j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
[personal profile] j_rant
Honorifics: They're everywhere in Japanese, fanboy/girl Japanese, and--these days--translated English language manga. Fans think leaving them in makes translations authentic. I think people need to cut that the hell out and actually learn something about Japanese. Let's start with what honorifics are. Here's the start of the wikipedia article:

An honorific (sometimes Honorable) is a word or expression that conveys esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. Sometimes the term is used not quite correctly to refer to an honorary title. It is also often conflated with systems of honorific speech in linguistics, which are grammatical or morphological ways of encoding the relative social status of speakers.
Typically honorifics are used for second and third persons; use for first person is less common. Some languages have anti-honorific or despective first person forms (meaning something like "your most humble servant" or "this unworthy person") whose effect is to enhance the relative honor accorded a second or third person.


What do you notice here? First, there are some real, live English language examples: these things aren't restricted to Japanese. Second, in addition to these individual words you use to address people ("honorifics"), there are also grammar patterns that have a similar effect ("honorific speech"). Third, these things are not polite per se: what they actually do is encode the relative social status of two people.

Some people like to see these left in in manga translations. They say it's a matter of authenticity or even subjective taste. I say it's misleading crap that makes idiots think they understand Japanese when they don't know jack. It's not something people say about Spanish or French, only the exotic languages of the East where the women are submissive and all of the men know kung fu.

Yes, I'm saying I think it's racist. Racist, orientalist, essentialist, and stupid.


Yes, Virginia, you can translate honorifics

"Oh, but you can't translate honorifics," you say. "There's no English language equivalent!" This is crap. There's no direct English language equivalent for Japanese honorific speech either. There's no direct English language equivalent for 'tĂș' and 'usted' in Spanish, yet half the middle-aged gringos I know have a whole stack of Allende novels by the bed. You can translate anything, and almost nothing has a completely direct one-to-one universal translation that covers all contexts.

I find this particular example of "untranslatable" words extra annoying because Japanese is full of other honorific speech that gets translated with no problems whatsoever. The same characters who call everyone So-and-so-sama all the time also use grammar patterns that are unnaturally polite, stilted, old-fashioned, formal, or just plain weird. The characters who call all of the grown women "-chan" sound exactly as smarmy and overbearing in the rest of their speech.

The best way to get across what the Japanese author intended is to make the literary characters sound literary, the smarmy characters sound smarmy, the snooty characters sound snooty, and--most importantly by far--to make normal speech sound normal. Until the entirety of daily life in English-speaking countries turns into a LARP session at Otakon, appending "-san" to people's names is never going to sound normal.

"But we should preserve what we can," you're probably saying. "Even if that honorific grammar has to be translated non-literally, we can at least preserve the honorifics themselves." We could. We do. But preserving this type of stilted, unnatural word choice in English interferes with translating the rest of the honorific language. The formality or smarminess or whatever else in the rest of the dialogue can only be conveyed in the translation by style: by tone, by word choice, by the overall sound of the passage. And adding unnatural, untranslated bits to the English has a severe effect on that style.


You keep using that word. I do not think it... etc.

I know the comment you're going to leave me, so I'll write it for you: "Fans aren't stupid. Put a glossary in the manga, and we'll figure out what the honorifics mean!"

Great idea! If only it worked. It's not that it's hard to tell someone, intellectually, what "-san" or "-sama" means; English text peppered with them still sounds strange, so it's not a particularly good translation of normal-sounding Japanese text. But there's a worse problem: Like all other words in all other languages, honorifics aren't used 100% consistently. A canned glossary inside the front cover of your manga isn't going to give you a complete grasp of how an honorific is really used in natural Japanese. Hell, manga aren't going to give you a good grasp of natural Japanese. The Japanese audience will know when something sounds intentionally strange. You won't.

Even if you personally, know exactly what each and every honorific means in every context, I guarantee that most English-speaking fans don't. Among people who should know better and who've even studied some Japanese, I've seen plenty of silly statements: "-kun is never used for women." (Nonsense. Boys don't usually use it to refer to their female classmates, but it's used for women in plenty of contexts.) "-san shows respect and politeness." (It's not rude, but it's so ubiquitous that I'd say it's more of a neutral, normal thing than something that's explicitly polite.) "-sama shows you really like and respect someone." (Bwa ha ha. Maybe if this someone is Gackt or you're an anime character. Otherwise, you risk sounding sarcastic in many contexts.) etc. etc.

I just took a gander at the Wikipedia article on Japanese honorifics, and it's pretty good. The cheat sheets some manga include are probably accurate too, if simplistic. But these definitions don't always filter down to the readers, and they don't make Engrish sound natural. A well-read English speaker knows hundreds of French words. Most Americans know half the vocabulary from Spanish 101 just from passive exposure. And yet translations of Spanish and French leave very few of these words in--a species name or a new philosophical concept, maybe, but normal words get normal translations, even if they sometimes have to be a bit non-literal.


Japanese grammar is more different, so Japanese translations should sound more like Charlie Chan

This is what all of those moron arguments about "untranslatable" Japanese boil down to: Because Japanese is very different from English, instead of producing natural-sounding English that gets the original tone and emotional impact across, a translator should go for wacky translation-ese. Novels about French people in Paris should be translated so that the characters sound normal. Manga about Japanese people in Tokyo--Japanese people surrounded entirely by other Japanese people and who talk in completely normal ways for Japanese people--should be translated so that all of the characters sound like Charlie Chan. Ditto manga about goofy fantasy pirates, genderless space aliens, or NYPD detectives. If it was once in Japanese, in half-baked Engrish it stays!

This translation strategy doesn't lead to authenticity. It just makes Japanese people sound weird and Japanese media sound poorly-written.

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