Translating Anime – Balancing Sense, Feel and Perception

May 1st, 2011

I find myself in conversations about translation of anime and manga rather often. Fans who have ever read a scanlation and/or have taken a few years of Japanese in school seem to have very fixed opinions of the the meaning(s), transliterations and adaptations of the anime and manga they read.

Recently on Twitter, Kazami Akira-san, a Japanese commenter on the overseas anime and manga market, was asking how well done the translations we see in anime actually are. Because so many western anime streams and broadcasts are region-locked, Japanese enthusiasts and journalists are not able to see these translations for themselves. I volunteered to try to do this. I’ve got enough Japanese that I’m the jerk in the room saying, “That’s not what they said” when reading the subtitles and I’m a writer, so I can tell when the translation/adaptation are or are not written with a skilled level of understanding of narrative or voice.

But, I want to start off with a basic fact about translation:

There is no one right translation. 

I know you think you know what “they really said,” but you (and I) don’t. We know what we think they really said, which is not the same thing at all. Just as art is in the eye of the beholder, language is in the ear of the listener. The more sophisticated a thinker you are, the more you know about the artistic, literary and cultural references, the more you have experience with language, the more you will get out of a sentence.  Different audiences need different things out of a translation.

This same goes for professional translators. Some work hard to capture each nuance of the original work, others make ballpark decisions based on best guesses. Obviously, this kind of thing will affect the overall translation.

Translators rarely work in a vacuum, either.  A translator, ideally, will be paired with a skilled adapter, who can write in their native language well, with an understanding of narrative, dialogue and voice. And, even more ideally, this will them get passed on to a skilled editor, who also knows the difference between a dialect and a spelling error. Unfortunately, this ideal situation is not always what happens. Sometimes translators really need a firm hand, but never get that good adaptation. Other times, the translator is awesome, but the adapter is not and ruins perfectly good language.

And no doubt it will come as no surprise that I have very strong views on being an editor. (^_^) Knowing how to speak English is not the same thing as knowing how to edit. Not only does an editor have to know how to fix mistakes, an editor has to know how to leave things alone. A good editor is truly a precious thing.

So, when it comes to anime and manga editing, anything that goes on between the translator, adapter (if there is one) and editor, can affect “the translation.” I know some cases where people were bitching about a thing, the translator had done it correctly and the adapter or editor re-wrote it and ruined it badly. It’s not the translator’s fault, although their name is on the translation, so they get the feedback.

As a translator, I still prefer to have an adapter, because I strive to get the best, richest, most sophisticated reading out of a line, so I may need an adapter to make it make sense in English. As an adapter, I smooth out pedantic, overly wordy or over-literal translations. As an a editor, I want the story to read as naturally as possible in English.

Then there is the issue with fan translation. Not every fan group has poor skills, not every group is good. Like everything else, there is a standard curve of deviation. There are a few groups that consistently produce error-filled, nearly incomprehensible scans or subs and some that produce professional quality work. The main body of groups is between these two extremes, providing varying degrees of good and bad, as their staff and inclination vary.

The problem with fan translations are not that they are “good” or “bad” but that they are often the first translation fans see. Otaku being what they are, the first is considered the benchmark and any changes after that are immediately perceived as negative. So, if a fan translation picks a name for a character – even if that name is not what the creator chose – that is the “right” name in fans’ minds. When a company “changes” that name to a creator-approved version, or a version that doesn’t violate western copyright, fans think it’s a bad translation. In this case perception is the problem, not the actual translation.

Okay, so that having been said, I’m going to do a short review of the top anime distribution companies in America. These reviews are filtered through my biases, not yours. They are, in fact, my opinion, based on my experience as translator, adapter and editor.

Viz Media – I watch very little Viz animation, so to prepare for this review, I watched some random episodes of a few series. In general, I feel that Viz anime is well-translated. As I am not familiar with the source material in most cases, it is easier for me to simply enjoy the anime and not focus on any changes being made. Their dubs are decent, their subtitles are not error-ridden and I find the stories to be easy to follow, so the narrative flow is preserved. Translations seem to fit the “voice” of the character well, which is really just the icing on the cake.

Overall – 9

Funimation – Funimation regularly makes choices in their translation that I would not personally choose, but I do not think that means they do “bad” translation. Overall, I think they capture narrative well. Subtitles are well-done technically. They do not always match the voice perfectly  – I feel pretty strongly about honorifics in the subtitles matching what is actually being said – but again, that is a personal issue, not an issue with the translation itself. Dubs are excellent, except they still maul the pronunciation of names. I want to hold a workshop with all the western VAs to teach them how to pronounce Japanese names. It is that, more than anything that keeps me from watching dubs.

Overall – 8

Media Blasters – Media Blasters has some issues. The translations are good, but they rarely capture voice or narrative flow. Even punctuation in the titles is frequently limited to periods and question marks, which gives the dialogue a flat, monotonal feel.  Their subtitles used to have many typographical errors, but that has improved significantly over the past few years. Their dubs, even the hentai…maybe especially the hentai…are pretty good, maybe better than most, because they don’t maul the names.

Overall – 6

AnimEigo –   Their translations earned early respect from folks in the bygone days, so I’d put them among the top in translation. They get tone, voice, narrative. Idioms are hard and in general, AnimEigo picks pretty difficult series to translate, so I can’t really find fault with the way they handle it, even if I dislike the way their subtitles look. ^_^

Overall – 8

Bandai – Bandai translations are as good as the team working on that series. If the team is good, the translations are good. If the team is bad, the translation is bad. More than anything else, Bandai has a serious lack in the editorial process. Good translators need help and bad translators need to be rewritten…but that isn’t happening. Technically the subtitles haven’t been edited and are so full of syntactical and grammatical errors, it makes me cringe. Get an editor, guys. You’re killing me.

Overall – 4

Crunchyroll – The same, times two. There is just no consistency from episode to episode; names change, sentences read like they were written by 8th graders, there is no narrative flow, no understanding of voice and the only consistent thing about their subtitles is that they are consistently terrible. I weep when watching CR, because they take sublime stories and crap all over them with a complete lack of adaptation or editing.

Crunchyroll has the worst translations in the industry, without question.

Overall – 3

Section 23/Sentai Filmworks – Again, sometimes I don’t agree with the choices, but on the whole, very good translation. They are great on everyday language and fall down most obviously on more poetic passages. This shows a lack of someone on staff with skill at writing (and perhaps no one who reads.) The subtitles are good, error-free and timed well. I like, but do not love their translations.

Overall – 7

Nozomi/RightStuf – Just to prove that I’m more objective than you think…while I love TRSI for their exceedingly high-quality work on translations, I still don’t agree with all their choices. ^_^ Nonetheless, I think they are among the best in translation right now. Subtitles preserve honorifics, or manage to translate the honorifics with some sense and consistency, they “get” literary and artistic references and, in general, do a really excellent job of things.

Overall – 9

So, we begin and end with the best of translation today. If you know of any other companies and want to add your two cents, by all means!

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22 Responses

  1. James Moar says:

    Even when you understand translation issues and know that the first translation you saw may well not be the best, there’s still something distracting about multiple translations, I think. Not that the official translators should take any blame for that, either….

  2. @James Moar – That’s an interesting perspective, James. I’me not sure how I feel about it. When a bad translation is the first one I encounter, I’m relieved to have a second, better.

    When the first one was acceptable, a different one, even if also acceptable might annoy. I’m thinking of Aria, which was re-translated because a new company licensed it and their started from the beginning. There was nothing particularly bad about the first, and because the second *had* to change some things, a few gratuitous changes were made that didn’t actually make the translation better.

    The situation in which your point is wholly valid is when the “unofficial” translation is better than the “official” one. At that point, it would have been cheaper and smarter for the licensing company to purchase the good one, rather than go forward with an obviously sub-standard translation.

  3. socchan says:

    Regarding name pronunciation in dubs: While my knowledge is only anecdotal, I do know that voice actors don’t have total control over how any given name is pronounced. Frequently the dub director will make the ultimate decision, though a voice actor can disagree and argue for a different pronunciation. Whether either the director or the voice actor(s) watched and took their pronunciation from the original Japanese version, or even care how a given name is pronounced, is something that will depend on the individuals involved.

    So I guess I’m suggesting you invite more of the dub team to your name pronunciation party?

  4. I’m actually curious if you would ever/have ever considered this matter of “quality of translation” for defunct American distributors, such as CPM or TokyoPop’s anime distribution wing? Or would you consider that a waste of time at this point, as their titles are very rapidly disappearing from the market?

  5. Eric P. says:

    ‘So, if a fan translation picks a name for a character – even if that name is not what the creator chose – that is the “right” name in fans’ minds. When a company “changes” that name to a creator-approved version, or a version that doesn’t violate western copyright, fans think it’s a bad translation.’

    Reminds me of the Holo/Horo debate with ‘Spice and Wolf’.

    Media Blasters and Crunchyroll do seem to do the least best jobs, and yet once I get into the show, I’m one of those viewers who just stops noticing after a while.

    From what I’ve seen, if a show is really japanese (like say Tenchi), Funimation really does retain the honorifics, almost on par with Right Stuf. That’s my feeling anyway.

    I think it’s okay if one’s uncomfortable with how Engilsh voice actors pronounce Japanese words and names–so long as the feeling is mutual with how Japanese voice actors pronounce English words and names (like how Maggie from ‘ROD’ is always Mah-ee.) One could easily jump to the seiyuu’s defense in saying that English words are hard to pronounce for them, but the exact same defense could be made for English actors and the Japanese language. I think the main issue is they don’t always have the time to be consistently accurate on everything to the average purist’s liking while trying to produce a decent and natural-sounding dub. Doesn’t seem to be a win-win thing either way.

  6. @Eric P – Maggie is called “Mah-‘nee” , short for “Maggie-oneesan” by Anita. That has nothing to do with English at all.

  7. Filo says:

    One technicality aside (I guess he misheard it), I think Eric still made some good points. Proper pronounciation should still go both ways.

  8. BruceMcF says:

    Crunchyroll would seem to be the test of the argument regarding translation, adapting and editing, since I doubt they spend the money on three sets of eyes in the week between when they get the material and when it goes to simulcast.

    This really showed up this season with more simulcasts than they have done to date, and they are clearly using new translators ~ as came out when it was discussed that some translators picked fonts that CR’s platform does not have anti-aliasing for.

  9. @BruceMcF – I am totally understanding about the simulcasts, but then, after the show has simulcast, they have plenty of time to fix those errors in the scripts…but they don’t.

  10. Mak says:

    I’ve found that, in general, commercial anime translations:

    1. are pretty good- some are excellent in fact- better now than they were in the past. This has encouraged me to buy more anime.

    2. are much better than commercial manga translations, which are all too often awful. Reading scanlations online from groups such as Lililicious and Dynasty, I’ve become spoiled I’m afraid- I’m accustomed to a level of translation quality that exceeds much of what I pick off the manga shelves in the bookstore.

  11. Thanks very much for writing this.

    In my blog long ago, I once tried to explain (clumsily) that there is only one objective reference for whether something is a good translation or a bad translation — and that is whether or not a translation can possibly be derived from the source material. In other words, is the translator mistaken in the grammatical reading of the Japanese sentence?

    That is the only objective measure for whether a translation is “good” or “bad.’ EVERYTHING else is subjective.

    And since the vast majority of amateur translators and a good portion of professional translators (usually the younger ones) tend to be wedded to their own interpretations, even determining whether something is mistranslated or not is a dicey business. I’ve been confronted by pro translators (only one or two) angry at translation choices I’ve made. I explained my reasoning, but they couldn’t see past their own bias to realize that I made a choice and not a mistake. But hey, I was just as opinionated as they when I was at their level of experience (although I didn’t confront any pro translators about it).

    So thank you for that. It’s a message that needs to get out and be repeated from time to time.

  12. @William Flanagan – Thank you for the kind words. I don’t think there is anything quite as challenging as making something in one language make sense in another.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I love fansubbers. I really do. They’re allowed to have a sense of humor.

  14. BruceMcF says:

    As far as the Crunchyroll simulcasts ~ I was deliberate in referring to spending the money on three sets of eyes, as opposed to spending the time. Having editing done on all the translations would seem to entail hiring an editor, which is spending money they do not seem to presently spend on the process.

    There might be some saving in staff effort elsewhere if they had an editor, of course, as it seems at present that the primary editorial process in place is help desk responses to notifications of subtitling issues by viewers. If the help desk could pass the subtitle notifications on to a subtitle editor, they could focus on the other issues on their plate.

  15. Atarun says:

    Here are my two cents:

    When “Dai no daibouken” – a manga adaptation of the Dragon Quest RPG franchise – was first published in France by J’ai Lu, they changed the main character’s name from Dai to Fly.
    I read somewhere that it was because Dai sounds like “die”, but I wonder still.

    They could have translated the series name into “Fly’s big adventure” but instead they went with just “Fly” and dropped the “no daibouken” entirely. I have no clue why.

    Almost every character’s name was warped in some incomprehensible fashion.

    *** very light spoiler ahead ***
    The worst problem with that choice came when we learned that the main character’s real name is Dino. His biological father had left him with a plaque spelling his name, but only the first letter remained when he was found. His foster (monster) parent having found a baby whose name started with D, decided to name him… Fly?! What the??!
    *** end of very light spoiler ***

    There was another HUGE problem with the translation, though it has nothing to do with names. Apparently, they couldn’t determine the gender of Dai’s master in the first two volumes. What did they do? Every time he was mentioned, they would write “He (she)” or “him (her)”.
    I kid you not.

    Thankfully, Tonkam bought the rights and republished the series with an entirely redone translation and, thankfully, names that are much closer to the original.

    All is well that ends well. ^^

  16. Mark says:

    @Eric P. : Pronunciation is much, much easier for a native English speaker trying to learn Japanese than vice versa.

    Japanese is a phonetically poor language. All the sounds in Japanese are contained within English, but there are numerous English sounds that native Japanese speakers don’t naturally learn. It’s possible to mechanically train oneself to make them, (Put tongue between teeth for “th,” tap tongue to back of front teeth to make “l,” “r” is the other one, etc.) but it requires serious concentration. That’s for consonants. Vowels are harder.

    In contrast, an English speaker mainly has to pay attention that they only use Japanese vowels, and then put the emphasis and intonation in the right place. It’s objectively easier.

    It’s the grammar and the writing system that make Japanese hard to learn. The pronunciation is actually pretty easy.

  17. Ran says:

    Considering the content of this article is a topic on which I’ve had more than one argument with other anime fans, thank you for providing a succinct article I can link to.

    The first time I encountered the concept of how a translation alters the nature of a story had to be back in college when I got my hands on a copy of Devilman Lady (Devil Lady for the English dub). I watched the series the first time subtitled, then watched it again dubbed a short time later. I recalled thinking to myself, ‘here is a story with two separate and distinct flavors’, such was the difference in translation between sub and dub. It’s what turned me into one of those, ‘hey that’s not quite what they meant when they said [blank]’ people you mentioned in your article. I still liked each version, but I could better see how difference in opinion that lead to differences in translastion.

    In reference to what we can learn from the past with translation, the most memorable sad facepalm moment of my anime experience was the English dub of Sailor Moon S. If you’re going to change the sex of a character, remember to remove the scene where they take off their shirt…. I’m given to believe not many good decisions went into that translation.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I can’t help but feel that I need to cut Crunchyroll a little slack, I mean they produce a lot of their stuff in a few hours (and probably on a small budget)

    after the show has simulcast, they have plenty of time to fix those errors in the scripts…but they don’t.

    Sometimes they do. They fixed a few of the mistakes they made in SRW:OG:I after the show aired. They occasionally made mistakes with names – there are a pair of sisters, Mai and Aya Kobayashi, who were at one point referred to as Aya and Maya (a mistake I’ve made before myself) and they fixed that episode. So I suppose they only fix something if it’s obvious or someone complains.

  19. @Anonymous – I do give CR a lotof slack, although I sincerely doubt that they get the script after the show is simulcast and have to pound out the subtitles in one hour. That seems unlikely. It seems more likely that, as soon as the script is finalized, they get a copy (this may well be day of or day before recording) and they take it from there.

    Low budget is an obvious factor, but Quality Control is almost completely absent and no one is answerable for consistency across episodes, obviously. Someone needs to manage the subbers – give them a style sheet with spellings ahead of time, so no matter how fast they are, they can at least keep consistent.

  20. Anonymous says:

    “In my blog long ago, I once tried to explain (clumsily) that there is only one objective reference for whether something is a good translation or a bad translation — and that is whether or not a translation can possibly be derived from the source material.”

    There’s one more: whether or not a translation makes sense in the destination language.

    For example, being a translation from Japanese instead of originally in English doesn’t excuse an English-language text having typos, misspellings, worse grammar in English than the original had in Japanese, literal transliterations of words originally transliterated from English in the original (as in the Emma series’s Jones -> [text in Japanese] -> Jounes), nouns that can easily be translated into English noun phrases left untranslated and merely transliterated into Romanji instead, Japanese honorific surnames dangling off non-Japanese names in the dialogue of characters speaking non-Japanese languages in non-Japanese settings, etc.

    Not gonna link to a scanlation site, so I’m not gonna post where I saw this quoteworthy quote and I’m still not gonna take credit for it myself (having never read the Vinland Saga manga, not even a scanlation of it, myself):

    “…The ‘Thorfinn-kun’ made me pause. For like five minutes. It was the same feeling as seeing a cow trotting down a major highway. A green flying cow. Where the hell did THAT come from.

    “Westerners rank people through simple, raw dominance. And the vikings were really good at that. The mangaka did a beautiful job at displaying dominance through characters attitudes, facial expressions and even how they stood there. I didn’t need a ‘sama’ to understand who was in charge in this manga. The mangaka made SURE I didn’t need the ‘sama’. And if I was ever uncertain the mangaka gave the man (sometimes woman) a very bloody sword/ axe/ knife/ fist/ tongue to make sure the reader figured it out very quickly…”


    “although I sincerely doubt that they get the script after the show is simulcast and have to pound out the subtitles in one hour. That seems unlikely. It seems more likely that, as soon as the script is finalized, they get a copy (this may well be day of or day before recording) and they take it from there.”

    Very likely! Remember how translations of Happy Potter book 7 got released the same day as the English original? :)

  21. Anonymous says:

    “The more sophisticated a thinker you are, the more you know about the artistic, literary and cultural references, the more you have experience with language, the more you will get out of a sentence. Different audiences need different things out of a translation.”


    Soeaking of experience with the language:

    Some readers of manga are fans of everything Japanese whether it’s comics or not. The ones who can’t actually read written Japanese may do fine with a bunch of untranslated romanji, and don’t need a full translation effort in order to enjoy a Japanese book for leisure reading.

    Some readers of manga are fans of comic books whether they’re Japanese or not. They’ll struggle with a bunch of untranslated romanji, do need extra translation effort if they’re going to appreciate a manga book as much as they appreciate Maus or Persepolis, *and* this doesn’t make them any stupider or lazier than the Japanophiles (same way someone who studies Japanese a lot isn’t stupid or lazy for not having studied a lot of Russian before picking up an English translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and expecting to be able to read it).

    If you ask me, it’s not a complete translation (not talking about good or bad here, just complete or incomplete) unless it’s readable for someone who’s literate in the destination language and studied other stuff instead of the origin language.

    Incomplete translations should be marketed as learning aids for students of the origin language (whether enrolled in a class or studying it for a hobby). Marketing them as just plain regular translations is false advertising.

    Sadly for publishers, the way some readers actively reject and badmouth complete translations leaves them between a rock and a hard place:

    Make a translation as literate as possible, and lose potential customers who already read other comics like Maus, Persepolis, etc.

    Make a translation as readable as possible in the destination language, and lose potential customers who already read scanlations.

    So a publisher’s gotta decide, which potential customers would it rather lose…?

  22. Anonymous says:

    See, typos above like “Happy Potter” instead of “Harry Potter,” “literate” instead of “literal,” and so on are the kinds of sloppy English that should not make it beyond an early draft of something to be published, advertised, and sold as English books. Good thing I’m not trying to charge for my comments! :)

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