William (genkischuldich) wrote,

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? :)
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