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!