When I formally announced my Senmomo translation to the world, people said to me in disbelief, “DubstepKazoo, you sexy beast, how could you possibly have translated this entire game in a matter of weeks? Think of all the elaborate, flowery narration it has!”

 

Nah, man. That shit was easy. English has plenty of twenty-dollar words custom-made to provide any specific effect you could ever dream of, so all I had to do was pick the right one at the right time and throw in some appropriate grammar structures when necessary. (Obviously I’m being facetious here; I’ll go into my methods more seriously in later posts.) You wanna know what the real challenge was? The H scenes.

 

This being my first VN translation, I had no prior experience with translating H scenes, and it, uh, showed. My prose in them is pretty shit, and my team loves to make fun of me for it. In this post, I’m gonna go over what makes H scenes so difficult to translate and how I’m going to deal with them moving forward.

 

First of all, there’s the mental exhaustion that comes from doing it. I feel like this should be obvious, but translation takes much more time than just reading. A line that takes two seconds to read could take ten to type, and that’s assuming the time it takes to devise the translation is short enough to be negligible. If you translate at five times your reading speed, you’re blazing fast.

 

If we assume the average H scene takes thirty minutes to read—a bit of an underestimate, admittedly, assuming you let all the voice acting play out—then multiplying that by five gives you two and a half hours minimum of staring at an anime vagina while desperately trying not to make your descriptions of it sound cringey as fuck. You can see how that might wear on a person, no?

 

And chief among the tangible, textual considerations you have to keep in mind is the gap between what Japanese people consider hot and what English speakers consider hot. Oftentimes—and especially in Senmomo—you’ll find that the narration contains long, impersonal, downright scientific descriptions of the various bodily fluids involved, or even of the precise texture of the inside of the vagina the protagonist is railing. This shit ain’t sexy! It’s just weird. Even the terminology for body parts frequently turns out to be weirdly clinical in Senmomo, likely in reference to Soujin’s straitlaced personality. I swear, the only other time I’ve seen inkei used so consistently is in the doctor roleplay scene of Study Steady. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have body parts described with words that, as far as I can tell, do not exist, as if the writer just played mix-and-match with various kanji (such as drawing the first one from a pool of secret, shadow, or shame and the second from, say, rift, bud, hole, and so on).

 

If you translate this prose even slightly directly, you get—well, you get my original script. Something that can be described as “awkward” at the most generous. While the original prose may be all well and good to the Japanese reader, it’s downright unacceptable in English, even if that’s what most translations end up going with. Translators need to get creative. After all, English is far less tolerant of repetition than Japanese is, so at the very least, a translator needs to have a toolbox full of synonyms for such common things as body parts and fluids.

 

This especially holds true with Senmomo, where Soujin goes out of his way to avoid the coarser language you’d readily find in other works. (For instance, in the fan disc, he uses a circumlocution to get around having to say iku, even though he’d just be quoting Elsa.) Even with most of the heroines, the lewdest their dialogue gets is iku, which isn’t even particularly profane. Only Elsa refers to the deed as ecchi instead of something more poetic, and only Shino dares refer to her breasts as oppai.

 

I naturally recognized this problem when I was translating the game, and I tackled it by embracing the clinical terminology as a way of conveying Soujin’s autism, for lack of a better word, but it came out jank and basically the opposite of arousing, which is obviously not the intended effect. Lonesome’s solution to the problem was to introduce a lot of metaphor and other figurative language to better fit the game’s poetic tone. Sometimes, this involved throwing lines out entirely and rewriting them from the ground up, as I mentioned in another post. It’s a bold move, one I didn’t have the courage to make last year, but having seen Lonesome’s work and read those textbooks, it’s something I’d very much like to try my hand at in my next project should it become necessary.

 

Then there’s the dialogue. Now, I’m still a virgin, but even I know people don’t talk during sex, not nearly as much as they do in visual novels. But that doesn’t stop these scenes from having dialogue, and frustratingly enough, it’s ridiculously hard to translate well for the most mundane of reasons.

 

For example, consider the word ureshii. Even someone in their first semester of Japanese education can tell you that this is an adjective that means happy. However, imagine now a girl in the middle of passionate sex saying, “I’m so happy…”

 

Sounds stupid, right? The word happy bears childish, silly connotations that ureshii does not, and any even tangentially related circumlocutions don’t fit either. This is just one of many mundane words in H scene dialogue that are deceptively difficult to translate without breaking the tone. Add in the words that are annoying to translate at the best of times (setsunai, for example, is a popular one), and you can see why I struggled. This sort of thing isn’t much of a problem in ordinary dialogue because ordinary dialogue isn’t a tightrope walk. In H scenes, you have to constantly uphold the same tone, and the slightest slip-up can break it completely. (This is, of course, assuming you’re not dealing with the rare breed of H scene that’s supposed to be funny or disturbing, rather than sexy.) This problem is further compounded by the fact that in H scenes, the heroines often narrate precisely what’s happening to them in any given moment. I swear, just once I want to see a protagonist shoot back with “Yeah, I know. I’m the one doing that to you.”

 

Let us also not forget the fact that anime girls behave very differently from real ones, at least in Western culture. They’re generally very meek and submissive when it comes to sex, they’re always virgins (because that matters to some people, apparently), and, well, they fit a lot of the stereotypes Westerners have about Japanese women. Are Japanese women actually like that? Again, I have no experience myself, but anecdotal evidence says at least some are. But you’ll note this as another big difference with Western erotica, in which the women tend to be more confident and assertive, and more hot than cute. To rewrite character dialogue to better reflect Western sensibilities would be a step too far, in my opinion, but you still have to figure out how to render these Japanese sensibilities in a way that’s palatable to an English-speaking audience.

 

In case you couldn’t guess, I threw in the towel and stayed relatively faithful to the Japanese, but once again, Lonesome displayed the courage to take some liberties with the letter of the text to stay true to the spirit, and I take my hat off to his dexterity.

 

One more banal but very big consideration is moans. There’s a lot of them. How do you render them in English? English-language erotica doesn’t contain them to anywhere near this degree. How many A’s should you type? What about H? Or N? Maybe sometimes you’ll need a few F’s or O’s, but how many?

 

Obviously there’s no good answer to this. You just have to play it by ear. Though it gets really bad when the voice acting differs significantly from the text; Kanami’s voice actress, Nekomura Yuki, is frequently guilty of this. You’re doing a good job, mate, but you’re making mine way harder than it needs to be.

 

A related issue is that of sound effects. Kissing, sucking, slurping, squelching, you name it. Which of these do you try to sound out? Which of them do you render as just a verb between asterisks? Do you put the sounded-out ones inside asterisks, too? It’s a very arbitrary decision to make, like the moans, and there’s no real guideline you can follow beyond what looks fine to your eyes.

 

Then there’s the more awkward predicament of words like iya, dame, or muri. They’re all variations on “no,” which in any real-life sexual encounter would be a cue to, you know, stop. This obviously doesn’t happen in these games, and neither character involved seems to think much of it. (In fact, I’ve even seen protagonists try to stop because of these words, only to promptly get yelled at.) Should they be translated directly? Should they be replaced with expressions like “yes” to more comfortably fit a Westerner’s conception of intercourse? Or would that be too treacherous a change?

 

I hope you can see by now how H scenes present their own, very unique difficulties to a translator that regular scenes do not, and they’re likely to trip anyone up the first time they encounter them, no matter how much experience they have with other media. Now that I’ve dealt with Senmomo, though, I think I can do much better on my next endeavor.

 

Then again, a lot of the time, translators bumble through the things just as awkwardly as I did. One of the first things I read in English after finishing Senmomo was Study Steady, and its H scene translations exhibited all the problems I just complained about. The rest of the game’s TL wasn’t good by any stretch either, but the H scenes reminded me of my own work. Considering how much of the game’s content is sex, you can see how that would be a problem.

 

Except I’ve never seen anyone but me complain about it. You don’t even have to know Japanese to notice this stuff, and yet not a single person takes issue with the way that game’s translator handled H scenes. It could easily be that I’m just blowing things out of proportion or overanalyzing things. Indeed, I’ve been told before that the various cultural differences I’ve mentioned above aren’t a problem, that people come to VN H scenes specifically for those cultural differences, so even if dialogue or prose sounds weird and stilted in translation, people see it as a sort of cultural exchange experience, rather than getting put off. That’s certainly a valid take. The obvious best solution is to retain those cultural differences while presenting them elegantly in English, which is what I believe we’re doing in Senmomo, and quite well at that with Lonesome’s magnificent editing.

 

With all this in mind, I now feel a lot more confident about dealing with H scenes in the future: I’ve recognized my mistakes, analyzed them, and learned from them. There’s this one nukige developer whose works intrigue me, and since they’re so short, I think I’m gonna use them to hone my H scene translation skills. Before anyone gets excited (assuming anyone even does get excited about an announcement like this), I’m going to take them very slowly, and I’m gonna sit on them so I can edit them myself. I have a full-time job now, unlike when I did Senmomo, and even if I did have well over a dozen hours a day to translate, I wouldn’t do it what with all the other cool stuff around me I can do. Heck, I’m not even gonna start translating these games until I reach a good point in my VN backlog, so it could be a while before you hear anything about this again.

 

That’s all for now. From now on, I think I’m gonna write about more generalized subjects regarding translation. It’s gonna be a bit more casual—like when Lonesome and I just shoot the shit about these topics during our calls. Next time, I’ll tackle a popular topic of discussion between us: how a translator’s perception of English influences the translated script.

 

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback, be it on Reddit, in an email, or in our Discord server. See you next time, everybody!

Hello again, friends. It’s your friendly neighborhood DubstepKazoo, here to talk about more of the translation caveats innate to visual novels. Today’s topic of discussion? Visuals and audio.

 

If you’ve read a decent number of VNs in English, there’s a good chance you’ve come across at least one voiced line where the translation seems to contradict what you’re seeing and hearing, where the given English isn’t technically an incorrect rendition of the Japanese text alone, but was very clearly written in a boring old text file without the visuals and audio of the game to provide more context. (No, I’m not talking about stuff like “Noa opens her eyes wide” when she clearly has them shut or the Higurashi translation mixing up the kanji for “plate” and “blood.” Those are just objective mistakes, with or without visuals.)

 

Unlike traditional novels, VNs provide extra information to the translator. We can actually see the face of the character who’s currently speaking, and we can hear the tone of voice they use. Even if it’s an unvoiced, faceless protagonist, we at least have other characters’ reactions to aid us. These data points can clue us in on how intense a statement is meant to be, for example, which might influence the words we use in English. It can even clear up ambiguity—for instance, if the textual context is somehow making it hard to tell if you’re looking at the standard janai or the rhetorical janai (assuming a noun predicate, since janai is grammatically unambiguous in all other cases), the delivery of the voice acting can help you. (Though it’s usually obvious, so if you really can’t tell, you should probably be paying more attention to the text.) My point is that the visuals and audio of a VN are important resources to account for, and every translator should be translating with the game open.

 

But this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, voice acting and visuals provide extra stipulations; on the other hand, they provide extra stipulations. If a character is shouting in one line and calm in the next, she’d better do the same in your translation, even if the English flows much better the other way around. If a character does that thing where they make the sentence look like it’s going one way only to take it somewhere completely different at the last minute, the usual solution—a moderate rewrite—won’t line up with the tone of voice on display and may stand out to some readers. If you’d like to shuffle some narration around, but the BGM and sound effects make that awkward, you might be in a pickle. You can imagine how visuals (facial expressions, screen effects, and so on) can cause similar problems. Sometimes, the most elegant translation has to be replaced with a compromise to accommodate these added restrictions (especially since you usually can’t, say, move a line of narration to the other side of a line of dialogue).

 

This even affects line length! Let’s be honest here: sometimes, a long-winded Japanese sentence can be summed up in just a couple English words, and sometimes something succinct needs clauses upon clauses of prose in English to achieve the desired effect. (Stay tuned for an upcoming “Top Ten Words Translators Hate” article.) But when the translated text differs too greatly in length from the voice clip that accompanies it, no matter how good a translation it may be, it’s going to sound strange to the reader.

 

This is an issue I’m quite used to dealing with due to my history in anime fansubbing. In fansubbing, there’s this metric called CPS—characters of text on screen per second. Once your CPS gets too big, you’re moving too fast for the average native English speaker. This obviously isn’t directly applicable to VNs, but having to be mindful of CPS for line length in anime has gotten me pretty used to keeping translations at a reasonable length, though you have a lot of latitude there; as long as you’re not constantly translating one word as twenty or vice versa, you can get away with considerable discrepancies. I also know that even if you don’t match all the pauses and emotional coloring perfectly, you won’t be looked at funny as long as you’re in the general ballpark.

 

There’s another facet to this problem that I’d like to at least mention: some readers with a little Japanese knowledge might pick out individual words in a voice clip and be surprised to see them excluded or replaced in the translation. For instance, a character’s name being translated as a second-person pronoun. However, I don’t tend to give much consideration to this. If I’ve changed or removed a word in the translation process, it’s for a good reason, and if this hypothetical reader is able to understand that word but not the ones surrounding it, there’s a good chance they won’t have the context they need to derive that reason themselves. I’m not going to dumb my translation down just for the benefit of this weird, in-between class of reader. Translations are written primarily for those who understand nothing. Our hypothetical beginning Japanese learner here is just in the unfortunate position of having enough language knowledge to recognize they’re not listening to complete gibberish, but not enough to understand the considerations that go into translation.

 

Then there’s the ones who think they know it all and get mad at you because you didn’t make the word choice they consider the objectively correct one. Sometimes they act like each word only has a single valid translation, which is such a laughable notion that I’m not even going to bother acknowledging it beyond the end of this paragraph. Yes, I’ve dealt with people like this. Translation does lie in a very awkward space between subjective art and objective science, but when people argue that ojama shimasu can’t be translated as “thank you for having me over” because it doesn’t contain arigatou? Yeah, ignore ‘em and move on with your life.

 

That should do it for now. As always, you can contact me easily on Reddit or Gmail, and the Operation Bellflower Discord server is always a great place to make your feedback visible.

In this post, I covered problems introduced by the characteristics of the visual novel medium. Next time, I’ll write about a predicament largely unique to visual novels, but not because of the medium itself: H scenes. Ugh.

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!

This is the sixth article in Operation Bellflower’s weekly tech posts series. Check out the previous ones here!


In the last couple of articles I’ve shown you how to mess around with the game file’s assembly code to do some simple text replacement and font parameters tuning. But there is, of course, much more to translate in the engine than just some text on the screen. These scenario files we’ve seen earlier are also capable of triggering complex visual effects. Take, for instance, Senmomo’s date display screen.

These show up sporadically in the game. Pictured above is the very first one, showing the date “March 4th” (Literally: month 3, day 4). It might look simple but there’s quite a lot going on here. This screen is generated by an algorithm that takes a date as an input, then displays in turn each of the digits as images (not text!) at the right spot, with a fancy little animation.

At first glance you might think that translating this screen would be straightforward: why don’t we just replace the images for these Japanese digits with our Arabic numerals? Unfortunately it won’t be as easy as that, otherwise I wouldn’t be here making a whole article about it. There are a couple of complications:

  • The Japanese counting system is fundamentally different from the western one, and you can’t just take each digit one by one, replace them with the right one in our decimal system and be done with it. For example, numbers starting from 21 use three digits in Japanese, whereas we would need only two.
  • The date format we want is different than what’s used here: we’re going for the name of the month followed by a number for the day (for instance, the date shown above would be translated to “March 4”). We could have gone with something more similar to what’s already there, but decided against a potentially ambiguous MM/DD format that might confuse our European audiences.
  • Remember, it’s all assembly code. That will severely limit our capabilities to comprehend, let alone modify the aforementioned algorithm that handles date formatting.

By performing some strategic changes to a couple of strings in the game’s scripts and cleverly constructing the translated images, we’ll be able to figure something out. Working out a solution for this was one of my favorite challenges in the entire project and possibly one of the most incredibly stupid hack I’ve ever worked on. But I live by the motto of “if it looks stupid but it works, then it’s not stupid”. So let me share with you the whole adventure that was translating Senmomo’s calendar screens…

This is the fifth article in Operation Bellflower’s weekly tech posts series. Check out the previous ones here!


Welcome to another Adventure in the Ethornell Engine! Last week we’ve learned how to replace the game’s original script with our translated text. But as you may have noticed, there are a couple of issues with how the text is displayed. It’s not too surprising, considering that the game was never meant to display characters from our Latin alphabet. And so we’ll have to fiddle a bit with the scripts that handle fonts. There are two kinds of scripts packaged with the game: “scenario files”, like the one we dealt with last week, and system script files. Today I’ll show you a couple of tricks to adjust the font from both system scripts and scenario files.

Credit where it’s due, all the content from today’s article was made possible thanks to previous research made by ArcusMaximus. This tutorial illustrates the method they described in here to perform various font changes. Huge kudos!

This is the fourth article in Operation Bellflower’s weekly tech posts series. Check out the previous ones here!


We’re finally done with all that frankly unnecessary rambling on the engine’s archive system, and now we’re ready do dive into the nitty gritty of how to translate a BGI game. The last couple of articles explained how to extract scenario files, which contain all of the game’s narration. So all we need to do next is to replace the original Japanese text with our translation. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, as you will see that the format of those scenario files is anything but easy to work with. It’s nothing insurmountable though. I’ll first walk you through the steps to do it manually, then talk about some tools to make the job easier. So without further ado, let’s get started!

The very first line of narration in Senmomo, and the one we’ll attempt to modify in today’s tutorial

This is the third article in Operation Bellflower’s weekly tech posts series. Check out the previous ones here!


Howdy and welcome to another installment of Adventures in the Ethornell Engine! Today’s article will be a direct continuation of last week’s, where we did the first half of the work for extracting a scenario file. If you followed the Python approach and everything went well, you should now have at hand an extracted scene file (if not, here’s a copy). It’s still not quite in a usable state though, there’s one last layer of abstraction called the DSC format that we must decipher before we can see the actual contents. Once we take care of that we’ll finally be able to view and edit the game’s text, but that’s spoilers for next week.

A heads up that this article will be quite meaty, so I hope you’re not allergic to Python. Otherwise, feel free to follow the GARbro approach outlined in the previous article to extract your file and skip this. Again, what I will explain here is nothing that GARbro doesn’t already do, but where’s the fun in letting a program do the work for us? So let’s see how to decrypt the DSC format using a Python script.

This is the second article in a series of tech posts documenting some of the hacking work done for Senmomo. Make sure to check out the first installment for an introduction!


So you want to translate a visual novel. Now arises the question: where to even start? In the next couple of articles, I’ll guide you towards changing your first line of text in a BGI visual novel, both using the tools introducing previously and by writing our own. (Because doing things by ourselves can be fun sometimes! Sometimes.) So let’s get our hands dirty.

We won’t get very far without finding the original Japanese text. It’s in there somewhere, among the gigabytes of zeroes and ones that make up the whole game. Looking at the game files, you’ll notice that the bulk of it is in those many files under the .arc format. These contain absolutely all of the resources that the game needs: sprites, backgrounds, music, voice lines, videos, UI elements, fonts, scripts, and of course the original text that we’re looking for, in what I like to call scenario files. Let’s see how we can extract them…

This article is the first in a series of tech posts documenting some of the hacking work we’ve done on the engine. I’ve got a good pile of content to share here, so I hope you enjoy the ride!


Back when I joined Operation Bellflower, our team lead Kazoo was specifically recruiting for a hacker rather than a programmer. At first, I didn’t exactly understand why. I consider myself firmly in the second category but naively assumed that I could still apply most of the code wrangling knowledge I got from my years of making games on Roblox writing serious professional software. But it turns out that this is not just about writing code, it’s first and foremost a matter of breaking down piece by piece a whole engine – that is hacking.

So when I jumped in, I was pretty new to this hacking thing. I thought I had a good grasp on how computers work, but the BGI/Ethornell Engine would keep proving me wrong. This is why plunging into the innards of this anime PowerPoint program ended up being such a learning experience. A painful one at times, but nonetheless a wonderful adventure, and one I would heartily recommend.

The goal of this series of articles is to share this journey with you, whether you’re a seasoned code person or just a curious passerby. For those in the second category I will do my best not to dive too deep into the technical intricacies, at least not right away (I promise, I won’t show a single line of code until the second article). We’ll start off slow with a quick overview of exactly what we’ll be dealing with as well as a list of helpful resources.

Continue reading “Adventures in the Ethornell Engine I – Introduction and Community Resources”