If there is one piece of the Japanese language most fans have picked up from anime, it’s the honorifics system. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, there is constant discussion as to how they should be handled in translation. Do we call our beloved characters Kobayashi-san, Miss Kobayashi or just plain Kobayashi?
Of Character and Context
There are generally three ways translators handle honorifics in anime. Either keep them the way there were in Japanese, take them out completely, or partially translate them. The clarification of partial is important there, as some honorifics, notably “kun”, have no real equivalent in English. Of course, how one translates honorifics is not simply an aesthetic choice, as problems can occur later in the work depending on the choice made at the beginning.
The example that prompted me to write this article in the first place is from My Hero Academia. The character Tsuyu often insists people call her “Tsuyu-chan”, but Deku, being a rather polite person, continues to use her last name (a much more formal way to refer to someone in Japanese). The “chan” here is important, it’s part of Tsuyu’s character. The official subtitles for My Hero Academia (and Viz’s manga translation) don’t use honorifics. The translation has Tsuyu ask people to refer to her as “Tsu” which works somewhat. Asking people to call her a nickname doesn’t seem out of character, and so it’s a decent way to get around it (though personally, I think they wouldn’t have this problem if they kept in the honorifics!).
Another example of this would be in Sakura Quest, where Funimation translates Yoshino-chan as Yoshi, which reminds our editor of the Nintendo green dinosaur, so this isn’t a one-off translation. This is seen as a possible translation, for better or worse.
Plot and Culture Collide
Complications don’t end at character quirks though, as put simply, there is cultural importance in honorifics. How you refer to people is important in Japanese, so the absence of an honorific in the original Japanese can indicate either closeness or lack of respect. Without honorifics, translators have to indicate these relationships in other ways. Sometimes it becomes important to the plot as well. Take Assassination Classroom for example (spoilers follow).
During the paintball battle arc of Assassination Classroom, Nagisa and Karma’s friendship is put front and center. It’s noted by the characters that despite having been friends for years, they still refer to each other with “kun”. Throughout their fight they deal with some issues in their friendship, and leave it stronger than before, dropping the “kun” once and for all. However, translations for Assassination Classroom didn’t include honorifics, complicating manners.
This is a problem with translating serialized work, not limited to honorifics. You can never know what will be important later on.
Are Honorifics Translatable?
I suppose it’s time to address the translation of honorifics now. Any conversations on translation will always be plagued, for better or worse, by the concept of a “good translation”. Complications arise from the fact that languages aren’t a 1:1. Things like “loan words” and such make that even more complicated.
On top of that, there are culture differences to explore. Translating isn’t just a matter of “this English word is like this Japanese word,” it just isn’t that easy. Context is always important, and even more important in looking at “san”.
All things considered “san” is probably the easiest Japanese honorific to “translate” as far as adults go, it’s reasonable (at least in my view) to translate it as “Mr” or “Miss”. For example, the recent Kobayashi-san chi no Maid Dragon was localised as Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, fairly reasonable. Kobayashi’s an adult, people would probably call her that if she was in an English speaking country. It should be noted that for titles the Japanese publishers are involved, so some in Japan also find this to be an acceptable translation. The actual problem with translating “san” comes when you look at anime about teenagers.
If I may say so myself, teenagers aren’t the most polite people in the world, especially when talking to one another. This is why translating “san” as “miss” can come across as odd, at least in my view. It affects how people read characters among other things. There are plenty of honorifics and terms that become confusing to translate. Do we translate “sensei”? What about “onii-chan”? How do we do it? It’s just not that simple.
The translation of “onii-chan” and “onee-chan” is actually pretty strange. Sometimes you’ll see it kept, but in the modern vernacular, “nii-chan” will be used to refer to dudes on the street, but that’s always translated words like “bro” or “mister” in shows like Gintama. In the case of “sensei” it’s also difficult, in a school scenario translating it as “Mr” or “Miss” or “Teach” would be fine, but what about mangaka which are usually referred to “Oda-Sensei” or “Oda-Senpai” by their peers? Context is important, but it’s also a matter of not wanting to alienate the audience. Despite it not looking this way, there are plenty of casual viewers of anime that don’t know the honorifics, who’ll feel like they’re missing something.
At the end of the day…
Translation is complex, so it’s important to have a conversation that we as a community should have. Only by exploring the options will the desired path show itself. I prefer to see the honorific’s kept in, it’s easiest for me, but I understand that I am not everyone. This is actually an advantage of published manga, which can slip in a page explaining what the honorifics are, but a disadvantage for streamed anime that would need clunky translator notes. Language isn’t going to get less complex, but if we can figure out what we want from it, we can find a way to honor the honorific.