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18 July 2008 @ 23:59
Seven Words You Can't Say On Livejournal: Anime, Translation and the F Word  

This is for Penknife's TV Tropes Challenge and I'm writing about a trope described as Cluster F Bomb (NSFW). Somehow, it swerved off into a discussion on when and why to use the f word in translations and fanfic in a fandom where the source material almost never uses it. Or not. And then even more on translating anime. Then, well, it turned into me being drunk after a compulsory all-you-can-drink drinking party and trying to finish it on time anyway.

This essay will set off your profanity filtering software because I'm going to start using the actual words in question under the cut. You've been warned.

Pretentious Opening Quote

大徳の糞 ひりおわす 枯野かな

His Eminence the Abbot is shitting on the withered moor.

Buson, as translated by R.H. Blyth.

I like combining the assumed high-brow qualities of haiku with the word 'shit'. And so did Buson. But the quote also has another purpose. In the Japanese, the word fun is equal in meaning, but not strength, to 'shit'. Blyth has observed that the function of this haiku is to contrast two apparently opposing ideas and unite them. He's made a deliberate decision to use this particular phrasing.

Don't worry, we'll get to anime soon.

Seven Words You Can't Say On Livejournal

It's often been said that Japan is an extremely polite country because things that are rude over here wouldn't bother a typical Westerner. This is, of course, rubbish as it's a two-way street.

In other words, different things get us riled. Culturally, we insult different features and flaws. In Britain, a diatribe against a person using clever metaphors is frequently preferred to using swear words, unless you're really creative in their use. Or forthright. Or in a British romantic comedy written by Richard Curtis. Meanwhile, in Japan, you can piss someone off by using the wrong register.

'Register' basically means using the right language for the right situation. For example, using plain form or basic polite form to your boss when you should have been using super-polite forms. (Luckily any such incidents tonight will be forgiven because I drank over ten umeshu rock in a 90 minute all-you-can-drink session. Where in the West could you say 'I talked down to my boss, but it was okay because I was drunk'? Two way street, man.)

When anime characters charge through the air screaming 'kisamaaaa', they are simply saying 'you' in an impolite register and 'bastard' is an accurate and frequent translation. But what about for fanfic? Are we listening to what the characters might say in Japanese and writing down a translation in English? Or are we thinking of them in Western terms and writing them according to how the scanlations and subs worked out?

This raises a few questions. For a start, if a character is portrayed as swearing, what are they really saying? It's a big issue in characterisation. When a character says 'fuck', it adds extra information to our impression of his or her character. How can we know whether it was strength of language, basic meaning or commerical reasons that were behind that word being translated as it was?

There may also be characters that talk about things that should be taboo, but are not so in Japan. Take the obsession with 'unko'. Tiny, adorable, collectible, plastic... poo. Poo that can be hung on your mobile phone or decorate your pencil case. Fun for all ages!

...Moving on.

Canon Fucks

We have one canon case of characters saying 'fuck' in Weiss Kreuz! Yes, we do!

Well, kind of. Tsuchiya Kyouko-sensei's timeline as portrayed in "An Assassin And White Shaman" doesn't really exist anymore. And it's Nagi. Which is interesting, because he's not the first character I would have thought of. Youji, yes. Ken, yes. Maybe Crawford and Schuldig. Nagi, not so much. It suggests to me that, as he says it on a mission with Schuldig, he's trying hard to fit into the group, particularly since he seems to be new (he's scared of Farfarello). It also says that he's a pretty international boy who knows a little English. Bearing that in mind, should I write only Nagi as the one that swears?

There isn't really much opportunity for swearing. In Japan, there are three basic TV slots for anime. Early morning (kids), early evening (kids and teens) and late night (otaku). Even late at night, there is nothing that I can imagine being similar in strength to 'fuck'. That's saved for the OAVs.

Linguistically, a character who speaks Japanese isn't able to, say, use 'fuck' as an infix (placing it inside a word -- e.g. whoop-dee-fucking-doo), so it's not really natural for it to turn up in a translation. But what about a fanfic?

In Fanfic

There are a number of reasons why commercial subs and translations may not be completely accurate or may not work for certain people. As a Brit, I'm always thrown by peculiarly American phrases said by Japanese characters. Have a look at the following sentence:

Youji lounged on the settee and sneered at Manx, who was holding a video tape. "So what's on the telly tonight? Anything good?"

Did anything strike you as odd, apart from the low-quality writing? Yep, it wasn't written in American dialect -- but why should it be? The characters are speaking Japanese! Swearwords jump out at us even more than dialects that don't belong to us, so they have to be used appropriately. Otherwise they risk alienating us when they should be adding realism. If Harry Potter spoke American English in a fanfic, fans would notice. Should any one dialect be the standard for characters that speak only Japanese?


When writing anime fic, you pretty much have to invent the voice for your character and/or trust the translators to do it for you. Right? How do you create a voice for your characters? Is it based on what they DO say, or what they SHOULD say?

Do they speak your dialect?

Do they swear? :)
Daegaer: cute schuldig&crawford by ladyjaidadaegaer on 18th July 2008 18:07 (UTC)
I didn't notice Yohji wasn't speaking "standard" WK-English till you pointed it out! *hangs head*

In Gluhen - I have DVDs from Singapore - Sena says "fuck" a couple of times in the subtitles. Do you know what he says in Japanese?

When trying to get a voice for the characters, it depends on a mix of canon and an attempt at logical extrapolation for me - in my mind, Schwarz can all speak German (and while they may have been in Austria, they probably speak Hochdeutsch, not Austrian German). My evidence for this is (a) Schuldig being German, and (b) Farfarello canonically speaking German to him in AAAWS. It's only a little bit, but he holds a small conversation with his side explicitly in German. for English, Nagi can at least swear in it, as you point out (though he says something that looks like it represents "fuck", rather than being the actual word), Schuldig can speak at least enough to cheerfully wish Ran luck, it's Crawford's and Farfarello's first language (Farfarello may know some Irish, but he seems to be a city boy - his first language is English). For Weiss - Omi and Yohji can read English, though I think Yohji's meant to be better at it? Ken is rubbish at English, especially when it's spoken fast (Side B), Aya seems able to manage OK.

When writing WK fic with characters speaking in with either their natiev language or one that they seem canonically to to fairly well, I try to have Crawford speaking (my pathetic attempt at) American English, "gottens", etc and all, and though I don't signpost it often, try to have Schuldig speak English (either explicitly as English, or standing in for Japanese) the way I've heard Germans who are good at the language speak it. Farfarello is easy, as he speaks my dialect of English (though I often tone it down, the way I tone myself down when writing). Nagi speaks a sort of Irish attempt at a mix of British and American English in my fic - mainly to stop him speaking Hiberno English! Weiss do much the same. (To add vulgarity into the mix, all of Weiss and Schwarz in my fics would say "ass", except Farfarello, who says "arse").

For cursing - Yohji says "baka" a few times that I can hear, and "kuso" a few times as well, so he might swear a bit in my fics. Aya and Ken don't really swear, unless it's a comic story - the same with Omi, I don't really have him swearing much. Crawford usually doesn't swear in my fics unless he's really lost his temper, Farfarello doesn't swear enough! (I wrote one drabble where practically every word out of his mouth - about half the drabble - was swearing. That's er, more realistic for someone of his age in the company of other guys, I think. Irish people swear a lot). Schuldig swears due to his general canonical attitude, the way he shifts to "omae-ing" people once he's led them into a more politely phrased trap, and the fan translation of the Schwarz CDs I've seen, which suggests he uses "bad language", though what he says isn't translated. Nagi swears/doesn't swear depending on the story - he swears a fair amount in my "La Femme Sakura" stories (in which Sakura herself swears only right at the end), and doesn't at all in the Victorian Schwarz stories.

While I actually do think a fair bit about how the characters sound, the one I have the most trouble writing is Farfarello, even though his dialect is the most familiar to me. I sometimes cringe when writing him saying something perfectly standard and grammatical in HE (e.g., "Would you ever listen to yourself?"), and worry that it will seem nonsensical, non-grammatical, and won't immediately tell readers what it tells an Irish reader.
Williamgenkischuldich on 19th July 2008 07:29 (UTC)
Regarding Sena's fuck... no idea. I, uh, only ever watched the subbed version once. Since then, the standard Japanese releases have been more easily available so I've watched those.

I definitely think Schwarz can all speak German, although I wonder if they were doing so when shown in the CD dramas. In my personal fanon, Crawford has little grasp of English since he was taken away from America to live in Rosenkreuz at such a young age. Even so, I try to make him speak American English.

I'm taking "f**k of pit" (was that it?) as a sign that Nagi can swear. Kind of. But it really does make you think why he's the only one doing so in canon. Probably all characters would swear if pushed hard enough and part of the fun of fanfic is doing so.

I wonder about Farfarello swearing, although I obviously don't have the same experience of Ireland as you do. Wouldn't his God neurosis affect his swearing pattern in some way?

I also write how I think the characters sound, but I'm not entirely sure what I'm taking into account!
Daegaerdaegaer on 19th July 2008 12:09 (UTC)
With Farfarello, it'd make a difference when he went to Rosenkreuz. Little kids (especially from middle-class families, as it's implied he is) wouldn't swear much past kid-words. Teens would swear a lot, and by adulthood, people raised here would have a range of words that would be used more or less as simple adjectives in casual conversation. Most swear words aren't religious (though "God" is used very regularly with "Christ" as a more intensive word, not always in places where it's swearing), though one thing Farfarello almost certainly picked up at an early age (because almost everyone of every age and religious persuasion says it) is "Jesus, Mary and Joseph", which is used for indications of surprise, fright or irritation.

Nagi's swearing: it's clear what he's meant to be saying, though I find it odd that it's represented that way - would it be difficult to have swearwords printed in a manga in Japan, do you know, even if they're not in Japanese? As for why he's the one to swear - hmm. I think it has something to do with his new-boy status, like you say, and I think it has a lot to do with him being at the time a thirteen-year-old boy who wants to be like the cool older guy who's keeping him company. (Nagi or not, pretty much any thirteen-year-old boy will think any twenty-year-old hanging round with them/who lets them hang round with him is cool. He's also mirroring Schuldig to some extent in those panels: Schuldig puts on his jacket, Nagi puts on his - despite it being pretty clear that neither of them need a coat).

(Oh - in the Victorian Schwarz stories everyone speaks my attempt at 19th century British English, unless it's Crawford-in-America or Crawford-playing-up-his-Americanness, in which case he starts speaking a sort of Gone with the Wind English!)
Williamgenkischuldich on 25th July 2008 12:32 (UTC)
Thanks for the take of Farfarello's speech!

I've no idea how difficult it would be to get swearwords printed... it probably wouldn't be too difficult as a number of pop songs are filthy if you understand English. I wonder if it was bleeped out to draw attention to the fact it was a swearword?
Red Fionaredfiona99 on 19th July 2008 14:21 (UTC)
I've always wondered if they could just have people swearing in German for WK. Although German's a terrible language for swearing in (IMO).
(Deleted comment)
Williamgenkischuldich on 19th July 2008 07:34 (UTC)
Hm, French is a European language, unless I misunderstood what you wrote?

Writing the characters in a North American way is definitely an acceptable solution. Most people are relying on translations by Americans and the DVDs are packaged for a North American audience. Seems fair!

You say you don't speak Japanese, but you can still give a detailed outline of how the characters speak to you. That's interesting, I think! :)
(Anonymous) on 19th July 2008 11:28 (UTC)
Canadian French is completely different from European French. I worked at a provincial park for a few years and spoke with French tourists on occasion. I can honestly say that I had better luck understanding the Germans who came through. It's easier to get the gist of a language you don't know at all than to understand a language that should be familiar, but isn't being pronounced in any way or with any inflection you've ever heard before. My greatest failing moment was with the French couple who wanted to rent a canoe. I had to get them to draw a picture. They were not impressed XD
(Deleted comment)
Williamgenkischuldich on 25th July 2008 12:28 (UTC)
Hm, my mother loves learning French and one of her teachers was French-Canadian. They tend to use 'archaic' language (As do Americans :P), but it seems to be mutually intelligible to many people.
We're only several miles from the sunanimegoil on 20th July 2008 05:46 (UTC)
I agree with this. I only speak American English, plus a couple romance languages, and my gist of Japanese falls under very limited, so when writing fics, I use language as naturally as I can. Meaning, I'm not going to attempt British English that I'm unfamiliar with and risk it sounding ridiculous when I can use plain American English and keep the story moving and focused where I want it to: On the content, plot, and character development. I use cuss words mainly with characters that would be likely to use them, or in particularly strong situations for those who normally wouldn't. I would love to be able to accurately portray their backgrounds and speech patters, but as I know that I don't have the knowledge to do that, so I focus on the other aspects of my writing. After all, those speech mannerisms, while certainly enhancing the idiosyncrasies of the characters and adding realism, don't really affect the general feel or understanding of the characters' personalities.
ext_109169 on 18th July 2008 23:01 (UTC)
At the end of the day, I'm writing fanfiction not a literary translation. I have the boys swear because I swear, teenagers definitely swear and I'm pretty sure that, by Glühen, Ken at least would have lost touch with some of the social niceties. I probably wouldn't write them saying "telly" though. Most Japanese people I've met spoke American English (and at least one of them swore). It would seem a lot more anachronistic, therefore, to inject overtly British English into their speech than the occasional "fuck".

"Trope" is clearly the word of the week. It's been popping up in lots of places.
Williamgenkischuldich on 19th July 2008 07:43 (UTC)
It really does depend on the person's age. Japanese people used to learn British English, then it was switched to American English. Many of the English loan words are based on British English (pants, ping-pong) and so Japanese people may incorporate that into an otherwise entirely American English-based sentence.

Really? I suppose it might be because of this challenge? The site it was based on is also becoming more popular too.
ext_109169 on 19th July 2008 10:43 (UTC)
The irony being that I would never use ping-pong to refer to tabletennis!

It's one of those words you rarely see so I've been noticing it popping up, in news articles, not just on lj.
Red Fionaredfiona99 on 19th July 2008 14:20 (UTC)
Over from Penknife
This is really interesting, especially the bits about Japanese culture and that you can't do the insert words thingy.
Williamgenkischuldich on 25th July 2008 12:38 (UTC)
Re: Over from Penknife
But you can do other interesting plays on words that aren't possible in English. For example, putting kanji together so that they create a new word with a different meaning. At lunch the other day, I had a kind of mini chicken kiev with shiso leaves. The food was described as AWA ODORI -- a kind of dance at summer festivals. The actual kanji meant 'long-tailed chicken from Awa'.

I have no idea if that made sense or not!