Great, Another Japanese Honorifics Debate

Japanese Honorifics DebateYou know, I’m really getting sick of this. Here it is the year 2010 and thanks to MX Media announcing yesterday that they will stop leaving honorifics in official subtitles, now the “Japanese honorifics debate” over the retention of Japanese honorifics in subtitles roars across the Internet again. One would think we are stuck in the 1980’s when you couldn’t print Japanese manga Japanese style (right-to left vs. the Western left-to-right) because that would confuse people and you had to rewrite manga and anime adaptations because we wouldn’t want to confuse anyone. Yet in 2010, a manga that isn’t published “unflipped” is going to be shunned and railed against as is an adaptation where it is decided that things should be rewritten to appeal to a wider audience. I guess honorifics are just the bastard stepchildren.

The Arguments

I’m going to list out the arguments that are often made against leaving honorifics in subtitles or manga adaptations and my responses.

1) Leaving Japanese honorifics in the translations are confusing to some people. As such, we should do what we can to eliminate confusion.

Do you know where my first encounter with Japanese honorifics was at? Believe it or not, it was Marvel Comic’s Uncanny X-Men in 1983. (Update: My 2011 review of said comics is here.) I don’t remember exactly which issue I first noticed them used in but I know for sure they were used in issue #172. Wolverine was addressed as “Wolverine-sama” and “Logan-san,” (and I believe “Logan-sama” as well) on top of any other honorific usage for other characters. At the time, I had no clue what “san” or “sama” meant, but I was smart enough at 13 to understand that these were apparently Japanese honorifics and that they meant something, but what exactly they meant, I didn’t know (and unfortunately, Marvel didn’t provide an explanation). However, in those pre-Internet days when finding out what those honorifics meant (something I didn’t learn until 1989 when I moved to Japan) was much more difficult, it didn’t stop me from enjoying X-Men, which was my second favorite comic book to collect.

Further, I think of the 1980 miniseries Shōgun. The series creators decided to keep this very real and a lot of Japanese dialog is used, not all of which gets a translation. The main character, Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, is called “Anjin-san” by the Japanese throughout the entire series because his real name is too hard for them to pronounce. An explanation of the name is given when it is first used but never again. So, the writers apparently expected the audience to be smart enough to remember what “Anjin-san” meant from that point on and not have to have it spoon fed to them every time with a translated name like “Mr. Boat-captain.”

Honorifics were an important part of the story as at one point, Blackthorne demands a samurai address him with the “san” honorifics. During dialog, Japanese honorifics of “sama,” “dono,” and “san” were used frequently. Despite this, the miniseries had HUGE ratings and supposedly started America’s love with things like sushi.

Because the series was completely shot in Japan, the producers were able to get away with all of this since by the time the daily’s reached Hollywood, it was too late for the network executives to do anything about it. Otherwise, I can’t imagine something that deeply rooted in Japanese culture making it to the U.S. airwaves in 1980 without major changing lest the masses be confused.

Finally, I think about the recent viral clip from the insane anime Magical Witch Punie-chan where the fansubbed version of the clip was first shown on Attack of the Show and then on The Soup. Amazingly, the fact that honorifics were used in the clip hasn’t stopped it from going around the Internet and didn’t stop people from finding it outrageously funny.

So while I can understand the argument for people possibly being confused, I reject it because today we have this handy thing called the Internet and thus it is so simple and quick to become educated on things like honorifics.

2) Leaving the honorifics in subtitles or manga adaptations restricts that title from being accepted by a wider audience and prevents growth of the industry.

I read this argument, which is tied closely with argument #1, and I think, “If that’s true, how the heck has anime and manga grown so much since the 1980’s, with its biggest growth during the time when honorifics were gaining wider official use?”

TokyoPop’s biggest money making manga by far was Fruits Basket. Translated by then new translators Alethea and Athena Nibley, the twins not only retained the core honorifics, but also retained the brother/sister honorifics as well. Despite these awful, confusing, and evil Japanese things being left in the adaption, the manga went well into the mainstream with some huge sales numbers as apparently girls not normally into things like anime and manga got into this manga. And to top it all off, they had to read the book backwards! *GASP!*

Del Rey was a later entry into the manga publishing business, but they soon rocketed to the top while having an official policy to retain Japanese honorifics in all of their titles. Their cash cow, Negima!, is adapted in a very “otaku” manner (if you will) because it not only has the standard honorifics, but keeps things like “ojousama” and other fun honorifics/titles. Of course, it also keeps Latin and Greek stuff in as well and I don’t understand either language but I love the retention just the same since a translation is provided elsewhere.

I do find it interesting that on a title where Del Rey decided to drop their honorific policy (Pumpkin Scissors), they also ended up dropping that title. Not saying they are related, but I know I stopped buying after volume 3 when I realized this had to be westernized for my protection.

3) People who know Japanese honorifics can hear them when they watch an anime in Japanese and so we don’t need to include Japanese honorifics in the subtitles.

Yeah? Well, that being the case, then why is it that whenever the Japanese use “Mister” that the subtitles also contain the word “Mister?” Or for that matter, when the Japanese use French, Spanish, or German honorifics (the limit of my experience on the use of other language’s honorifics), those same honorifics are left untranslated in the English subtitles? After all, I heard the use of those honorifics as clearly as I heard the Japanese ones. By the logic of the “you can hear them” argument, if the Japanese audio said, “Miss Inverse,” then all that should be on my screen in “Inverse” since I clearly heard them say “Miss” at the start.

Further, I’ve never taken French, Spanish, or German. Somehow, certain of their honorifics are known to me without my having taken classes. How did that happen?  Oh yeah, they were retained in novels, movies, etc., and my brain magically gained an understanding of what was being said. I guess the assumption is that no one will be confused over Western honorifics, but Japanese honorifics will bring the world to an end by restoring Japanese imperialism, whereby they start World War III and defeat everyone.

Besides this, what galls me most about this argument is that it assumes that most people watching anime in Japanese are completely stupid. In fact, my understanding is that most English speaking anime fans want to watch their anime IN ENGLISH, not Japanese. The only reason we have a Japanese audio track is because supposedly 20% of us are hardcore enough to want to watch it that way. I’m pretty sure that amongst us 20%, we are intelligent enough to figure out or know what honorifics mean at a basic level. So, why not throw the hardcore fans a bone and leave the honorifics in the subtitles?

OK, but what about these titles that have been licensed but won’t have an English dub?

Well, any company that licenses an anime this way is automatically conceding that they’ve licensed a niche title, meaning only more hardcore fans will buy it. So again, leaving honorifics in isn’t going to harm the series, but if you are that worried about it, DVD’s have this amazing option that allows multiple subtitle tracks. So, you can have a Japanese-free subtitle track if you want and a track with honorifics. To me, that’s a win-win because it caters to the hardcore fans who want honorifics and the fans who oppose anything Japanese in a Japanese product.

4) All Japanese words should be translated, period. There is no excuse to not translate a term or honorific.

I love this argument because it is so easily flushed. For starters, just how many Japanese words have been imported into the English language? I checked Merriam-Websters and the number of Japanese words listed is astonishing. Here’s just a small sample of words listed in the dictionary that I actually knew.

su doku, sumo, sushi, banzai, tofu, samurai, ninja, katana, shitake (mushrooms), bushido, tsunami, shinobi, karate, judo, omakase, futon, karaoke, jujitsu, bonsai, koi, anime, manga, haiku, geisha, tempura, sensei, sake, seppuku, Zen, wasabi, soba, kendo, hibachi, dojo, kimono, hari-kiri, shogun

So, by those who use the argument that Japanese words should never be left untranslated, how do you explain so many of these evil words officially made part of the English vernacular?

Indeed, when I grew up, this notion of translating everything meant that I learned “tidal wave” instead of “tsunami.” Today, scientist reject the use of “tidal wave” because of its inaccuracy, and so now we use “tsunami” when talking about a great sea wave. We even have tsunami alerts whenever there are undersea earthquakes that could cause a tsunami.

Clearly, there are times when the original word best conveys the meaning and intent of something rather than force translating it just for this silly notion that nothing must be left untranslated.

5) Only lazy translators leave in honorifics or Japanese terms in subtitles or manga adaptations.

This is tied closely to argument #4. That being said, why is it laziness to leave an honorific in the subtitle or adaptation but ignoring an instance of honorific usage because the translator couldn’t think of a way to translate it is not?

As I mentioned in a recent interview at Western Otaku, forced translations of honorifics can sometimes work but they often don’t work all the time, leaving the translator hanging in the wind. To save time, I’m going to quote myself from that interview with two examples of this very thing.

Take the Slayers anime for my first example. There’s a female cleric character named Sylphiel who is in love with the fighter character Gourry. As such, she addresses him as “Gourry-sama.” The official translation turned this into “Gourry, darling” some of the time whenever Sylphiel appeared to just be fawning over Gourry. However, that translation does not work when Sylphiel yells “Gourry-sama!” to get his attention or in some other situation where she’s not fawning over him. In those situations, the honorific usage was simply ignored. Yet Sylphiel’s manner of addressing Gourry has not changed but in the official English translation, it has.

For example two, lets go to Slayers Next. In the episode They’re Talking About a Girl Named Zelgadiss, Gourry, Xellos, and Zelgadiss have to disguise themselves as women to enter a female-only village. The cleric Amelia always addresses Zelgadiss as “Zelgadiss-san” but the official translation has this as “Mister Zelgadiss.” Before this episode, folks could argue, “Oh, that’s a good translation so what’s the problem?” However, the “san” honorific is gender-neutral so when the group enters the village, Amelia continuing to address Zelgadiss as “Zalgadiss-san” isn’t a problem. However, the official English translation for this episode still has her saying “Mister Zelgadiss” which makes NO sense considering he and the other males are in disguise lest they be caught and punished as males in the story. If the official translation had just retained the Japanese honorific, there wouldn’t have been an issue.

As I see it, since Japanese writers use honorifics as literary devices (because lets face it, the Japanese do NOT use honorifics as extensively as they do in anime, manga, or novels), then why not leave them in for the same reasons?

Still, I marvel at the notion of how leaving a Japanese honorific in the adaptation is lazy, but choosing to ignore it (for whatever reason) is an adaptation choice. If ignoring it is an adaptation choice, then leaving it in in is also a choice.  Besides, leaving Japanese honorifics in keeps the original author’s literary device in unmolested by the desperate need to excise anything that smells of “slant-eyed gits.” *_*

6) If you leave honorifics in, you have to leave in more words as well. “ANB-san, honorifics are so sugoi desu ne?”

I find this to be an argument from people who’ve lost the argument and grasp at anything to throw into the air or muddy the waters.

We’ve already seen how many Japanese words have made it into English. Words from many other languages have done so as well, to include their honorifics. We’ve done this without shifting to speaking German, French, Spanish, or even Japanese. Japanese honorifics have been and will continue to be smoothly incorporated into English just as honorifics from other languages have been.

There are clearly times when retaining some Japanese words does make sense to me, going above and beyond the honorific debate. The term “tsunami” comes back to mind, as I mentioned earlier.

7) If you need honorifics in subtitles, you should just go learn Japanese.

I started learning Japanese not because of honorifics, but because some anime titles from the 90’s and early 2000’s took great liberties with the translations in the subtitles. As such, I was more keen on knowing what the translators were trying to shield me from.

Today, I don’t get the same sense of heavy liberties in official subtitles and with manga, translator notes work well for translators who end up taking liberties to explain how things went down in the original Japanese and why they wrote what they did.

Still, if honorifics in subtitles bother these people so much, why are they watching anime in Japanese at all? After all, one would think that when watching anime in Japanese, one is looking for a more Japanese perspective rather than the Western one received from an English dub.

As I said earlier, the anti-honorific crowd and the pro-honorific crowd can easily be appeased with a dual subtitle track.

And yeah, I guess people ARE learning some Japanese when they learn honorifics, eh? ^_~

8) Most fansubbers have stopped using honorifics so there’s no reason for official subtitles to keep honorifics either.

This is a new argument and one that took me by surprise because this is what MX International is claiming and I think that this argument is a complete and utter lie. Maybe I’m wrong though.

Fansubbing and scanlations are the main reason that so many new anime and manga fans are not only introduced to a title and the medium, but also introduced to honorifics. Now, I admit that I don’t get to sample every fansub group to see what they do with their translations, but almost every one I’ve ever downloaded had honorifics retained. I know there are likely a few groups who are staunchly anti-honorific and I know that fansub groups who tend to go for classic titles like Space Battleship Yamato or Mobile Suit Gundam seem to be anti-honorific as well.

So, unless there’s something going on that I don’t know about (and I’ll admit that this is always possible), I haven’t seen any trend by fansub groups to drop honorifics and I certainly haven’t seen this coming from scanlations.

Update (1-JAN-2014): The current trend of fansubbing is to just steal the subtitles from Crunchyroll or wherever, possibly tweaking them a bit if said group feels like spending that much time. My understanding among true fansub groups (where they do their own translating) is that some do honorifics and some don’t. What the percentages are, I haven’t a clue. I suspect it leans toward the honorific side of things.

The Reactions

Its funny that people who want honorifics retained in subtitles are considered some kind of elitist but in reality, the anti-honorific crowd is just as elitist in their opposition if not more so. I’m not going to single out anyone because I’m not looking for a fight nor anything else, but some of the stuff I’ve read is so disdainful of anyone who enjoys having the honorifics retained in subtitles or manga adaptations. Indeed, these pro-honorific fans may as well “eat shit and die” as far as the anti-honorific folks seem to be concerned (pardon the expression but some of the responses are pretty graphic like that).

One fan stated that they might drop their Crunchyroll subscription (MX Media handles Crunchyroll’s subtitles) over the loss of honorifics in the subtitles. Another fan chided this reaction as silly. I disagree.

Last year, I wrote about consumer choice and this falls into that category. If you go into Burger King to order a cheeseburger and they say, “We are out of hamburgers. How about a chicken sandwich?” what would you do? Some people would just order the chicken sandwich, but others would be rightly annoyed and go someplace else that actually had hamburgers as well as cheese to make a cheeseburger. That isn’t silly and the customer doesn’t have to support Burger King by buying the chicken sandwich when they wanted a cheeseburger.

In the same light, if a customer wants an anime his/her way and the providing company says, “not going to do it; wouldn’t be prudent,” then the customer can say, “up yours Jobu!” and walk away. It isn’t silly because as a consumer, why should we have to settle for that which we do not want?

The Solution

Fortunately, MX Media appears to be doing the right solution.

“We’re more than likely going to offer both options (why not, right?) But it just takes a little time to change the workflow.”

That was what I argued earlier because in this day and age, there’s no reason not to do both and make everyone happy. Whether it be streaming on Crunchyroll or included on a DVD/Blu-ray disc, having two sets of subtitles only makes sense to me. FUNimation used to do that back in their otaku days when they were rising to the top. Too bad that now they are on top of the world, they don’t continue to do that. 🙁

In the end, companies will do what they want and this time, it appears MX Media threw up a trial balloon much as Del Rey did years ago to see what fans would say to their censoring Negima! In both cases, the final decision was the right one and so with that in mind, I have no plans to avoid titles translated by MX Media at this time. ^_^

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43 Responses to “Great, Another Japanese Honorifics Debate”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Meh, it’s my opinion for anime that since, if you know even a little bit about the honorifics (not even necessarily Japanese grammar), you can still HEAR them, it shouldn’t be a big deal if they leave them out. I can see why it’s debated so much for manga, but I don’t see why people make a big deal about it for anime.

  2. al103 says:

    The worst part about leaving out honorifics comes when they are in place where proper English/Russian/etc would be used to and they are just omitted. I usually ignore such stuff in subs, but when I hear “N-sama” in talk with medieval Japanese noble I naturally expect to receive if not that “N-sama” in subtitles then “lord N” and just “N” make me nerdrage.

  3. ikotomi says:

    While in general, I agree with how honorifics should be presented, it’s not as clear an issue as you want it to be.

    A perhaps more illustrative example is the particular pattern, “last name-san.” Again, in some cases, it is elevated respect, and in others, just an indicator of the lack of intimacy. In cases of the latter, just referring to the first name better captures in English usage the relationship between the two people, but a person not particularly familiar with the way Japanese works is more likely to misinterpret such a casual expression to mean a lot more than it does, especially since there’s a similar pattern in English in the form of “Mr. Last Name.”

    Because the translation has to lose some aspects of the original,not only connotative meanings like honorifics but other subtle things like allusions, poetic aspects like sibilance and alliteration, trade-offs have to be made to capture what the translator believes are the most important aspects to convey. If transforming “last name+san” to just “first name” would better convey to the watcher the true relationship between the speaker and the subject, maybe that is the better choice to take; you lose the chance to take advantage of some of the subtleties of the language, but you succeed in capturing more of the original meaning in English. The importance of this shouldn’t be overlooked. When I try to get friends into anime, and they don’t know Japanese, I feel more comfortable if they are watching something that was 95% accurate with respect to meaning, as opposed to something that maybe 96% accurate if you knew Japanese, but possibly 80% accurate if you didn’t know it.

    That being said, a flat out rule doesn’t acknowledge the trade-off nature of translation, regardless of how much better it may or may not be for the average anime viewer.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You’re too fanatical, this isn’t an end-of-the-world issue.

    Point 3) is definitely valid for me, because if I can hear it I don’t need it crowding the screen.

    Honorifics in titles like your example Pumpkin Scissors that are set in the Western world are a distraction because we know these people wouldn’t actually be speaking Japanese.

    The European honorifics you mention are more often than not used to create a contrast with the “normal” American context, something that could be used in a conceptually mixed-language show or a historical show (Shogun fits both), but wouldn’t be necessary for a normal modern-day Japanese setting. When the entire story is set for example in France, I find it very unneccessary to use affected titles like Monsieur all the time, but I can accept it for historical reasons. We don’t need this habit perpetuated for new languages.

    Your “Mister Zelgadiss” is a complete strawman because the translator just handled it poorly, they should have used “Miss Zelgadiss” in that situation.

    I’m surprised you’re not also campaigning for invented genderless pronouns in English subtitles on the grounds that it would help “accurately” translate frequent gender ambiguity in Japanese sentences.

    I actually have a neutral stance towards honorifics in subtitles, but this kind of militant attitude is a big turnoff for me and an open invitation to join the opposition.

  5. AstroNerdBoy says:

    @anon — As I mentioned in the piece, if I can hear the English honorifics, then whey are they put into the subtitles? ^_~

    @Al103 — For some reason, I was reminded of an anime where a Japanese honorific was replaced with a French one in a scene. *lol*

    @Ikotomi — thanks for the input. ^_^

    @Anon — Again, if you can hear the Japanese honorifics so you don’t need them crowding the screen, then why do you need English honorifics that you can hear crowding the screen? ^_~

    As to Pumpkin Scissors, who says they don’t speak Japanese?

    I’m not saying you are wrong (and the honorific usage in Pumpkin Scissors was done as a literary device IMO), but I know that for a time, folks would argue that in Negima!, the folks in Great Britain wouldn’t use Japanese honorifics because they were in Great Britain. I argued that because they were mages, they might just do that. Indeed, I was proven right because the Magic World uses a combination of Japanese, English, Latin, and Greek. Thus the hidden mage villages in Great Britain retained the same languages, culture, and customs as the Magic World despite the fact they lived in Great Britain.

    I’m just saying is all. ^_^

    As to the “militant attitude” that makes you want to join the opposition, I guess their militant attitude against honorifics is OK then, eh? ^_~

  6. Ultimaniac says:

    @anon

    No one has a neutral stance then joins a side just cause they see someone else’s opinion. If you really don’t care about this sort of thing then just stop reading and go spend your time elsewhere. I, for one, care about this topic and COMPLETELY agree with ANB.

  7. Anonymous says:

    #@Anon — Again, if you can hear the Japanese honorifics so you don’t need them crowding the screen, then why do you need English honorifics that you can hear crowding the screen? ^_~#

    As if I said I did. But at least that’s English in English subtitles.

    #As to Pumpkin Scissors, who says they don’t speak Japanese?#

    Are you asking me to prove a negative or do you have something to indicate that they speak Japanese?

    #I’m not saying you are wrong (and the honorific usage in Pumpkin Scissors was done as a literary device IMO), but I know that for a time, folks would argue that in Negima!, the folks in Great Britain wouldn’t use Japanese honorifics because they were in Great Britain. I argued that because they were mages, they might just do that. Indeed, I was proven right because the Magic World uses a combination of Japanese, English, Latin, and Greek. Thus the hidden mage villages in Great Britain retained the same languages, culture, and customs as the Magic World despite the fact they lived in Great Britain.#

    So in other words maybe in Pumpkin Scissors the hidden Japanese countries of Europe retained their mother language? Do you think this example is generally applicable?

    Let’s take Gunslinger Girl. I don’t think there’s any doubt even in your mind that it’s meant to be set in Italy and the characters would be speaking Italian. There’s zero reason to use Japanese honorifics in such a show. Some Italian ones, maybe.

    Your argument is similar to demanding that whenever an American movie has a foreign setting, all actors should be speaking English with a completely inauthentic badly affected foreign accent for “realism”. Few things ruin the mood for me more than this kind of nonsense.

    #As to the “militant attitude” that makes you want to join the opposition, I guess their militant attitude against honorifics is OK then, eh? ^_~#

    Enough with the strawmen already… Why should I have to support absolutist demands from either side?

    I noticed you stopped short of starting a campaign for the invented genderless pronouns I suggested for optimal Japanese experience. Why wouldn’t you want to have that?

  8. Anonymous says:

    #@anon

    No one has a neutral stance then joins a side just cause they see someone else’s opinion. If you really don’t care about this sort of thing then just stop reading and go spend your time elsewhere. I, for one, care about this topic and COMPLETELY agree with ANB.#

    No offense, but this is not constructive. It’s not that difficult to understand that I was talking about being driven to sympathize with the position of the opposing side in the debate, not completely changing my own stance. Call me a swing voter if you like. While a lot of ANB’s post made sense, a lot of it was based on strawmen and other questionable logic. It definitely didn’t provide enough justification for his absolutist attitude.

    Also, it’s not possible for anyone to COMPLETELY argee with someone else’s post when it’s this long. If you want to support him, you can to it without unhelpful exaggeration.

  9. Zachary says:

    AstroNerdBoy, the problem with this article is that you have no need to win a shouting match with naysayers in an attempt to show that what you prefer is better. You simply need to show that you want it, and more importantly, that a great number of others also want it.

    MX Media is a translation company.

    Translation. Demands knowledge of Japanese far beyond that of most of us discussing here telling them how. Requires the ability to come up with a product that is both faithful to the original and palatable to the audience. Can produce versions with all, with some, or without any honorifics, and do so regardless of what the translators might personally prefer.

    Company. In the business of making money for themselves and their clients. Would not deliberately alienate or exclude a significant portion of their now and future customers. Is no doubt aware of the “vocal minority” phenomenon and inclined to use more reliable metrics than rage and ranting on either side of the fence.

    So you see, they can do one, the other, or both. Easily. They don’t need convincing. They only need to be shown the money.

  10. AstroNerdBoy says:

    If people mean the arguments I placed into the article against honorific usage were “straw men,” you guys are mistaken badly. Everything I put there are things I’ve had thrown at me over the years on why honorifics shouldn’t be in subtitles. So if these arguments are indeed straw men, then the people in opposition to honorific usage are making them.

    Are you asking me to prove a negative or do you have something to indicate that they speak Japanese?

    Well, it was made in Japan with Japanese voices speaking in Japanese. ^_~

    I noticed you stopped short of starting a campaign for the invented genderless pronouns I suggested for optimal Japanese experience. Why wouldn’t you want to have that?

    That’s argument #6 against honorifics. ^_~

    @Zachary — I think that there’s plenty of evidence that honorifics are not detrimental to business. I cited two instances in my piece but FUNimation’s rise to the top came with a dual subtitle track, one with honorifics and one without (and based on the English dub).

    Regardless, MX Media clearly threw up a trial balloon much as Del Rey did years ago and now have made a business decision that is a win-win as I see it.

  11. junior says:

    There’s a lot that I’ll allow leeway for when discussing what should and shouldn’t be in a translation, but honorifics are one thing that I think should always stay. The reason for that is straightforward enough – they convey subtleties that might be otherwise lost on Western viewers. A character changing the honorific used to refer to another character can be a VERY important plot point. If the translators leave out the honorifics, then the readers/viewers are unaware of the change. If the translaters are using another word instead, then change or lack of the honorific’s substitute doesn’t carry anywhere near the weight that the honorific change does.

    The honorifics used can also provide insight into the character using the honorific. One impomrtant case in point is Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo. An important aspect of her character is the fact that she doesn’t use any honorifics at all. A translater leaving out or “translating” the honorifics ends up ignoring this aspect of her character.

    There are enough subtleties as it is when dealing with a foreign language – even before you start talking about honorifics. For instance, in Gundam 00, a rather effeminate male character suddenly used the term ‘boku’ to refer to himself. This is a term typically used by boys, and thus it’s sudden usage by the character in question was notable (given his effeminate nature). The translater didn’t make a note of it, so it sailed right over the heads of my friends. But when I pointed it out they agreed that it was an interesting point regarding the character.

    Given that there are already subtleties – such as ‘boku – that we’re going to miss no matter what, why fail to have the things that can be included with minimal intrusion into the translation?

  12. jeff-morris says:

    I’ve come around to the honorifics side over time. It can be a critical clue as to the relationship between two people, especially as it evolves over time. I’m trying to remember how the Miyabi-Kaoru relationship in Ai Yori Aoshi evolved, but I could swear at some point she changed from -san to -dono in reference to him.

    I really don’t see why it’s such a big deal to include them in the translation. Sheesh, God forbid people learn something about another culture’s mores along the way…

  13. arimareiji says:

    To me, arguing that subtitle honorifics aren’t needed because you can hear them is gratuitous. Aren’t these often the same people who argue against subtitles at all on the grounds that they’re a “distraction”? How much more of a distraction is it to have to focus on listening in one language, reading another, and watching action all at the same time?

    In years past, I saw a horror movie in which the Evil Doctor was chiding the Wishy-Washy Doctor for being uncomfortable with wildly violating the Hippocratic Oath. I was barely conversant with honorifics at that point, but still recognized the contemptuous insinuation of immaturity when ED referred to WWD as “WWD-kun“.

    I’d have missed it if I hadn’t been listening closely, because he (falsely) continued to call him “Dr. WWD” in the subtitles. But it was a major point in understanding why WWD reluctantly backed down. And not only was no good English equivalent provided, I don’t think there is one.

    Is that a solid enough example?

  14. Mountain Lily says:

    You make a strong case, AstroNerdBoy. Can you think of any circumstances where omitting the Japanese honorifics in anime subtitles would be justified or even preferable? Just curious.

  15. hughroe says:

    I prefer Japanese with subtitles, but then again, I prefer a German movie being in German with subtitles, A Russian movie in Russian, u.s.w. so I am generally able to catch the honorifics by ear.

    That said…

    I noticed you stopped short of starting a campaign for the invented genderless pronouns I suggested for optimal Japanese experience.

    2 points that come to mind:

    1) Honorifics are not “invented”.

    2) That word you use “genderless”, it means without gender, in English that is how many of the pronouns are (I, you, they, them, we, me, u.s.w.) Japanese is not.

  16. Master says:

    Sorry to butt in here, but…

    2) That word you use “genderless”, it means without gender, in English that is how many of the pronouns are (I, you, they, them, we, me, u.s.w.) Japanese is not.

    I see what you did there, but I’m pretty sure he or she meant something to substitute for “he” and “she” ^_^

    I believe words like “watashi” and “anata” are also without gender, so what do you mean Japanese is not? I’ve also heard girls use “boku” and “kimi” used in addressing men, so I think you may be confusing gender with usage patterns.

  17. junior says:

    ——————
    I’ve also heard girls use “boku” and “kimi” used in addressing men, so I think you may be confusing gender with usage patterns.
    ——————

    Every single source that I’ve heard from on this topic – and I’ve seen it brought up multiple times – has mentioned that ‘boku’ is primarily used by boys. And I’ve heard that stated repeatedly. So I’m pretty confident on this one.

    Of course, that word ‘primarily’ isn’t absolute, which might be why you’ve heard females using it. It’s also possible that usage patterns are changing somewhat, since attitudes toward gender differences have shifted over the last few decades.

    Note also that since ‘boku’ means the first person singular, it wouldn’t make much sense to let the gender of the person being spoken to (i.e. NOT the person being referred to) determine whether or not to use it.

  18. Master says:

    @junior

    I don’t see what that has to do with the point I was making. hughroe’s list included first and second person pronouns and he seems to believe that these have gender in Japanese. “Primarily used by” has nothing to do with having grammatical gender.

  19. AstroNerdBoy says:

    @Junior — It was TM!R that caused me to become an honorific supporter. I remember True Sheol and I discussing this once and I had noticed that Tenchi only addresses one person without an honorific — Ryoko. From there, I began examining the honorific usage in the series and noticed a lot such as Washu’s use of the “dono” honorific. I believe this was translated for Tenchi as “Lord Tenchi” (and then, not always IIRC) but that’s not right. Washu is giving Tenchi great respect by addressing him as “Tenchi-dono” but she’s not elevating Tenchi above her status. Etc.

    @Jeff — I’m not 100% certain if Miyabi started with the “san” honorific or not. However, as you already know, her use of “dono” is to acknowledge Kaoru’s importance to Aoi. The interesting thing is that by addressing him as “Kaoru-dono,” she does not elevate Kaoru above her station while she addresses Aoi as “Aoi-sama.”

    I need to rewatch the anime and read the manga. ^_^

    @arimareiji — To me, arguing that subtitle honorifics aren’t needed because you can hear them is gratuitous.

    As I always say, I can hear the English honorifics when they are used but amazingly, those will appear in the subtitles 100% of the time (at least in my experience).

    @Mountain Lily — One of the reasons I want honorifics on ALL anime subtitles is because I’m looking for the Japanese perspective. The only reason I watch anime in Japanese at all is to help gain that perspective. Since honorifics are used as literary devices, then I want them kept.

    @Hugh — I don’t watch that many foreign movies but when I do, I’m the same way. The last non-Japanese one I watched was Chinese (can’t remember the name off the top of my head) and I remember wondering what Chinese honorifics were dropped. ^_^;;;

    @Master — Regarding “boku,” my first Japanese teacher required the guys to use “boku” and the females to use “watashi” when referring to themselves. She absolutely hated the fact that modern Japanese society has blurred the usage of those pronouns. She also hates how the honorific “sensei” is used so much more commonly now.

  20. Kaworu says:

    Since you have this whole thing figured out and subtle nuances are important, how should the distinction between minna and mina-san be translated in your opinion? For example, when Tony Stark addresses the crowd with “Hajimemashite, Nippon no mina-san!” in the new Iron Man anime, should the translation use “all-san of Japan”, “all Japanese-san”, or something else? Playing by your own rules, you must keep the honorific in your answer, so options like “people of Japan” or “my Japanese friends” are out. You have the opportunity to really make a difference here, I know many translators would love to have a universally applicable answer to this.

  21. Sensei (not Master) says:

    ANB: Your teacher must have loved how you always add sensei to popular authors who aren’t your teachers or masters, like Akamatsu-sensei and Fujishima-sensei :p

  22. arimareiji says:

    Kaworu: Answering your question with a question, exactly what word would you use to always translate “y’all” into standard English without losing any of the nuances of a given situation? (You know, since words never depend on their context for meaning.)

  23. Kaworu says:

    Kaworu: Answering your question with a question, exactly what word would you use to always translate “y’all” into standard English without losing any of the nuances of a given situation? (You know, since words never depend on their context for meaning.)

    Should I pass your question on to AstroNerdBoy or throw it back at you, since you guys are the ones who think that having Japanese honorifics in subtitles fixes all that? To be fair I’m not 100% sure about you, but he clearly does.

    What you should understand is that my argument is not against keeping the honorifics, it’s the simplified view that this solves all and without it all is lost that I don’t get. I think my example demonstrates that there are cases where you quite simply cannot keep the honorific without having the audience roll their eyes.

    Don’t let Arimareiji’s interjection keep you from answering my question, AstroNerdBoy.

  24. arimareiji says:

    @Kaworu: My question was carefully written to be just as valid and probative as yours. If you’re going to facetiously ask for a universally-applicable translation, knowing no such thing exists, you shouldn’t be surprised to have your question called out as a straw man.

    I can’t speak for ANB, but my objection is to the fact they were talking about discarding honorifics altogether. Are there some examples of honorifics that would be confusing? Of course there are; one of my favorite webpages even mocks such an example. (See the 10th fansub screencap.) But the fact that there are some is a ridiculous argument to use in support of throwing them ALL out.

    As far as expecting ANB himself to personally answer you goes, you might want to review the disclaimer under “Leave your comment”, immediately above the text field. There’s a good chance he will, but there’s also a good chance it’ll take him a while. You’re unlikely to get the immediate answer you seem to want.

  25. ANB is out of town on business. So it may be a day or two before he gets to commenting, depending on if he gets to check the blog or not.

  26. Kaworu says:

    @Kaworu: My question was carefully written to be just as valid and probative as yours. If you’re going to facetiously ask for a universally-applicable translation, knowing no such thing exists, you shouldn’t be surprised to have your question called out as a straw man.

    The comment about universality was not part of the question, as I’m sure you’ll notice if you reread my comment. You can call it facetious if you like, but don’t tell me it was undeserved after some of what he’s been saying.

    I can’t speak for ANB, but my objection is to the fact they were talking about discarding honorifics altogether. Are there some examples of honorifics that would be confusing? Of course there are; one of my favorite webpages even mocks such an example. (See the 10th fansub screencap.) But the fact that there are some is a ridiculous argument to use in support of throwing them ALL out.

    If you can’t speak for him then don’t, how’s that? Everything AstroNerdBoy has said so far implies that he wants them all in no matter what, which is a no less ridiculous proposition. I never said all should be thrown out. If you find MX Media’s argumentation ridiculous, remember that they’re ridiculous people on a mission to safeguard you from every least bit of Japanese culture.

    As far as expecting ANB himself to personally answer you goes, you might want to review the disclaimer under “Leave your comment”, immediately above the text field. There’s a good chance he will, but there’s also a good chance it’ll take him a while. You’re unlikely to get the immediate answer you seem to want.

    I did not specify a timeframe for the answer. I only reiterated because I didn’t want him to think your “gotcha” interjection bailed him out. He can always choose to not answer, and I in turn am free to make certain assumptions should he not.

  27. arimareiji says:

    @Kaworu: “If you can’t speak for him then don’t, how’s that?”

    I didn’t. I clearly noted that I was speaking only for myself, and then proceeded to articulate my own feelings on the matter.

    You might want to ask yourself what you hope to achieve here, if anything, before continuing to harangue ANB. As for myself, I wish you a good day. In my experience, the point at which someone starts routinely and willfully misunderstanding you is the point at which productive discourse has ended.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure it’s easier for translators to leave the honorifics untouched, so if they want to do the extra work of translating them, they must have a good reason for that and we should try to understand it before we attack them. That said, I prefer subtitles with honorifics because I can’t always catch them by ear and they show important stuff about relationships. Then again I’ll pick a nicely flowing translation without honorifics over a half-assed one with honorifics anytime.

  29. Kaworu says:

    I didn’t. I clearly noted that I was speaking only for myself, and then proceeded to articulate my own feelings on the matter.

    The only problem with this is that you’re also acting as AstroNerdBoy’s proxy and providing him with an excuse to not participate, because you have already “dealt with” the issue. This may well not be deliberate on your part, but it works out that way. The fact is I have no problem with your much more reasonable position and would never have brought up this issue with you, so your involvement here has been a waste of your time and mine.

    You might want to ask yourself what you hope to achieve here, if anything, before continuing to harangue ANB. As for myself, I wish you a good day. In my experience, the point at which someone starts routinely and willfully misunderstanding you is the point at which productive discourse has ended.

    “Routinely and willfully misunderstanding”? Would this apply to me or to someone who first proposed that a tacked on tongue in the cheek remark somehow made a strawman out of a completely legitimate and specific question preceding it; and then proceeded to charge me with unreasonably pushing for an immediate answer, which has now graduated into claiming “haranguing”. If not for your interference, I would never have made these subsequent posts you now use to indict me.

    What I would like from AstroNerdBoy is some viable ideas on how to make these types of situations work under his strict standard, or an admission that there are legitimate reasons for omitting at least some of the honorifics.

  30. AstroNerdBoy says:

    @Sensei — *lol* She never told me to stop. I think when lawyers started being addressed as “sensei,” she had a problem with that. That said, she from the post World War II generation and so at 70+, she was raised a certain way on honorifics and pronouns and so she taught class that way. I learned a lot from her.

    @Frank — thanks to you and TR for doing the extra work while I was away. ^_^

    @Kaworu — Congratulations on being the first to elevate the #6 argument to a new level. I’m not sure why no one has ever thrown “mina-san” at me before. Wait, I do know why — its because I’ve always been talking about addressing people with honorifics and keeping them in the subtitles, which most subtitle-watchers won’t mind and many would prefer.

    Besides, your premise assumes I have some “strict” policy on honorifics when I do not and never have. How does that saying go — there’s an exception to every (almost) rule? However, if it makes you feel better to believe that I’m spouting some strict orthodoxy then who am I to dissuade you. ^_~

  31. Hikaru says:

    This was a long read, but a very good explanation of why we need honorifics. There’s only one important point I strongly disagree with. Unlike you I don’t feel entitled to skip buying and pirate anime just because the company did some small thing I didn’t like. I hate it when people go looking for excuses to pirate, because you can almost always find some fault if you want, like the video or audio quality isn’t good enough or there’s only one subtitle track or some extra is missing. I would still buy the anime even without honorifics because supporting the anime creators is more important for me than finding fault with what the licensor did.

  32. AstroNerdBoy says:

    I understand what you are saying, but I only support companies that do it my way. By the train of thought you state, I should go into Burger King and support the business even if they stop selling Whoppers with cheese. I won’t do it. There may be some things that I would continue to support but it would be the exception, not the rule, especially in these tough economic times.

    BTW, I do buy stuff that doesn’t have honorifics in the subtitles as my insanely large anime collection will attest to. ^_^

  33. Hikaru says:

    I think that’s different because Burger King makes the burgers themselves and if you don’t buy it’s them who will suffer. If you don’t buy because the US licensor didn’t release it precisely the way you like, you’re hurting the Japanese creators who make anime because of something that’s totally not their fault. In that case you should buy R2 and then you can combine it with subs from fansubbers to have the result you want. Your article sounded to me like you don’t buy without honorifics and you’re telling people not to buy. If you watch a fansub and you don’t buy it when it comes out officially that’s piracy.

  34. AstroNerdBoy says:

    I think that’s different because Burger King makes the burgers themselves and if you don’t buy it’s them who will suffer

    Wrong. *lol* Farmers raise the cattle that form the basis of both the burger and the cheese to say nothing of the farmers who provide the potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, etc. So if I decide to not eat at a place because they won’t do it my way, then that is consumer choice.

    Ditto an anime company. If they don’t do it my way when they could easily do it, then they are only hurting themselves because I don’t have to buy from them, period.

  35. Hikaru says:

    Wth are you talking about, farmers have so many more things they can do with their produce and they don’t have to sell to BK, but anime licensors are very few and if one if them has already licensed the title it can’t be given to someone else just because they don’t do honorifics properly. Farmers have already been fully paid for their produce by the time you would eat it at BK but if you don’t buy anime the creators won’t get their share of the sale. No one can make you buy if you choose not to but if you watch fansubs and then don’t buy because of honorifics or other small details it’s piracy and I’m against that on principle.

  36. AstroNerdBoy says:

    The sponsors pay for anime to get it on TV and then in Japan, the marketing of products makes it profitable. So, anime is paid for in Japan. When a license is purchased, the licensee is paid, just as you pay for a license for things like your operating system or other software.

    So, my analogy holds as I see it. ^_~

    Still, if I lend out my anime collection to hundreds of people so that they may experience the joys of anime, is there a difference in that and piracy? Hollywood doesn’t think so though fortunately the courts disagree.

  37. Hikaru says:

    The Japanese would be fools if they licensed their stuff without getting a percentage of the sales so I’m positive some of my purchase goes to them. Now is recession time and not every anime is profitable in Japan. I’m not judgemental so if you want to find excuses to skip out feel free, but I have my standards about not pirating anime and I’m sticking to them. I’m not doing it because of all the self-serving stuff RIAA and MPAA suits say but because I want to support anime creators. Even though I’d very much like to have them, the honorifics aren’t that important in the big picture.

  38. I know this is old as hell but here’s my reply:

    I want my honorifics! I can hear them and THAT is why I want them. They do make a difference in how a character is treating someone’s name but I mostly want them because I hear it and it messes me up that it isn’t there. I will always prefer more direct translations as I find myself learning more Japanese (because I enjoy it) so I’ve ended up in a situation where I can here quite a few words or phrases and understand them. Sentence structure is starting to really get on my nerves as I find myself able to understand more and more.
    Honestly, at his point I’d rather learn the language and watch with no subs at all since so many of the shows I’ve seen in the last 5 years have been taking a lot more liberties with their translations.

    • AstroNerdBoy says:

      I know this is old as hell but here’s my reply…

      Not everyone sees an article when I post it, so I leave comments open for those who come by said articles later in the game. ^_^

      Honestly, at his point I’d rather learn the language and watch with no subs at all since so many of the shows I’ve seen in the last 5 years have been taking a lot more liberties with their translations.

      Yeah, that was part of the reason I started learning Japanese, though I haven’t gone as far as I would have preferred (mostly my fault).

  39. rascal says:

    Great artice, I agree with you 100%. I’m really sick of those shitty translations without honorifics and with localised context nowadays. I added reference to your writing in my blog (but my blog is in Polish).

  40. Progeusz says:

    Logical fallacies all over the place, wow.

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