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.

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