Operation British, Phase Seven: Live A Healthier, Happier Life Free of Honorifics

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:
ショーンと申します。よろしくおねがいします。

But in a casual setting, meeting a friend of a friend you might say:
ショーンです。よろしく。

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.

36 Comments

  1. I remember the first ADTRW fansub of Gurren Lagann was edited and released *twice* by other people just to put honorifics back in.

    The second time they just searched-and-replaced “Kamina” with “Lord Kamina”. Maybe that was a joke, I’m not sure.

  2. I prefer them, not because it makes me feel like I know the language, but because I like to have what I hear and what I read match. I watch everything with captions/subtitles regardless of what the spoken language is. I’m a visual person, so I will catch more info from the captions than the actual voice.

    Besides, it’s fan-subbing. Let the companies that license the show care about making “accurate translations” that remove the feeling of culture from the series.
    I could go on, but meh.

  3. Colony Drop is back, saying what needs to be said time and time again. Kudos. I’ll be sure to spread this post around wherever I can.

  4. 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.

    Pretty sure you meant, “What you say is determined by your place in Japanese society,” or at least “Your place is Japanese society is reinforced by yadda yadda”.

    But the point is obvious. Good post. Too bad the dregs of these anime forums can’t be forced to use some sort of demoralizing linguistic system. Unfortunately, I think the -san syndrome is a byproduct of high school anime geek culture, where calling your friends X-chan is The Cool Thing To Do.

  5. I prefer them, not because it makes me feel like I know the language, but because I like to have what I hear and what I read match.

    So, in other words, what you really want is Japanese subtitles?

  6. Another point is that when watching the show with Japanese audio, you *hear* them spoken, regardless of what the subs say. If you’re that bummed that they’re taken out, then just open your ears. That is, unless you watch your cartoons near-mute because you’re only into high school ecchi titles and you don’t want your mom to hear the sexual moans of the girl as the lead male accidentally gropes her.

    But yeah, I don’t even usually read names or honorifics when they’;re in the subtitles, because I hear the voice actor say them. Plus I can usually assume whichever the person is going to use, and given the off chance that the boy didn’t refer to his teacher as “sensei”, again, I’ll still be able to hear whatever it is he does call him…

    All in all it’s a good post, japanophilia is fine in your fansubs, but let the professionals be professional.

  7. What Anon-J wants is Japanese subtitles, yeah.

    Also, I watched Baccano recently, and the official release had a subtitle track filled with honorifics. Baccano, for chrissakes! Who in the world wants this shit? Are you reading this post? If you are, then let me tell you straight-up: You are the dumbest motherfucker alive!

  8. I think you make a very good point. I’ve seen many subs both with and without honorifics, and it doesn’t bother me much either way. I give props when fansubbers try to adapt that into English forms. Sometimes, however, it really doesn’t work, but that’s no reason to revert to Japanese honorifics.

    I’m now thinking about a show that’s fresh in my mind: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Central Anime, who fansubbed it, are keenly aware of the pitfalls of fansubbing: the pointless ‘translator notes’ that cover half the screen, etc etc. And it’s not like LoGH has a dearth of text to subtitle, but they do it subtly and with class.

    And when it comes to honorifics? Let’s face it, in a universe where it’s implied that 50% of humanity speaks German, 50% speak English, and there’s only what, 2-3 Japanese characters out of a cast of HUNDREDS… then Japanese honorifics would make no sense WHATSOEVER in translation. When Kircheis says ‘Lord Reinhard’, in the context of the story it works: they live in an aristocratic society.

    On the other hand, many characters refer to Yang without honorific or rank, to show the informality of the Yang fleet. Does it matter that there wasn’t some long-winded translator’s note to explain this? A bad fansub group would have added a long footnote. Central Anime understand that, since the characters’ interactions pretty much explain their relationships (especially in as well-written a show as LoGH), then it’s not necessary.

    Agh, sorry! Long rant! Point is: a well-written show with a decent translation tells you all that you need to know about the character’s story, and a small quirk of language is not going to suddenly reveal an immense wealth of information that is ‘hidden away’ by the language barrier.

  9. Actually, I’m pretty sure I read a Mishima translation in high school where they kept in honorifics. But that was in high school. Also, I can’t say from first hand experience, but I’ve heard from others that in translations from European texts they keep in honorifics as well.

    But when it comes down to it I really don’t care either way. When you start leaving in words such as “いただきます” then I start to roll my eyes.

  10. I’m a professional translator of games and manga.

    Unlike Romance languages, Japanese and English have so little of a correspondence to each other that ten translators can give ten different takes on the same sentence — and all of them be right. That’s why this hyper-focus on honorifics completely misses the point. There is no such thing as an objectively “perfect” translation to begin with.

    There are far better ways of judging good versus bad than the presence of honorifics. Zeroing in on superficial issues like this is the classic “disease” of the novice Japanese student. If this sort of thing gets under your skin that much, you need to be focusing more on your Japanese studies. And when you get to a level where you can function as a professional translator, you will realize that the situation isn’t nearly as black and white as you are making it out to be.

  11. That’s why this hyper-focus on honorifics completely misses the point.

    As in the article, other translations, or both?

  12. As in “people who hyper-focus on honorifics to the point of swearing they’ll boycott any translation that doesn’t include them.”

    The article is right on (with the possible exception of the “the world’s first (and most successful) totalitarian dictatorship” bit, which I’d love to see some sort of citation for.)

  13. This is an excellent article that should be required reading for any aspiring translator. Fan, or professional.

    In my opinion, the blame lies solely on the mainstream companies, though. It’s easy to blame fansubbers, but at the end of the day, they are just that. Fans. Were they professional translators, they wouldn’t be doing it for free online. Or for internet bragging rights; either way, not for money. The professional companies, on the other hand, should be on a higher tier. Leaving the honorifics in, untranslated, serves the story in no way whatsoever. It’s there to cater to the hardest of hardcore, a sect of fans that always want the newest episodes of the newest japanese shows as soon as they’re available.

    And this is where the bigger issue lies. Honorific use is a small portion of the bigger pangea of issues that the US anime industry is. An ever widening gap between casual fans and hardcore fans has been developing, and it is that chasm of unfamiliarity that keeps new fans from even APPROACHING the medium.
    And why bother to change their ways? Honorifics allow a translator to take the easy way out, relying on a simple word to sum it up for a fanbase that already gets it. It appeases the hardcore, and it makes a paycheck a little easier to reach at the end of the week.

    I’ll end with an anecdote: My daughter and I will sometimes watch episodes of Kamen Rider together. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine, and age appropriate enough for a ten year old girl, so we enjoy it. There’s not a lot available in the way of commercial US releases, and even less for the modern shows. So fan translations are the only option for us. Honorifics are abundant, obviously. But so are completely untranslated words. Oneesama, Oniichan, and adding -tachi after certain names. Sometimes a name will be written out as “Natsumi-chan-tachi.”
    And EACH and every single time, we’re taken out of the story. A 29 year old man and a 10 year old girl are left fumbling around, trying to look up what these words mean so that we can continue watching a guy in a rubber costume punch a guy dressed like a crocodile without being confused. This is a sad state of affairs!

    This isn’t a SECRET CLUB for diehard fans, only. How is someone completely uninitiated to the already existing material supposed to approach the medium when the translation goes out of its way to alienate them?

    To paraphrase Yevgeny Yevtushenko for fun and profit… Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it will not faithful. If it is too faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.

  14. For a minute I thought the incest joke was the best part of this post, but then I was reminded that Toren Smithsu is better than all of us and I realized that was the true lesson.

    Bravo Colony Drop-san.

  15. Yeah, I’ve shown some recent subs, fan or otherwise, to a few friend who aren’t hip to the fan lingo and they have no idea what “san” or “chan” mean. Sure, someone like me that’s been watching this stuff for ages knows what’s up, but tossing out honorifics just confuses anyone that’s trying out this shit for the first time. It isn’t a major thing to explain it or whatever, but to assume that everyone that’s watching knows what these terms mean is pretty narrowsighted of subbers.

  16. It’s not just narrow sighted, or elitism. It’s not even just lazy. It takes the audience away from the experience. Even if it’s just a crappy fight show or some harem junk; sometimes a good translation can make a show more engaging. If you’re translating, and more importantly INTERPRETING the dialogue properly, then the audience will be interested. They’ll feel familiar with the characters, and they’ll understand their relationships. WITHOUT adding some untranslated syllables at the end of every other proper noun.

  17. While Colony Drop nailed hit it out of the ballpark with this one, to be fair, James Clavell was fucking things up in the 70’s well before Fansubs.

  18. Yes. I entirely agree with this, although if Japanese anime producers continue making shows targeted at a narrow section of militantly elitist fans in the first place, it soon won’t matter if everyone outside hardcore Japanophiles is utterly alienated.

  19. This has been one of my many, many pet peeves when watching translated subbed anime, or even when reading manga. There is absolutely no need for “-chat” or “-tan” or “-san” or “-sama” in subtitles, especially if the setting of the anime is European fantasy, or outside of Japan in general. I’ve actually winced when seeing “-sama” and “-san” in Vinland Saga, where such suffixes have no right to be.

    I’ve started appreciating dubbed anime again (for various reasons), but mostly because of the fact that they completely leave “-chan” and “-san” by the wayside.

  20. OMGWTFBBQ ONEE-CHANS! THE HONORIFICS ARE THERE FOR FLAVOR!!1 ITZ NOT LIKE I’M WATCHING THE SHOW NOT KNOWING IT’S JAPANESE! ^_^;

    IF PPL DONT GET IT THEN MAYBE THEY SHOULD GO BACK TO WATCHING THEY’RE BAKA GAIJIN CSI LOL

    BUT SERIOUSLY I HARDLY READ THE SUBTITLES ANYMORE BECAUSE I AM LEARNING JAPANESE AND CHAN IS SO KAWAII!! >_

  21. If I get into the story in subs, I basically don’t care if honorifics are there or not.
    I think this honorific thing has blown out of proportion. If these fans feel that honorifics and so called untranslatable words are more important than the plot, they’re not fans. They’re Japanophiles. Japanophiles =/= anime fans.

  22. Once again, I come here, read an article and feel totally satisfied. If only this post could be used like a beating stick throughout the online world…

  23. Hm? What? What are you talking about? So: If we were trying to work some random text from English into Japanese, as faithful translators we would be compelled to leave out things like “Mister” and “Miss” and “President” and “MP” and “Sergeant” and “Congressman” and “Doctor” and “sir” and “ma’am,” because those terms are essentially non-meaningful and representing them would be, like, way tacky? Their presence would devalue the translation by the introduction of fan-baiting, metatextual jargon? Urk? I agree that the repetitive -くんing and -ちゃんing and etc. that characterize the form of everyday speech which happens in anime is probably pretty pointless — but otherwise? Those honorifics are words, just like other words, and they deserve to be included in any reasonable translation of any reasonable text.

    I am scared!

    Also, if you think you can correctly perform respectful or humble speech without utilizing, say, -さん, I am crying for your Japanese teacher.

    NOTE: I have never watched anything @ Crunchyroll, and I don’t plan to start. Also I am not a big fan of anime, just in general. (Although I kind of like your website.)

  24. with respect, pragmatically I think you are wrong about the function that subtitles serve. They are not JUST the translation of what is said in one language to the written form of another. Numerous parts of your brain are engaged in watching anime with subs. Reading and hearing are different parts of your brain and they check each other. If someone on screen says “Okamisan” but the sub says ‘Okami’ your brain wonders what that word is. Heavens help us if the sub says “Ryoko” instead since that is the character’s given name. I’ve seen that a time or two and it immediately throws you out of the story because your brain notices the dissonance. Only slightly less irritating is “Ms. Okami” instead, as it would make zero sense for such an English word to be added.

    So, while you are quite correct from a translation standpoint, that the honorifics aren’t needed… I submit that from an experience standpoint they smooth the ability to watch the subtitle match up to what is being said on the screen. If you wish further example of this, watch a vid where the sub is way out of timesync.It is nearly impossible to enjoy since you are constantly thrown out of the exprience.

    That is not to say the whole yammering by the crunchy masses isn’t it’s own oddity, but that speaking of this purely acedemically isn’t suffiscient.
    YMMV, natch.

  25. I agree with this and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    I’ve got just about the best example of how even the Japanese get confused about usage. The relationship between Kodai and Yuki in Space Battleship Yamato.

    Honorifics are only lightly used, mostly rank and ‘station’ on the ship but Kodai calls Sanada ‘Sanada-san’ which, I’ve assumed is related to the relationship between Sanada and Kodai’s big brother, but Yuki’s constant referring to Kodai as ‘Kodai-kun’ (which does become a drinking game at some point) confuses every Japanese I’ve asked about it. I tried to explain I figured it was the only way a woman could be ‘equal’ in an old-style stratified environment but I generally was unable to make my point clear. All I ever got was “that’s not how that’s supposed to be used”.

    Well, duh. Yet I have to assume there’s history and reason behind it, maybe a regional thing, maybe something tied to the fact most of the staff were post-war adults having grown up during the reconstruction, I dunno.

    Then again, Nishizaki picked the reading ‘Towa’ instead of ‘Eien’ for Be Forever Yamato and THAT has made many Japanese brains explode in recent times, so who knows? 🙂

  26. ‘So: If we were trying to work some random text from English into Japanese, as faithful translators we would be compelled to leave out things like “Mister” and “Miss” and “President” and “MP” and “Sergeant” and “Congressman” and “Doctor” and “sir” and “ma’am,” because those terms are essentially non-meaningful and representing them would be, like, way tacky?’

    Bad examples, since there are one-to-one maps for most of those titles between Japanese and English. “Mister” and “Miss” are how you translate “-san.” President, MP, Sgt., etc., all have exact analogues in Japanese. And any translator worth his/her salt can imply “sir” and “ma’am” through the use of keigo.

    The issue is leaving untranslated honorifics in the text. Unless it’s intended for comedic effect, you don’t see Japanese translating “Mr. Smith” as ミスタースミス。It’s スミスさん。

    Leaving untranslated honorifics in translated text isn’t a translation. It’s a cop-out on the part of a translator who is trying to weasel out of the effort required to do it right.

  27. As someone who grew up actually speaking the Japanese language in Japan, I completely agree. Japanese is an actual language that real people speak in real social situations, and not some mysterious esoteric incantations that they speak in fanboys’ beloved cartoon shows of big-eyed people. And as such, it should be treated as a language and translated properly, not put on a pedestal.

    As a fansubber who does not engage in this kind of nonsense, I am ashamed that this is the direction other fansubbers are taking.

  28. I own all four of the DVD boxsets of Marmalade Boy that Tokyopop put out, and each box has an entire BOOKLET explaining all of the untranslated words in the subtitles. Talk about a distracting experience!

  29. Score another one for CD. And thanks for the link to the Toren Smith interview–now that guy knows what the hell he’s talking about (I mean, jeez, the dude helped bring over a lot of great titles in the 1990s). But what he said about crappy fan translations mirrors comments from Matt Thorn about the same issue.

    Translators have a difficult enough job, especially those who translate Japanese to English. They don’t need crap from some know it all punks.

    But that’s just my 2-cents.

  30. It must be immensely frustrating when you do a lot of hard work only to be criticized by you audience for…actually translating it.

    Tofubeast,I had similiar experience with the scanlations of Vinland Saga.I couldn’t really stand the sight of Early Medieval Norse men reffering to each other with “sans” and “kuns” and “samas”.So in contrast to those outraged guys the article cites,I actually ended up quitting something BECAUSE it had honorifics.

  31. You nailed it again, guys. The purpose of translation is to make a text transparent – to make foreign readers/listeners understand it in their native tongue as the original writer intended. As you point out, that’s about far more than just the words. Those who want to understand the words exactly, rather than simply understanding the author’s intent and meaning, should, of course, be studying the source language.

  32. I never even knew this was an issue. Man, I guess there were more layers to otaku culture than I thought.

  33. Don’t forget transliterating instead of translating!

    This is especially bad when the word was originally translated *from* the Roman alphabet in the first place. For example, Kaoru Mori’s manga Emma is set in Victorian England. The official English translation includes a character named Mrs. Trollop. In English that’s like naming a character Mrs. Slut. WTF?

    Methinks Kaoru Mori wanted to give this British character the British last name *Trollope*, and transliterated Trollope *into* Japanese script while she wrote Emma in English. Then, the translators transliterated it into romaji utterly from scratch as if they had no idea that Trollope is how it’s already spelled in English.

    Behold the non-anime fight at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Categories_for_deletion/Log/2006_March_28#Category:Dorama_.E2.86.92_Category:Japanese_television_dramas too. Some people insist that drama should be spelled dorama when English speakers are talking in English about drama from Japan.

    What next, are we supposed to call it yakyuu instead of baseball when talking in English about Japanese sports leagues?

Submit a comment