[Editorial Tuesday] English Subtitles Keeping Japanese Terms – Helpful or Problematic?

You are watching anime one day and a word scrolls across the bottom of your screen that you do not recognize. Let’s say the word in Japanese is “dono”. There are no notes nearby, so you rewind to that moment where it appeared and you have two choices of action: discard the information that your brain has picked up as unregistered, or take that word, plug it into a dictionary, google, or jisho, and then learn that word. “Dono” in Japanese is an honorific term attached to someone’s name when you refer to someone as your lord or you they are in a position over you as some sort of master. Maybe they are your teacher. In this moment, you have equipped yourself with a new piece of information and you are slightly more knowledgeable than previously.

At what cost did that come to you? Was it worth the maybe thirty seconds it took you to learn that term? Well, if you’re studying Japanese, nah, not really. That is totally worth it and you are happier for knowing it. However, what if you paid for this product to be translated and this is the final cut that is hitting your desk at work or your lap at home? In fact, maybe it’s not just “dono” that is untranslated, but words like “Heian Jidai”, “sensei”, “kunoichi”, and “kyojin”, for example, are sprinkled all over the program and inserted directly into the sentences. You have to make a choice, is it worth looking up all of these individual terms that you do not know, and potentially writing them down?

Unless you are a linguist or have a photographic memory, remembering them all after one glance at the meaning, is not going to be an easily surmountable task. Was it worth it to pay for this product now? That is what we are going to talk about today in this Editorial Tuesday. Is leaving Japanese words in English, or whatever language you consume your anime in, helpful or more pain than it is worth? Let’s take a look at some points.

We will be talking about the illegal side of subtitling as well soooooo, beware!

It’s Lazy

When someone takes on the role of a translator, it is not an easy task. You will be taking words, grammar, and structure that is native to another language and non-native to you and putting them into your language or vice versa. This is no small task and if you ask any translator alive, while they may like or even love their jobs, it is mentally taxing. However, you are paid to do a job. You have to translate words as they appear while making them seem as natural as possible to the native audience.

If a translator leaves untranslated words in, they are being lazy. Here is why. Let’s say you are walking into your favorite burger joint. You cannot wait to chow down and place your order. You know everything that is coming on this burger, but your favorite part is the crisp, fresh tomato slices that go on it. When you are served, you take a big bite out of the burger expecting a delicious crunch of tomato, and you are shocked when you find onions inside. You ask the staff what is wrong and they say this is the burger that you ordered. You point to the sign that clearly shows the tomatoes and say that is what you ordered, but they simply shrug and repeat it again, this is what you ordered. This is “that burger”.

This is what a translator is doing when they leave words untranslated in the text that you read as subtitles. They are selling you something as 100% translated, but in reality, you might be getting like 90-99% of what you actually paid for. Now, that is not to say that all words will appear as English. Places, deities, names, attacks and other words that are native to that country, will, even in the English lexicon, or your native lexicon, still appear as Japanese.

A long time ago, there was a famous anime fansubbing group, name withheld, who did something that was a smart move. At the beginning or the end of the episode, they would throw up a screenshot for the series for maybe 10-20 seconds, and explain a term or attack or event that would be coming within the episode. Being handed a block of text at the beginning of the episode, and then just that word in the moment that it happens is smart. This allows the translator to get the meaning across while not taking away from the moment by slamming you with a wall of text and it gives you, the viewer/consumer the chance to learn something new if you want to. It boils down to this: Do your job.

It is Unfair to Those Who Do Not Know the Language

This point really does not need too much explanation. If you take a 15-year-old teenager who has just gotten into anime in the last six months and throw “dono”, “Heian jidai”, and “sengoku jidai” for example (borrowing from above!) at them, they probably are going to have no clue as to what to do with these new words provided that they catch them. Do the same to another 22-year old who has been into anime for a few years and knows some words and they are going to be able to grasp the full meaning without thinking too hard about it.

This shafts the newcomer in this case and those who may not speak enough Japanese to understand it, and they lose out on whatever meaning was just flashed across the screen. Was it critical? Nah, probably not, but how would you feel though if random words in your English book that you were reading were written in Cyrillic?

It’s nothing major, they are just smaller words. Maybe it is critical. Who knows? Do you? Absolutely not unless that alphabet or those words are from a language that you know. This is the issue. While it is possible to learn those words, most people watching anime, and we say most as there is some sort of unique learning process out there that will teach you Japanese through anime, are not looking for a language lesson where they have to teach themselves or even a language lesson at all. The translator’s job is just as important as that of the storyteller. If you do not tell the full story or leave in massive plot holes, people are not going to like what you are saying or presenting.

Translators Are Very Busy People

You show me someone who is a translator and not busy or has a lot of time on their hands and I will show you someone who does not do their job properly or is a liar. Translators go through a lot. The rise and demand of streaming anime have forced companies like Crunchyroll, FUNimation, and Daisuki, to work so hard and so fast, that they now do simulcasting. You may say, “well, simulcasting is great!” Yes, that may be so, but do you know why companies now have to simulcast? It is not just for profit.

Illegal anime streaming sites, torrents, and DDL sites pack a punch right into the wallets of these translators. People want to watch anime. This is not a surprise. So the companies have to work extra hard to make money off of the shows that they are licensing. Think about it in this manner, what are you more likely to do? Wait for a company who takes 1 week post-broadcast to upload the file to their servers, or, if you have the know-how, going to hit up a streaming or torrent site for the same show and episode when it comes out days earlier? Most people will choose the latter.

This puts immense pressure on the companies to produce the anime as close to or at the exact time as the broadcast date to ensure not only that they continue to keep getting your business, but that they can grow their bottom line and bring more shows to you. However, this is not all on the foreign side of things as sometimes, the issue lies in Japan. In Japan, things take time. There are countless anime about working with manga or anime and everything is done down to the very wire before it hits airwaves or publishing.

Think of the episode from Hacka Doll The Animation where the girls are sent to help at an animation studio, but everyone is overworked, the dolls included, and they barely meet the deadline before being informed that they need to go back to the office to work on the next episode? Well in the few days to hours that those shows make it to the studio to air, the licensing companies need to get their hands on the materials. They then have to rush everything to the translators which have to go at full speed to either transliterate the dialogue or translate it directly from Japanese to English by only listening and no actual text. The latter of which is a very difficult process to do.

Next, it has to reach some sort of quality check. Then from there, the company has to scramble to line up the words with the correct scenes and finally upload it online so you can stream it. The process is very diluted in the above explanation as there are probably multiple levels of checks and balances that a translation needs to go through, but this gives you a vague sense of what it takes.

Sometimes, companies have hours. Sometimes, companies have days. The people who feel the heat the most are the translators. They have to be fast and efficient. No doubt too that sometimes, words will appear mistranslated or even worse, not at all. (This actually has happened quite a few times.) So is it really their fault?

Yes and No

Yes, translators are being paid to do their jobs, and by that, they are expected to produce quality work. At the same time, they are human. Who suffers if they make a mistake? Most likely the viewer. Does the viewer know it? 95% of the time the answer is no, and that is because most people who watch anime are relying on a translation and not their own skills. The answer to the question of whether or not subtitles should be 100 percent English or not is really up to the individual.

Translators have a wide array of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax at their disposal as not just anyone can translate and be a translator. It takes years of language learning, and then practice at actual translation, to even become somewhat decent at it. They have the tools to translate everything, especially something like anime which usually, and we say usually because there are exceptions, does not dig too far too deep into the language. However, the fun part when learning about anime, and part of the reason that some watch it, is because they are exposed to a new culture, ideas, and a language.

It is genuinely fun to hear a word and know what it means because it shows up in Japanese and you have heard it fifty times untranslated. Is it all that bad? Well, unless you are the sort of person who does not like knowledge or learning, but then why would you be here in this article, on this website, or even in the anime fandom?

Final Thoughts

The final answer is up to the viewer the reason being is that you get to choose your own path in life. You can choose to learn or you can choose to shut out knowledge. Is it bad to learn another language? Not at all. It has been proven over and over again via studies that being bilingual, should you desire to attain it, makes you more intelligent throughout life and it actually also fights off mental illnesses like dementia later in life.

Yes, the translators are paid to do their jobs and they should by giving you a product that has been done to the best of their abilities. At the same time, no, having some Japanese in the subtitles does no harm to you the viewer. You have the potential to not only improve yourself, but you are passively learning while doing your favorite thing; watching anime.

If you are so upset by the fact that words like “Heian Jidai” or suffixes like “dono” and “kun” are attached to words, maybe you need to look inwards to figure out what is wrong with that mindset. Well, what do you think? Should anime be completely Japanese free or is it okay to let some Japanese through in the pursuit of knowledge and pleasure? Let us know in the comments below! Till next time!

005 [Editorial Tuesday] English Subtitles Keeping Japanese Terms – Helpful or Problematic?


Author: Nagareboshi

American by birth; international by choice. I am trying to bring attention to one of my favorite causes; me. I translate by day and write by night. Aspiring polyglot. My dream would be to be the personal translator for Amuro Namie. Other than that, my hobbies include languages, weightlifting, sleeping, karaoke, GOOD coffee and music. When I’m not doing any of the above, I am most likely laughing hysterically at Willam Belli videos or EV farming. I ain’t gunna Rupologize for it neither. Waifu are Shirai Kuroko & Euaerin.

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