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Lost in Translation - When a Sh*t Isn't Just a Sh*t

Hello all, 

Your friendly neighborhood translator DzyDzyDino is here again.

Anime Expo is coming up in 2 weeks - are any of you lovely mangastream readers going to be there? Click the title of the blog post and let us(me?) know in the comments!

Also, Dr. Stone’s anime adaptation begins next month! I love this manga series right now, so I’m hoping it’ll be great!

I just got finished playing through Yakuza 3 and 4’s HD Remasters (龍が如く3 and 4) and live translating through them on stream and it’s all pretty fresh in my head (it’s all I can think about recently).

Apart from a lot of organizational hierarchy, crime, cop, and nightlife/seedy vocabulary coming up regularly, people rarely miss an opportunity to taunt people and talk trash in these games.

So let’s talk about taunts, trash talk, and “cursing” - particularly about translating them.

As always - context, context, context. Most of the time, cursing isn’t cut and dry, and insults are really awkward to literally translate if you’re not reading the situation (or reading the air, as it were :3).

You can probably tell by reading these posts that I tend to favor translations that more accurately convey the “meaning” behind what is said, even if it departs from a literal word-for-word translation. I’ve noticed this topic popping up again this last week with the new dubs and subs for Evangelion out now. Though I haven’t had a chance to watch them myself yet so I can’t make a personal comment, the consensus I’m seeing seems to be it’s a more “literal” translation -- though I’ve seen people also note that it somehow makes it more “accurate”.

The new subs could very well be more accurate, but if they were, it wouldn’t be simply because they were more literal. I’ll have to watch it and see! For those of you that have seen it, what are your thoughts?

Onto the topic!

I'm exagerrating slightly to make a point here, but bear with me.

You may have heard arguments over whether or not curse words exist in Japanese. 
Sure, they do. Kinda. Not in the sense that they do in English. There are certainly offensive words, but the vulgarity of *most* of these words can vary depending on its context. It's often not as black and white, though there's certainly words you'll rarely ever hear on daytime TV and words you probably wouldn't say over the dinner table at home. (Or maybe you would. I don't judge.)

The usual argument is that “kuso” means “sh*t”. 
It’s an ugly way to say “poop” that can also be used as an expletive and also as a superlative, like how English would use “f**k” and “f**king”.

But it will also pop up in situations and things for younger audiences that you wouldn’t dream of “sh*t” appearing in. If “kuso” were to get translated to “sh*t” unconditionally every single time it appeared, you’d have a lot of really jarringly weird lines out there.

Vegeta to everyone ever: “You drippy sh*t motherf*cking bastard sh*thead b*tch!!”

Not weird to hear someone say something is "kuso umai" or "kuso mazui" in describing how good or bad something tastes. 

Hanakuso means booger, but we're not gonna be weird literal and call it "nose sh*t" are we?
What about Mr. 5 from One Piece with his booger cannon? If kuso got translated to sh*t every time it was said in those chapters, it could compete with South Park - though some characters in OP can be a bit vulgar anyways, so maybe not the best example. :3
(Fun random fact: Mr. 5's trademark attack was the Nose Fancy Cannon, written as 鼻空想砲 which means 鼻 Nose (Hana) 空想 Fancy/Fantasy (Kuusou) 砲 Cannon (Hou) which sounds like "hanakuso".)

How about every single time someone refers to some tough love father figure as a “kusojiji”?
“Kusogaki” kinda works as “little sh*t” but depending on the (broken record) series and context, it would be jarring to just toss it out there as well.

People tend to feel very divided about profanity in translations anyways. Different people also interpret profanity at different levels of offensive and jarring. Is it better to just always literally translate what could possibly be a vulgarity as such, even if it's not fitting for the series and will alienate readers?
You can have a character say, "I hope your family dies of cancer and chokes up blackened lungs which you then choke on before tumbling head-first into traffic." but if a character says "Fu*k!" then suddenly it's vulgar.

Okay steering back on topic -

Now, in Japanese there's not really that much a variety of 悪口 (sh*t talk). If you listed like 100 different ways to call someone an idiot and asked someone to translate them to Japanese, they'd all end up as the same two or three words.

Fiddlesticks! -> Kuso!
Damnit! -> Kuso!
Crap! -> Kuso!
Sh*t! -> Kuso!
Holy fu*kb*lls! -> Kuso!
D*ckspankingmotherf*ckingweaselr**ingchasmsphincter! -> Kuso!

(That's not to say people don't get really creative sometimes. At game centers, I've heard people being called nuclear waste and mold juice and all kinds of weird things -- gotta keep them insults fresh.)

But because of this, when we translate insults and exclamations back to English, we need to add character and individuality back to them, otherwise they come off as extra stale and awkward.

Let’s just look at something super simple everyone knows: 馬鹿 or バカ or baka.

Here’s a couple tropes with an example cliche line using baka. I’ll give put the usual translation and possible (boring) alternatives (which may not be better, but just as an example of possible alternatives.).

A girl playfully calling out her SO for teasing her「もう~バカ ♥」(mou~ baka <3)
Literal: Jeez~ stupid <3    vs. You’re such a dummy <3 or You big bully <3 
Assuming the purpose here is just to express the flirty frustration, it's better to fill in a line that conveys the same thing. Flirting takes different forms in different languages - depending on the line, literally translating could lose some of that.

A top ten anime betrayal in the midst of a battle [このバカがぁ!!」(kono baka gaa!!)
Literal: You idiot!!   Vs. How could you?! Or  Have you lost your mind?!
An example of how you could spin it differently. Again, really hard to back it up without context, but just throwing an example out there. There’s always that cliche scene where the character is so disappointed and calls them out for being stupid out of love like “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” or “You can’t possibly be so stupid that you would do this!”

The ol’ “where did he go? behind you!” taunt [こっちだよ バ~カ」(Kocchi da yo, baaaka!)
Literal: Over here, Stuuupid!!       Vs Where ya lookin’, slowpoke? Or Looking for me, s#*t-for-brains?
Yeah, the last one was extra silly. But the line itself is silly. It’s the kind of thing a cartoon character would say or someone just over the top and eccentric. The line should stand out a bit for being over-the-top, but not simply because it sounds awkwardly worded.

The deadpan response after an idiotic statement [お前バカだね。」 (Omae, baka da ne.)
Literal: You’re a fool, right?  Vs. You. Are. An. Idiot. Or You complete, utter moron.
If it was a manzai duo, the boke/gag man would say something completely off the wall, and then the tsukkomi/straight man (if they weren’t smacking them on the head) would probably pause and make a straight-faced assessment like this. If it’s supposed to be funny, make it funny. A lot of the humor in Japanese comedy comes from the timing and delivery, but it doesn’t always translate directly - so make it funny in English. (probably a topic for another post)

Or the classic tsundere little sister upset at her older brother for not understanding her feelings 「お兄ちゃんのバカ!」 (Onii-chan no baka!)
Literal: Older brother is such a fool!  Vs. I hate you! Or You suck! Or You big dummy!!
This one is such a manga/anime trope, it’s hard to transfer the situation to anything resembling reality. Would really depend on the situation and the character. Addressing someone directly as Brother or Sister in place of “you” is awkward in English, leave alone Older/Younger Brother or Sister. There’s really no way to make that not awkward. English just doesn’t work that way.

Obviously some of these were extra liberal and done to kind of make a point, though they could all be possible given the right situation.

One of the issues is in English (and most other languages), there is a veritable smorgasbord of words we can use to insult someone. With so many to choose from, each carries different nuances with them. 

For example, If a character called someone a “punk,” you might picture someone a bit rougher and tougher.
If they said, “imbecile”, you might picture some arrogant intellectual-type.
If someone said something like “No, silly!” you might picture a playful girl.

These instances could very well pop up with just “baka”, but the character saying the line and the context in which it’s being said would change the translation.


Another one that pops up all the time is やばい “yabai”.

If you ever see a line in a manga or anime get translated to, “This is bad.” it is almost certainly “yabai” being lazily translated (I’ve been guilty of this myself as well.)

It can be used as an expletive like “oh, crap” but could also mean “awesome!” or “insane!”. It could mean dangerous, like a tough 6’4” guy tatted up, missing a pinky, scars on his face, whatever comes sauntering down the street -- that dude looks seriously yabai.

Or maybe you’re playing a fighting game, and some character has a move with just way too much priority and damage that’s just totally imbalanced. That move would be straight up yabai.

We have words like that a bit in English too:

Bad meaning bad or bad meaning good.
Sick meaning ill or sick meaning bad (meaning good).
Busted meaning broken or hideous, or busted meaning overpowered (meaning sick meaning bad meaning good :3)

And even though “yabai” is not technically a  “curse word”, there are times it could definitely be translated to f**k or s#*t if the context called for it. Making that moment and intent mean the same thing in English (or whatever language you’re translating to) is the key.

With words like these that are a bit “slang” and still in use, depending on who’s saying it and the situation and setting, it could change from a cliche line, to profanity, to straight up memes.

If you’re going to really translate the nuances of a line and a character, it really does come back to context is. Translating word-for-word in a vacuum just doesn’t work. That’s why we end up with google translate messes.

In addition to cliche one-liners and taunts that get translated awkwardly, I was gonna do a post about cursing altogether, as translating curse words into manga is often a point people get divided over. 

Anyways, this has already run on longer than I expected - I’d like to start breaking this up into slightly shorter posts so that I can get more concrete examples out of manga of each. I’d eventually like to get more specific examples of how more difficult lines were translated and discuss them a bit too. 

As always, thanks for reading! I do check the comment section on these posts if you have questions or want to discuss anything ever!

You can always find me on http://www.twitch.tv/dzydzydino (Been running through and love Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night recently, and still playing Cadence of Hyrule - planning to  start Yakuza 5 after Anime Expo!)