The latest uproar in the online anime fan community concerns the announcement that everyone’s favorite criminals-turned-straight anime streaming website, Crunchyroll, will no longer be using Japanese honorifics (さん, くん, etc) in subtitles for the shows they stream. Anime fans, always eager to get upset over ridiculous shit, have been throwing online temper tantrums over this news for the past 36 hours. The honorific debate is the 2000s equivalent of the 1990s sub-vs-dub wars, but while that classic staple of USENET arguments might have had some value in the age of $30+ VHS tapes, the honorific debate is entirely without merit. That’s because using Japanese honorifics in English subtitles is entirely unnecessary and caters exclusively to the immature desires of fans instead of serving any actual translation purpose.
Communicating in Japanese is a veritable landmine of unspoken relationships, potential faux pas and a social hierarchy that dates back to the world’s first (and most successful) totalitarian dictatorship. Despite the arguments of self-proclaimed experts, honorifics hold little importance in establishing the relationships between people.
What does hold some importance is keigo, a multi-tiered system of speech within the Japanese language that is used to communicate politely with people of other levels. In short, it’s a complicated manner of humbling yourself and politely speaking about your superiors and it becomes incredibly important when working in professional situations or interacting with strangers. It’s complicated enough that plenty of Japanese people will confess to not being adept at it, and God help the 2nd year Japanese language student who discovers they must learn an entirely new set of verbs for communicating in extremely polite situations.
It’s important to point out that keigo, like honorifics, is thrown out the door when dealing with friends or family. To give you and idea on the difference between keigo and casual speak, I’ll present you with two examples of introducing yourself to someone you haven’t met before.
In an office setting you might say:
But in a casual setting, meeting a friend of a friend you might say:
It’s a big difference. Your place in Japanese society isn’t determined by a simple “-さん” at the end of someone’s name, but by the things you say and the manner in which you speak.
The point of all this, and this is the real issue here, is that in a proper translation this doesn’t matter. A skilled translator will be able to convey these differences exclusively through the use of English words, rendering the obnoxious habit of adding honorifics entirely unnecessary. We urge any delusional fan who thinks they may be missing out on some subtle Japanese minutiae to go to a book store and grab a translated copy of some respectable piece of Japanese literature — it’ll be in the section of the book store that doesn’t have comic books. There will be no honorifics in sight, because a real translator would not include them.
In most cases, the “complicated” social relationships that anime fans prattle on and on about aren’t even that important within the context of the story. You know that no matter what Koneko-ちゃん calls her older brother, he’s still going to want to fuck her. Instead, it serves as a way for anime fans to pretend like they’re Japanese culture experts who can speak Japanese.
The entirely sorry state of fan translations gives plenty of evidence for this; as incompetent fan translators insist on peppering their English subtitles with “untranslatable” words. This serves only to stroke the egos of anime fans who like to pretend they can speak Japanese. These aren’t proper translations, they’re transliterations, designed to placate anime fans who wish they could speak the Japanese language but don’t have the patience, diligence or ability to actually learn it.
While we wish we could claim this idea of fan translations serving as self-indulgent wish fulfillment for wayward Japanophiles as our own idea, it turns out Toren Smith talked about it five years ago. Those of you too young to remember the 1990s may be wondering who the fuck Toren Smith is, so we’ll tell you: he’s a guy who played a huge role in starting the translated manga industry in the United States by starting the translation studio Studio Proteus, and he probably knows what he’s talking about. He also had a character named after him in Gunbuster, indisputably making him a better person than any of us.