Lost in Translation

The top ten reasons why anime are “lost in translation”…

10: Lip Sync and Line Length
Lip Synchronisation, known in America as “fitting the flaps”, is a means of ensuring that the sound of the words being spoken matched the lip movements of the onscreen speaker. This can often lead to the addition of words on the spur of the moment in the dubbing studio – in erotic horror like Return of the Overfiend, this usually means the use of the F-word as a bonus adverb, adjective and noun! Subtitles normally suffer from the opposite problem – the deletion of parts of a script in order to make the lines fit a pre-determined length. Subtitlers must take into account not only the meaning of the line, but the reading speed of the average viewer…

9: Certification
Much more of an issue in the UK than in America, the need to get a show past the British Board of Film Classification inflates the cost of releasing any anime by several hundred pounds in the UK, and can lead to editorial decisions that affect the content of the show itself. The hope of reducing Gunbuster from a 15 to a PG encouraged Kiseki to whip out the sight of bare-breasted chat in one episode. The wish to be allowed to release a show at all forced the same distributor to drop two entire episodes from Urotsukidoji IV. That’s a “loss” of 70% of the entire running time.


8: Ad Libbery
Some anime are not translated at all, like Samurai Pizza Cats, which boasted scripts made up by “writers” who simply watched each episode with the sound turned down and tried to make up a plot that fitted. Commonplace before the 1980s, such improvised scripts are rare today, although some still crop up, such as ADV Films’ Ghost Stories, whose English script was sexed up with some new gags all of the dubbers’ own making. However, almost all anime contain ad libs of some form – many original scripts contain blank spots that are improvised by the Japanese actors on the day of recording. English-language dubbers are forced to choose to repeat the lines as spoken, or to translate the spirit of the script by letting English actors improvise their own new lines. Which is the better “translation”?

7: Semantic Drift
Sometimes meaning can be altered in the translation process, particularly when a phrase is misunderstood or rewritten by an editor who does not appreciate the meaning of the original. Princess Mononoke features a scene in which a character complains that a drink tastes like donkey urine, even though donkeys were not found in Japan during the time that the movie was set. The line was a deliberate attempt to reproduce the effect of the character’s original words, rather than their meaning, which would have made little sense to non-Japanese viewers. The result, however, was to introduce a new and anachronistic emphasis to the line. Life can be even harder in a show like Hellsing, where copyright fears, Japanese misspelling or translator error can alter spellings. Hellsing’s protagonist clearly has a name intended as an anagram of Dracula, although in the English version, an R has been switched for an L.


6: Localisation
Most prevalent in anime from the days before a Japanese origin became a selling point, localisation attempted to hide the origins of Japanese cartoons. Despite the regular appearance of Tokyo landmarks in Astro Boy and Gigantor, early dubs downplayed the show’s setting. Some localisation went to extremes – when Battle of the Planets lost violent scenes due to censorship (see below), new footage was made showing the team’s vehicle flying through space, in order to make it seem more in keeping with the Star Wars-obsessed times. In the Japanese original, the characters never left Earth. Meanwhile, in Robotech, American producers whipped out a whole extra Moon from shots of the sky in the Southern Cross section, in order to imply that it did not take place on an exotic alien world, but on Earth.

5: Repurposing
The 1990s saw a brief vogue for “fifteening”, in which UK distributors added unnecessary swearing in order to get an older, and, to their mind, “cooler” BBFC rating. A BBFC examiner commented that Patlabor, in particular, would have had a much lower UK rating, and hence been viewable by more people, without the addition of swearing that had not been present in the original Japanese release. But anime don’t just have their age artificially raised. Sometimes it is lowered, as in the repeated assurance that dead bodies in Kimba the White Lion are “merely resting”. American broadcasters can be finicky about the use of “real” weapons in cartoons for children – hence the addition of “laser” effects to what were originally normal bullet-firing guns in Gundam Seed. Fans termed the new creations “disco guns” in protest. Similar problems have hounded the depiction of drug abuse, smoking, and alcohol in translated anime, with a drunken character in Star Blazers supposedly swigging “spring water”, and cigarettes mysteriously disappearing from Tenchi Muyo. Characters in Dragon Ball sometimes gain digital pants.


4: Dubtitling
Some companies have based their subtitles on the dubbing script – taking lines that have been extensively rewritten for an English-language release, and putting them up on the screen as if they are direct translations of the Japanese dialogue. This becomes most obvious in those shows where the English audio track adds dialogue of its own – watch some versions of Kiki’s Delivery Service in Japanese with English subtitles, and you’ll see phantom lines “translating” Jiji the cat’s dialogue, even though he is silent on screen, and has much less to say in the original Japanese version. Dubtitling is one of the modern bugbears of anime fandom, although many fans are quick to assume that any deviation from the original script is a dubtitle, when sometimes there might be good reason.

3: Censorship
Some anime just won’t make it to new markets without radical changes, normally for risqué reasons like sex or violence. Sometimes, it’s down to religious sensibilities, such  as the many Bibles turned in occult anime into non specific “grimoires”, or a forgotten episode of Astro Boy in which a secret message is found scratched onto the eyeball of a statue of Jesus Christ. Even those anime titles intended for adults only can fall foul of censors. Anime pornography, by its very nature, tends to seek out areas not already served by the live-action world, which has led to numerous practices in shows such as Night Shift Nurses or La Blue Girl that have simply been snipped out in some foreign editions. Race can be another sore point, with a black character carefully retouched and recoloured to avoid offence in One Piece. Meanwhile, the thick-lipped Pokémon Jynx was regarded as a “Negro” stereotype and dropped from some American broadcasts until such time as she was repainted a nice friendly purple.


2: Humour and Idiom
One of the toughest elements in translation isn’t straightforward conflict and arguments; it’s humour and local idiom. Shows like Excel Saga or Azumanga Daioh, heavy with improvisation and quick-fire wit, often present translators and dubbers with seemingly impossible tasks. There simply isn’t enough time to cram it all in, and if there’s a joke about a Japanese baseball star or politician, it’s a tough call whether to keep it as it is and lose the humour, or change it to a recognisable local reference, which keeps the humour but loses the meaning. Japanese word-order often means that punchlines in translation come in a different part of a scene, while etiquette often prevents characters from using each other’s names, confusingly addressing each other with terms such as Older Sister-san and Honoured Teacher.

1: Non-Existence
Fandom may bitch and moan about supposed errors and localisation glitches, but the biggest “loss” of all is those anime that the West never gets to see at all. Japan produces perhaps 35 hours of new anime every week, and while we do get to see a lot of them, there are still literally hundreds of anime that will never be translated. Old 1970s TV specials, wartime propaganda, and week after week of shows like Doraemon and Sazae-san have simply never made it to our shores at all. It may sound like a very Zen way of looking at Japanese cartoons, but that which we do not, cannot and will not ever see is the greatest loss of all.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared in NEO #27, 2006.

15 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. With reference to item 5 on your encompassing list: Looking back through my old reviews I see such an instance, with ADV’s release of ‘Pretear’-

    “My main gripe with this series is the superfluous use of mild swearing, which stands out quite sharply against the background of the otherwise clean fight scenes and congenial script conversations. It has to said that ADV have missed a trick here. If they had gone for a whole series PG (or less) BBFC rating then I think they could have sold pallets of this series to young girls. As a father I winced every time a cuss was issued.”

    The swearing couldn’t have more out of place if Postman Pat had told the Cat to ‘koff.

  2. Your example of Robotech is completely wrong. Mospeada was set on Earth, and the Robotech New Generation arc made from it was also set on Earth. Southern Cross was set on a foreign world Gloire with two moons, so Robotech producers went into the film cels and removed the second moon to change the setting to Earth.

  3. #5 reminds me of the other week when I was nearing the end of the Naruto series (well at least the adaption of the manga storyline.) Rock Lee had drunk some of what Jiraya referred to as ‘Elixir’ yet adopted a form of martial art that we shall call drunken style. But they called it something else entirely. For the uninformed, Naruto is very guilty of Dubtitling, but sadly I enjoy the English voices on this show.

    I’m still confused on what the bbfc find acceptable, my friend has some episodes of 801st T.T.S Airbat, and in one episode that seemed like a slightly sexy version of Scooby Doo, I seemed to recall brief nipple shots and a nosebleed in a hot tub, yet it was passed as a PG.

    I’m not too bothered about the lip syncing, but not at the cost of more profanity, when I played crisis core on the psp the other year I was partially surprised and enquired if the cutscenes were re-rendered to match the english storyline. When I learned they had matched the dialogue to the lip movements somehow they had retained the plot and it didn’t feel dumbed down. I’m also not a fan of useless catchphrases, Believe it!

    I can’t say I’m surprised about the treatment of samurai pizza cats, because well the western version was produced by none other than Haim Saban, which pretty much made a tv line up from splicing japanese tv together, and not in a ‘heres 30 minutes of condensed takeshi’s castle’ kind of way. IT wasn’t until several years after watching episodes of Sailor Moon on fox kids I learned it was marginally more adult than that channel lead me to believe.

    JS, I have one question though, why do some products get re-dubbed? (sometimes unnecessarily.) Akira I can understand as I never really followed the plot in the Cam Clarke dub as I did in the remastered version. But I noticed Ghost in the Shell’s stand alone complex series had been edited into a movie concentrating on the Main Laughing man story, devoid of the filler. but instead of being a simple edit, a new voice cast had been used

  4. Paul: I well remember that review of yours. At the time at ADV UK, we had a real problem trying to get lower certificates for shows like that and Angelic Layer (the latter issue well known in UK fan circles thanks to the dub actress who was censored), and I had to write a document for Industrial Smoke & Mirrors explaining what language in what quantities got us which rating with the BBFC. The phone conversation with the BBFC to obtain that information was one of the most surreal and hysterically funny phone calls I have ever participated in.

  5. JC: #4 – is that the Miramax/Buena Vista version of Kiki’s or the Optimum version?

    #2 – Matt Greenfield maintains that Martian Successor Nadesico was the hardest comedy to develop in English, compared to the insanity of Excel Saga or the wit of Azumanga. At Tomo-dachi 1 in Derry, he participated in an excellent discussion on dub vs. sub (first time I realised about line length), and gave us a detailed look inside how they approached and recorded Nadesico. It was the puns, he said, that were the hardest thing to find equivalents for, that and the amount of physics-based humour.

  6. Hugh: I’ve never seen the Optimum release, so it must have been BUrna Vista… but did Optimum re-do their subs?

    Duck: Checking on page 599 of the Anime Encyclopedia, Revised and Expanded Edition, I see that you are quite right. Don’t know what I was thinking. It was Southern Cross, and the moon was removed, not added. I remember reading about it in an interview with Carl Macek. Actually, I have this awful feeling that I was the one who interviewed him about it, as it was the first time I heard the term “colour separation overlay.”

    Chris: dubs are separate products. Often the rights to them revert to the Japanese licence holders with the expiry of a licence, leaving the Japanese free to sell them on, but some companies end up owning their own. I have known of several occasions where dubs (and even subs) have existed in different versions in different territories, because, for example, a US rights-holder wanted to charge a British buyer too much to use their translation. E.g. in the case of Plastic Little, Kiseki wouldn’t pay ADV their asking price for the subtitles, and so commissioned their own translation in the UK. For similar reasons, there are different US/UK versions of Kekko Kamen, although I think the only version you can buy in the UK now is the US one, and not the UK variant that I translated.

  7. Thank you for the insight JC, funnily I just read that article in the book where you touch upon the very same thing and how companies have brought back their own shows at depreciated prices, or had to edit the soundtrack which isn’t restricted to anime, after all The Wonders Years hasn’t been released on DVD either as its distributors couldn’t secure the Music rights. At least with anime I suppose you can re-record the audio track, I’m not sure Fred Savage would sound anything like his 13 year old self (or his adult Narrator.)
    I vaguely recall Amanda Winn Lee was was campaigning to get as many of the original cast back for the End of Evangelion movie though there was something else going at the time with distribution rights or maybe the cast were offered less money, I can’t can’t recall exact details but I think ADV released the series and the movies were under Manga Entertainment?

    Still its nice to see a VA that cares enough to try and round up their co workers, same thing happened with David Hayter when silicon knights remade the third metal gear game for the gamecube, though when listening to the dialogue in game, they don’t sound as committed as they did for the playstation version several years earlier.

    I apologise for writing far more than I should.

  8. Jonathan, I think that you’ve covered most of the issues with translation but to me the real unforgivable sin is #4. I spend a lot of money on anime but I don’t care how good a series is if I see that it is being dubtitled I’ll drop that series in a second and not spend another dollar on that title. When considering all the costs of bringing a series to DVD getting a decent subtitle translation has to be one of the lowest. If a company can’t or won’t provide a good subtitle translation then they don’t deserve my money.

    A lot of the other issues you mentioned I can live with, knowing a good amount of the Japanese language, and having lived in Asia I realise that a lot of the humor, religious, historical, and cultural concepts are not easily translated. Hell, some concepts or even cultural things require extensive translator notes (like in the old days) to make them understandable so I can deal with them being changed slightly.

  9. #7: The translator of _Bible Black_ in R1 was obviously unfamiliar with Kabbalah or Judaism, given how the mystical chants were rendered. (I’m not Jewish, but even I know what “Adonai” is.)

    Also, Pioneer’s direct transliteration of the names in _Bastard!!_, without reference to the (English language) heavy metal puns.

  10. #6 altered to reflect Duck’s correction.

    Doc: As a translator, my question to Pioneer (and their critics) would be — did the original writers of Bastard *expect* those puns to be visible. Many anime and manga creators, including Tezuka, often put atrocious puns in their work for their own amusement, which makes it very difficult for foreign translators to rule properly on how something should be translated. Naming your bad guy after Charles Aznavour, for example (Gundam) is only funny if you don’t know who Charles Aznavour is.

  11. I too hate it when the English dub adds swear words to “adulterate” the rating. Pretear is a perfect example. It totally ruined it for my daughter, so unnecessary. I also just had a near miss of letting my daughter watch an episode of Jigoku Shoujo which was riddled with the “F” word through out, and the disc was rated 12. Thankfully she got bored with the first volume and lost interest, leaving me to watch the rest myself. The BBFC must have been watching some other DVD, or fell asleep, when this one was rated.

  12. Hey Jonathan, this is a few years late but I only just found this website. Doing an undergrad dissertation on anime localisation and looking up articles when I came across this. I hope it’s alright to ask this: I saw the title and having read the article I wonder what your thoughts on English dubbing and localisation are? Many fans and several scholars seem to react quite negatively I feel whereas I personally don’t have a huge beef with the mere thought of anime characters being voiced by non Japanese.

  13. Sorry, I only just saw your comment. My interest in Japanese animation is largely because it’s Japanese, so ripping out the original dialogue and hoping that someone will be able to match it holds little appeal for me. There are times when people are prepared to spend the money (Disney, blowing ten times the budget of the usual anime company) when the effect is pretty seamless. There are even times when a dub, by virtue of being invested more in the location where it is set (e.g. Gunsmith Cats), can even surpass the original. But I watch Japanese animation in Japanese, and even if I am involved in a dub production myself as a translator, director or actor, it is not my chosen mode of watching it for fun.

  14. Pingback: Gainax no Video IV: Gunbuster & Diebuster (1988-1989, 2004, 2006) - vi's blog on the Internet

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