Character voice is not accents or dialects. Although accents might play a part, character voice is instead imagining how a character would say something in a natural way given the greater context of the setting.
What words would the character use? How would they structure their sentences? What register would they speak in? What tone?
This article is about the importance of character voice in entertainment translation, and how to translate it.
Why Character Voice in Translation is Important
Character voice indicates a lot about a character and the setting to the reader. Through word choice, tone, and register, a reader can determine the character’s personality, their background, and how they fit within the world around them. Character voice provides depth to a story, it makes even fantastical stories feel real, and it makes it easier for readers to empathise with the world.
But surely this is already present in the source text so we as translators don’t need to think about it for translation?
Yes, character voice should be in the source, but that voice was designed for native speakers of the source text—audiences’ interpretations of voice vary between cultures.
For example, Japanese can indicate a feminine voice with a “wa” at the end of the sentence. But English doesn’t have the same grammatical tell.
Translators need to find other ways to create the same impression in the target text as the character voice given in the source text.
Audiences Will Bounce Off Bad Character Voice
Have you ever read something or watched a show with subtitles where every character seems to talk the same way? Or a character uses a word that doesn’t match what you’d expect them to use?
Be careful everyone doesn’t sound the same
If every character sounds the same then a piece of media becomes bland. Without anything to tell the difference between characters the story can lose some of the world flavour.
Media translation is supposed to entertain and a bland translation can result in a bland experience.
Watch out for intense accents that can be annoying
Even more so, the wrong character voice can completely throw a reader out of the translation and ruin their experience entirely. This can make a character seem unlikable or annoying, it might create a small nagging voice that something’s not right, or even cause someone to completely drop the game/book/show.
One of the most egregious examples of this is Charlotte in the fantasy RPG Trials of Mana. Charlotte is a 15-year-old half-elf who looks like she’s about 6. In the source Japanese she uses “chi” at the end of her sentences and speaks in a childish manner. In the English translation, however, all “r” and “l” sounds are replaced with “w” to give her a “babying” voice, “I’m actuawwy the gwanddaughtew of the Pwiest of Wight!”
Yes, the English translation matches the Japanese, but the problem is the interpretation of the character voice is not the same. In Japanese the childish tone is supposed to be cute and endearing. But in the English, it is incredibly annoying.
In Japan this way of talking is an established trope in media. But the problem with the English translation of Charlotte is that there is no established trope, and no native English speaker would talk like that. It’s how some people might talk at babies, but not how children actually speak, let alone a 15-year-old girl. It makes her unempathetic, unlikable, and annoying to the point where players restarted their game so they didn’t have her in their party. Not to mention this characterisation is incredibly difficult to read.
Her immature tone should have been recreated through well written character voice, instead of a cheesy accent.
Mismatching register or tone can leave a sour taste
Another example was in the translated novel There’s No Such Thing as An Easy Job, which I read recently. The overall tone of the story was light-hearted, and the 30-something protagonist often spoke in regular, conversational English. But contrary to this, the first-person narrative voice is in incredibly high register—“I was mighty conscious that insofar as Ms Eriguchi was responsible for training me”. The switch to her inner monologue using words like “nigh”, “it was for that reason”, and “by way of response” were very jarring, pulling me from the story.
My issue with the text wasn’t that the translation was in British-English (I’m British, after all), the problem was that it wasn’t how I would expect most modern day mid 30-year-olds to speak. This isn’t a literary novel so the high register tone caught myself and others (according to their reviews) off-guard.
These sorts of issues, making every character sound the same as every other, or unnatural, inconsistent, or annoying, makes it difficult for the audience to empathise or connect with the story.
Things to Consider When Translating Character Voice
There will always be character voice in the source text. But, as I mentioned before, that voice will be written for that culture’s target audience. Each culture has different expectations of certain character tropes, which is why it’s important to find the right voice in your target language.
Character voice should accurately reflect the impact of the character in the source text, not the exact words they use. So rather than directly translating their speech pattern (such as with Charlotte), you should pick a style of writing that illustrates their character to the audience.
Let’s stick with Charlotte. Instead of “I’m actuawwy the gwanddaughtew of the Pwiest of Wight!” it might have been better to have her say “I’ll have you know, I’m the granddaughter of the Priest of Light!” This doesn’t seem like much on its own, but a script sprinkled with boisterous or immature speech would have done a greater service to the character. Especially if the voice actor then emphasised that boisterous personality in their acting.
The most important thing is that the translation conveys the same information as the original sentence and the original character’s personality. Entertainment translation is a constant balancing act in equivalence, and this is one of the reasons why!
Check the source setting for hints
When you’re trying to think character voice, it helps to consider the overall setting of the story and how the character’s backgrounds might shape how they talk.
– What’s the time period/setting?
– How old are they?
– What’s their educational background?
– What kind of environment were they brought up in?
– What’s their relationship to other characters?
This information won’t necessarily be laid out for you in a character sheet, and they might not be questions the source writer can answer. (You probably won’t have time to ask these questions either.) But you can gauge a lot of this information based on the story’s world and setting.
A female character who grew up in a poor neighbourhood in modern day Tokyo will talk differently from female character who grew up in a middle-class family in Tokyo. Both will talk differently from a male character who grew up in modern day rural Japan, who will in turn talk differently from a male character who grew up in Meiji Period rural Japan.
Imagine if these characters were native English speakers, how would they talk? What phrases would they use? What register would their tone of voice be?
It helps a lot if you’re able to read through the source text to familiarise yourself with the characters and setting a little before you start translating.
Check the source dialogue for more hints
In translation you can also check the source text for hints on how characters might speak. Both from the way the speak, and the way they act.
– Do they have an accent? (Is this accent associated with a particular region / type of person?)
– What’s their personality like?
– How do they talk/act around certain characters?
Translating Accents for Character Voice
An accent hints that maybe someone is from a certain region, or they’re a particular type of person. But you don’t have to translate the accent one-for-one (such as in Charlotte). You can, in fact, re-create the same feel and impression conveyed by the accent without translating the accent itself.
Let’s take a look at the Kyoto dialect used by geisha
Let’s take the Kyoto dialect used in the manga Maiko-san Chi no Makanaisan (Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House), which is about two girls who move to Kyoto to become maiko.
The Kyoto accent used in the story is a particular variation that’s traditionally used by maiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko (geisha). Girls who train to be geisha learn how to talk with this accent, it’s both performative and an important part of geisha culture. It gives the impression of tradition, classical, elegant, refined—all of which you want to re-create in the translation.
When I was reading this manga in Japanese I imagined a late 18th Century British English, similar to Jane Austen’s style of writing, would fit this tone really well.
And when they return to their homestead…
They are but normal girls once again.
“Which of you ate my pudding?!”
“Was it you?!”
“You had a pudding?”
“Do not look at me!”
“So it was you?”
“You think I can eat with this on?”
Jane Austen’s style of period English doesn’t use contractions, it’s poetic and light, and easy to read. But this also needs to be balanced by the fact that the characters are teenage girls in a modern-day setting.
Translating accents isn’t an exact science and the level to which you re-create an accent is entirely dependent on the effect you want it to have on the reader.
If the accent serves a function and is important to the plot in the original text, then re-creating that same feeling is important.
Translating accents can re-create the experience of the original
Some translators leap at the challenge of writing accents in translation. They do this with careful consideration in order to evoke a specific reaction from the reader.
Dragon Quest XI is always a great example of how a wide variety of accents can be utilized to make a video game extra entertaining. (Just look at this article from PC Gamer.)
Another great example is Samuel Messner’s translation of Apple Children of Aeon, which re-creates the thick Aomori accent as a Scottish accent.
The thick Aomori dialect in the original Japanese can be difficult to understand even for Japanese speakers, and Messner worked hard to re-create this effect in the translation.
You don’t have to translate accents at all
Then again, there are translators who will remove accent all together, favouring readability over experience.
Morgan Giles’s translation of the novel Tokyo Ueno Station, for example, completely removes the accent the main character is supposed to have. She makes all characters sound the same and instead marks that they’re speaking differently by saying “they spoke with an accent”.
Accents can be utilized for character voice, but there are degrees to which you can re-create an accent. Every approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Katrina’s twitter thread delves into this topic and is a must read for those interested in utilizing accents in their translation.
Techniques for Writing Character Voice
Whether you’re an experienced translator or new, it helps to do a few things so you know you’re using the right language in order to create the voice you want.
Reference target text media
Use media in your native language (not translated) as a reference for writing certain types of character.
TV shows are a particularly good reference for particular voices. Watching and listening to how certain characters speak can help get your brain in gear, as well as help differentiate the types of grammar patterns and words different people use.
Reading novels can also help switch you into the mindset of a certain style of writing. I’ve heard of English novelists actually re-writing by hand parts of novels that are famous for certain styles of writing. Such as using Lord of the Rings to re-create that Tolkien style of fantasy writing, or Pride and Prejudice for period English. This can obviously take time, but depending on how challenging your target voice, it may be well worth it.
Familiarize with the story, characters, and setting
I touched on this previously, but reading the source text/watching the show before you start translating can help give you a better idea of the setting and characters. The more familiar you are with the story, the easier imagining character voice becomes.
Give yourself the freedom to edit and polish
You don’t need to plan every character’s voice and have them all perfect right from the start.
It’s important to be able to familiarise yourself with the characters so that you can get a feel for them, but sometimes you might not have the time to do in-depth familiarisation before you start translating.
It’s okay to develop the characters voices as you translate, but be sure to give yourself the space and time to go back and edit or flesh out the characters voices once you have a better idea of who they are.
Create your own character guides
Creating your own character guides (especially on a large project with lots of characters, or on a long-running series with multiples volumes or episodes) is key to keeping character voice consistent throughout the translation and across the IP.
Keep notes of characters personalities, their personal history, and speech patterns in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet.
Don’t feel like these are set in stone, though. You can update them as you progress through the translation, which will help you when you go back to edit.
The Balancing Act – Voice vs Meaning vs Intent
I’ve mentioned this a few times but it bears repeating; there’s a balance to translating entertainment texts. Translators must maintain a balance between character voice, the original meaning, and the original intent.
Go too far into the character voice and you may accidentally introduce language which goes against the original intent or meaning. But stick too close to the original wording and you might lose important character voice.
An editing pass to check the source language again to make sure you’ve maintained the original meaning will help you reel any unruly voice back in. Or, if you’ve stuck too close to the source resulting in stilted English, you might want to sprinkle a tiny bit of flavour into the text to help give the character some personality.
Again, only a sprinkle of character voice is needed and their personality will shine throughout the entire translation. Too much and you make the characters sound unnatural and off-putting to the reader. Unless that’s the effect you want to recreate for the audience!
Character voice is incredibly important in entertainment writing, yet it’s often overlooked in translated works. It’s not a skill I was taught or have practiced much, but while engaging with various translated works and native English works I’ve come to realise how much of a role fantastic character voice has played in some of my favourite stories.
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