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!