which has its own problems…more on that later) don’t need to have much experience in print media translation to be able to quickly chug out Babelfish-like work. Translators are given license to be lazy; to not worry about English grammar, to not worry about accurately reflecting politeness levels in speech using English alone, and to not address problems between how Japanese speech functions compared to how English speech works. Basically, they’re given a pass to spit out dictionary definitions of all the words that appear in a sentence, leave them in Japanese word-order, and call it a day.
This laziness has permeated the work force. Given the nature of the freelancing community this is to be expected. Here’s a little inside view of what people go through to become a professional translator. (At least, this was my experience…it’s not definitive)
- 1. The person attends a university and major in their target language, usually spending at least one year abroad in the target country. In their last year they are (usually) expected to take a course which teaches them how to translate for business and academic audiences. This course is often a prerequisite for graduation, and must be passed with high marks. For Japanese, you are generally taught not to include suffixes or honorifics, but to make the politeness levels portrayed by these functions apparent through the use of English grammar and vocabulary.
2. The subject works extra hard to become distinguished during their undergraduate or graduate career; by doing editing for an academic journal and/or writing a senior thesis. At this time they usually gain some experience in translating for academia. And almost always they are expected to work as a teacher’s assistant for lower level language courses. About a quarter of the upper level students eventually enter the JET program or some similar program in which they teach English to foreigners. Another 25% go on to gain academic scholarships like Mombusho and eventually obtain a PhD. The other half end up working a job having nothing to do with their degree; and maybe 5% total go on to become professional interpreters.
3. For the ones who want to become an interpreter, it is difficult. If you are not a native Japanese speaker, you will have a very hard time finding work. This is because Japanese companies would prefer to hire a Japanese person who has studied English over an English native speaker who has studied Japanese. Similarly, American companies would rather hire a Japanese person to speak Japanese over an American who has studied Japanese. So if you are Caucasian, you must take special care to stand out against the competition – this means years of underpaid freelance work. You have to build a reputation for yourself that is so amazing companies can’t possibly refuse you. Most of the jobs available to freelancers are very low paying – therefore a freelancer must become very quick at their work so they can take on multiple assignments at a time in order to make ends meet. It takes years to gain enough experience and reputation to get a big company to notice you, so most of the time freelancers quit and get a job doing something else not related to their degree.
4. There are two types of freelancers: 1) there are those who are recent graduates who are working hard to gain experience and a reputation for themselves, and 2) there are old-hats who just aren’t very good at what they do. Their skills are so terrible that even with years of practice, they never become good enough for a large company to want to hire. It’s usually interpreters of the second variety that become “famous” within the manga and anime industry. After all, they’ve been around long enough to make the networking connections they need to land better contracts.
5. The freelancers who eventually become good at translating leave the freelance work force typically 3-5 years after graduating college, almost always because they are hired by a large corporation. If someone stays longer than that, it’s a bad sign. As a freelancer, a person has little to no health care, no sick-leave or vacation time, no 401K option, very low wages, and no job security. The job assignment contracts are short; a good one is about 6 months long – and the amount of work you’re expected to turn around is immense. Most people put up with this situation only because they believe it is temporary and because they want to build a reputation for themselves of being able to handle any kind of deadline or working environment. Some people stay indefinitely because they aren’t skilled or qualified enough to do anything else.
The fact that all manga translation is freelance work has a huge impact on the overall quality of the finished product. When you pay people poorly and expect them to knock out hundreds of translations a month, you aren’t going to attract people of talent or skill. You’re going to have to hire from the dregs of the workforce or recent graduates with no real experience.
Can you provide an example of the difference in quality between a translation that doesn’t rely on suffixes, and one that does?
Yes! I hope you have Unicode enabled in your browser, it’s about to get Japanese in here!
Tanaka: Miki-san, hirogohan ni ikou?
Miki: Tanaka-san, moshiwake gozaimasen mada shigoto ga arimasu kara…
In the first exchange, Tanaka is asking Miki very casually if she’d like to go to lunch with him. It is likely in this scenario that Tanaka is higher up hierarchically than Miki; she might be a receptionist and Tanaka her boss.
Miki responds that she still has a lot of work left to do, so she can’t go to lunch. Since she is addressing someone formally who is her superior, she uses much more polite language (in this case, something called “keigo”; formal business speech).
An experienced translator who doesn’t rely on leaving suffixes and honorifics intact would take the above dialogue and present it in English something like this:
Tanaka: Hey Miki, wanna go get lunch?
Miki: Sorry Mr. Tanaka, I still have a lot of work so unfortunately I must decline.
You’ll notice that in Tanaka’s sentence, the “san” part of Miki’s name has been dropped. In Japanese, calling people “san” is prevalent even among close co-workers; it is similar how a daycare teacher might be called “Miss Karen” by her pupils, even though she is being casually addressed with her first name. If a student were to call her “Karen” instead, it wouldn’t be a big deal since the tone is casual to begin with. Same thing in this context. Miki responds with polite language that reflects her respect to Tanaka without relying on Japanese honorifics. Her polite speech is only partially represented by addressing Tanaka as “Mr.” – the rest comes from choices of vocabulary.
The “right” way to deal with honorifics is to make the level of politeness apparent in the sentence through stylistic word choice. Stylizing doesn’t mean inventing words or meanings that aren’t in the sentence, rather it means to find the precise word in English that accurately reflects the right meaning in Japanese. It’s usually not a one-to-one word-for-word translation. This is why the field of translating is called “interpreting” – there’s more to it than being a dictionary.
Here’s how manga translators will typically deal with the same Japanese lines:
Tanaka: Miki-san let’s go to lunch
Miki: Tanaka-san I can not go regrettably I still have work to do
In this case honorifics are left intact; although the same general gist of the sentences is there, the wording doesn’t sound natural in English. The hierarchy level difference between the two individuals is also no longer apparent – since Tanaka and Miki are both referred to as “san”, an English speaker may not understand that Tanaka is actually a superior of Miki’s. The sentence contains an exact replica of Japanese word order, but because Japanese and English word orders are different the translation sounds awkward. You’ll notice in the first translation that first the “I still have work to do” part comes before the “I can’t go” part; that’s to do with the order of English clauses. The Del Rey style of translation tends to ignore the rules of English grammar.
Why is English grammar important to know when doing translations from Japanese?
One of the first things you learns when you study a foreign language is how your native language functions grammatically. At first, when you take Japanese class and you spend a week or two dissecting English sentences to determine which words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, which parts are predicates, articles, etc., it all seems unnecessary. But this knowledge is indispensable later on when you learn how these same grammatical functions work in another language. When you’re faced with a sentence in Japanese and are told to translate it into English, it is dire that you understand how the tenses work in both languages and what the sentence structure equivalents are. Modern translators never bother with any of this knowledge, and so their English grammar is really terrible and their translations suffer as a result.
Here’s an example that illustrates why it’s important to deeply understand the grammar of both languages you are working with:
Mr. Tanaka is important.
Mr. Tanaka is dear to me.
In both sentences, the word “taisetsu” is used to describe Mr. Tanaka. If one were to open a standard Japanese->English dictionary, you would find both “important” and “dear” as possible definitions for “taisetsu”. The difference between a good translator and a poor one is that a good translator will know when to translate “taisetsu” as “important” and when to translate it as “dear”. Many times you will hear translators say that their work is dependent on context; this is especially true in the field of Japanese-English interpretation. Luckily this elusive “context” that translators are talking about can often be determined by Japanese grammar.
Compared to English, Japanese is a narrow language. The average English speaker uses about 10,000 words in their vocabulary; the average Japanese speaker uses about 8,000 daily. This doesn’t sound like much of a difference, except when you consider situations where we in English have multiple words to describe someone who is “nice” (sweet, charming, dear, kind, thoughtful, etc.) English speakers have a lot vocabulary at their disposal to nuance the exact meaning they want to convey; more often than not Japanese speakers will rely on grammatical inflection to convey their feelings, so that just one word can be taken several different ways depending on “context”.
Manga translators are never forced to consider the full range of English vocabulary options. Instead, they usually produce word-for-word translations that don’t convey the right meaning. It’s the difference between:
1. Mr. Tanaka is dear to me.
2. Mr. Tanaka, to me, is important.
Although the second sentence keeps the Japanese sentence structure intact and is “word for word”, it isn’t correct – because of grammatical inflection, the right word choice should be “dear”. A good translator would also adjust the word order to conform to the demands of English grammar.
If this practice is really as bad as you claim, then why is it the standard?
Luckily, it is only standard practice in the anime and manga industries. My opinion is that because anime and manga fans are so unfamiliar with the professional and academic standards of Japanese to English translation, they ignorantly assume that what they see being done in manga is standard practice everywhere. It is not.
If you open a novel translated from Japanese into English, you will not find honorifics, suffixes, or words left in Japanese without explanation of their definition. If you go to a business meeting with live interpretation, you will not hear Japanese honorifics and suffixes or words included in the English communication. If you hire a professional to translate a document, you will not find translators who rely on honorifics to help them coast through the translation. Open an academic journal featuring translated articles and you won’t find this stuff either.
This isn’t because professionals and academics are too lazy to include suffixes, but rather because they are working much harder to make the reading experience of their English speaking audience more intuitive and easy.
But I *like* reading suffixes!
Power to you! There’s nothing inherently wrong with suffixes being left intact; it’s just that the way the manga industry cuts corners and produces an overall bad translation generally leaves suffixes in. It’s kind of a “guilt by association” thing. Some modern translators of very high caliber choose to leave suffixes in – and that’s just fine. There are many different styles of translations and one is not necessarily always “better” than another one. But when it comes to how the manga industry in general handles translations, it’s no longer an argument over stylization. Their work is generally lazy and shoddy as a result, and suffixes are only a symptom of a much larger problem.
Similarly there are some bad translators who never use Japanese honorifics in their work, but exhibit the same poor choices in English vocabulary and lack of attention to grammar points as bad translators who do use honorifics.
The American manga industry is screwed. Personally I avoid using Japanese honorifics and suffixes in my translations because in my professional life it is absolutely verboten to do so. (Imagine the faces of my poor American engineers if I expected them to understand the complexities of keigo just to read a document explaining how to install brackets, for instance!) However, in my fansubs and scanlations I know that I am writing for an audience who enjoys seeing suffixes in what they read. So there has to be special care taken not to betray my standards while still targeting my translations towards what my audience expects. In some cases I’ll make an exception to the suffix rule and other times I’ll be a stickler about it. Mostly it depends on my mood.
1. Wikipedia contributors. “Del Rey Manga.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
2. “Kodansha USA to Take Over Del Rey Manga Titles (Update 3) – News.” Anime News Network. Anime News Network, 04 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
3. Bednarski, Dan. “Sailor Moon Forum • Information.” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. MarioKnight, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
4. Yeisley, Jennifer. “Sailor Moon Forum • View Topic – ANNOUNCEMENT: Kodansha USA Acquires Sailor Moon Manga!” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. Yensama, 22 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
5. “Sailor Moon Forum • View Topic – ANNOUNCEMENT: Kodansha USA Acquires Sailor Moon Manga!” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. Sailor Cybertron, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
– Small Lady + Thereisnospoon303 of The Galaxy Cauldron Forums; for encouraging me to write this
– Jennifer Yeisley, for her help in compiling citations.