Howdy hey, peeps. It’s y’boy DubstepKazoo, back with another post about the unique problems involved in translating visual novels. I’m actually writing this at the same time as the last one and the one after this: I made my initial draft last week, and I’m editing them all today, March 28th. So I haven’t seen any of the feedback to my first post yet. Today, we’ll be talking about the presentation of dialogue and its surrounding narration in VNs.


If you happen to have a Japanese novel—or light novel; it doesn’t matter—open it up to any page and take a look at some dialogue in it. There’s a good chance it’s the only thing on its line; any narration describing the manner in which it was said is likely separated from it by a line break, be it before or after.


This works because in Japanese, a dialogue tag—something like “he said” or “she asserted”—can be its own complete sentence that stands alone from everything, assuming it even exists (as they’re much less common than we’re used to). But in English, that’s not the case. See, compare these two lines:


“I am my lord’s blade,” said Soujin.

“I am my lord’s blade.” Said Soujin.


The second one doesn’t work, right? You must have that comma inside the quotes (or outside in British English, which I honestly think makes more logical sense) and continue into the tag as part of the same sentence. Only then can you finally type a period and complete a single, indivisible thought. When translating, say, books, this isn’t a problem: you can manipulate line breaks however you see fit.


Too bad VNs have to come in and throw a spanner into the works, huh? A line of dialogue contains dialogue and absolutely nothing else. Trying to throw the tag into the same line anyway just looks weird when the game is voice-acted, and what if the convention in your translation is to not use quotation marks for dialogue? Oftentimes, the line after the dialogue will be the tag in Japanese, and as I said above, that works perfectly fine for them. How do you handle that in English? Off the top of my head, I can think of three approaches.


  1. Rewrite the tag into a complete sentence.

  2. Rewrite the line from the ground up into something different.

  3. Make it a tag anyway, like the “wrong” example above.


In my initial translation of Senmomo, I largely took the first approach out of hypersensitivity to grammatical correctness. Now, in editing, Lonesome is adding plenty of instances of the other two. When you use the first approach for an entire game, it becomes very noticeable and distracting. At the same time, because of how common tags are with English dialogue, it feels unnatural not to have any at all, so option three becomes a necessary evil every once in a while, its obvious faults be damned. And of course, when neither option one nor three sounds good, sometimes you just have to scorch the earth with option two. (I’m gonna guess that a not insignificant portion of my readers are shocked that the nuclear approach is even under consideration, and I admit I exaggerated a tad in my characterization of it; my discourse on that will come in a later article, so please wait patiently for that.)


When you get down to it, though, this dialogue issue is ultimately just a symptom of a more fundamental problem: paragraphs. In English writing, a paragraph groups together several sentences revolving around a core idea. As you can see from this very post, they can get pretty long.


Now, if you still have that light novel, open it up again and find a paragraph of Japanese narration. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that it’s pretty short—one or two sentences, maybe three. Sometimes you’ll chance upon a big, fat block of narration that takes up half the page, and Japanese Literature-with-a-capital-L tends to be more willing to use longer paragraphs. But on the whole, the average Japanese paragraph in fiction is very short. Why is that?


The Hasegawa has just a little bit to say about it:


Between Japanese and English, an adjustment that is frequently called for concerns paragraph breaks. Compared to Japanese, English writing has significantly fewer breaks (K. Inoue 2004: 95); conversely, Japanese writing utilizes frequent line breaks. One may even encounter Japanese texts that place a line break after every kuten 句点 (). This is due to the fact that the concept of paragraph has not been clearly established in Japanese writing (Hojo 2004: 41). (p. 186)

Okay, so what do we do about it?


Enter Judy Wakabayashi’s incredible textbook Japanese-English Translation; An Advanced Guide, meant to be read after the Hasegawa in order to provide more concrete and in-depth advice on how to tackle a lot of the issues raised in it. I bow to Wakabayashi’s greatness; she cites zillions of examples from translated Japanese literature to illustrate various solutions to different problems. (Though her advice on a lot of the stylistic stuff abundant in otaku media, e.g. speech registers, honorifics, English, and so on is often unhelpful and frequently boils down to “I dunno, I’m just spitballing. Figure it out yourself.” More on that in a future post.)


In addition to very minute, word-level problems, the Wakabayashi also considers macroscopic structural concerns like paragraph breaks. Let’s take a look at some of the things this book has to say:


Translators also need to consider whether to follow Japanese inter-paragraph development or modify it for better assimilation by English readers. This might involve moving paragraph breaks, introducing additional breaks, or combining short paragraphs into a longer one with a shared theme. When the relative frequency (e.g. in the opening of 柳美里’s novel JR上野駅公園口) or infrequency (e.g. 小山田浩子’s novel ) of paragraph breaks is a deliberate feature of the writer’s style, however, modifying this to conform with normal English conventions would obscure that intent. Other changes that might be advisable include “recombining elements of sentences to clarify their relationships, and making certain that illustrative points or secondary material appear where most effective” (Kano 1986: 7). It is important that any such changes do not adversely affect inter-sentential coherence. (p. 218)

This ties into what I was saying earlier, about making more drastic changes to the text in the translation. There’s also:


It is helpful to think of one-sentence Japanese paragraphs not in isolation but as part of an 意味段落 (semantic paragraph) or 大段落—“a group term for a number of short paragraphs which are associated in terms of meaning or content” (Davies 2000: 102). Davies adds that “Japanese paragraphs are much more fluid than those of English, with the same unit of thought often flowing through many short paragraphs and the organization of several paragraph units is considered more important than paragraph organization per se” (103). Integrating the one-sentence paragraph into the following paragraph as its topic sentence often produces a more cohesive English text. (p. 218)

Reordering sentences within a paragraph or changing paragraph breaks may be undertaken for a variety of reasons, such as to ensure that the main point in Japanese comes across as the main point in English, to link to the preceding paragraph because of related content (often the second paragraph is an example of or reason for the point in the preceding paragraph, or it provides supporting facts or a conclusion), to improve the flow, or to retain a contrast or the correct emphasis. There should be proper justification for the changes, rather than just personal preference as to how the text ‘should’ be written. (p. 219)

She then goes on to discuss how the presentation of discourse in Japanese differs from English, explaining such patterns as joron-honron-ketsuron and ki-shou-ten-ketsu and pondering how they ought influence a translation, even considering such drastic measures as moving a thesis statement from the end of an essay to the introduction, where one would expect to find it in English. It’s all fascinating stuff, but not relevant to the topic I’m discussing at the moment, so I’ll shelve it for now.


Just like with the dialogue issue, you’ll see that the Japanese language has nothing to fear from visual novels when it comes to paragraph breaks. The average ADV text box is more than big enough to fit what most writers would consider an individual unit of narration.


But again, English writers start to sweat. Suddenly we have to break up our thinking much more often than we’re used to, especially when you consider that English text tends to take up more space than the equivalent Japanese. Our prose has to get a lot more punchy and staccato. Where we might want to group six sentences together, we now have to make due with a maximum of three (usually) before they’re banished from the screen and replaced with something else.


This isn’t so bad when the narration is expository, i.e. in an 意味段落 or 大段落. When Elsa spends five lines outlining Okonogi’s skullduggery and why it makes her suspicious of him, it doesn’t really matter too much where the breaks are. Long, sweeping sentences depicting the beauty of the Imperial Palace are generally perfectly happy standing by themselves in the text box. It can often help to treat an entire uninterrupted block of narration as a single paragraph when thinking about your translation, just like that Wakabayashi quote said.


The problem comes when you have multiple lines in close proximity to each other that aren’t explicitly or thematically related to each other, like narration describing actions the characters perform. If you’re not careful, you end up getting English like “She does this. She does that. She does something else.” You start sounding like one of those choose-your-own-adventure games that predated VNs. The medium is supposed to have evolved since then! It’s when the narration is composed of enough ideas to merit distinct paragraphs in English that we need to think outside the box.


This problem is present in every VN, but when you consider that Senmomo has a whole lot of fight scenes, you can see how we have to get creative to make sure the prose doesn’t sound like shit. This post mostly serves to introduce problems, not necessarily their solutions, but I’ll at least say that we chop this pickle by shuffling details around in a block of prose, adding some of our own, or even deleting some that are unnecessary and get in the way of an elegant English sentence. Again, I’m sure that sounds shocking to some of you, but bear with me; I’ll talk about that eventually.


You want a sneak preview? The narration at the end of Hotori’s route sounds awful if you translate it directly. Something you may or may not have noticed is that the big emotional whammy in an ending often comes in the second- or third-to-last line in Japanese, with the last line being something like “That’s what I thought as I walked to school” to sort of deflate the tension. In English, that sounds lame as hell. You’d expect the last line to wrap the story up on a high note—just think of the final sentences of Animal Farm or 1984, both of which I still remember word-for-word despite not having read them since high school.


The Japanese style presumably has that microscopic bit of falling action to let the big, showstopping sentence sink in, but in English, it does more harm than good. Thus, in order to retain the emotional impact of the narration at the end of Hotori’s route, we did some rearranging and rewriting. Translated directly, it leaves the player going into the credits disappointed, which is not the effect the original Japanese has.


Treacherous? Perhaps compared to the usual work you see in VN translations, but I would contend that usual VN translations are often far too faithful for their own good. I’d say the creative latitude we’re taking falls well within the guidelines Wakabayashi sets out in the quoted passage above, as well as a section of the Hasegawa I have yet to quote. But I’m getting ahead of myself—that’s an argument for a different time.


Whew, that’s all for this post. Next time, we’ll talk about how the visuals and audio in a visual novel affect the translation. Spoiler alert: it’s a double-edged sword. As always, you can contact me on Reddit or Gmail exactly how you think you can, and I’m always open to questions in our Discord server.

I know, I know. I’ve been promising this for a while and not delivering. For a long time, I was drafting some articles following Yoko Hasegawa’s excellent textbook The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation. They came out pretty boring: mostly just me regurgitating her points, maybe clarifying some things, and frequently going, “Yup, this lines up with my self-taught experiences.”


At first, I decided to follow along with the textbook to give a glimpse of how academia’s views on translation compare to what’s actually found in the otaku sphere, but that was overkill and frankly misguided. Instead, I’m just gonna make my points and reference the textbooks I’ve read when needed. Some of these posts are going to be about translation in general, and some are going to be about translation specifically within the restrictions imposed by the visual novel (and sometimes anime) medium.


Oh, right. In case you don’t know: hi, I’m DubstepKazoo, the insane person who translated the entirety of Senmomo and its fan disc. Ever since our website went up, I’ve been threatening to make blog posts about the nature of translation, and I’ve been sitting on my ass doing other things until now. (Now is a word which here means late March. Who knows when I’m actually gonna post this?)


This first post is gonna be a relatively tame one: tense in visual novel translations. I’ll leave the spicier topics, like the reasons why the translation of 9 -nine- is actually pretty good, for future posts.


Anyone who’s read literally any Japanese work of non-trivial length can tell you that Japanese narration tends to flip-flop between the past and “non-past” (since it encompasses the present and future) tenses seemingly at random. It’s not done consciously, but there is a method to the madness, since using the wrong one at the wrong time sticks out as weird. Scholars constantly debate the logic behind it.


The Hasegawa (yes, that’s what I’m calling it) has a section on this, actually. Here are a few excerpts, so you can get an idea of how nuanced this issue is:


Ota (1972) posits two tense types: primary and secondary. The primary tense refers to a point on the past-present-future continuum; the secondary tense indicates the relationship between the event and a certain reference time. He contends that, while English has both types, Japanese encodes only time relationships: -ta indicates event time being prior to the reference time, and -ru otherwise. If no reference time is specified, the speech time serves as the reference time, making -ta and -ru resemble primary tenses. In a dependent construction, e.g. subordinate and relative clauses, the reference time is supplied by the construction on which it relies. (pp. 111-2)

Another way of explaining the usage of -ta and -ru is to consider them primarily aspect, not tense, markers, and that tense interpretation emerges as a derivative from the aspectual meanings… Using Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki, Miller provides numerous convincing examples. For example, irerareta 入れられた ‘be shown into + -ta’ in (c) below is perfective (encoding the notion of completedness), whereas chigau 違う ‘be different + -ru’ in (d) is imperfective (encoding the notion of incompletedness). Kaishi shita 開始した ‘begin + -ta’ in (e) is perfective and contrasts with the imperfective Orai suru 往来する ‘go back and forth + -ru’ in (f). (pp. 112-3)

What Miller has in mind departs from the traditional perfective-imperfective analysis, however. He claims that the perfective and imperfective aspects are not determined solely by the meaning of the predicate… The significance of this claim is that the Japanese aspect system is considered to reflect not the completion or incompletion of a given situation, but, rather, the narrator’s rhetorical intention of the sentence. That is, in this example, three events are presented not solely because they are worth mentioning but also because the protagonist’s raising his head above the bush enabled the observation of event (i) [ochita 落ちた]. This explanation is plausible because Kusamakura is in first-person narrative, i.e. the narrator is not omniscient. Thus, without event (h) [dasu 出す], it is impossible to narrate event (i). (p. 114)

Analyses based on the narrator’s involvement, vis-à-vis the sequentiality of situations, can more accurately account for uses of -ta and -ru. Nevertheless, many Japanese are inclined to consider that the prototypical uses of -ta and -ru are to mark tense. (p. 114)

Some researchers consider that the -ta and -ru alternation should be regarded as a rhetorical phenomenon, as in the case of English, in which the present tense can be used for a past situation – the so-called historical/narrative present, which is considered to be a stylistic device with limited distribution (cf. Wolfson 1979, Schiffrin 1981, Fleischman 1990). Soga (1983: 219) states: [With the exception of the uses of -ru required by grammatical restrictions, it is quite possible for an author to use only the -ta form regardless of whether an event is “foreground” or “background.” Likewise, although it may not be very common, it should be possible to use nothing but the non-past tense form regardless of the types of the events described. In the former case, the story will be perceived only in a matter-of-fact way, while in the latter it will be perceived as if the reader is experiencing the events himself. In this sense, therefore, it seems that proper uses of tense forms constitute an element of the effective specific style of an author or of a story.] Following Hopper (1979), Soga contends that background statements in Japanese narrative are frequently expressed with -ru, although it is possible to change them to -ta without making the discourse difficult to follow. (p. 115)

Whew, that’s a lot. Really, you people are lucky I didn’t just copy/paste the whole dang section, ‘cause it’s all fascinating. The takeaway here is that these two tenses (or aspects, or whatever the heck you want to call them) are mixed and matched in Japanese writing, and there’s an intuitive logic to it that somehow just works.


But in English, mixing the past and present tenses like that will make you sound like a crazy person—case in point, that SayoOshi TL that was up for like a day. It had a great many problems, but one of them was that it just mindlessly rendered tenses exactly like the Japanese did. It sounded crazy, and not in the way that VN is supposed to. No, in English, you have to pick a tense and stick to it.


The vast majority of books choose the past tense. There are a few exceptions—The Hunger Games and its sequels are notable in this regard—but for the most part, fiction novel narration recounts past events.


And yet a great many visual novels use the present tense, with the ones that use the past tense standing out (at least to me) as odd. Why is that?


My assertion is that the unique characteristics of the visual novel medium most naturally orient it toward the present tense. Let’s start by comparing books and VNs.


With a book, in addition to the line you’re at in any given moment, you can easily view the immediate past and future by moving your eye up or down the page (or across to the facing page). You can get a general feel for how far you’ve come from the thickness of the pages under your left thumb, and you can feel how much you have left from the thickness of the pages under your right. And most importantly, you always hold the entire story within the palm of your hand, from the moment you pick the book up to the moment you put it down; by flipping to a different page, you can jump to any moment you want. Together, these elements create the illusion that the events of the story have already transpired, and the narrator (even if it’s a character within the story!) is taking pen to paper after the fact for your entertainment. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, this is even an explicitly acknowledged plot point.


But what about VNs? In an ADV (I generally won’t be taking NVLs into consideration for these posts), the only text you can see at once is the current contents of the box in the HUD. If you want to see past text, you have to go to the trouble of opening the backlog, which you must then close before you can proceed with the story. You can’t peek ahead to future events at all, and there’s no real way to tell how much of the story you’ve seen. (Flowcharts, like the kind in Yuzusoft’s recent games, can help a little in this regard, but they’re not as certain as page counts, and they’re pretty uncommon anyway.) Unlike books, VNs also contain graphics and sounds that can change from one line to the next—or even from one word to the next in the same line. Time can even pass in the world of the game while the protagonist is narrating to you, like when Yuusei spends a dozen lines on superfluous narration as his phone rings in the background and goddammit just pick it up already! Finally—and this is something that’s easy to forget—you (usually) literally see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. Character portraits are always facing you because that’s where their conversational partner is. Some games even have portraits of characters’ backs to show when they’re talking to someone besides the protagonist. With the exception of Another View scenes, you are stuck to the protagonist like glue. Wherever he goes, so do you. Not only that, but his inner thoughts are generally presented on the same level as narration, with no clear delineator between them.


All these elements come together to create a very different sensation than a book: that you are moving in lockstep with the story. The story is happening to you (or rather, the character you’re glued to), and right now at that; future events do not exist until you move the story into them. Even in a kinetic novel, there’s this illusion that the future is yet uncertain. Think back to that Soga quote from the Hasegawa, where he says exclusive use of the non-past in Japanese narration will make a work feel like the reader is experiencing the events of the story himself. Sounds just like the effect the present tense has in English narration, don’t you think? It at least does a better job of it than the past tense does, which leads me to believe that the present tense is a much better fit for VNs in English overall.


I don’t read too many VNs in English anymore—I’ve exhausted almost all the translated ones I’m interested in—but every once in a while, I see one narrated in the past tense, and it always bugs me to listen to the protagonist narrate a heroine’s spectacular wipeout in the past tense while I see it unfolding in front of me. And then when the game enters a flashback sequence, which tend to be more common in VNs than in books, the translation has no choice but to dip into the icky past perfect tense, and it’s just a mess all around. This is why the vast majority of the Senmomo translation is in the present tense.


None of this really feels like a hot take, right? I even said above that this is gonna be a pretty tame post. But tense is far from the only aspect of a translation that’s impacted by the characteristics of the VN medium, though it is the most ubiquitous. Next time, we’ll take a look at how dialogue and paragraphs are presented in VNs and how that impacts a translation.


Whew. We’ve come a long way. I think that about does it for today. Thanks for letting me soap box (that’s boomer for “TED Talk”) at you for way too many words. What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on my points. My Reddit username is exactly what you think it is, and my email address is exactly what you think it is at Gmail. But the best way to reach me is on Discord. If you’re in the Operation Bellflower server, you can ping me from there—or just post in one of the channels, since I get notified either way—and if you aren’t, why the hell not? Go join!

To those of you who’ve seen me on Reddit, Fuwanovel, or Discord, it’s nice to see you again. To the first-timers, it’s nice to meet you. I’m DubstepKazoo, and I’m the translator and project lead for Senmomo.

As my little blurb on the Team page suggests, I’ve been translating for quite some time now, and I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to bring this wonderful game to the English-speaking community.

This development blog is going to fill up quite a bit as time moves on – you can expect to see a lot of posts from me regarding translation philosophy and the project’s workflow, and Pangolin is eager to make some write-ups about his experience hacking the game and the tools he’s created to aid in it. Other team members might post, too – Lonesome’s treatises on translation and editing are an absolute joy to read.

Continue reading “Introduction and What to Expect”