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Moe Check! » Further Baka

Miku Hatsune and Teto Kasane.

A very common bit of urban information, in the manner of "yeah, now that you mention it" without formal research done on the subject, is that when a person above the age of infancy or early childhood encounters an unfamiliar language, especially when introduced to that language by a friend of some fluency, the first words they will inquire about are the usuals necessary for a brief tour of the country of origin: "hallo", "goodbye", "yes" and "no", "how much is that", "where is the washroom", so on and so forth.

The next words they will inquire about, or sometimes even before the practical ones, are the insults.

"Baka", normally translated to "stupid", is an unusually familiar term among anime fans. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's just a very popular line in anime of the sort often watched as gateway shows. An entire generation of anime fans will remember, with about the same feelings of reminiscence and irritation as a Monty Python fan would to exclamations of "Ni!", the cries of "Ranma no baka!" from Akane Tsundere Tendo.

It is something that has spread to the mainstream, inasmuch as the subculture of anime fans has a mainstream. And once it is in the mainstream, it is limp, watered-down, bereft of passion and vigour. A thing of mundane utility, fascinating to those who had never encountered it before, but treated with the contempt bred from familiarity by those who claim to be "more experienced". Use it too often, they say, and you will wear it out.

Other words seem to have had the same treatment. "Neko" is a common one, since catgirls appear to be fairly popular in anime (so I say, as I queue Mayoi Neko Overrun in my to-watch-this-season list), to the point where I hear the word has been appropriated by another subculture to indicate… you know, I'm not sure, but I remember it placed a far greater significance on the word than merely "cat".

"Arigatou" ("thank you") has also entered mainstream culture, albeit sometimes preceded by "domo" and followed by "Mr. Roboto". A quick poll among my peers reveals that common Japanese words they recognize instantly are "itai" ("it hurts") and "dame" ("stop"), which makes me strangely reluctant to ask them why they recognize these words.

The deeper strata of anime fandom have their own vocabulary that are tiered based on how important these concepts are, often not as easily translated: I would be remiss in not mentioning "moe". Other obvious ones are "tsundere" (and its sisters of varying dysfunction, "yandere" and "kuudere"), "lolicon" and "shotacon", "meganekko", "pettanko", "nekketsu", "iyashi-kei"… even "otaku" seems to have become a badge of pride? I don't know.

I'm not even going into the truly mainstream words: "ramen", "udon", "bento", "sushi"…

I don't really see any point, like a lot of other anime fans, in demanding that people stop using Japanese when conducting discussions in English. Because while you could translate "ramen" to "noodles", you would be missing out on the connotations of the type of noodles (technically you'd have to specify "shoyuu ramen" or "shio ramen" or some such).

And putting aside terms like "tsundere", which seems to defy translation, I haven't even been able to find a good equivalent in English of, say, "ojamashimasu" or "itadakimasu". It makes fanfic-writing very, very difficult.

12 Responses to “Further Baka”
  1. Sebsmith says:

    Most of those words seem like the type that are used alone, as opposed to used inside of sentences, I'd guess that's why people know them.

  2. Sergio says:

    Language is above all functional – if you find that you can get across your message better (or only) by using Japanese words that your target audience will probably understand, why should you try to use an English equivalent?

    In pragmatics they study how an utterance gets meaning depending on its context (in this case, saying ojamashimasu is, for a Westerner, related to otaku culture. For a Japanese it's an ordinary word) and also that utterances have force -intention, so to speak, and therefore they are expected to be understood by and produce an effect on the hearer/reader. If you consider the reader/hearer is understanding the force of the utterance as well as its meaning (both its abstract meaning -i.e. dictionary definition- and contextual meaning -both in the sentence where it's used as well as in the broader otaku context), then there's no reason to choose something else.

    Your example about "neko" is great. To a Japanese not familiar with otaku culture, neko may just be the animal, a cat, un gato, eine Katze, yi zhi mao, un chat, to mention a few languages in which it may basically mean the same. Well, there are probably differences in the connotations each culture has, but in contexts where it refers to the animal they would (should) normally be interchangeable. However, "neko" has a whole different network of connotations in otaku culture. Neko, not any other word, just like "a ride", while referring to the same entity as "a car", has completely different connotations and usage. So it is often not only desirable but also necessary to use Japanese words

  3. ILP says:

    Fear not, intrepid fanfiction writer! Decades of writing conventions have given you the most powerful tool in your arsenal for writing in a foreign setting: the Translation Convention.

    Now all those awkward and problematic stock phrases can be swept under the carpet and you can just write idiomatic English, knowing that your audience will be able to infer that the characters are speaking Japanese. Win-win.

    On the flip side, if you don't do this you risk running headlong into Just A Stupid Accent territory. Please don't do that, as it is intensely annoying to those native speakers who aren't sure whether you threw in words like neko because you think Japanese ≡ Awesome or because it's some esoteric slang you're not sure how to translate properly.

  4. DKellis says:

    @ILP: I challenge your use of the word "all" with regards to "those awkward and problematic stock phrases". As my evidence, I will point out "ojamashimasu", "itadakimasu", and "tsundere", which happen to be mentioned in the post itself.

    If you'd like further examples, there's a scene I've never been able to translate properly, because it involves shiritori. Or how about "Sa Shi Su Se So" with regards to cooking? Is there an equivalent and well-known English saying about the order of adding sugar, salt, vinegar, soy, and miso?

    So yes, I challenge your use of the word "all", as well as the smug tone of "fear not, intrepid fanfiction writer".

    Your move.

  5. ILP says:

    The "smug" part was intended more out of irony than contempt, hence the use of faux sales pitch language. If it sounded patronising I apologise, but that wasn't what I intended.

    Anyway… ojamashimasu – "excuse me"… I guess? I must confess I'm not too sure about where this is used.

    The second two are admittedly awkward, but that's what makes localisation so much fun. Tsundere could become bipolar, for example; itadakimasu could be "dig in!" or something to that effect. To rattle off the commonest line in translation: context is the key.

    Shiritori is a pain in the arse. If at all possible, I'd substitute it with a similar game on would expect English-speakers to be playing (I Spy, for instance – I'm loathe to simply run shiritori with letters instead of kana, because English spelling is so bloody weird, and people might not know what's going on). I'm not really sure what the "Sa Shi Su Se So" thingumy is, but couldn't you just use another mnemonic instead?

  6. ILP says:

    Blasted edit thing timed out. Oh well.

    "EDIT:" Actually, I've gone and sidetracked myself after getting overly defensive. My point was supposed to be that it doesn't much matter what ojamashiwhatsit means because you'll be writing in English. If there's some foreign custom or word that's significant enough to be brought up in the first place (how many handshakes do you think have gone unmentioned in Western literature?) yet so complicated or loaded as to resist any attempt at translation, it's probably important enough to get a few lines of description for (reader) orientation.

    Really, writers have it easy; unlike translators, if there's something that doesn't work well in English you can just delete it and replace it with something that does.

  7. DKellis says:

    @ILP: What I'd been doing previously is explain in Author's Notes at the end of every update all the stuff that I felt needed explaining. (This was… about ten years back, when Author's Notes were still standard. I haven't broken myself of the habit yet.)

    Even changing all the Japanese culture stuff to other cultures, I'd still have to explain what's going on, by mentioning "oh, it's not really I Spy that they're playing, it's shiritori". And besides, my original idea had one of the players inadvertently but intentionally lose by going "gomen". I don't know how that would work in I Spy, especially since the characters are trapped inside a featureless maze.

    Also, I've already gotten flak for "localizing" things too much (never mind that the US is just as foreign to me as Japan). I doubt their viewpoint is any less valid than yours.

  8. ILP says:

    Do you see author's notes in most novels? My memory's a little hazy (or perhaps I read the wrong edition) but I don't recall any notes in Fatherland, yet Harris still managed to sneak in the odd German word or phrase quite elegantly. My version of The Count of Monte Cristo had a veritable treatise preceding it written by some scholarly chap but all that did was provide background on the book and its writer, mostly for the edification of more academically inclined readers.

    The trouble with using notes as a way around difficult-to-write parts is that it's addictive and (much too) easy. For starters, they can break the fourth wall – just look at the (clever) way Sandy Mitchell uses footnotes in his Ciaphas Cain series to see what I mean (when it's done on purpose) – but they also break the reader's flow*. Any editor worth his salt will clip you 'round the ear and make you rewrite! The Choose Your Own Adventure books were perhaps the only fiction ever that could get away with sending their readers all over the place in pursuit of sense.

    You're writing fanfiction, yes? Author's notes are ideal for brining readers not familiar with the setting or characters up to speed; fans of the series can just dive right into the action.

    "I'd still have to explain what's going on, by mentioning "oh, it's not really I Spy that they're playing, it's shiritori"."
    Now that we have context-specific details, things change a little. Also, Planetes beat you out on the Plot-Meaningful Shiritori Game – it might be worth checking out how the dub handled it (last episode, if memory serves). In general though, if you just want to fill space, there's no reason why you'd have to explain they were actually doing something different. That's kind of like an inline author's note and is a bit silly.

    "Also, I've already gotten flak for "localizing" things too much,"
    Their words, not yours, I presume. If you don't want to get dragged into an Internet Argument on your own blog then just make up some excuses. The mean, nasty, nagging editor insisted on it; you did it out of "intellectual curiosity"; they're confusing "not mentioned" with "not happening"; etc. As an aside, I'm British, yet I recognise that most of my audience probably hails from North America so I'd bear that in mind when I write.

    Remember that "Japanese ≡ Awesome" thing? If the people complaining about localisation come from that school of thought, there's no way you'll please them without writing the whole damn thing in Japanese. I'm told the polite way to refer to such people is "purists"; you'll never be able to make them happy, so at least make the story comfortable. Nobody ever complained that a story was too easy to read.

    *This is a straw example, obviously, but you get my idea, right?

  9. DKellis says:

    @ILP: I'm not writing a novel, I'm writing chapters of fanfic on the Internet. And if I reach out and grab the first "proper" novel that comes to hand (Neal Stephenson's Anathem), it does have a sizeable glossary and Note To The Reader.

    Slightly less available to hand (one shelf down) is Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two, which has an Author's Note before the novel proper.

    The first "improper" novel is the English translation of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (first volume), which has an Author's Afterword.

    But that doesn't matter, because, as mentioned, I'm not writing a novel. If the reader doesn't want to read the Author's Notes placed at the end below the final horizontal rule tag, they can hit the Next Chapter link. When I said Author's Notes were "standard", I meant for fanfic on the Internet. And I used them precisely to bring readers up to speed on the setting, which includes things from Japanese culture.

    Besides, I added them in partly because beta-readers complained that they didn't know what "itadakimasu" meant.

    I've not seen Planetes yet. (Technically I was working on the shiritori part of the fanfic in question since about early 2003, which I see predates the anime but not the manga, but Planetes finished whatever it was doing first, so I suppose it did "beat me out".)

    There's always this fear I seem to encounter where it supposedly begins with an omission of honorifics (and ignoring that "Shiori" is different from "Shiori-san" and "Shiori-chan" and "Shiorin" and so on), and then Slippery Slopes into (borrowing your example) turning shiritori into I Spy, and then changing ramen into burgers (as in the Phoenix Wright games). Are "burgers" more "comfortable" for a US audience than "ramen"? How about "okonomiyaki"?

    I've found that there is no definite line that can be crossed, but instead I have to take everything on a case-by-case basis. I'd love to discover some sort of general rule, which is why I try to solve the general case first before going deep into specifics, but it never seems to work.

    (And I could write a fanfic in Japanese if I wanted to, albeit looking up whatever kanji is different from Simplified Chinese, but I honestly cannot be bothered to spend the time and effort to type it out on the computer.)

    To sum up my feelings on the matter, I've spent several years (close to a decade) thinking about this sort of thing, asking people for opinions, and while it seems like everyone (including your comments) seem to believe that their way is the Right and True way, almost none of them agree with each other. Perhaps in the broad strokes, but not in the fine details, and it is in these details where most of my problems appear.

    So I still have no answer apart from what I decide on my own… which, again, almost everyone disagrees with. Along the way, I've been insulted and patronised by both sides, for both using too much Japanese culture in my fanfics, and omitting too much of it.

    This explains the weary and exasperated tone I've been taking.

  10. ILP says:

    Maybe I should have clarified a little. Of course you can expect forewords or afterwords from the author. Having one isn't a bad thing. However, going through my copies of Melancholy and Sigh I don't see any translator's notes explaining all the various cultural concepts or foreign words. That's my point of contention. In Icon, Forsyth furnishes us with a (long) list of characters at the start but does not feel the need to devote a paragraph or two explaining the intricacies of politburo operations, no matter how interesting he might have found them. Heck, I couldn't even find the definition of a li anywhere in my copies of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and had to look it up myself.

    So let me be explicit: an author's note which explains core concepts of the language he's going to use, or briefs the reader on cultural ideas which are necessary to appreciate what's going on is bad. However, if he's merely musing on the tyranny of editors, or telling us how the idea came to him while walking the dog, it's fine. The foreword to Ender's Shadow is an example of such, as is – I imagine – 2010, though it's been over a decade since I read that. The reason being that you could take the foreword out and the book wouldn't suffer for it.

    But hang on… why doesn't it matter? I presume you're using proper spelling and grammar in your writings, so why is this element of good style being left out? You may recall William Faulkner famously 'insulted' Ernest Hemingway "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to a dictionary," but you have to wonder how insulting it really was.

    "and ignoring that "Shiori" is different from "Shiori-san" and "Shiori-chan" and "Shiorin" and so on"
    I don't quite understand what you mean here. 0.1, 1 and 5 are all different too, but if you're dealing in terms of thousands of units then they're completely irrelevant and we just ignore them.

    "changing ramen into burgers (as in the Phoenix Wright games). Are "burgers" more "comfortable" for a US audience than "ramen"? How about "okonomiyaki"?"
    I should think the answer is pretty obvious. If it's set in the West (either originally or because it's been localised over there) then change ramen into burgers or some other generic food. Make okonomiyaki into pizza or something. If it's (still) set in Japan then you can just use 'noodles' (I've yet to find a convincing argument for keeping it as ramen, but I don't really care that much). With things like this, it's not a case of audience comfort; the objective is to make things invisible. In the US, there's nothing more normal than saying "Let's grab a burger for lunch," but if you were to suggest visiting a noodle bar (the fact I used 'bar' should illustrate my point well) you might raise the odd eyebrow. If the actual content of the activity is ultimately irrelevant you can 'normalise' it, not to make the audience "comfortable", but so as not to distract them with trivialities and keep them focussed on the important parts. It's not patronising or condescending, as some purists might have you believe, but simply good writing.

    So yeah. Case-by-case basis. However, try thinking about things from a different angle. Ask yourself what you can't get away with changing (by extension changing everything you can), if for no other reason than to get a new angle any particularly difficult bits. (Sorry, I must sound like a real armchair case. It's up to you to believe whether or not I know what I'm talking about.)

    Why do I consider my way the One True Way? Mostly because everyone was doing it long before anime and manga became popular. It was only once the philosophy of That'll Do took hold that fansub dialect became so annoyingly prevalent. It's not a little amusing that fans have become so dogmatic about their beloved Japanese that they insist their translations remain impenetrable to the uninitiated. I can only hope that our Martin Luther appears some time in my lifetime. (Hopefully without the Jew-burning bit, though.)

    I sympathise with your exasperation. Apparently, I advocate "butchering" the source text and "hate all Japanese people". Funny old world, eh?

    Cheers. When I next have ramen fish & chips, I'll think of you.

  11. Spectreblade says:

    With regard to author's notes, in licensed anime translations, I've seen some that include translator's notes, but most of them haven't. The general rule seems to be the degree to which the setting resembles and focuses on real-world Japanese life. The US Lucky Star anime and manga translations have copious amounts of notes, as did one volume of Genshiken, while most Shonen series didn't really need them, since the focus is less on dialogue and daily life, and more on punches to the face, which need no translation.

    I imagine it'd be the same with fan fiction, but then again, the only fanfic I've written myself was for City of Heroes, and those were fanfic only in terms of being set in the CoH universe (and having a cast consisting of my own and my groupmates' characters), with only one story set in Japan. Either way, different people have different opinions, so you can never please everyone all the time. Though if your story happens to have a non-Japanese character in it, conversations between them and the other characters can make a good vehicle for such explanations, as long as it's not done too heavy-handedly.

  12. kindaichi17 says:

    Animax Asia translates "Tsundere" to "Ice Cream" btw…