Every so often a game or manga comes along that, let's say, takes some liberties with the original Japanese text, and takes on how translators need to stop doing that and keep the English version true and accurate to the original start trickling into Twitter and YouTube. Over time I've gathered my own thoughts on the subject, and I've finally decided to finally collect them into something that's only tangentially related to the controversy that sparked this writeup.
A few notes before I start. First, I'm not fluent enough in Japanese to give examples of all the literary devices I'll be talking about so a lot of the examples will be discussed as if translating English to Japanese, but I am 99.9% sure this stuff go both ways. Second, I'm not a professional linguist or translator or anything, just a rando who's taken a few Spanish, Japanese, and creative writing classes. Make what you will of that when you read this.
At time of writing the latest kerfuffle is the Switch port of Live-A-Live and these lines going around:
"What was wrong with the original line" people are asking, "he's just telling her she's pretty." The problem is we're being shown these lines without context. I think what's going on here is the woman is upset about something, and in the original Japanese the man is telling her to settle down in a condescending way. It also sort of suggests women aren't supposed show emotions or think or really do anything except sit there and be pretty and let the menfolk take care of things. In the English translation he's telling her to settle down because losing control of your emotions will make you do stupid things. In both instances he's telling her to calm down, but one way is much ruder.
There's also the possibility "You're letting a pretty face go to waste" is a common and very sexist saying in Japanese, like it's their equivalent of "Calm your tits," "Don't get your panties in a twist," or "Are you on your period?" When a man says that to a woman he doesn't actually want to know if she's on her period, he's telling her to stop being an emotional bitch. But translated into another language where people don't say that for that reason, or even in another context - I dunno, a mother finding bloody clothes in the laundry hamper - "Are you on your period?" would just sound like the speaker is concerned for her health rather than dismissing her anger.
Thing is, if what he was saying was sexist and dismissive, then the character being sexist and dismissive was the whole point, and changing his words to sagely advice about not letting anger get the better of her completely changes his character. Although "You're letting a pretty face go to waste" sounds really weird in English, so maybe you'd want to tweak it into something like "You'll give yourself wrinkles scowling like that." That maintains the sexism, but works better in English.
Of course this has provoked another round of people crying about about how translators aren't doing their job and need to translate the original Japanese literally. When somebody says that, what I hear is somebody admitting they don't know shit about writing.
A 100% literal translation is not possible because language is not literal.
Okay, that's not entirely true, a completely literal translation is technically possible. But at best the translation job is going to have a stick up its ass, and at worst it's going to be incoherent gibberish. Think about how much of what you say and write goes beyond the literal word: wordplay, idioms, puns, proverbs, allusions, other figures of speech, euphemisms, double entendres, rhetorical questions, rhymes, alliterations, verbal tics, insults, swear words, and so on. Even symbols can have different meanings around the globe; a snake represents evil and temptation in one culture, and rebirth in another.
There was a joke my Japanese teacher once told us... well, more like explained to us, where a man catches a mouse and starts arguing with his friend about how big it is. He insists it's a big mouse, but his friend keeps saying it's a little mouse. After some back and forth between the two, the mouse says "Squeak."
... I think it goes without saying that this joke is total nonsense in English.
The joke here is that "chu", the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a mouse makes, also means "medium." It's sort of like two friends going to a restaurant, one of them ordering a steak, and when it comes out they start debating whether it's a big steak or a little steak until the waiter comes along and says it's "medium". If this was left as-is in a manga the translation notes could explain all of this, but the phrase "if you need to explain the joke it's not funny" doesn't just apply to somebody not telling it right.
Some people argue you should leave the original text in and if somebody wants to know what the characters are banging on about, they can look it up and learn something about Japanese culture. After all, that's what they'd do. Something like Okami is heavily based in traditional Japanese folklore so it's not unreasonable to ask anyone wondering why that rabbit is hitting a ball of dough with a croquet mallet to do their homework. But if you have a character ask to borrow a cat's paw, most people are going to be left wondering what the fuck that even means, might even draw a parallel to a rabbit's foot and think the character wants a severed cat's paw for a good luck charm then get even more confused and horrified.
"Borrowing/Accepting a cat's paw" is an expression meaning the speaker is so desperate for help they'll even accept the help (paw) of a cat, which are known for sleeping all the time and doing their own thing. This actually appeared in Berserk one time, for anyone who thought it was a bit random for Isidro to bring up cats when he's trying not to get eaten by a congealed mass of the dead's hatred. So it's roughly - but not perfectly - equivalent to our "any port in a storm."
For an English example, think of the idiom "crying wolf." English speakers know that's an allusion to the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", and means "making a fuss when there isn't actually a problem, which you shouldn't do because nobody's going to believe you or care when you actually are in trouble." But is somebody on the other side of the planet going to understand that phrase? Or "sour grapes," or "the emperor has no clothes?" Maybe, but it would be better to translate those to local equivalents.
When I took Spanish in high school, I made a Valentine card that read "Lemmings fall off cliffs, I fall for you." Because I was an idiot teenager, I couldn't get it through my head when my teacher tried to explain to me that "falling for somebody" doesn't mean the same thing in Spanish that it does in English (in fact I think it's nonsense in Spanish).
Also, it's extremely unlikely a story is only going to use one idiom through the whole thing, and expecting the reader to research every joke and figure of speech to the point they're spending more time looking up idioms and digging through dictionaries to understand puns than playing your game is just going to throw them out of the story.
Don't forget poetry. Not just because it's extremely unlikely words that rhyme in one language rhyme in another, but sentence structure might have different parts of the sentence in different places (everyone know that in Spanish adjectives come after the noun so "green table" is "mesa verde." And Japanese's entire syntax is different from English. It obviously gets more complicated with longer sentences, but a simple example is English goes "I read a book" while Japanese goes "I book read."). And imagine somebody translating Shakespeare; it's not enough to translate the words and swap a couple for synonyms that rhyme, you'd have to rewrite everything in a way that maintains iambic pentameter, or rework it into a metric that works better with the new language.
Somewhere I have two copies of The Canterbury Tales. One of them is from the Barnes and Noble Classics line, and the other is from Penguin Press. Both have the original text on one page and a modernized version on the facing page because yes, The Canterbury Tales were originally written in English, but it's an archaic English that requires updating so that modern audiences can understand what the hell is going on. But they make for a fascinating case study on translation because the Barnes and Noble version literally translates the text, completely killing the rhythm, while the Penguin Press version maintains the rhythm. I'm not sure where they are right now so I can't cite any specific examples from it, but the Barnes and Noble version would have something like "Short was his goune, with sleves longe and wyde / Wel coude he sitte on horse, and faire ryde" becoming "His gown was short with long, wide sleeves / And he could ride a horse well." And I can't cite the exact example, but I distinctly remember an entire line being reduced to two words. Keep the notes, lose the music.
But that's just the arty stuff, right? No, even basic phrases often sound bizarre when literally translated. When you want to know somebody's name in English you ask "What's your name?" In Spanish you ask "Como te llamas?" which literally translates to "What are you called?" Unless they're talking to somebody condescendingly ("What do they call you, boy?") or you want them to sound like English isn't their first language, "What are you called?" is just going to have people asking "Who talks like that?" And we all know about "Engrish" translations in early video games, right? That's what you get when you literally translate Japanese to English.
There was an episode of Comic Tropes where Chris interviewed a manga translator, who explained how Japanese is a high context language, while English is low context. I admit I don't know what that means but from the sounds of it, Japanese tries to cram as much information into as few words as possible. If you can't watch that video, the example the translator gives is if a husband leaves his dishes on the table before heading off to work in the morning, what his wife will tell him when he gets home in the evening. In English the wife will say "Honey, you left your dishes on the table this morning." In Japanese the wife will just say "Dishes." The whole thing is worth a watch if you want to know the struggles a translator goes through.
And now everyone's favorite part of learning foreign language, the insults and swear words! "Busu" in Japanese literally means "fright" or "ugly person" but it's a harsh swear word directed at a woman. So it's like "bitch" in English, which literally means "female dog." To make things even more confusing, in English we also call men "bitches", but while calling a woman a bitch is calling her nasty and unpleasant, calling a male a bitch is calling him a coward or a wimp. As far as I know and I could be wrong about this, Japanese doesn't use "busu" against men. And a biting insult in one language just sounds fucking stupid in another (I've mentioned the "I'm your father" example before)
I even saw somebody say they can't wait for AI to get good enough that computers can do the translating and make localizers obsolete. Which is an example of "Tell me you don't understand how computers work without telling me you don't understand how computers work." Translation is an art, not a science, and contrary to what Dall-E might make you think computers are only good at one of these.
How the fuck is a computer going to understand context? How is a computer going to handle accents and regional dialects? Or a drunken barfly slurring their lines? Or a child confusing two similar sounding words*? Or made-up words? Or things that aren't supposed to be translated, like names or somebody asking what "jitensha" means**? Or the subtle difference between a "house" and a "home"? And Japanese typically doesn't have plurals (sometimes you see "-tachi" but most of the time it's like how "moose" can be one moose or multiple moose), and lacks articles like "the" or "a." You need a human to go in and figure out where to put plurals and which articles to use and at that point, why even have the computer?
* Yes a computer could understand "dog" and "hog" end in the same letters, but it has to recognize a character didn't mean to say "I'm going to walk my hog" before it can replace it with an animal that that sounds like "inu." And you can't tell the computer to assume only dogs get walked and anything else is a mistake because maybe somebody really does have a little piggie that likes to take walkies.
I also want to bring up that scene in Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations where Pearl smears gravy on a picture of Misty Fey because she mistook "gravely" for "gravy." In the original Japanese, she smears curry on the picture because she misread the kanji for "splendid end" as "Indian curry." Here's an article on it.
Oh, man, kanji. That's a whole other toolkit for Japanese writers to play with and English localizers to work around.
** "Bicycle" if you're wondering.
And remember that "cat's paw" idiom? How is a computer supposed to look at words "cat's paw" and determine if it's the idiom, or referring to the literal foot of a domesticated feline, like a vet explaining to a girl that her cat's paw is broken?
For English to Japanese, I guess you could tell the computer a certain character is a young girl so she doesn't say "boku" which is very inappropriate in Japanese, but how is it going to know which version of "you" to use? The polite "atashi", the informal "kimi," or the vulgar "omae"? You can't do this character-by-character because Kenshiro might say "omae wa mou shindeiru" to his enemies, but I'm pretty sure he uses "kimi" to his friends (you know, before they all get killed because Kenshiro is the only person in the world who sucks more at keeping his friends alive than Spider-Man). How is a computer going to know if the words "crying wolf" are the idiom, or an actual lupine that's shedding tears? And what's a computer going to do when it encounters a word or concept that exists in one language but not the other? How many other languages have a word for trypophobia?
So you don't look that up and try to tear your own skin off when Google shows you a lotus pod, trypophobia means "fear of holes" and it's when you get creeped out looking at objects with irregular holes in them.
Let's play devil's advocate and say we train a computer to recognize when "cat's paw" is the idiom and when it's literal. Now what if there's a joke related to a cat being in the scene? Let's take two scenarios:
1) A slice of life manga where a girl who's neglected her homework for a week is scrambling to get the assignment done the night before it's due, and she screams at her cat "I'd even accept your paw right now!"
2) A fantasy adventure manga where one of the party members is a talking cat, anthro or otherwise. Another party member is injured and the closest aid is a village of pixies that are generally benign but known for being tricksters. The party leader remarks he'd accept a cat's paw at this point and the cat responds with "I resent that."
In the first scenario, having the girl say "any port in a storm" wouldn't make any sense because "any port in a storm" isn't something people shout in exasperation, just mutter in acceptance when they realize they have no alternatives. Maybe you could change girl's the line to "I don't need your help right now!" and change the context to her berating the cat for sitting on her papers, but the best thing to do here probably would be to translate it literally, pop an asterisk next to it, and explain it in a footnote or tell the reader to check the translation notes.
In the second scenario, you have some choices. One option is to have the leader say "I'd even accept help from a village of lazy cats right now, she's in trouble!" and leave the cat saying "I resent that" which, in literal terms, is closest to the original script. But in this case he's not saying a common idiom, he just being an ass and insulting cats out of nowhere. Hell, it almost reads like he's saying it to spite the cat party member. And if the cats are anthro, well, that's just racist. Another option is to have the leader say "Well, any port in a storm, I guess" and change the cat's line to "Ooh, can we visit the fish market while we're there?" The dynamic of the leader saying an idiom and the cat taking it seriously in a way a cat would is maintained, but the purists will be be outraged that the lines were completely changed. Maybe you can think of another way to translate this scene.
Long story short, translating this idiom is not as easy as throwing in a "if (sceneHasCat == true)" statement.
And God help you if you ask a computer to translate a pun. Years ago I had a computer science teacher explain computers' inability to handle ambiguity with the phrase "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana." Because "fruit flies like a banana" can mean two things:
The ovaries of plants travel through the air the way a banana does.
Insects in the genus Drosophila enjoy eating a banana.
It's also worth pointing out "Time flies like an arrow" can also be read multiple ways.
And if we do by some miracle get computers that can accurately tell whether "boring" means "uninteresting" or "putting holes in things" within our lifetimes - I know words that are pronounced the same way but mean different things in Japanese can be differentiated by their kanji, but most languages don't have that luxury - I feel like that would make for very sterile translations.
Maybe I've been yelling at a cloud this whole time because I imagine (or rather hope) most people understand that puns and idioms have to be adapted and nuances in the dialogue tweaked around language structure and speech styles, they just want localizers to keep the story and characters intact (which throws another "how the fuck is a computer supposed to handle this shit?" wrench into the idea of AI-generated translations) and not turn onigiri into donuts, and the people demanding 100% true translations are a minority who don't know what they're talking about and can be safely ignored. Fair enough, and translators abandoning the original text altogether to shove in obnoxious political commentary or a Gamergate reference can fuck right off. But the point I've been trying to make for however many paragraphs is how those things are maintained inevitably conflict with the literal text and gamers need to accept that something - usually the literal text - has to give, because the alternative is both being lost as the characters talk in non-sequiturs.
And I don't think even this has to be adhered to all the time. If you're tasked with adapting something bland and generic I don't think it's unreasonable to want to liven it up with some artistic flair or comedy, preferably not in the Working Designs way of drenching it in dumbass pop culture references and fart jokes. According to this Legends of Localization article, Kefka is more popular in America than he is in Japan because of the changes Woolsey made to Final Fantasy VI. The English translation gave us lines like "Son of a submariner" and "You all sound like pages out of a self-help booklet", but he's a dull son of a bitch in the original Japanese. Demanding a 1-to-1 translation comes across as "No, America, you will take the same shitty Kefka as Japan and like it."
I also find it amusing how "translations are inherently inferior anyway, you should learn the original language and get the true experience" only ever seems to come up when it's Japanese pop culture. Why aren't these people nitpicking the translation of 1Q84? And do I need to learn Spanish before I can properly read Don Quixote? Then French for Man in the Iron Mask? After that, guess it's time to devote a few years to German and reread All Quiet on the Western Front cause I can only get the true horror of a man holding a severed artery closed with his teeth in the book's original language. There aren't enough hours in the day, people.
On the other side of the translation coin, when the Discworld novels are translated into languages with gendered nouns likes Spanish and French they have to work around the ones where "death" is traditionally feminine (i.e. virtually all of them). Do these people want to complain about the French editions adding a recurring joke about Horsewomen of the Apocalypse?
I'm not trying to make an "otaku who have only ever touched a book when they ran out of toilet paper" jab here, but fuck me if people talking like they're only learning Japanese so they can read My Hero Academia the way God intended and look down on the English-reading peasants aren't making it easy.
I hope my ramblings didn't come across as just me spouting off a bunch of linguistic trivia, and gave you an idea of what a clusterfuck translating is. I've written over 4,000 words covering just a few examples of the quirks translators have to deal with, a quarter of which was spent analyzing a single idiom. Now expand everything I've said across entire languages because it's not just Japanese to English, it's also English to Japanese, Italian to German, Korean to Spanish, and so on.
Which I conclude with the sad reality of translation, that it's a business and the localizers ultimately answer to the bean counters. In an ideal world artists are given free reign to craft the best art they can, but in the real world and especially with video games they've got to make sales and their job is less about pleasing the most people and more about pissing off the fewest people. To be honest, while I don't agree with it I can't blame the Live-A-Live localizers for turning the man from a sexist pig into a wise mentor, or this scene. Yeah, they have a handful of people complaining about inaccurate translations, but in a world of people looking for shit to be offended about who think depicting something is endorsing it, the originals would have had Kotaku and half of Twitter screeching about Live-A-Live's treatment of women. And the purists would still be complaining because the translators edited the script to sound better in English. Fuck, if I were a localizer in this day and age, I myself would be wishing for the day I could hand the job over to the computers and let everyone, as we say in English, reap what they sow.