It’s been one good omelet rice lunch and an hour and a half since I finished writing the last post, but I’ve figured out what to write about next. It’s a topic that was staring me in the face all this time: all the stereotypical bullshit that comes with translating dialogue in Japanese media. Honorifics, speech register, Engrish, the works. It’s gonna take several posts (unless you want to read many thousands of words in one sitting), so buckle up. I’m gonna be referencing the Wakabayashi a lot in these ones, since it dedicates a good four chapters to this stuff.
Wakabayashi starts by talking about how English and Japanese use direct and indirect speech differently, even saying “[I]t is not always appropriate to reproduce material inside kagi kakko as direct speech in English. Doing so can result in a more dramatic effect than in the original” (p. 146). This is only relevant to VNs when speech is indicated during a line of narration—a relatively rare occurrence—but I don’t think Wakabayashi’s advice here really applies. It’s perfectly fine to render such instances as direct speech with quotation marks in English; the impact will be sufficiently lessened by the lack of voice acting and the presence of narration surrounding it.
But if you’ll humor me, I’d like to talk about it a little anyway, even if it’s not related to VNs. Here’s a quote from the Wakabayashi about kagi kakko specifically:
Despite the apparent similarity to English quotation marks, dictionary definitions of kagi kakko state that their primary function is to highlight something and distinguish it from the surrounding text. They therefore have a wider range of use than English quotation marks… Kagi kakko do not necessarily indicate that the enclosed utterance is a verbatim quotation. Conversely, their absence does not necessarily indicate indirect speech. (pp. 73-4)
Indeed, sometimes a character’s dialogue looks just like any ordinary narration, particularly if said character is a first-person narrator. This creates a bit of a blurring of lines between the character as a participant in the story and the character as a narrator, as if presenting us with the character’s inner monologue and merely implying that they said something to that effect, to which other characters react.
I’m not just making that up, mind you. Have you ever read the Haruhi series in the original Japanese? If you have, you’ll know that very little of Kyon’s dialogue is actually presented inside kagi kakko. That effect I just talked about distances him a bit from the situation at hand and brings him closer to the reader.
But as it turns out, the latest installment of the series, The Intuition of Haruhi Suzumiya, makes explicit reference to this. The main thrust of the book is about Tsuruya-san sending the SOS Brigade a series of mystery stories regarding vignettes from her life and asking them to solve them. In them, not a single line of her own dialogue is enclosed in kagi kakko.
However, toward the end of the second story, the brigade has cause to suspect that some lines inside kagi kakko, that look like they belong to another character, were actually said by Tsuruya-san. Here’s some of the brigade’s discussion about the affair, translated by yours truly:
“The question is why Tsuruya-san was talking like the attendant. What do you think, Koizumi-kun?”
“According to the rest of the text of Episodes 1 and 2, Tsuruya-san seems to talk to her close friends in a very direct and candid way. But for all we know, that could just be her inner voice; when she actually speaks, perhaps she does so in the sort of polite language we see in the kagi kakko. Nobody but her can guarantee that her speech matches perfectly with her inner monologue, after all.” (p. 249)
And of course, the other characters in Tsuruya-san’s story reacted to her “inner monologue” as if she’d actually spoken. So you can see this blurring of the lines between narration and dialogue. It’s actually a really cool effect, and it lets you get away with cheap gimmicks like the one Tsuruya-san pulled. I’d like to see that tried more often in English fiction, if possible. Heck, maybe one day I’ll translate a light novel (already have my sights set on one) and render kagi kakko-less dialogue without quotation marks, see how that goes.
Just a bit of an aside before we really get into these issues. What we really care about is the content of the dialogue. For several pages, Wakabayashi details many, many techniques for writing colloquial dialogue in English, but I think I’m just gonna skip over that. I mean, come on, that’s how we all write on the internet! I get why a translator of literature or more formal documentation might need a refresher, but all we have to do to make dialogue sound casual is imagine how we’d say it out loud. (Or more precisely, how someone like the character in question would say it out loud.)
Things get interesting when Wakabayashi starts talking about keigo. In case you don’t know, keigo refers to the more formal registers of Japanese speech. It involves completely different verb endings from the ones you’re used to, so it’s baked into the very grammar of the language. Unsurprisingly, whether a character speaks in keigo—and if so, what level of it—can say a lot about that character and the interaction they’re in. And just like politeness in English, it can be used sarcastically. Since English has a hard time distinguishing between casualness and politeness based on word choice alone—at the very least, it’s not as clear as Japanese—one must be very careful, or the distinction may be lost.
Case in point: Haruhi again. Mild spoilers, so skip these next couple paragraphs if you care, but it turns out that Tsuruya-san’s kagi kakko dialogue was her speaking in English. Oh, and before you ask, T is a new character. She’s introduced as a foreign exchange student, a member of the Mystery Club, and Tsuruya-san’s friend. I like her a lot.
Koizumi turned to T and asked, “Does Tsuruya-san’s English sound polite to you, like we saw in Episode 2?”
“Indeed,” she declared, brushing aside her bangs. Apparently they’d been enjoying their newfound freedom a bit too much with the hairpin gone. “She utilizes precise idioms and stiff grammar. The single blemish upon the pearl is that her pronunciation has just slightly too many vowel sounds.”
“Ahaha, guess I ain’t quite native yet,” laughed Tsuruya-san. “I be tryin’.”
Thinking of it another way, I bet if we translated T’s English to Japanese, it’d come out sounding decent instead of the awkward and rough Japanese she actually speaks. Obviously, since it’s her native language. The difference in nuance would probably be something like her first-person pronoun being translated as watashi instead of atashi, which is what she actually uses. (p. 341)
That’s such a small difference! But such changes in speech register do make clear distinctions in how a character’s dialogue is perceived.
In many works, the loss of that distinction isn’t terribly detrimental, but it would be catastrophic in Senmomo with its clear hierarchies. Here’s a rather salient quote Wakabayashi has:
When honorifics are translated, there is often a loss of nuance and subtleties, and some translators suggest that honorifics can simply be ignored altogether. Yet summarily dismissing the keigo in dialogue passages fails to convey how “They add authenticity to the relationships between characters and situate them within an appropriate social milieu” (McAuley 2001: 65). These relations can be expressed in English by other means. (p. 154)
This is what I did with Inui Takahito, the manager of Koujiya Flowers. He always speaks in teineigo, the standard desu/masu forms everyone learns first, whether he’s talking to the leader of the warriors or the man he’s housing. You may think this somewhat distant of him, but based on his words and actions, I disagree. He’s using it to build up an easygoing, approachable identity, playing up the mild-mannered and wispy image that has all the women of the neighborhood enthralled. The more casual speech register—tameguchi, it’s called—can feel overly blunt and rough at times. As such, I translated his dialogue as suave and colloquial English in order to create the same air of friendliness and reliability that his politeness in Japanese did. I achieved the same effect by almost the opposite method.
Next, we have this:
Compensation is another way of handling keigo, as in the following sentence where the formality of my dear conveys the politeness of ご滞在 (p. 154)
This is part of what we’re doing with Kotone. Despite being the grand poobah of the Empire’s religion, she speaks in very humble kenjougo to absolutely everyone and invariably exalts their actions with honorific sonkeigo. In particular, she enjoys the sentence-final phrase de gozaimasu. It’s practically her catchphrase. Therefore, we’re making her use sir and ma’am a lot to retain both her politeness and her idiosyncratic way of speaking.
We’re doing more than just that, of course. We’re giving her more sophisticated diction, for instance, and we’re also abolishing most contractions from her dialogue and hedging questions with such phrases as might you.
One of the things Lonesome and I did before we got started on editing was sit down together and nail down how we’d render each character’s speech, with a particular focus on politeness or lack thereof. Obviously I already had my own ideas when I did the original TL, but I wanted to see what he had in the kitchen. One idea he had for Mutsumi, the elegant and refined proprietor of a popular warrior watering hole, was to have her use one instead of you to make her questions more indirect. That was left on the cutting room floor, but it just goes to show the level of creativity you need to deal with many different speech registers in a setting where they’re important.
Wakabayashi has another warning, though:
It is particularly important to indicate when speakers shift between formal and informal language. If not conveyed directly through the mode of speech, this can be done indirectly by a phrase such as slipping into informal conversation/language/speech. (p. 156)
This is often very hard to represent. Thankfully, the extreme politeness with which many characters speak in Senmomo makes our job easy on this front. How do we portray Kotone speaking in tameguchi with Isuzu? Drop the fancy bullshit we usually give her. How do we render Soujin’s deferential speech toward his liege at the end of Chapter 1? Pepper his dialogue with qualifying phrases like I would be honored to or I humbly request. The real tricky ones are the smaller shifts, like how Hotori takes a blunt yet friendly tone with Soujin and a gruff, almost militaristic tone with the rest of the Sworn Blades. But we managed, as you’ll see when the patch comes out.
Incidentally, that last part of the Wakabayashi quote about hijacking narration to make up for the lack of change in dialogue is something she suggests for a lot of the things I’m going to discuss in these posts. I consider that approach a copout, and thus we avoid taking it as much as possible.
Wakabayashi starts the next chapter out with a discussion on dialects, a problem we don’t have in Senmomo, but she makes all the suggestions you’d expect, such as replacing it with an English dialect that creates the same effect, mentioning it offhand in narration or a footnote, or even not bothering with it at all. Hasegawa even has this to say:
The protagonists’ social prestige is amply depicted throughout the story; therefore, Seidensticker does not attempt to express it through their dialect. However, the story also includes speakers of the Tokyo dialect. He strives to preserve the dialectal contrast by using the difference in speech tempo: the Kansai dialects usually sound slower and employ longer sentences than the Tokyo dialect, which is generally perceived as crisper (Seidensticker and Nasu 1962: 207–8)… Lines (a), (c), and (d) are in the Tokyo dialect, while (b) and (e) are in the Senba dialect. Seidensticker employs contractions only with the former. He hopes that the non-contracted lines convey the nuance of unhurried speech, rather than formality. (p. 62)
Personally, having actually read the lines she’s referencing here, I don’t think Seidensticker went far enough, and I don’t get the feeling from his Senba lines that he wishes I would. The difference between the two characters’ speech certainly doesn’t feel as drastic as a dialectical difference. Just goes to show that even the bigshots have trouble with this stuff.
She also says this:
Birnbaum (2006: 207–8) considers that in Japanese-to-English translation, the most conspicuous place to demonstrate one’s creativity is in conversations. In his translation of Ikezawa Natsuki’s 池澤夏樹 Mashiasu Giri no shikkyaku マシアス・ギリの失脚, a story about a corrupt president of a fictional South Pacific island nation, Birnbaum decided to make the protagonist’s mistress (who speaks ordinary Japanese in the ST) speak non-standard English. (p. 63)
Lonesome cited this principle when he made that proposal about Mutsumi’s dialogue, but I axed it anyway because of how unduly conspicuous it would be for a side character.
Wakabayashi even makes a nod to fansubbers when discussing dialects, suggesting experimenting with typeface, font size, and color to convey what the text itself cannot, but she ultimately admits that her various ideas have their flaws and a translator needs to experiment to figure out what works. In other words, the pros are just as clueless as we are.
She also gives brief consideration to differentiating male and female dialogue. In Japanese, the differences between the sexes’ speech patterns are much clearer than they are in English. It’s often impossible to denote a clear difference, but it’s also often unnecessary. Unless you’re translating a trapge, that is, and I suspect that’s a big reason why gems like Tsuriotsu have yet to see the light of day in English—differentiating the protagonist’s speech register between his male and female personas is often prohibitively difficult, and may require what academia calls compensation in kind, i.e. showing the distinction in some way other than speech register. Funnily enough, she has an aside about gyaru jargon and other modern slang, advising using online slang dictionaries to make sense of them.
Hoowee, that’s a lot, and there’s even more left to go. I’m gonna call it for this post. Next one’s gonna start with the problem of Engrish in the source material. Exciting! As always, leave your feedback in the usual places—Reddit, my email inbox, Discord, et cetera—and I’ll see you next time.