Translation and culture

  • Premium Member

    I read the preview of My Sister Lives in Fantasy World and shocked with the absence of Japanese culture like the usage of -chan, -kun, -san, and the likes. Yes, those words doesn't exists in english language but omitting them will leave the finer details out. In Japanese culture, hierarchy and relationship is very important compared to westerners. I'm an asian but had worked with foreigners, mostly americans, and noticed that there is no relationship like sempai and kouhai, you have to address someone directly with their given name or with their titles and family name for formality. Contrary to that, in Japanese, addressing someone without honorifics may be rude unless you're very close.

    The '-san' honorific for example, can be translated in english as Mr/Ms/Mrs but the distance(relationship) is may vary. Using '-san'(in japanese) and Mr/Ms/Mrs(in english) for strangers and colleagues is correct, but '-san' can be used for close friends or even spouse but it will sound awkward to call them Mr/Ms/Mrs in english on regular basis.

    Also the usage of 'big/elder sister' as translation for 'onee-chan', 'onee-san', 'onee-sama', 'ane-ki', and 'ane-sama' feels lacking because of the same reason as I stated above - distance(relationship).

    I highly recommend that you translate the story while retaining culture. Add some pages at start to explain things that can't be translated like honorifics and food-stuffs so that when the reader encountered those words, they have the idea what is their meaning while being true to the story.

  • Translators

    @eSPiYa J-Novel Club has no official position on use or non-use of honorifics in our translations: It's left for the most part up to the translator and editor.

    For some of our translations, like for example My Little Sister Can Read Kanji which I translate, I follow basically the ideas you present in your post as I felt like it was best for the ton and theme of the series... Not to mention the crucial role "Japanese" plays in that story.

    For My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World, I can let Liz speak for herself on it, but in general we felt it was not really a story that lost much from leaving out honorifics and translating them in other ways like language usage, and the benefits gained in ease of reading outweighed any lost cultural nuance.

    A general counter argument that one could make (again, I myself am agnostic on the issue), is that a reader who actually understands, for example, the "senpai/kouhai" relationship, is also the reader who does not need that specific word to be in the translation. Whereas a reader who doesn't really understand the social and societal implications is also the one where just seeing "senpai" or "kouhai" is not going to properly understand the meaning behind them anyway.

    In the end, honorifics and forms of address are just words that have meaning: The question is, does leaving them in actually inform the various types of readers we have more? Is it, in some ways, the role of the translator to teach these subtle meanings to the reader somehow? And if that is true, is it best done by leaving in Japanese style honorifics and forms of address or by subtle translation techniques and shifts in english grammar and formality?

    Right now I think our books are about 40/60 when it comes to using honorifics, but I welcome a robust debate on the merits/demerits.

    I'm kind of surprised it's been this long before someone brought it up on the forums!

  • Premium Member

    @Sam-Pinansky Thanks for the constructive response. I just discovered your organization recently because of Nee-chan wa Chuunibyou. Still fixing the issues with my bank so that I can subscribe later on. I'm an avid reader of Japanese web/light novels and following 101 stories(as the moment I'm composing this) on Novel Updates.

    I'm still learning Japanese and doing partial machine translations for a certain Japanese web novel as part of my self-studying. I'm sorry for jumping into conclusion that every story here does not contain honorifics. Usually, in an organization that publishes stories, they follow some rules and makes things uniformly. So I'm sorry again.

    For me, I believe that these traditions must be retained because it affects on how the reader see the character. It may not affect the story but we can see how each character treats others. The personality of the characters can be more established this way. As what I read and my sensei taught me, the Japanese language is tightly connected with the culture. So if a story is written in Japanese, expect that the Japanese-tradition will reflect in there. Even the settings of the story is western medieval age which the kouhai-sempai relationship does not exists, you will always find that on Japanese web/light novels.

    Regarding educating the reader regarding the Japanese tradition, you may create a single format for terms that regularly being used and always include it as appendix for each e-book file.

  • @Sam-Pinansky
    I registered, because I'm interested in Occultic;Nine and Grimgar, both titles will be printed by Seven Seas.
    And here is my statement (not my post, but I 100% agree with the author):
    Please, read it. I really don't want to waste my time on reading something which is washed off the Japanese culture. That's why I'm interested in Japanese LNs in the first place. I would read any other books, if I wanted American/Russian/German/Polish/whatever setting/talk-style/behaviour of the characters.
    Please don't take my post as a offence or something, but my (and many other people) thoughts.

  • Member

    @Akogasuki Grimgar does have honorifics.

  • My take is pretty much this:

    I think the points Sam presented are fair as well. I don't really think they're necessary and I'm generally not a fan, but I'm not vehemently against them.

  • Member


    There's no right answer, it's personal preference; and that means there's two sides of the customer spectrum. I personally favor no/fewer honorifics (and often less JP culture focus in general).

    I suspect J-Novel customers are more likely to fall into the pro-honorific camp, but I'm curious if there's a difference with Seven Seas customer base.

    Full post

    The merits of honorifics vs no-honorifics are something I've mostly given up on discussing, but the recently announced partnership with Seven Seas for print books does add an aspect I find more interesting, which I'll get back to in a bit.

    First, I don't think there's an objective "right" answer; it's just a matter of personal preference. Someone replied above that they read JP fiction because they're interested in JP cultural aspects, and therefore prefer the honorifics in it. I am personally nearly the exact opposite; I read JP LNs because I enjoy the style of story (and as a carry over from anime). I usually care very little about the unique cultural aspects, and I sometimes find stories that are heavily 'Japanese'-involved a little offputting.

    Those carrying the opposite opinion would probably tell me just to read non-JP fiction, and I do. But that's no reason why I can't enjoy JP LNs too; of course the pro-honorific camp wants to enjoy the work as well. So therefore, a translator/publisher has to balance the two sets of customers (really it's a continuum of everything in between).

    So getting that out of the way, I first mentioned the partnership of Seven Seas adds an aspect to the discussion I'm more interested in. That is musing on the possible differences between Seven Seas and J-Novel's customer bases.

    I would guess J-Novel would tend to attract more who are in the pro-honorifics (JP culture focused) camp. As new online platform with a streaming/subscription model, I'd guess J-Novel is attracting those who were already more heavily involved in the online LN discussion (and etcetera). I'd guess those motivated enough to be involved in those online communities are more likely to be so by an attraction to the JP cultural aspects (of course that's not everyone). As anecdotal evidence of my guess, it's also been my observation that such communities are more likely include honorifics and other aspects than are currently published LNs or the anime discussion communities I've been involved in.

    I imagine many of Seven Seas customers are the same ones I was trying to describe above. But I expect there's also a more significant fraction that isn't as heavily involved in the online LN communities, and is less interested in the JP culture specifically, more likely interested as an extension of an interest in anime.

    Right now those differences are really just hypothetical, and I expect some might disagree that there was any significant difference; I'd love to get a glimpse of some actual market research that puts numbers to my guesses.

    One interesting number that could come out of this partnership and provide a hint of the presence/lack of a difference in customer base is the relative popularity of co-published series at J-Novel vs Seven Seas. In theory, a more heavily JP-culture focused LN might do relatively better on J-Novel than at Seven Seas (relative to performance of another co-published LN). English publishers don’t seem to release such numbers publicly, so I don't expect to see such statistics, but I'd be cool to hear a hint of anything interesting that appears in the numbers.

  • Premium Member

    I read a lot of translated Japanese fiction and pretty much none of it outside a very few LNs and manga do honorifics. I think Botchan without honorifics says a lot more about Japanese culture than Grimgar does with honorifics. Basically if you're looking for fiction that digs deep into the Japanese psyche, light novels probably aren't what you need. However the stuff that does dig deep generally has mass cultural appeal and you're just not going to find a publisher that wants to publish translated Haruki Murakami or Soseki with honorifics. Honestly sentence structure is also different in Japanese, should that be rearranged to make the text more authentic? 😱

    I say all of this as a Japanese language student who loves the original language, but also recognizes that any translation will always be a permutation and alteration to some extent.

  • @the-green-death I'm learning Japanese too, and I agree with you. Every translation will be an alternation in some ways. But instead of cutting honorifics, why don't keep them? Instead of localizing/changing many things why don't put it in the note? There is no reason to do a more diversion. We are human beings, we are able to learn about new things, we are capable to understand different cultures.

    And when I mentioned Japanese culture, I meant everything (honorifics are the only one of many parts). It's about attempts to translate the humour - localization (change the jokes/whatever - it's always a bad idea for me in every aspect) or translation (translate and put the note if necessary), proper names, names of the food, nicknames, references to popculture etc.

    And about Seven Seas. They are always using honorifics. In Manga like Non Non Biyori, they are using a tons of notes. I really enjoyed reading it, and this is the reason why I bought English release instead of original. I'm able to understand more because of those notes. I have their Strawberry Panic Ln which is also translated in awesome way. Many notes, references and all honorifics.
    I don't know. I think that most of Japanese LN readers are more or less familiar with basics of Japanese culture and honorifics system. Is it really THAT hard to add one page on the beggining with information about honorifics, for those who are just 'starting'? And hey, even if someone don't know about honorifics, it doesn't affect on his perception of the text, but for those who know, it provides an additional information.

    And yes, while Grimgar have a fantasy world (but in some key points honorifics are crucial too), Occultic;Nine is NOT.

    Take a look on official Steins;Gate VN translation. It is really prioritizing the accuracy. I really liked it. And I'm mentioning about Steins;Gate because it is placed in the same world as Occultic;Nine.

  • Translators

    @Akogasuki FYI Technically Steins;Gate exists as a game in the world of Occultic;Nine, they aren't the same universe.

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