A guide to navigating the jungles of media translation.
How to avoid direct translation traps, handle tricky false friends,
squeeze text into tight spots and more in manga, anime, and games.
This is the summary of a talk I did for Michigan State University’s 2022 Japanese Popular Culture & Transmedia Translation Workshop series.
Note: Some content has been changed slightly because I couldn’t use all the references I used in the original talk.
Word-level Pitfalls in Media Translation
In translation you have the word-level (lexical) pitfalls and the sentence-level (syntax) pitfalls. Let’s start at the word level.
Don’t Trust False Friends
On the word level you can easily fall for the trap of false friends. These are words that seem like one language, but actually have a different nuance or meaning in the language they’re used in.
Such as “magasin” in French, which might seem like the English word “magazine” but actually means “shop”.
When it comes to Japanese this mostly applies to 和製英語 (waseieigo). These are Japanese-language expressions based on English words, or parts of word combinations, that do not exist in standard English or at least differ in meaning from the words they were derived from.
Here are some of the most common 和製英語 which can trip a translator up. (The far right column is a more natural translation of the nuance of the original Japanese.)
You can use a few tricks to avoid false friends.
- Use JP-EN dictionaries like Jisho.org and double check #sentences. This shows you how waseieigo are used in context.
- Check Weblio.jp or a similar JP-JP dictionary for the Japanese definition.
- Google images will show you the images associated with that term.
Dictionary Definitions Can Be Wrong
Japanese words can also be tricky as they might not always be used in a way the dictionary defines them. This is the difference between donotation and connotation.
Denotation vs. Connotation
– Detonation – the direct meaning (dictionary definition) of a word.
– Connotation – the secondary meaning (people’s interpretations) of a word.
Take the word 部屋（へや）for example.
– Detonation: room
– Connotation: room / apartment / place
The denotation of 部屋 in Japanese is “room” but the connotation can often be “apartment”. I’ve even seen veteran translators fall for this pitfall in literary novels when someone’s 2LDK apartment is referred to as a “room”. This is a mistranslation because out Western perceived image of a “room” (a single space) is different from the Japanese perception of 部屋 (an apartment, maybe with many rooms).
How do you deal with these?
- Gut instinct and common sense. If something seems “off” in English double check it!
- Double check by quickly researching (Google). Look things up in English and Japanese to get an idea of their usage in that context.
- Ask colleagues for sanity check. There are always fellow translators around who can help if you’re unsure of the meaning of a word in a particular context.
It’s incredibly important you know what’s going on.
If you don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on, neither will the reader of your translation.
Hone these instincts by reading / playing / watching a wide variety of Japanese media.
Sentence-level Pitfalls in Media Translation
The second pitfall is on the sentence level. Japanese and English sentences are structured very differently and have different rules when it comes to the order/frequency of information and punctuation.
Don’t Get Caught Up By Japanese Sentence Structures!
In Japanese we all know the subject or topic of the sentence comes at the start, followed by time, place, object, and verb at the end. Of course this isn’t the same in English and the items in the sentence tend move around a little.
But there’s something…off about the above sentence… It seems correct but it doesn’t read quite naturally.
The problem is many Japanese to English translators fall for the time trap.
Time often goes at the start of Japanese sentences but, although not grammatically incorrect, time at the start of an English sentence is incredibly unnatural. (You can put them at the start but more often than not, time should go at the end.)
In English time should go next to the place and never between the verb and object.
One other reason it’s easy to fall for this trap is because of the use of commas in Japanese when a particle isn’t used. Which is related to the next trap…
You Don’t Need to Directly Translate Punctuation
It’s incredibly tempting to match the punctuation in the translation to the punctuation in the original text. However…
You do not need to directly translate punctuation.
This is because punctuation is used differently between cultures! Directly translating punctuation can lead to awkward English and mistranslations.
In Japanese commas are used to indicate a missing particle (such as with non-specific time words like 「明日、」「最近、」「先日、」etc.) They are also used to separate clauses.
In English, commas are used differently. Their usage can change the nuance of the sentence. This is a great article from Grammarly which explains the correct and incorrect uses of commas in English.
They also act like speed bumps, and periods are like stop signs, both slow readers down. So you want to use them as carefully as possible.
In Japanese it’s common to have questions or phrases which hang in the air, implying there’s more to be said. Japanese people can easily guess what these unsaid phrases are.
「すみません、道が迷っているけど．．．」”Excuse me, I’m lost but…” But what? In Japanese they’re asking for directions, in English they’re saying they’re lost.
This often results in translations using a lot of ellipses but in English ellipses are used to indicate,
- Missing words.
- A pause for effect.
- An unfinished sentence/thought.
So a sentence like 「誰、おまえ…？」might be fine in Japanese, but in English “Who are you…?” is incorrect because it’s a complete sentence. It should be “Who are you?” But if you wanted to match the tone of the original and indicate hesitation you could translate it to “Who…are you?” which would be more natural in English.
Japanese also likes to use multiple ellipses to exaggerate something shocking. But it’s really weird in English to use …… or even ……… and an abundance of these can clutter the page and make it hard to read. Cut those down to just … or remove them entirely. If a character is surprised 「……!!」 change this to just exclamation marks, “!!!”.
Note: It’s common in Japanese to have two exclamation !! or question marks ?? but in English it’s more natural to use one ! ? or two !! ??.
Square Quotes and Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are also used differently in Japanese! And the ones translators always fall for are the square quotes かぎかっこ.
In Japanese these 「」 square quotes are used to indicate when someone is talking, a direct quote, or for highlighting or emphasizing a keyword or short phrase.
In English “ ” quotation marks are used signify someone talking, a direct quote, OR when presenting dubious information.
From Complete English Punctuation Rules: Perfect Your Punctuation and
Instantly Improve Your Writing (The Farlex Grammar Book 2)
So when a Japanese sentence highlights or emphasizes a word using 「」 and the English translation uses “ ”, the translation can come off sounding arrogant or insincere. It can risk making the original speaker or author sound stupid, or make it sound like they think the audience is stupid.
When 「」 are used for emphasis you can instead use bold or italics or nothing at all in the English translation.
Note: Some companies have specific style guides for translating punctuation.
Always stick to the style guide for any company you work for. (Even if you don’t agree with it.)
Don’t Get Snagged by Segments
In manga and video game translation you often get text separated into segments. Manga are separated into panels and bubbles, while video game translation is separated into strings. Even literature and light novels are separated into sentences, which can trip translators up.
The reason this is a pitfall is because it’s tempting to stick to the structure of each tiny segment.
Let’s take this translation. If you were to translate each string separately you might end up with something like this,
But that’s not how the player will read each line! They’ll read it as a full flowing sentence. So how would that sound if you wrote this out like a normal sentence?
This has all the same information as the original but with the information shifted a little to smooth over the whole section and make it easier to read.
This applies to manga too when a single thought can span over a few speech bubbles!
To get out of this pitfalls make sure you,
- Read the whole segment (page, scene, section), not individual lines.
- Make the conversation flow across all cells/the whole page.
- It’s OK to move information/words to improve readability.
- It’s also OK to combine sentences together if it improves the readability in English!
Sometimes You Need to Cut the Fat
Sometimes trying to fit every single word from the Japanese into the English can cause your translation to get bloated and wordy.
Text that’s too wordy can be hard to fit into manga text bubbles, hard to fit the text in the UI or text boxes in games, and wordy for novels means it becomes really…wordy.
Overly wordy, or verbose (if we’re being fancy) translations, makes a text more difficult to read. Prioritize the “end-user’s” (your audience!) experience. Cut out the fat.
This means conveying all the information in the Japanese in the English in the most succinct way.
Let’s take the sentence 「話をするのは簡単だが、実際に作るとなるとそうもいかない。」
Which could be translated to, “It was easy to talk about, but not so simple when it came to actually making them.”
But if we wanted to cut the fat we can take this 17 word sentence and condense it to, “It was easier said than done.”
You can tell if a translation is too wordy by proofreading your translation. However, overly editing can impact the translation in a negative way too! So you want to use your common sense, gut instinct, and a few tricks.
- Read it out loud.
- Use text to speech tools.
- Print the translation / change the font / change the width.
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