Mad Dogs and Engrishmen

Back in the days of Anime UK we used to call it Japlish, but far leveller heads have prevailed in the mainstream, and today it is usually known as Engrish. It is an awful, fractured mangling of English, usually found in Japanese instruction leaflets and T-shirts, where someone has had a really good stab at English, but ended up saying something mildly rude or downright ludicrous.

But while we point and laugh at little old ladies with obscene phrases on their T-shirts, we should perhaps wonder what happens when the reverse happens. Believe me when I say it is no urban myth that some oriental tattooists have wreaked a terrible revenge on drunken chavs in their care. I once saw a woman in a Stratford supermarket with Stupid White Bitch written in perfect, permanent Chinese across her shoulders, although she was convinced that it some kind of romantic haiku. What can you say in a situation like that? It’s not like the truth is going to help anyone…

Which brings me to this month’s story – a little glimpse of the world of T-shirt manufacture and Japanese slogans, not in Japan, but right here in the UK. A designer had knocked up a very nice picture of Wolverine fighting the Incredible Hulk, and had decided to throw in their names in Japanese to be cool. To do this, he switched his font to Japanese and simply typed them in. I mean, that was how translation happened, right?

Luckily someone smelled a rat, and decided to run everything past an expert. When they couldn’t find an expert, they came to me, and I snickeringly informed them that the Japanese words on the picture were deliciously random. In fact, according to the legend, they had found a metal-clawed member of the X-Men whose name was apparently Dellabe Pissbarmy, and he was fighting a muscly, green-skinned man called Gaggy Bammy Sauce Swishy Bag-o-bay.

A few emails with the aid of a Japanese word processor, and I had saved everyone’s blushes, although almost immediately I started to feel pangs of Evil Translator Guilt. In order to bring a little joy to the world, surely I should have looked at their mock-up and said: “Yes, that’s absolutely fine.” Better men than I have clearly once been working at Japanese advertising companies and marketing firms, and managed to say with a straight face that Baseball Throw-Up is an ideal T-shirt slogan, as is Sroog: Your Demonstrator Has a PhD For, which I once actually had on a T-shirt and proudly wore all over London.

Broken Japanese, of course, is the common currency of the otaku, and I have long since stopped trying to correct it when it is flung around me like some sort of linguistic dirty protest. I regularly hear anime fans, for example, adding a superfluous honorific in introductions as if addressing themselves, (e.g.: “Call me Derek-chan”) which as my Japanese teacher once memorably explained: “You would only do if you were a bit simple.” But who am I to stop such faux pas from bringing a little joy into the life of the Japanese? I now realise that I really let the side down by not waving through Dellabe Pissbarmy to give all the Japanese tourists a laugh next time they are in London. Oh well, next time…

(This article first appeared in NEO #68, 2010)

Survival of the Fittest

Out now in shops, my Doctor Who: Survival of the Fittest, for which I was asked to give Sylvester McCoy an unrepentant Nazi for a travelling companion. Herewith my 150 words from the liner notes:

My grandmother was convinced she’d been had. After gassing the nest and plugging up the holes, the exterminator returned a few days later to check on it. When he unplugged the entrance, a bunch of wasps flew out and away. But he assured us that the nest was dead, and that the fugitives were merely the last hatchlings, from post-apocalyptic eggs.

The idea of insect civilisation brings questions of its own. How would it operate? How would they feel about being born, already forced into incontrovertible specialisms? As her first act after hatching, a newborn bee queen will murder her twin sister in the neighbouring cocoon. Every insect must know its place. When Big Finish asked me to think on the implications of taking Klein’s ideology to logical conclusions, I drew on my childhood memories, and the concept of a group of creatures, born alone in the dark in the ruins of their world, then freed to fly away to an unknown fate. Where did they think they were going? Were they only following orders?

But there’s more; there always is. As with most scripts, there was a long process of pitching and repitching before everybody was happy with the ideas on the table. “Survival of the Fittest” was in my mind because at the time I was writing a book about Charles Darwin, and I was fascinated at the time with the pull exerted on early Darwinists by the eugenics movement, which, of course, fed into Nazism. I initially wanted to write something about the First Emperor of China, who really took fascism to its logical conclusion. He was raised by what was known in those days as Legalists, people who would do anything to get into power and anything to stay there. The legal system of his Qin dynasty included punitive maiming and institutionalised bribery, while many lower classes were reduced to super-specialised slaves, door-openers and power sources. Hence my original pitch, which was called The Hidden Offices, taking its name from the title of the First Emperor’s personnel division for disabled slaves.

But Big Finish wanted something interstellar and far-ranging, so instead I pitched the concept of a world high above the galactic plane, where the Milky Way itself spun “like a swastika in the sky.” My working title, in fact, was Swastika Night. There was some stuff in there about warp cores and gravity wells, too, and a malfunctioning drive that had marooned human colonists millions of light years away from a solar system large enough to truly support them, forced instead to struggle for lebensraum with indigenous insectoids.

I wanted insects because of the parallels between hive societies and a fascist regimes. But once I had insects, I was drawn inevitably to a recurring issue in my Doctor Who scripts: how does the TARDIS translation circuit actually work? If everything somebody says is translated fully, why do we hear accents? Are accents part of semantics, in which case should we hear stress in unstressed languages? What size of area does TARDIS translation affect? What happens when it’s gone? And in this case, what happens when communication is conducted by pheromones and scents? When creatures have no vocal chords, how would the TARDIS render their communication?

When I realised that there would be little scope for humour, sarcasm or untruths in a pheromone-based communication system, I had my story. And then it was down to producer David Richardson and director John Ainsworth to make all the actors play creatures that communicated by smell. Everybody likes a challenge.

Dragon Half

I can’t even remember the name of the fanzine. I do remember that back in 1995 when Schoolgirl Milky Crisis wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye, they interviewed me about translating Japanese animation, and in passing, someone said that the closing theme of Dragon Half was “untranslatable”. I said that nothing was truly untranslatable, although a faithful rendition of the song “Watashi no Tamagoyaki” would inevitably sound as odd in English as it did in the original Japanese.

“All right,” they said. “Prove it.” So I got a pen and a Wordtank, and got stuck into the song: a mad sequence presenting a girl crazily trying to cook a meal for a boy she is trying to impress. After a brief monologue about the state of her cooking and her feelings for her prospective man, we get to hear her side of the disastrous dinner conversation, before she’s agonising once more in the kitchen, then back at the table, then finally winning his approval. But then, in the final lines, she watches in terror as he reaches for one of the dodgy eggs.

Oh yes, and you have to leave in asides in Chinese and Korean, along with some la-la-la nonsense words, and make it rhyme and scan with the original, which is sung to the tune of a Beethoven medley played at triple speed, belted out by the sublime Kotono Mitsuishi at a thousand miles an hour.

I was pretty pleased with the results. As was the nameless fanzine, which went on to print my translation without bothering to include the interview that was supposed to go alongside it. Fifteen years on, I could probably do a little better… but not much. I’d probably leave out the deliberate British slang (it was a UK publication) and I’d think twice about “bloody”, but otherwise it’s as good a crack as anyone’s had at performing the impossible.

Altogether now…

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, bloody egg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Look at the grill, it’s turned to smeg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, spuds are cursed!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Don’t try to boil them or it’s worse!

Oh, he’s a wonder, he’s a dream, mustn’t blunder

I’m a wreck, I’m a nutter, but I want him bad

Heart can’t stop rushing as I’m cooking while I’m gushing

Gotta be the best meal that he’s ever had!

Outside the sun is shining, we could be somewhere dining

Let’s hope he gets the hint and asks me out

Just say you will and we can trash all this swill and have a

Good decent meal without a doubt, RAN RARARAN


North East South West Full Empty Up Down RAN RARARAN


One Two Three Four, Yi Er San Si

“Don’t eat the tomato!

It’s mine and I should know!

Try octopus, yes do!

I made it just for you!”

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter didn’t know he’d want some more!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

No more boiled eggs so now they’re raw!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, lager too!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

It’s far too cold but that’ll do!

Wow! Think it’s working! So what now? No more shirking! So…

“Ahem! Did I tell you you’ve got pretty eyes?”

Oh! This is lovely, is it time to get snuggly?

Do I wait or do I take him by surprise?

Don’t think I’m surly, I’m a silly little girlie

But I want you to tell me what you think. Confess!

Ah that’s more like it, he’s so cool, what a poet

I was starting to think I had to guess RARARAN


Kamsa Hamnida, I am sorry


Gambei, Takeaway, School’s Over Hooray!

Toughest meal I ever had, 95% ain’t bad

Jungle law my hand was forced, why not try the special course? Ow!

The egg! It’s all for naught!

I’m done and it’s my fault!

Damn! Bloody eggs! Bloody eggs!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It has come to my attention* that someone on You Tube has uploaded the BBC documentary Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1998) in four parts. This is an excellent piece of work from producer Nick Freand Jones — not that you’d know that, because the You Tube version cavalierly disregards the ending credits. So you don’t get to see my name there as the staff translator, either, despite my four manic days spent with 24 tapes of interview footage, a laptop and a well-thumbed Nelson kanji dictionary. Well, 21 tapes — as it turned out, no subtitles were required on Alex Cox and Tony Luke. With motorcycle couriers periodically waiting outside, motors running, I waded through hour after hour of cinematographer technicalities and thespian reminiscences. And I was pretty pleased with the result.

When the documentary was in the can, Nick gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with the translated interview material, used and unused, which is why several bits of it turn up later in some of the articles reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

*Thanks to Andrew Osmond

A Thorn in Their Sides

It’s all been very quiet for a while over at Matt Thorn’s blog. Despite its presence in the links section at right, I’d given up checking to see if he’d done anything new. Then I’ve been busy for the last few months on a new book project and I simply haven’t had the time. Which is why I am late to the party over at his site about this article, in which Thorn puts the boot repeatedly into what passes for translation in the manga field.

This is, of course, a subject close to my heart, and I agree with everything he says. Those lucky individuals who already own a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis will have already read the transcript of a lecture I gave on translation at the University of East Anglia, in which I approach many of the same issues, but with regard to the anime business. But I was speaking to an audience at the Department of Literary Translation, so I was able to ignore many of the basic issues. I was, in effect, already talking to professionals. Thorn’s frustration is born of the boggling number of *amateurs* in the manga field, who do not understand the basic principles of translation.

I’ll add no more to Thorn’s thoughts except to cut and paste an email I sent to him a couple of years ago, when we were bitching about this among ourselves:

“Last month I was offered a manga translation job for the first time in years. Apparently it required “special talents” (read: someone had to open a dictionary) and was expected to win awards and suchlike. I had apparently been on the slate for this one for three years, and now it was my Big Chance to earn what I estimated as $33 a day.

“The guy was very upfront. He showed me his sales projections and his budgets, and demonstrated that that was all he could afford to pay me. Yes, I said, but you are asking me to make your bad business decisions *my* problem. This is a one-month job, if I do it right. I will not rush it in a week just so that the money doesn’t feel like I am working at McDonalds.”

I find this topic interesting largely because it comes so fast on the heels of my comments about the continued success of Ironfist Chinmi. The money I was being offered for this project was roughly a third of what I was offered for Chinmi, and I am not sure there was any royalty element either. When I did Chinmi, I was 24-year-old graduate student and so, arguably, still young and stupid. But some modern entrants into the manga translation field are expected to accept fees that are only at 30% of 1995 rates. Are we surprised that even the good ones are over-worked, harassed and otherwise distracted?

Pay peanuts, get monkeys, as Confucius almost said.

The Price is Wrong

I was in the post office sending off a translated script, when the man behind the counter said: “We can’t just send it to America Small Packet Rate, we have to know how much it’s worth.”

“That depends,” I said. “The Writers’ Guild say it’s worth £18,000, the Institute of Translators and Interpreters say £12,000, in France it’s a thousand pounds a throw, and The Company That Shall Remain Nameless won’t pay for it at all because they’ve got someone who does it for 50p and a bunch of grapes.”
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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…

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“You’re the Translator. Translate!”


Stargate is a film about an immigrant’s love for America. It has a wonderment, a fascination with the American way that seems almost undimmed by the history of the 20th century. Stargate is what happens when the Prime Directive of Star Trek meets the Manifest Destiny of the real world.

It’s also about a bunch of American soldiers getting bogged down in a desert war about a mysterious, magical resource, fighting a power that is almost unknowable. Stargate was made in 1994, right after the First Gulf War, and it ends with this terrible realisation that they have only fought one battle, and that their enemy has many allies, that will be coming for them next.

That’s not all. Stargate is adored by translators all over the world, because it’s one of only a handful of films in which the translator is the hero.


I have been in those situations. No, not quite brought back from the dead and forced to debate politics in a recently learned dead language with an immortal alien… but close. I have been dumped into negotiations way over my head, in a language or dialect I don’t even speak, and had to muddle through. I have turned up in the middle of fights threatening to escalate into real trouble, and they’ve said to me “You’re the translator. Translate!” I have stared at a blackboard where someone has tried to have a crack at my specialist subject, and said: “Who wrote this crap?”

You can thank Roland Emmerich for that, I imagine. This is a man who grew up speaking German. He knows whereof he speaks. There’s a great scene in Stargate when Daniel Jackson is in a cave with his love interest, Sha’uri; Daniel points at hieroglyphs and reads out the pronunciations, and she tells him what the vowel mutations and consonantal shifts are. If you learn to speak Mandarin first, that’s how you learn to convert it into Cantonese! Although sadly not every language course supplies a Sha’uri to jolly things along.

I think that at its deepest level, the thing that really strikes home in Stargate is that Daniel Jackson isn’t just a translator. He’s a writer in Hollywood. He’s the weedy, wimpy specky guy with the big ideas that nobody wants to hear, dragged off to the middle of nowhere by a bunch of bullies and told to twist his skills in new and unexpected directions. The soldiers hate him. They’re all producer types who just want car chases and boobs, but he’s there with his books in the desert, wide-eyed with amazement at this incredible thing, that is all his dreams coming true, as long as the producers don’t ruin it. And at the end, he gets the girl!

Well, at the end of the movie, anyway. In the TV series… well, there’s some small print…

Jonathan Clements has translated Sun Tzu’s Art of War, among other things.