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.