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Lost in Localization - Syntax and Context

Happy June, everyone!

It’s DzyDzyDino, back again!

Last week, I talked about some general localization scenarios. This week, I wanted to address some that are brought up because of the fundamental differences between Japanese and English, and not just “words that don’t quite translate.”


A common change made is phrase/bubble order for flow and impact, or just to make passages make sense.

I brought this up years ago in a past blog post, but since I’m starting fresh, I thought it’d be good to address it again.
I’m sure many of you already know this, but one of the core differences between Japanese and English grammar is that Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb, whereas English has a Subject-Verb-Object syntax.

Especially when it comes to dialog, this builds the conclusion or “climax” of the phrase around the Verb (in Japanese) versus the Object (in English). As an oversimplified and boring example, in English you could have a bubble that reads:

“I really hate…”

From there, there would be tension built up around “who does this person hate?” -- the object of the action being the focal point. In manga you get these cliffhanger style bubbles a lot where that bubble will continue on the next page so you get this little bit of anticipation as you turn the page to find out.

For the sake of this example, (assuming I’m translating word for word) in Japanese, a similar situation would play out as a bubble reading:

“I, you…”

And then the tension is built around What is it you do for this person? Is it I love you? I hate you? I will protect you? I don’t want to see you anymore? Sometimes these situations can be resolved as simply as shuffling word order around. There’s a pretty common sentence structure that pops up, where they’ll put the subject at the end for dramatic effect and emphasis. In one of my current favorite Jump Series, Dr. Stone, the main character’s catchphrase is “Now /this/ excites me!” It gets worded slightly differently each time, but it’s often something like this:

Bubble1: 唆るぜ・・・ 
Bubble2: これは!

唆る (Sosoru) is the infinitive form of the verb meaning “To excite”. The ぜ(ze) that comes after it adds emphasis. これ (kore) means “this” and は is a particle denoting the subject of the sentence.

Just because the bubbles are placed this way doesn’t mean we should translate each bubble independently and turn our main character, Senku, into Yoda. “Excites, this!” Normally this situation would end up with

Bubble1: Now /this/…

Bubble2: Excites me!



Speaking of subjects in sentences, Japanese will often omit parts of speech altogether and let them be implied by context.

For example:

Instead of saying 「それを買うか?」 (Sore wo kau ka? Are you going to buy that?)

You might just see 「買うか?」 (kau ka?) or even just 「買う?」(kau?)

“Buy?” by itself doesn’t really work in English. You need at least a pronoun, and a subject.

“Are you going to buy that?” “Is he going to buy those?” “Is she going to buy it?”

“Is Lord Hentai gonna buy that harem?”

Most of the time if you see this by itself, it’s going to be directed to whoever they’re talking to, unless it’s a really specific context--like maybe two people are watching someone else shopping and one wants to know if that person is really gonna buy what they’re looking at.

The object however could be anything. Singular, plural, specific, whatever.

So what? Come up with some weird awkward wording like “Are you going to make a purchase?”

“Are you going to participate in a monetary transaction for goods?”


Hah! You think you’ve got it aaaaaalllllllllll figured out… then a complete curveball...

喧嘩を売る (kenka wo uru) literally means “to sell a fight”, and it’s the Japanese way of saying “to pick a fight”.

If someone picks a fight with you, and you accept and go at it, you have bought that fight. 喧嘩を買う or 喧嘩を買った。(kenka wo kau, or past-tense, kenka wo katta)

So through some freak unforseen context, 買うか? suddenly got translated to “Are you gonna fight?”

You could also add the nuance of it being a fight someone else picked. “Are you gonna fight back?” “Are you gonna take his challenge?” “Are you gonna go through with this fight?” or that fight? Or those fights? Or these fights?!


There’s that epic scene in One Piece in the town right before Skypiea when Bellamy is beating the crap out of Luffy and Luffy is telling Zoro to not “buy into this fight”. For me, it was one of Luffy’s most epic lines pre-New World/Time Skip and pretty iconic.

Bubble1: このケンカは (Kono kenka ha) - This Fight

Bubble2: 絶対買うな!!! (Zettai kauna!!!) - Absolutely don’t buy it

Though of course, I would hope nobody would actually translate it like “This fight… absolutely don’t buy it.” as that rips the soul right out of the scene. The goosebump-raising epicness of that line is completely gone and kind of gets back into the literal vs. liberal I brought up last week.

It’s been a while and I don’t remember the rest of the scene verbatim, but he could just as easily repeat that second line “絶対買うな!!”

What if you had no context and saw that page or bubble all by itself? Maybe you just see him standing in front of a Tavern screaming that.

Luffy standing up from the rubble of a tavern wall, bloodied and bruised.

“Do NOT buy the food here!!!”

Hrmm… actually, yeah. I could see him saying that after all. ¯\_( ◉ 3 ◉ )_/¯


Don’t forget, you can click on the title of this post to comment and discuss!
Thanks also to everyone who stopped by my stream to say hi!

We just finished live translating the Yakuza 3 HD Remaster and probably planning to play Yakuza 4 in English before going on into 5 in Japanese again! (Though I may reconsider and do 4 in Japanese too!)

If you want to come by, say hi, chat about manga/anime/games/whatever, you can find me at http://www.twitch.tv/dzydzydino