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Lost in Translation - You and I pt. 1

Happy Independence Day to all our American Readers, and Happy Belated Canada Day to our Canadian Readers! (And just Happy Days in general to the rest of you!)

DzyDzyDino back again!

Anime Expo (in California) is this weekend! Originally I planned to be there the whole time, but likely I’ll only make it out a day or so. Any new series or releases you’re all excited for?

I'm gonna keep this week's post a bit shorter as it's a holiday week (I always say that, never ends up short though...)

There's a lot of ways to refer to oneself, as well as someone else in Japanese. These are normally transparent in translations, though ideally none of the meaning or nuance that it implied would be lost. I wanted to dedicate a few posts to this topic, as I think sometimes it can be pretty important.

We'll start with a point that a lot of people are really divided on. Keeping honorifics like -san, -kun, -chan, -sama, and the like intact versus cutting them. 

I would say the majority of people and the majority of series do cut them, though there are some translators that are partial to keeping them in. As a reader, how do you feel about this?

Just in case you were unaware, unless you’re quite familiar and casual with someone, you’ll usually be referring to them with some kind of honorific on their name. Also depending on your familiarity with them, you’d be referring to them by last name and not first.

As a broad generalization, -san usually gets equated to “Mr. or Ms./Mrs.” and is a pretty general formal way to greet someone new.

“Pleased to meet you, Smith-san.”
“Go sit somewhere else, Uzumaki-san.”
“Hello, totally-not-Urameshi-San, Kurosaki-san.”

The “kun” ending is more friendly and familiar. You’d use it with (male) friends, people you’re more familiar with, younger colleagues, all kinds of situations.

“-chan” is similar to “kun” but usually for girls. It can get used outside of girls, though it’s somewhat “cutesy” and somewhat diminutive, akin to putting an -ie or -y at the end of a name sometimes. It’ll get used for nicknames and the like even with males. Hachi from One Piece was Hacchan (Sometimes romanized as Hatchan). It’s much more common to have a female refer to a male this way as opposed to males amongst themselves, not that there would be anything “wrong” language-wise with it, but that’s just the norm.

“-sama” is used for someone of a higher standing to respect or honor them. Kings, lords, masters, gods, owners, and anyone you’re putting up on that pedestal. So you’ll see fandoms refer to their idol with a -sama quite commonly. There’s the classic maid referring to their master with a “Goshuujin-sama”. Though not to be confused with “Kisama” which… would be the opposite of honoring someone. :3

There’s a handful of other endings, like “-dono” which is a dated one you’ll see in period pieces a lot and much more like “Sir” in the medieval context. Sometimes you’ll have an eccentric character that uses this, along with other period-specific language which almost always gets translated into a series of “I art” “Thou hast” “Dost thou love me, but thou must!” “Dost thou love me, then I am happy!”

What’s the point of bringing these up? Well, obviously we don’t use these in English. Sure, we sometimes refer to people as Mr. ____ or Ms. _____, but if you had two classmates and one turned to the other like “Mr. Smith, can I borrow a pencil?” it would stand out as completely odd.

Leaving them out entirely is generally the normal practice, as leaving them intact doesn’t really offer too much and can be distracting to some readers. Leaving things intact for the sake of having them there is a slippery slope that ends with “All according to Keikaku (Keikaku means plan)”.

Ideally you would understand how comfortable or respectful someone is towards someone else based on the tone of their speech, and so the translator should put effort into the dialog to illustrate that.

Sometimes it does become a specific point of drama or character development how someone refers to someone else. Whether it’s a shy girl that refuses to address even her closest friends by anything except their last name + -san and finally after months and months of chapters, drops the -san -- that would have massive impact and it would be hard to illustrate it in the same way if the honorific had been omitted the whole time. 

A little sister that refers to her brother as "Onii-san" instead of "Onii-chan" would have different nuances in how she spoke to him. Same with a boy referring to his mom as "Kaa-san" versus "Okaa-san" versus "Kaa-chan". Sometimes there are also character-specific traits that a reader would attribute to that person. "Ahh, he's the kind of guy that has a really close and casual friendly relationship with his mom and always calls her "Kaa-chan".

I’m a bit on the fence about omitting honorifics entirely. If they play a huge constant part in a specific series, then of course, I think they should be left in. Otherwise, I believe it’s the translators job to read into any meaning or nuance that may be carried by the honorifics and make sure that meaning isn’t lost when omitting.

If someone speaks to someone in a more belittling way, and that would be illustrated by the honorific or lack of, then that should be shown in the language they use. It’s “more work” and is something that wouldn’t work with a word-for-word translation, but that’s kind of the point IMO.

Keep in mind, you would not use these to refer to yourself in 99.99% of cases. Of course, you’ve got obnoxiously cute characters that will refer to themselves in the third person and often with the -chan attached. You’ve also got the hyper-alpha-cocky-jerkface who will refer to himself as “Kono Dio-Sama Ga” or the classic “Ore-sama”.

I keep meaning to keep these posts shorter and more concise. So I’ll leave this here for this week. Next week, I’d like to continue this topic and talk about the different ways to refer to oneself and someone else. It’s something that is transparent in translations, because that concept doesn’t exist in English, and yet it’s something that is taken into account in determining how a character speaks.

I’ll try to have some examples prepared for the next post, as I think it’s a pretty interesting topic and has more of an effect on the end-result of a translation than you may realize. Different than “How to translate this one word that doesn’t exist in English” as it colors the entire dialog.

Anyways, I recently finished Iga’s new game, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and am currently playing through the Yakuza 5 / Ryu Ga Gotoku 5 HD Remaster in Japanese and live translating on my stream 5 nights a week. If you’re interested in checking it out or just want to drop by and say hi, you can find me at:


Thanks again for reading, and as always, you can click the title of the post above to comment and discuss! I always read through them, so thanks to everyone that takes the time to say anything!

Enjoy your holiday (if you have one) and see you next week!