Part One: English Do Be Like That Sometimes

“I swear to God, I didn’t do it!”

“She has an ace up her sleeve.”

“They want to maintain the status quo.”

Consider the above examples for a moment. I don’t expect that any native speaker would have any difficulty comprehending these simple sentences, but perhaps a brand new learner of the language might scratch their head at them – as you can see, each of them tells an interesting little story about English linguistics.

  • “Swearing to God” in English has become a highly colloquial expression to assert that one is emphatically telling the truth, which naturally comes from the highly privileged role that Christianity has had upon Western, Anglo historical development.
  • “Having an ace up one’s sleeve” is, like almost all English idiomatic expressions, rooted in Anglophone cultural traditions and social facts; in this case, originating from the commonplace pastime of card games and gambling.
  • “Status quo”, while originally a Latin phrase, is now very much a ubiquitous English expression to mean “the present state of affairs”, joining a long list of many other such words and phrases, particularly ones of Latin/Greek/French origin.

My point with this little illustration is that English, like all other languages, self-evidently doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is instead inextricably bound up within what we might call an “Anglophone cultural framework”, and the historical, cultural, and social traces of this particular framework can be found absolutely everywhere within this language of ours.

Going about our daily lives, I think it’s easy for this aspect of our language to remain largely invisible to us, being something we take completely for granted as a sort of “shared cultural knowledge.” It does not strike us as strange, for example, that even non-religious people regularly exclaim “oh my God” and “speak of the devil”, or that idiomatic allusions to bygone historical institutions like the Age of Sail are commonplace (eg. “all hands on deck”, “running a tight ship”, etc.), or that little bits of foreign languages invariably make their debut in English writing without caveat. English just do be like that sometimes.

Note: The rest of this post contains select samples of text from Senmomo and features extremely general discussion of its themes. It is very much non-spoilery in nature, but you may still consider not reading on if you wish to read Senmomo with as little foreknowledge as possible.

Part Two: Senmomo is a Really Japanese Game

Senmomo is a really, really Japanese game. That is to say, unlike lots of other eroge where the “Japaneseness” of the setting is not especially foregrounded or important, Senmomo’s “definitely-not-Japan” setting is an ineliminably core conceit of the game.

Incidentally, Senmomo doesn’t technically take place in Japan, but instead, an archipelagic island nation named “The Empire”.in an unnamed fantasy world that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from modern Earth. The political capital of The Empire is “Tenkyo”, its religious center is “Iseya”, and the text even makes a one-off reference to a sparsely-populated northern region called “Hokkaishu”. The Imperials of the story eat traditional Japanese cuisine, dress in traditional Japanese clothing, practice an animistic religion named “Tento”, engage in traditional Japanese martial arts–yeah, yeah, we get it, it’s basically just “fantasy Japan” in literally everything but name.

What foregrounds the Japaneseness of the setting even more so, is the presence of the nation that exists as the Empire’s principal antagonist and direct counterpart – the Republic, whose parallels to the West and more specifically, America, are no less obvious. The Republic is ostensibly a champion of democracy and liberal values, and their biggest cultural exports are consumption goods like canned coffee and WcDonalds. Republicans wear European-inspired fashion, wage wars with modern firearms, and in a rather on-the-nose historical allegory, start off the story following a conquest and subsequent military occupation of the Empire. A very large part of Senmomo’s story centers around the civilizational struggle between the Empire and the Republic, and a major theme of the text revolves around the profound cultural differences that exist between these two very different cultures.

Indeed, these cultural differences are something that the original text went to considerable lengths to highlight, and are directly reflected in manifold ways throughout the text, often through the use of language itself.

For example, “Western” technologies like tablet computers and televisions are always described circumlocutiously with kanji (携帯端末, 映像筐体, etc.) with their more conventional Japanese names (taburetto, terebi, etc.) displayed only as ruby glosses. Moreover, native residents of the Empire use very little gairaigo, foreign loanwords, in their speech and narration, and many of these katakana-ized loanwords which are commonplace in modern Japanese are explicitly introduced or remarked upon as words that these characters do not understand, often to wonderful comedic effect. Here are some examples of this from the text:


I looked it up later, and apparently ≪sword≫ is how they say “blade” in Republican.


Republicans love having these banquets they call ≪parties≫, and they’ll order a whole bunch of flowers for them.

「あら? お店、通り過ぎて……



Huh? You passed by the shop…

Let’s stay out a little longer.

In the Republic, I hear they call this kind of outing a ≪drive.≫

Conversely, characters from the Republic are coded as “foreign” in their speech and narration through their conspicuous usage of an above-average amount of katakana loanwords, an avoidance of yojijukugo four-character-idioms, and occasional misunderstandings and ignorance of Japanese language folkways (for example, the way that the expression 結構 can be used to either affirm or decline something based on context).

All this is to illustrate that Senmomo is a game that places great importance on language and the cultural context that surrounds it. The conspicuous differences in how “native” Imperial and “foreign” Republican characters use language is a major, foregrounded element of the text, serving as not just a source of comedy, but also as an important site of characterization and a diegetic means to elucidate the sharp differences in values and worldview between the traditional, “Oriental” Empire and the modern, “Occidental” Republic.

Part Three: Intercultural Translational Challenges

You probably see where this is going, right? The task of translating this extremely Japanese setting into English for a Western audience clearly poses some very particular challenges. As discussed previously, a great deal of English words and expressions and idioms don’t merely convey semantic information in a neutral way, but necessarily also embed an Western, Anglophone “cultural framework” that can very easily seem incongruous and out of place in a setting like Senmomo’s. A very non-exhaustive list of potentially problematic language usages include:

  • Allusions to specifically Western institutions. E.g. “Pleading the Fifth”, the crime of “lese-majesty”, terms of art originating from Western philosophy like “the divine right of kings” or “a monopoly on violence”
  • Idiomatic expressions that evoke particularly Western cultural practices. E.g. Idioms relating to The Age of Sail (“all hands on deck”, “taking a different tack”), gambling (“hitting the jackpot”, “doubling down”), sports (“a false start”, “moving the goalposts”, etc.)
  • Allusions and references to Western religious beliefs and practices. E.g. “to bear one’s cross”, “to say one’s prayers”, “to be a Good Samaritan”, mentions of uniquely Christian theological concepts such as God, the devil, angels, heaven, etc.
  • Expressions that have unique historical, political, or social currency. E.g. “Winter of Discontent”, “War on Terror”, “she’s no Einstein”, genericized Western brand names (Kleenex for facial tissues, Band-Aid for adhesive bandages, Thermos for insulated beverage containers, Sellotape for clear adhesive tape, etc.)
  • Word choices that strongly evoke English’s Greco-Roman influences (septentrional, ecclesiastic, etc.) or direct loan words that have become accepted as commonplace English words (raison d’etre, fait accompli, vis a vis, ex ante, de facto, etc.)
  • Turns of phrase that are distinctly cultural and/or regional. E.g. the metaphorical use of Western units of measurement (to inch closer, to be miles away), expressions that are very recognizably American or British in origin, or just feel very Anglophone in character (“good enough for government work”, “give it the old college try”, etc.)

In some respects, this is an issue ubiquitous to all Japanese to English translations! Most Japanese media is set in Japan and features Japanese characters, so any translation of such a work into English absolutely needs to be mindful about the unintentional imposition of a Western cultural framework with respect to its choice of language. Honestly, I feel like most translations, at least in the otaku sphere, tend to not be especially cognizant of this consideration, although of course, it’s always a delicate balancing act between many other tradeoffs. Here are a few interesting examples of this from a few games I’ve read recently:

Naturally, Amatsutsumi, a game centered around the Japanese concept of kotodama, the mysticism of words and their power, would contain a number of fascinating lexical and cultural challenges when translated into English. Here, the scene features Kokoro using a large number of “modern Japanese” gairaigo loanwords in her speech like ァ (sofa), ー (privacy), and ス (share-house) which are words that are not in the protagonist Makoto’s lexicon due to his extremely traditional and isolated upbringing. Though I felt like the translation of this game was generally very competent and pleasurable to read, I don’t think it does especially effective job solving this particular puzzle and capturing the sense of the Japanese. It doesn’t seem at all credible that any English speaker, even if they had an extremely outdated and archaic lexicon, would fail to understand any of Kokoro’s words. Even though words like “privacy” and “shared-space apartment”  effectively capture the semantic meaning of ー and シェアハウス, they fail to reflect the unique cultural fact that these words are modern, postwar introductions to the Japanese lexicon, something crucial to the sense of this scene. 

This line from Golden Time is such a fascinating little piece of cultural domestication with super interesting implications! The original line contains the term 簀巻き, an archaic term referencing a traditional form of execution involving rolling a victim into a bamboo mat and throwing them into a body of water. Not unreasonably, the translation opts to eschew a literal translation (likely for word economy reasons) and instead opts to render this as “concrete shoes”, a remarkably serendipitous parallel to a strikingly similar execution method in English – the sort of resourceful, lateral-thinking-required take that one should usually be proud of! However, this act of cultural domestication ends up having some really fascinating and likely unintended consequences. In my mind at least, the concept of “concrete/cement shoes”, despite its obvious parallels with 簀巻き, carries with it a tremendous amount of unique cultural associations, being an expression that feels (1) distinctly and uniquely American and (2) inextricably linked to organized crime and the underworld. Naturally, the original phrase of 簀巻き had none of these specific associations, but rather carries the sense of a collective, community-based lynching for moral transgressions. Hence, it strikes me as slightly (but not excessively) incongruous that a character like Mina, a high-class and sheltered European princess, would have a word like this in her lexicon (is she the type to watch many American gangster flicks?) or that she would so flippantly analogize the actions of her bodyguards to that of the Mafia. I doubt that I would have ultimately opted for a different rendering of this line, cement shoes really does just line up too well, but I do think that it’s important to be mindful of the implications of cultural domestication such as this.

Admittedly though, for most works, the Japaneseness of its setting tends to not be as foregrounded as strongly as a historical fantasy like Senmomo, and so, a reader is probably much more willing to suspend their disbelief when a particularly “Western-cultural” expression or idiom shows up in a translation – it doesn’t strike me as incongruous, for example, to translate a modern Japanese speaker’s (secular!) expression of surprise as “Oh my God!” in English. In Senmomo’s case however, the cultural differences between the Empire (Japan) and the Republic (the West) are brought into sharp relief by the source text itself, so we felt like it would be especially jarring for avowedly Imperial characters to be using noticeably incongruous language; whether its invoking the (Judeo-Christian) God in epithets, using idioms that are commonplace in English but would be out of character given the Japanese setting, or opting for word choices that challenge this delicate suspension of disbelief.

Of course, the specifics of the text in Senmomo itself further complicates this issue even further. Besides the “obvious” examples of problematic language use outlined above, Senmomo also introduces lots of its own, largely arbitrary issues and constraints! As shown in the above example, the protagonist Soujin presents the (completely unremarkable in English) word and concept of going for a ≪drive≫ as a strange, foreign curiosity. If we were to suspend our disbelief and inhibit the interiority of a character for whom this is true, doesn’t it follow that they would also be unlikely to use the word “drive” in non-literal, metaphorical contexts as well (i.e. “having a drive for success”)? Presumably this also extends towards a broader indifference for and ignorance of the highly Western “cultural framework” of an automotive-centric society; and so doesn’t that mean all motor vehicle-related metaphors like “spinning one’s wheels” or “in the driver’s seat” or “an engine for growth” are also off the table? Similarly, if the word ≪party≫ (to refer to a social gathering) is a foreign word that isn’t in the character’s vocabularies, then wouldn’t it be strange for them to use the word “party” in all its other meanings (“toeing the party line”, “gathering the party”, “a party to the negotiations”, etc.)? These are just two examples of many, by the way, there’s plenty more of these sort of issues where that came from!

At this point, an apparently reasonable objection might be something like “why does any of this even matter; surely the source text didn’t have these sort of incongruities that contradict the setting like nautical or gambling or automotive idioms, so why can’t you just literally translate what it says and avoid any of these issues?”

Obviously this is a fairly naïve objection, one that anyone with a meaningful understanding of how translation works can see through, but I do want to spend some time unpacking it all the same – there’s first the “obvious” response, but also the much more “interesting” one.

I think this should be fairly obvious, but correspondences and equivalencies between languages are rarely so simple or straightforward. Consider the Japanese phrase 朝飯前, for example, which literally translates to “[to be done] before breakfast” but actually means “[to be] extremely easy.” Obviously, a word-for-word rendition of this phrase is usually intolerable, because the output would be complete nonsense in English, and so, an equivalency that captures the “sense” is required. The common English expressions that come to mind as very close equivalencies might be something like “[to be] easy as pie” or “[a] piece of cake”, right? But! Notice how both of these expressions reference extremely Western-cultural foods! For an extremely Japanese setting like Senmomo, where the characters are only accustomed to eating wagashi, and would view “Western” desserts like cake or pie as, at best, exotic foreign curiosities, it seems somewhat strange for them to suddenly start using expressions like “that was a piece of cake”, right? There are just lots and lots of Japanese words and phrases for which the best equivalencies runs into issues like this; as another example, the best equivalency for 存在意義 is certainly the phrase “raison d’etre”, but this phrase, despite having long been assimilated as an “English” word that is universally understood by English speakers, still looks and sounds conspicuously French, and therefore in my mind, would likewise seem extremely out of place for the characters in Senmomo to use!

An even bigger problem, though, is that even if it were possible, omitting any sort of language use that carries the baggage of a “Western cultural framework” unavoidably impoverishes one’s English writing to an intolerable degree. I hope at the very least, that all the above examples have shown just how commonplace and “invisible” the cultural framework of language really is. Even to avoid merely the most obvious and extreme instances of this still precludes a very considerable range of English expression. A group of synonyms like “class”, “standard”, “quality”, “distinction”, and “caliber” each have unique and subtle differences in sense, and each of them might prove to be le mot juste for a particular situation where other words might not suffice.

However… the word “caliber” derives its figurative meaning from the measurement of a bore of a firearm, and so, wouldn’t it be rather out of place for an extremely traditional, sword-wielding warrior like Soujin to be using this word? As you can see, this very quickly ends up being a considerable restriction on the amount of tools available in your toolbox as a translator! This is especially true for idioms, turns of phrase, and set expressions, for which there are rarely adequate alternatives – “doubling down”, for example, is an immensely useful expression, capturing all the nuance of “a stubborn re-commitment to a current, likely dubious or risky, course of action” and it happens to be a wonderful equivalency for a phrase like 漱石枕流. But, it likewise inextricably embeds this “cultural framework” of the particularly Western institution of casino gambling, which again, perhaps feels somewhat out of place in a setting like Senmomo?

Now of course, it is by no means impossible to “take the easy route”, to exclusively opt for the most straightforward and literal renderings possible, and to always reach for simplistic paraphrases instead of compelling equivalencies. But to always simply render 朝飯前 as “extremely easy”, 存在意義 as “the meaning of one’s existence”, and to apply such a philosophy across an entire text would clearly result in an extremely flattened script that erases all of the richness of the source text. It would necessarily entail extensive erasure of all the idiomatic language of the original text, generic paraphrase of otherwise colourful turns of phrase, and so on, all without any compensation in your English script! The output might be accurate and readable, but it would be a pale shadow of the original text, and a very poor translation indeed.

Ronald Knox, in his book Trials of a Translator makes this extremely insightful argument that “It is relatively easy to notice when to avoid a foreignism but harder to notice the ‘negative effect’ produced by the absence of English mannerisms.” But I think this “negative effect”, though hard to explicitly notice, is still very subtly impactful when applied across the totality of a text. It results in a very lifeless and translationese output, one that is notionally accurate, but doesn’t sound like quality, natural English at all – because obviously, good, natural English writing and dialogue make copious and artful use of the aforementioned “English mannerisms”! A target text that is wholly absent these mannerisms, while still nominally readable, lacks the dynamism and smoothness that genuinely good English writing commands, and invariably ends up reading like something that is obviously a (mediocre) translation. We should be striving to do better than that.

Thus, this is the real challenge; the fine balance that needs to be struck. On one hand, we need to preserve the integrity of the setting, to uphold the worldbuilding and cultural distinctions that the source text takes great pride in establishing, and to maintain the suspension of disbelief that these characters really are authentic inhabitants of the world of Senmomo; characters who are highly “culturally Japanese” and insulated from Western cultural folkways. On the other hand, however, we also need to preserve the integrity of the writing, to deliver not merely readable, but compelling and pleasurable English narration and dialogue that is naturalistic and actually sounds like believable English, and to uphold the suspension of disbelief that this could have even been a text written originally in English! …A piece of cake, right~?

Part Four: What Is To Be Done?


By the way, if you’re wondering how this works the other way around in English to Japanese translation, I’m at least pleased to report that it’s every bit as much of a problem for them as well! This is a passage from Nohara’s Translating Popular Fiction: Embracing Otherness in Japanese Translations that showcases similar such challenges, with an example from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Squire Toby’s Will and a corresponding Japanese translation:

“It’s not a great deal, Cooper, but it troubles me, and I would not tell it to the parson nor the doctor.”

“He was a good man, sir, in his way,” repeated old Cooper, returning his gaze with awe. “He was a good master to me, and a good father to you, and I hope he’s happy. May God rest him!”

「たいしたことではないのだが、そ れが気がかりになっているのに、 牧師にも医者にも話す気になれな い。」

「ご先代もあの方なりに良い方でご ざいました。わたしには良いご主人 でしたし、旦那さまにも良いお父さ までしたよ。きっとご成仏なさって 居られましょう。ご冥福を」

Charles is terrified that his brother and father, who are both dead, have placed a curse on him because of their past rows. In the TT, there are two religious modifications: gojōbutsunasatte [entering Nirvana] and gomēfuku o [wishing for the repose of his soul]. Both of the ST expressions, “I hope he’s happy (in heaven)” and “May God rest him”, obviously have Christian beliefs as their background, so the translator has substituted Buddhist expressions for them. It should be noted that the word “parson” is used a few lines earlier in the ST and has been allocated the semantically and culturally straightforward translation bokushi [clergyman] – not an ambiguous, neutralising term like bōzu [priest]. It is absolutely impossible to interpret the term bokushi as meaning anything other than a Christian clergyman. Thus, items of both Christian and Buddhist language are embedded in a single literary setting. This imparts a peculiar sense of incongruity and of cultural mixture to the discourse.

Ehehee~ Isn’t it at least comforting to know that we aren’t the only ones struggling with this stuff? As Nohara remarks very eloquently though, the effect of this intermixing of cultural atmospheres really does contribute to a “peculiar sense of incongruity”, one that is certainly unavoidable to some extent, and likely overlooked or tolerated by almost all readers, but still, something that is probably best to minimize, especially when the integrity of the story’s setting is very important.

So then, what did we do about this issue throughout Senmomo? First and foremost, as can be seen in the examples in Part Two, we elected to mark “words that are explicitly introduced as foreign” in angle brackets, as with ≪sword≫ or ≪party≫ or ≪drive≫. If we were translating into any other language, this wouldn’t even be an issue, since all of these words are explicitly English loanwords and we could simply render them as such. However, because our target language is also English, it would obviously introduce incongruities if, say, Soujin inexplicably didn’t understand what the word ≪sword≫ means only when framed in angle brackets, but then went on to casually narrate cutting down enemies with his sword a couple of lines later.

The solution that Dubs first decided to opt for and I elected to preserve is the rather radical option of never using any of these “canonically foreign” words in all of the Imperial characters’ dialogue and narration. Hence, the only occasions where words like sword, and party, and drive, but also words like surprise and hurry appear are (1) in the narration of Republican characters, and (2) when spoken aloud and recognized specifically as unfamiliar, foreign words. This was, er… really not easy! Having a side-constraint of two-dozen-plus “banned words” that we have to categorically avoid using, (including one extremely common and completely irreplaceable English word that appears in a stupid-ass gag in Chapter 5!) ended up being a considerable challenge to write around, but I do think the effect ends up being quite nice and flavourful! In particular, the conspicuous omission of the word sword and use of alternatives like blade instead ended up being a device I felt really contributes to the flavour of the setting.

This conceit even enabled some nice bits of compensation not present in the original text – as mentioned before, it perhaps seems out of place for Soujin to use “driving-related metaphors” like “being in the driver’s seat” if the word ≪drive≫ is not a regular part of his vocabulary, and so, we refrained from using any form of figurative language that references modern, Western technology like firearms or cars in his narration. However, for Republican characters, this would clearly not be the case; they likely would freely make use of these “banned words” and all the metaphorical language associated with them, which we made sure to make liberal use of in their narration. I think the cumulative effect of this is to hopefully capture a distinctness in the narration of Imperial and Republican characters, one that reflects their civilizational and worldview differences. A few examples of this in action:

混乱の引き金が引かれた。 And thus the trigger for chaos is pulled. And thus the arrow of pandemonium is loosed.

This is Soujin’s narration, and hence, I felt that it much more flavourful and in-line with the setting for him to be using a metaphorical expression that references a traditional martial arts weapon of a bow rather than a firearm.

今更、信頼も何もない。 Trust isn’t part of the equation. Trust never needed to be part of the equation in the first place.
翡翠帝がこちらに背かぬようコントロールできればそれでいい。 All I need to do is control Empress Hisui so she doesn’t turn against me. I just need to stay in the driver’s seat and make sure she doesn’t turn against me.
「あなたを信じたいのは山々だけれど、どうしても躊躇いがあるの」 「I’d love nothing more than to trust you, but I can’t help but hesitate.」 「I’d love nothing more than to trust you again, but you can probably understand why I’m rather hesitant…」

Here, we instead see Elsa, a native of the Republic’s narration. Note the conspicuous use of the “foreign” katakana verb コントロール, which I opted to compensate for with “in the driver’s seat”, a piece of vocabulary that as mentioned above, is notably absent from all the Imperial characters’ diction.

「ふふふ、今頃慌てても、もう遅いですよ」 「Heh heh heh. Panic all you want, but it’s already too late.」 「Heheheh. Panic all you want, but it’s already too late.」
「私の用意周到さに、恐れおののくと良いと思います。じゃじゃん」 「Cower in fear at the thoroughness of my preparations. Ta-da!」 「Cower in fear at the extent of my mighty preparations! Ta-da!」
古杜音が鞄の中から紙切れを出した。 Kotone takes a scrap of paper out of her bag. Kotone withdraws a scrap of paper from her bag.
「何これ? 屋上観覧席『松』、千五百圓?」 「What’s this? “Rooftop seating ticket (front row), 1500 yen?”」 「What’s this? “Rooftop Viewing Ticket (Front Row), 1500 Yen?”」
「これさえあれば、屋上から翡翠帝を悠々拝見できるのですっ」 「With this bad boy, you can admire Empress Hisui from the rooftop at your leisure!」 「With this bad boy, one may admire Empress Hisui from the rooftop at one’s leisure!」
「ふっ」 「Hup!」 「Hup!」
滸の腕が<R はし>疾</R>った。 Hotori’s arm flies. Hotori’s arm flashes through the air.
「あ、あれ?」 「H-Huh?」 「H-Huh?」
屋上観覧席『松』が、パラパラと紙片になって風に飛んだ。 The rooftop seating ticket (front row) is reduced to tiny pieces floating on the breeze. The Rooftop Viewing Ticket (Front Row) is reduced to tiny scraps drifting on the breeze.

One of many interesting pieces of cultural translation to negotiate in Senmomo, which I thought my translator absolutely nails! Here, the original Japanese features 松竹梅, a three-tiered system used to sort substitutable goods (like seating tickets) in terms of quality. It is an interesting little piece of cultural trivia, but not something that we felt was at all essential to the scene in question, and we think that the rendering of “(Front Row)” captures the sense in an unobtrusive and elegant way.

On the topic of lexical challenges however, another very common issue we encounter is the role that non-English loanwords play in our language. Our shared intuition is that words with Old English roots almost universally have a neutral, unnoticeable effect on the text, but recognizably French, Latin, or Greek words and expressions have a subtly damaging effect on the integrity of Senmomo’s setting. That is to say, would it not come across as fairly strange for a very “traditionally Japanese” character like Soujin in a very “traditionally Japanese” setting like Senmomo’s to make use of expressions like “raison d’etre” or “ad hominem” in his speech or narration?

The problem, however, is that many of these words are extremely irreplaceable and useful for English expression, with few if any reasonable alternatives! Unfortunately, I don’t feel like there is any one definitive “solution” to this, and as with almost everything else in translation, it ends up being a matter of evaluating competing tradeoffs. Obviously it’s completely untenable to avoid using any words that have even a whiff of foreignness to them, but likewise, some words are so intolerably immersion-breaking that no matter how much it captures the sense of the original text, they can’t be justified. What is the value of using this particular word or phrase in terms of “aptness” in capturing the sense of the source text? How much unique “literary value” does it contribute compared to lesser alternatives? How much would the presence of this word or phrase genuinely damage the “integrity” of the setting? None of these questions have very obvious answers, and negotiating the tradeoffs between them is very much an intuitive, feelings-based sort of endeavor.

An observation I’d make, though, is that in my experience, “how foreign a word feels” is somewhat distinct from its objective etymological origins. For example, words like surrender or genre or chauffeur are notionally foreign words of French origin, but they’ve been so thoroughly domesticated into becoming “English” words that I don’t feel like there’s any issue with using them, even in a text like Senmomo. Conversely, however, words like laissez-faire or avant-garde likely come across as too incongruously French to ever justify their inclusion in Senmomo. Very conspicuously Greco-Roman words like septentrional or hyperborean are probably out of bounds, but something like brumal or gelid seems safe enough? At the end of the day, it very much is just a matter of subjective intuitions and sensibilities, and unsurprisingly, Dubs and I occasionally disagree about how “foreign” and thereby, permissible, certain words are. For example, I personally thought that the phrase “I bid you adieu” was sufficiently domesticated into English that it would be suitable as a posh, slightly pretentious farewell for high-class members of the Republic’s gentry to use with each other, but to Dubsy’s ears, this phrase seemed still too “French” and out of character for the (ostensibly American) Republicans to use, and so after much deliberation, we ended up omitting it. Generally speaking, I feel like we were fairly judicious with excluding any sort of language that sticks out as being at odds with the traditional Japanese setting of Senmomo, but there are certainly instances where we felt that the improvement to fidelity to the source text or literary value contributed by certain words justified their “tax” on the integrity of the setting.

One area that was particularly challenging in terms of this lexical negotiation ended up being specifically words relating to religion. Unfortunately, almost the entire lexical inventory available in English for describing religious institutions are heavily influenced by Christianity and rely on manifestly Greco-Roman vocabulary. Themes of religiosity are very prominent in Senmomo, and words like 巫女 or 神殿 or 神職 appear extremely often. These terms are not notionally difficult to translate per se; priestess, temple, and priesthood are very close equivalencies, but the problem comes from the fact that these words in English unavoidably carry with them implicit associations with Christianity, whereas the original terms are likewise inextricably bound up in the Japanese cultural framework of Shinto and Buddhism. We considered many different alternatives; rendering 巫女 as “shrine maiden” or simply “miko”, for example, but found that these solutions carried with them much bigger issues. Ultimately, after much consideration, we felt that even though titles like “Your Eminence”, descriptors like “the hieratic order”, and verbs like “to ordain” embed rather unfortunate associations with Christianity that perhaps feel slightly out of place in a notably Japanese setting, they still capture the particularly solemn and stately “cultural atmosphere” associated with religiosity that best reflects the sense of phrases like 神殿組織 or 要職に任命. I’ll leave off with one final sample passage from our translation; as you’ll notice, there are indeed many words that contribute to the “instability” of the setting like “anoint”, “priesthood”, and “quietus”, and much like Nohara’s E>J example, there is an inescapable sense of incongruity with the intermixing of Christian and Shinto (or rather, Tento) atmospherics, but I believe that our rendering still ultimately does a very fine job of capturing the “sense” and “feel” of the original Japanese all the same.

林立する朱塗りの柱の間を、幽玄な香が漂う。 A mysterious and profound aroma wafts from between the vermillion-painted pillars. An airy and ethereal aroma gently wafts betwixt the grove of vermilion-lacquered pillars.
外光が切り出す陰影が、この空間が積み重ねてきた時間を隠微に囁く。 The shadows excised by the outside light whisper abstrusely of the time accumulated in this place. The long shadows cast by the outside light whisper of accumulated eons of yore.
欄間の鳳凰と目が合った気がして、呼び出しを受けた巫女は、<R うずくま>蹲</R>った身体をより小さく凝り固めた。 Feeling like she’s made eye contact with a transom phoenix, the summoned priestess stiffens her cowering body even further. Having come face-to-face with this majestic phoenix perched in her parapet, the summoned priestess cowers even further into herself.
玉座にあるは翡翠帝である。 Empress Hisui is on the throne. Empress Hisui sits on her throne.
水仙を思わせる可憐な姿に、同年代の巫女は深い感銘を受ける。 Her lovely figure, evocative of daffodils, leaves a deep impression on the priestess, even though they are of the same generation. Her regal figure, lovely as a daffodil, leaves a deep impression on the priestess, even though they are of a similar age.
──かの方こそ、日々祈りを捧げる《大御神》の血を引く存在なのだ。 ─This individual truly bears the blood of Oomikami, the god to whom she prays every day. ─This personage truly bears the blood of Oomikami, the deity to whom she dedicates her every prayer.
「<R しいのはことね>椎葉古杜音</R>、あなたを第百九十二代・<R いつきのみこ>斎巫女</R>に任じます」 「Shiinoha Kotone, I hereby appoint you 192nd Exalt-Priestess.」 「Shiinoha Kotone, I hereby anoint you as this Empire’s 192nd Exalt-Priestess.」
「斎巫女は、呪術の根源を司る国家の要職です」 「The station of Exalt-Priestess is of great national importance, for she must govern the root of magic.」 「The station of Exalt-Priestess is of paramount national importance, for she holds dominion over the very essence of magicks.」
「重圧はいかばかりかと思いますが、体を大事に忠勤を尽くすことを願います」 「The pressure will surely be great, but I pray that you will remain in good health and offer faithful service.」 「You shall surely be met with many adversities to come, but I pray that you might remain in good health and render most faithful service.」
居並ぶ大臣の中から、宰相・小此木時彦が進み出た。 Prime Minister Okonogi Tokihiko steps forward from the line of cabinet ministers. Chancellor Okonogi Tokihiko steps forward from the long line of ministers.
無言のまま、古杜音に向け、任命状を差し出す。 Without a word, he faces Kotone and holds out her letter of appointment. He faces towards Kotone and wordlessly holds out a letter of appointment.
「慎んで拝命いたします」 「I humbly accept my position.」 「I humbly accept this station.」
古杜音が深々と頭を下げる。 Kotone bows deeply. Kotone bows deeply.
斎巫女は、女性の神職である巫女、男性の神職である禰宜、合わせて約五千の神職を総べる存在である。 The Exalt-Priestess commands the approximately five thousand-strong clergy consisting of male and female practitioners alike. The Exalt-Priestess is the head of the priesthood, chiefest among all five thousand of its priests and priestesses.
そもそも神職とは、《大御神》やその祖先神を信仰の対象とする《天道》の司祭だ。 In the first place, the clergy are ministers of Tentou, which sees Oomikami and His progenitor gods as objects of worship. In the first place, the priesthood are practitioners of the Tento faith, which exalts Oomikami and His progenitor gods as objects of worship.
厳しい修行により呪術を身につけ、古来より武人と共に皇国の防衛に深く関わってきた。 They learn magic through strict training, and they have worked closely with the warriors in the Empire’s defense since ancient times. They learn magicks through rigorous training, and they have worked closely with warriors in service of the Empire’s defense since ancient times.
また、一般の国民にとっての神職は、人間の生と死を司る存在でもある。 Furthermore, to the average citizen, the clergy command human life and death. Moreover, to the general public, they hold powers over life and death itself.
誕生、成長、病、死── Birth, growth, disease, death─ Be it childbirth, coming-of-age, malady, or quietus─
人生の折々の機会に、人々は神殿に通い神職の祈りを求める。 On various occasions throughout their lives, the people visit temples and seek prayers from the clergy there. On all occasions of great import, the common people flock to the temple in search of prayers.

If you’ve read all this way, then you have my great appreciation for indulging my rambling about some of the unique translational challenges associated with Senmomo! I certainly look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have about this topic I personally find extremely fascinating, and I look forward to continuing what Dub’s started in posting more chats about translation, with more of an emphasis on praxis rather than theory. Until next time then~


Hello friends. As you can probably tell from the title, I really enjoyed reading Café Stella. Plenty of other folks have already discussed at length the qualities that made this a nice game, with one notable exception that I hope to rectify here. You see, a very consequential aspect of my enjoyment came not from the game itself (overall a middling Yuzuge with some interesting-ish ideas and directions) but from my enjoyment of the translation. The moebuta inside me was satisfied to be sure, but the translation nerd inside me was positively delighted by all the good fucking food on offer (and the slick tri-language support was just the cherry on top!)

Rest assured, there will be plenty of gushing about why I think this translation freaking slaps, but please kindly indulge me for a minute as I chat a bit about my motivation for writing this first of (hopefully) many entries in this “series.”

To cut to the chase, my motivation stems from two dissatisfactions I’ve always had about the tendencies of translation discourse in the community. Generally, I’ve been rather disappointed with the quality and nuance of translation critiques I’ve seen – nearly all of it being some combination of hopelessly broad and contextless (“yep, mhm, I thought it was pretty good”, etc.) obsessively focused on what I think are extremely trifling considerations instead (REEEing about how “onii-chan” is translated) or just clearly done in an unconstructive and bad-faith manner (holding up individual lines as “gotchas” that a translation sucks, manifestly untrue accusations of MTL, etc.)

More crucially though, it’s always made me a bit sad that the discourse about translation and translation quality tends to be so overwhelmingly negative, almost exclusively dominated by complaints and put-downs instead of praise and commendation. To be sure, it’s no secret that both of us think translators in this space generally ought to hold themselves to much higher standards, and there are plenty of unconscionably bad translations out there that 100% deserve to be panned much more than they do (though still in a constructive and civil manner, mind you!) However, the preponderance of negativity whenever translations are discussed really belies the fact that there are just as many sublimely brilliant works out there as well; works where the virtuosity and effort of the localizers stand out clear as day, and these works absolutely deserve more praise than they currently receive!

Hence my reason for writing this entry: I want to offer the sort of detailed and substantive and evidence-based translation critique I’d personally looove to see more of, and I want to challenge the cynicism and negativity that tends to pervade discussions such as these by foregrounding the impressive skill and resourcefulness and wit and effort that goes into crafting awesome TLs! Few things bring me as much joy as spotting a really brilliant line in a translation, and nothing would make me happier if you’d be able to share in that feeling! In short, I’d like to use this space to celebrate great translations!

Café Stella: An Overview

Café Stella and the Reapers’ Butterflies (喫茶ステラと死神の蝶) is an eroge developed by Yuzusoft in 2019 and localized into English/Chinese by Nekonyan/Hikari Field in 2022. The English staff credits are as follows:

Project Management: akerou

English Translator: akerou, dream

Editor: Chuee

Engineering/Programming: Wamsoft

Video Editor: R Stuart

Image Editor: Quattro, Saki

QA: Adrian Kerkau, SSparks, KiriyaAoi, haerts, saki

As a broad overview, I should start by saying that I generally have a good opinion of Nekonyan’s translations, though I think the quality of their work does tend to fluctuate quite a bit (Koikari’s TL totally slaps, but Kinkoi was much more of a mixed bag). Café Stella, though, is definitely one of their big winners!

Interestingly, I wouldn’t characterize Café Stella as a particularly difficult game to translate at all; the writing is fairly simple and straightforward, and I don’t think there are many unique puzzles or challenges that the text offers either. However, I was still thoroughly impressed by how elegant and pleasurable the translation was to read. Even just an hour or so into the common route, I felt like the excellent quality of the translation was very self-evident! Make no mistake, even for a putatively “easy” work, there is still enormous amounts of room for translator skill expression, and I think a lower-effort and more workmanlike output would have been very qualitatively worse and much less enjoyable to read!

If there are a few things that I think are particularly praiseworthy about this translation that are worth highlighting, it’d be (1) the exceptionally fine balance struck with respect to its localization choices, doing an excellent job of accommodating the target text to its likely target audience, (2) the very smooth and slick dialogue that takes great efforts to capture character voice and eradicate almost all traces of stiffness and “translationese”, and (3) the display of a very commendable conscientiousness in adhering to the integrity of the source text and not committing needless “treachery”, but at the same time, exhibiting remarkable moral courage in taking extremely bold liberties where the source text truly demands it!

Of course, it does very little good to speak purely in generalities like this, so let us look at some more specific examples. Knowledge of Japanese would be helpful, of course, but by no means required (your Japanese is almost certainly better than mine!)

This exercise of writing a translation critique like this is still completely new to me, and I’m highly unsure about how best to organize these writeups and make my arguments, but I think for this post at least, I’m going to organize the ~25+ illustrative examples I’ve collated over the course of reading this game into several general translation “themes” that will hopefully show why I think this work is really something – certainly among the very best that Nekonyan has ever put out.

~Be warned, potential SPOILERS and some NSFW images (for education purposes only!) ahead~

Stock Expressions and Aisatsu

This first “theme” is admittedly nothing more than a rough heuristic I’ve developed, but out of hundreds and hundreds of otaku translations I’ve read, I’ve never encountered a single work which mishandles “stock expressions” and “aisatsu” that I thought was above average, let alone genuinely good. You probably know what I’m talking about, right? I’m referring to those commonplace turns of phrase and phatic expressions and the way that unskilled translators tend to manhandle them; thoughtlessly substituting every “shikatanai” with “it can’t be helped”, “yahari” with “as I expected”, “itadakimasu” with “thanks for the food” and so on…

I didn’t bother collecting too much evidence of an absence in Café Stella’s case, but rest assured that it manages to negotiate this (admittedly very low) bar successfully and renders these dime-a-dozen stock expressions with very mindful and contextually fitting equivalencies~

The last point is one I especially want to highlight – I think there might be a false impression that the “really hard to translate lines” are categorically those super long and dense and flowery and meaningful lines of narration. While these passages certainly pose plenty of their own challenges, in my experience, it’s often just a simple errant “arigatou” or “otsukaresama” that ends up being an absolute brick wall! As you are surely aware, many of these Japanese aisatsu simply have no good equivalencies in English and for an English speaker to say ANYTHING in such a context would be perceived as rather strange! Hence, it is often extraordinarily challenging to come up with an elegant line in substitution. Café Stella is very mindful of this fact, and the solutions that it regularly comes up with are very resourceful indeed!

Take this rendition of an “otsukaresama” exchange for example, which is rendered as “see you tomorrow”; a much more plausible and natural pleasantry you might exchange in English to your coworkers (compared to, for example, the much more default “good work, everyone!”) Not the most “difficult” solution by any means, but I don’t think every translator would’ve opted for this either, and in my mind, it’s compelling evidence of some thoughtful consideration, that the writers of the translation considered several options and selected the best one instead of mindlessly jamming out the top dictionary recommendation for otsukaresama and calling it a day.

This take on “itakdakimasu” was one I thought was particularly neat! It instrumentalizes the very specific context (two people who have been eagerly watching and awaiting the results of their cooking project) and comes up with a line that fits exceptionally well in a situation where all the “commonplace” renditions of “itadakimasu” would be terribly awkward! Just imagine if this was something like “thanks for the food!” instead… Eugh!

One final illustration of the mindful negotiation of aisatsu. In this case, a very straightforward but non-obvious “Hey, everyone”, which is an infinitely more plausible way for an English speaker to slide into a conversation with coworkers, capturing the perfunctory and non-communicative, phatic nature of these exchanges much better than a highly literal, hammy, over-the-top “great job today, everyone!” (Consider how often you get showered with a chorus of exhortations like this in an English-speaking workplace…) As Hasegawa observes, oftentimes, “silence can be the best adaptation in such cases.”

Out of interest, let’s also check out how Café Stella handles some notoriously difficult phrases, shall we? Three examples I’ve picked out are 甘える/甘やかすas well as 甘酸っぱい. The former “amaeru” (to pamper, to spoil, to fawn on, etc.) is either first or second among my personal list of “most goddamn impossible fucking words to translate FUCK” (incidentally, if you are curious about amae, I highly recommend Takeo Doi’s illuminating The Anatomy of Dependence which is one of my favourite non-fiction books!) On the other hand, “amazuppai” (lit. sweet and sour, almost always associated with youthful romance and indiscretion) is just a personal pet peeve of mine since I see it rendered as “bittersweet” so incredibly often even though I feel like it has a completely different emotional valance (with almost none of the “bitter” of bittersweet…) Anyways, let’s see how Café Stella handles these.

In the first example, the sentiment being expressed is along the lines of “it’d be okay for a heartbroken girlfriend to amaeru to her boyfriend… right?” and the rephrasing of the question as well as the use of the verb “to comfort” constructs a wonderfully natural equivalence in English that still captures all of the insecure, anxious gap moe of Suzune expressing a desire to amaeru! Hauu~ omochikaeri~!

I think the second example represents a nice case study of the tradeoffs inherently involved in translation. I think you could raise a reasonable argument that Nekonyan’s take does erase some degree of the nuance expressed with “amayakasu” (to coddle, to excessively indulge) by rendering it as “not too keen [to force her back to work]” but I think to translate it any more directly would negatively impact the naturalness of the line (consider the difficulty of directly, explicitly fitting in the sentiment that he thinks her parents are perhaps spoiling/indulging her) I think this take also does a great job with capturing the equivocacy and uneasy nature of the exchange, with the “not too keen on” word choice doing a lot to embed and compensate for a lot of the “things left unsaid” nuance that is originally present. Overall, a very interesting line that I likely wouldn’t have written myself, but I really do like and can see the merits of.

The last example is simply brilliant, easily one of the best renditions of this exclamation of “amazuppai!” I’ve ever seen! It’s immensely clever and liberal in the best of ways; one of those takes that if you handed to ten different translators, only one would come up with this! It’s such a great equivalency in every respect, fitting the energy of the situation, Suzune’s characterization, the sentiment behind the exclamation all perfectly! Imagine this line as just something like “Uwaah! How bittersweet!” instead, oof…

Linguistic and Sociocultural Thoughtfulness

This is a really understatedly important and valuable aspect of great translation I feel. It should really go without saying of course, but the challenges of translation aren’t merely of a purely linguistic nature. They also necessarily require a thoughtful accounting of the sociocultural nuances of the source and target languages! (And yep, I acknowledge it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider these sociocultural aspects as part of a fundamental definition of what “linguistics” is about!)

I think this very simple line is an illuminating example of what I’m referring to. The Japanese here literally expresses something along the lines of “What do you mean ‘am I coming?’ That first period class is compulsory/required, isn’t it?” Besides the impressive way that the translation naturalizes the largely rhetorical language in the first clause, I thought it shows off an impressive amount of thoughtfulness in how it deals with the second clause!

Assuming that you are familiar with the norms of Western higher education, it should stand out as at least slightly strange that a course being “必修” (compulsory/required/a graduation requirement) is somehow a manifestly sensible rejoinder to the notion that you might otherwise consider cutting class, right? As any undergraduate with a dreaded 9AM lecture could attest, a course being a graduation requirement is hardly an especially compelling reason to attend lecture!

Rather, the “default” assumption with Western higher education is that lecture attendance is optional and that non-attendance typically faces no sanction, with the “requisite” nature of the class being a generally irrelevant factor. Hence, I think a literal and straightforward rendition of this line wouldn’t be an especially great equivalency for an audience that isn’t intuitively familiar with the subtleties of Japanese higher education (where it seems attendance is much more of an expectation, with this expectation differing between “mandatory” and “elective” coursework)

It seems that the English translation shares this view, hence opting for a very natural alternative of “a prof that uncharacteristically always takes attendance” that makes Hiroto’s argument of “of course I’m gonna go to class” much more self-evident to the target audience. It’s such an elegant sleight of hand that I highly doubt anyone would have even noticed, which is exactly what you should want with changes like this, and it’s really a treat to see this level of effortful attention to detail and mindfulness applied even to entirely inconsequential throwaway lines such as this.

Interestingly, it was this particular passage about 15 minutes into the prologue that elevated this translation from “decent” to “damn good” in my evaluation. I think it initially might look fairly non-descript, but belies some very impressive and thoughtful translation decisions I’d like to unpack.

The second line is just some very slick dynamic equivalence. The original 避けるべき代表的なワード (lit. “archetypal words that ought to be avoided”) is very thoughtfully and deliberately rendered with the colloquial English expressions “buzzwords” and “red flags” which are extremely contextual and specific to the practice of job hunting; I can’t think of any better mot juste, very nice!

The third line is especially interesting. It features the compound 少数精鋭, which Wakabayashi defines as “employing only a few workers, but ones of superior ability” (funnily enough, in the specific chapter where this expression is used as an example of the difficulties of word economy in finding concise English equivalencies for dense kanji compounds!) It also has the quality of sounding like a “buzzword”; the sort of inauthentic corporate-speak that would totally be at place in a cheesy hiring slogan. Hence, the challenge here is twofold, (1) to somehow capture the meaning of 少数精鋭 with very concise brevity and (2) write something that plausibly reads like an English job advert, necessarily rife with the same sort of exaggerated puffery that you’d expect from such texts. I think the solution Nekonyan came up with here “Small team, employee-friendly!” shows that the translators were clearly cognizant of the demands of such a line. I might’ve gone for something more hammy (“Looking for motivated self-starters to join our small, tight-knit family!”, perhaps?) but I quite like their take as well, and I could so very easily imagine disastrous takes on this line, such as an unskilled TLer thoughtlessly sticking in the clunky dictionary definition for 少数精鋭 and calling it a day.

Finally, the last line, too, features some very clear evidence of thoughtfulness, and specifically, something I find particularly commendable given that I struggle a lot with it: realizing when to simply “give up” and sacrifice some fidelity and meaning for greatly improved flow! This line features a neat bit of wasei-eigo with ワンオペ (wan-ope, which as you can probably guess, derives from “one-operation”) and specifically refers to the situation of being the sole employee staffing an entire enterprise (like a conbini) by themselves. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t an elegant English expression to convey this very specific (and admittedly very useful!) idea. “One-operation” is a complete non-starter as it’d just be nonsense to a native English speaker, and something like “[working the] graveyard shift”, while not too far off, foregrounds the wrong nuance, implying that the objectionable feature are the hours, rather than an employer abandoning you to take on an onerous amount of responsibility all on your own. I think Nekonyan made the sensible choice here in deciding that there is indeed no way to elegantly convey this idea, merely opting for “getting screwed over” and showing some impressive “moral courage” (I will write about this idea at a future date if Dubs doesn’t beat me to it) in deliberately losing out on some semantic meaning in exchange for a line that flows smoothly and makes sense. I think in this case, it’s an eminently reasonable decision with very worthwhile tradeoffs that nonetheless couldn’t have been easy to make!

I hope unpacking lines like these showcases the type of deliberation that goes into crafting a nice translation. To be sure, all of this is purely speculation on my part, but I do feel like the translation speaks for itself and showcases clear evidence of this sort of thoughtfulness I’m particularly fond of seeing! A few more rapid-fire interesting examples:

My opinions on the extremely questionable “Americanization” of 3年 as “[college] junior” aside, I thought it was neat how the text dances around the issues of directly mentioning “languages” and thereby prevents inadvertently highlighting its status as a translation, which rendering the former line as the literal “She’s in my foreign language (presumably English) class” or the latter as “Do you mind speaking Japanese?” would have done.

I thought this handling of “inline quotations in kagikakko” was likewise very slick and non-obvious. I feel like this practice of speaking in a hypothetical manner “on behalf of non-existent people” would be perceived as fairly strange in English even though it is commonplace in Japanese, and therefore a literal rendering of this line would be rather untoward (not to mention excessively long…) I find that Nekonyan’s solution of summarizing “tsugi koso wa tanoshii jinsei wo okuritai!” (I want to be happy in my next life!”) and “aitsu ga yurusenai!” (I’ll never forgive that SOB!”) as simply “regrets and resentments” is pretty damn elegant.

I’m just glad they did something for Nozomi’s Shinto norito here! It’s a pretty solid take as well, but more than the quality, just seeing supererogatory efforts like this that make me very happy; I could easily imagine a lazier translator simply opting to leave it Romanized or giving a flavourless literal translation instead >__<

Humour and Wit

Just as much as the romance, solid comedy lies at the heart of the appeal of moege, and humour and wit always represent enormous opportunities for translator skill expression. The quality of comedy itself is pretty subjective, so I won’t bother to argue that any specific joke is funny or not, but I do still want to highlight the sound application of translation principles that underpins lots of the really clever jokes written by the translation.

This passage, I think, is really emblematic of the excellent style with which Nekonyan approached the comedy in this game. As you can probably guess, each of the MC’s tsukkomis as Natsume adds more and more sugar are only loosely based off of the original line, reflecting what I think is a nice attitude towards negotiating comedy specifically – being excessively beholden to the original text would end up strangling a lot of the wit out of the prose, but the translation never strays too far either, always still making sure to reflect the “spirit” of the original line. I particularly liked the take on #5, it’s easily the funniest out of the bunch, reflecting a very “naturally English” interjection, on account of the original おっとさらに追い砂糖 (“oh dear, another sugar…”) being largely unworkable and running contrary to the pattern of escalating bewilderment and exasperation. Really nice line and passage.

Damn, aren’t these just two really lovely and witty takes? They’re rather brilliant applications of an idea I like to think of as “memetic equivalent exchange” (or, if you insist on being lame and technical, “compensation in kind”) Both of the original lines are culturally-steeped references that constitute funny punchlines, the former emulating an exasperated director/producer calling for an abrupt dismissal, and the latter harkening to the commonplace otaku meme of “[riajuu] bakuhatsu shiro!” In both cases, the humorous content of the lines absolutely must be retained – something which a flat, literal rendition of either line wouldn’t be very successful at doing. The natural solution, of course, is to “compensate” for the humour of the original with a similar in-kind type of reference (read: insert dank memes), and I feel like the wittiness and cleverness on display here speaks for itself~

Some really nice ideas in this pair of examples as well, specifically with capturing subtext and sarcasm! In the first example, the line “Hiuchidani-san wa kashkoi desu” is (1) deliberately written in katakana and (2) very off-register as the MC incongruously uses “desu”, both of which should be clear indicators that the line is meant to be read as excessively stiff and pretending. The translation does a sublime job of capturing this effect, especially with the very non-obvious and deliberate use of ellipses! A few lines down, the extremely colloquial “I’m a big dumb-dumb!” is also just perfect; pure poetry at work~

In the second example, the “arigatou Mei, aishiteru” is also clearly intended to be sarcastic (especially on account of the use of “aishiteru”) Of course, the much more obvious rendition of “Thanks Mei, I love you” would still be able to convey the sarcasm and not induce any misunderstanding on the part of the reader, but I especially love how the English script opted to go above and beyond with the manifestly flippant “Love ya bunches” which does so much more to capture the absurdity of responding with “aishiteru” upon being granted an outrageous sexual favour.

A final principle I want to highlight is a related notion of “compensation in place” (some might call it “making up new jokes that totally weren’t there originally”) Naturally, a brief defense is in order:

I think there’s a perverse belief that doing so would be outside the prerogative of an ethical translator, but this belief is rather misplaced in my view. My argument is simple, any act of translation, no matter how skilled, is necessarily going to result in some amount of erasure. Applied over the length of an entire source text, a strict principle of never attempting to compensate would yield a purely subtractive process, necessarily resulting in a target text where a vast amount of substance (tone, comedy, beauty, etc.) is “lost in translation.” (I especially recommend the chapter in the Wakabayashi titled “Translators at play”) Hence, some poetic license in compensating for comedy is certainly very necessary, though it goes without saying that restraint is crucial. I think Café Stella did a good job with striking this balance, as shown with the two above examples.

The former example deliberately inserts the much more cute and flavourful association of “selling like hotcakes” to “飛ぶように売れて” (selling lots of goods, flying off the shelves) The latter example renders “jyanakute sa” (“Er, it’s not…”) as the rather bold “That’s not what it says on my birth certificate” which, while quite enterprising, does manage to capture the flippancy of the tone while also being considerably funnier. I might’ve opted for something a touch more grounded like “Try again” but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment behind such a take~

Elegance in Prose and “Justified” Treachery

The last theme I want to highlight are the sorts of lines that get me the most excited, and it features some of my favourite lines from the whole script. These are the sorts of lines I think especially manage to distinguish translator skill; lines that often demand courageous amounts of treachery in order to craft elegant, flowing prose and beautiful takes that don’t lose to the original. For any dogmatic literalists still reading this for some reason, viewer discretion is advised~

Isn’t that such a lovely view? Those two round curves sure are a sight for sore eyes indeed~

Of course, I’m talking about the exceptionally clever use of parentheses here. The tricky construction in question is the 一人暮らしの男の部屋 (the room/apartment of a man who lives alone) which is an awfully clunky mouthful and represents some terribly awkward English if retained in its entirety. I think I honestly would have just decided that the “living alone part” wasn’t sufficiently important enough and dropped it entirely for the sake of improved flow, but Nekonyan’s clever solution here to include this information in the parenthetical manages to both be more faithful, but also inject a touch of wit into the line. Supremely resourceful take; the sort of thing that seems so obvious in hindsight, but I think would be very difficult to come up with originally!

Japanese onomatopoeia often represent a very tricky, but rarely entirely intractable translation problem. They often just require really clever and resourceful takes such as this one here. This line here “fuwafuwa to suru you na… dokidoki suru you na… ii nioi ga suru” is probably very easy for most versed with otaku media to intuitively understand, but represents an enormous challenge to render into English. How does one effectively distill the essence of a “slightly fuwafuwa and dokidoki” sensation? I think Nekonyan’s take here is rather brilliant, “somewhat sweet and somewhat thrilling” is just perfect, despite being very far from the standard definitions for these phrases. The cherry on top is the skillful leveraging of “punctuation as a resource” with the insertion of the ellipses, a very nice touch in order to modulate the pacing and tone of the line in a way that aligns it super finely with the cadence of the original!

Take a look at those last two lines, a deceptively trivial eleven moji that was likely far more difficult to translate than the entre preceding paragraph! It immediately strikes me as such a quintessentially Japanese reflection that takes some real ingenuity to properly reflect into English.

I hope it’s fairly apparent to everyone that anything bordering on a stiff, literal rendition of “totonotta kirei na yokogao… suki da” (lit. “a well-formed and beautiful profile… I love [it/her/etc.]”) is absolutely intolerable and belongs nowhere near an acceptable English script. However, I think their boldly treacherous take here is quite lovely indeed, with its elegant brevity, the way it effectively instrumentalizes the crucial line break, and most importantly, the feeling that really just does capture the same “soul” of the original~

For what it’s worth, the Chinese translation of Café Stella is also quite excellent, but its extremely bland take on this passage just doesn’t land nearly as well as the English! (For reference: 她那端正的侧颜也是那么的美。…越看越喜欢)

I previously mentioned the way Café Stella’s translation handles this convention of “inline quotations” and here’s another really excellent example. I also want to highlight the third line, and the very sensible rendition of both the “sore demo… iya, dakara koso!” as well as the “shiawase ni shitekure!”

If you’ve spent any time reading dubious translations, you’ve surely seen both of these lines handled terribly, take for example:

“Despite that… No! Because of that, I want to make you happy!” aaaaaaaAAAAAA

I saved the two best for last. This extremely non-descript line is probably actually my favourite take in the entire script! It might not even be obvious which line I’m talking about, right? The line I love so much is this last one, “tonikaku ore wa hitasura furai-pan o futta” (lit. “Anyways, I devotedly flipped my frying pan”) I think I enjoyed this take so much because it immediately struck me as being the sort of “deceptively easy”, highly intuitive take that an MTL or an unskilled human TL could never possibly come up with in a million years. But once you see it, it looks so obvious! It’s just such an elegant and high-context English equivalency that I think perfectly expresses the sentiment and meaning behind the original line, one that manages to sublime the transitional とにかく without feeling abrupt or strange, managing to embed this “affect of diligent industriousness” conveyed by the ひたすら without needing to reach for a clunky and self-aggrandizing adjective… Just simply wonderful, one of those rare brilliancies that make reading translations so much more rewarding than the original text~

This final passage, by contrast, is certainly what I think is the “best” (or at least, most courageous) take in the entire game! (I even managed to use it to convince Dubs to be a bit braver on at least one occasion~)

As you can see, Natsume’s Father terminates this poignant, emotional speech with “arigatou” which is boldly rendered in the English script as “We love you.”

> Ehhhhh?! WTF Nekonyan, I’m JLPT N6 and both I and Google Translate can confirm that “arigatou” does NOT mean “I love you”! Fire your incompetent translator at once!

But seriously though, what an absolutely marvelous take that surely required no small amount of courage~ I can so easily imagine the temptation to simply render this line as “thank you”, and I have no doubt that the lesser-skilled or more-chickenhearted might’ve opted for this “safe” option. Still though, just think about it! Damn would this entire scene have been so much worse for it! This is clearly intended as a profound expression of love and gratitude, and “thank you” just comes nowhere close to delivering that poignancy, with the literal English equivalent expression doing a very poor job of conveying the implicit subtext “thank you for being born, for being our daughter, etc.” I think it’s just very apparent that “We love you” is absolutely the best equivalency here bar none, and the translators here absolutely deserve to be celebrated for having the skill (and moral courage!) to make the right call. It was worth reading the entire game just to see this line.

Good Translations Still Make Mistakes!

I hope all those examples were illuminating and instructive. However, by no means do I want to give off the impression that Café Stella is a flawless translation or that I’m just a paid Nekonyan shill. Literally any translation, and especially a translation of an eroge with hundreds of thousands of words, is bound to have plenty of errors. Here are just a few examples I’d like to highlight for the sake of completeness:

There are of course a handful of spelling and grammar issues (“set wether to skup…”, “prove of…”) as is to be expected. Though I feel like the translator and editor certainly bear some responsibility for their negligence, it’s obviously unfair to use this as evidence to accuse a translator of being bad/unskilled.

Moreover, I’d say that having only a handful of mistakes, once every several hundred lines or so, is only natural and even commendable if the error rate is truly so low. On the other hand, it’s being rife with mistakes that regularly show up once every few dozen lines that is indeed intolerable. For what it’s worth, Café Stella has my approval for being impressively error-free despite its sheer length, and certainly is very below average in terms of error frequency.

Naturally, everything mentioned above also applies to untranslated lines. Again, an unfortunate but understandable mistake, especially in isolation, so long as they’re not especially frequent or anything.

Of course, there are a handful of “actual” translation errors I spotted as well, though I’d again emphasize that I feel like they were very few in number and well below the typical amount of errors contained in most other works. I thought this was a particularly interesting example, since it is legitimately one (much rarer than you’d think!) case of that mystical, fabled “Japanese ambiguity”. In this case, it is unclear who 朝武さん is referring to, the father or the daughter of a certain shrine from Senren Banka. I (and the Chinese translation) both agree that it makes much more sense for him to be referring to Tomotake Yoshino the daughter as opposed to Nekonyan’s interpretation of her father. It seems strange that these numerous exchanges should all be mediated between her father rather than Rokurou speaking to Yoshino directly, and it seems much less plausible that “[the father being] rather busy with some things this year” should prevent the daughter from performing the dance. Indeed, I believe there are occasions later on as well where the English script does interpret “Tomotake-san” to mean Yoshino herself, which makes prior mentions such as this somewhat incongruous. An especially interesting case study, isn’t it? At any rate, all other errors I spotted were on levels such as this, nothing rising above the level of mild-to-inconsequential inaccuracies and mistakes, which I think further speaks to the high quality of the work.

In the interest of full completeness, a few more minor issues I have with the translation, in no particular order:

  • I suspect this might be more of an American tendency, but the word “cafe” shows up thousands of times in the script without the accent aigu! This wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if the official title of the game didn’t freaking include the accent, suggesting that this was just an inconsistent oversight rather than a deliberate artistic choice…
  • This is very likely just another personal pet peeve, but there are SO MANY freaking “wry smiles” >__< Yes, 苦笑 certainly deserves a pretty high spot on “that list”, but this was one phrase I feel like the text could’ve consistently handled a lot better. The Chinese script did a far better job with multiple diverse variations like 无奈的笑 even though they could’ve just copied 苦笑 1:1!
  • It would have been nice if the vocal songs were translated. I’m aware that doing so would be supererogatory and the vast majority of commercial translations don’t seem to feel obligated to do this, but it still would be nice…

At any rate, I hope it’s clear that my intention here is by no means to bash this translation or the staff for merely containing errors. Errors are an ineliminable fact of life for a project any size, and the presence of mistakes is very poor evidence for the quality of any translation. Instead, what ought matter is the relative frequency of mistakes (in Café Stella’s case, impressively low!), their nature (in Café Stella’s case, easily understandable errors that by no means belie the work of an unskilled TLer), and of course, whether there are praiseworthy elements to contrast the bad (see… literally all my profuse gushing about how great this script is!)


This translation was a genuine pleasure to read, and I found it extremely instructive! If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’d highly recommend picking up Café Stella and making good use out of the tri-language integration (PS: The Chinese TL is really great too!)

As I mentioned, I’d be interested in doing similar writeups such as this for other translations that really catch my eye, but I’m not sure how consistent this will prove to be, especially because it is so much more annoying to make comparisons and collect evidence if the game only contains the English script.

Dubs seems to be doing a great job in relaying our thoughts on general translation theory, so I’m not too sure what to be writing about in the future. I have an essay outlining some principles of “Neutral International English” and a discussion of some interesting cognitive biases associated with translation in the works, but after that, who knows? At any rate, if you enjoyed content like this, do let me know, and if you hated it, please do also let me know. If you somehow made it this far, thanks for your time! I’d especially love to hear any thoughts you have about this post, content you’d like to see, or Café Stella in general. Have a nice day and don’t forget to read more moege~