Alethea & Athena (double_dear) wrote,
Alethea & Athena

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Hold it, Mr. Holmes!

We just had an existential crisis today while working on Devil Survivor. It has a bunch of references to mythologies from all over the world, and between the chapters there are profiles of some of the mythological characters and creatures, and one of these profiles mentioned the Hindu god Kama, so we looked up Kama to make sure everything it said about him (in less than a sentence) was accurate, and we found out he sometimes goes by Mara. It suddenly hit us that maybe Mara from Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye is actually male! All this time we thought Mara was a she! (Probably because when the ride opened, our mom actually had a friend named Mara.)

This was only slightly problematic, because a few weeks ago, the ride came up in discussion during Athena's Primary class, and one of the boys kept calling Mara he, and she told him, no, Mara is female. So the next week, this kid is still having his mind blown about Mara actually being female, "Did you know that Mara is really a girl?" And now it turns out maybe s/he's not. So we checked the Wikipedia page on the ride (which might not have been the best idea when we decided we should get at least one more CD's worth of work done before quitting time, and it was taking up CD time) to see if it ever mentioned a gender, and it looks like the article deliberately avoided it. So we're guessing it's supposed to be ambiguous. And we're going to have to set the record straight with that kid.

Anyway, I was going to talk about honorifics today, because it has come up yet again in the discussion of what makes a good translation. I'm pretty sure I've covered this topic in depth several times, but despite the usual talking points being repeated ad nauseum, I'm always able to find new angles to attack it from. So first of all, I commented on Deb Aoki's survey addressing the issue of skill, i.e. how much skill the presence or lack of name honorifics actually indicates. (We thought about voting in the poll, too, but first we thought we're not really consumers of English-translated manga. Then I was going to vote anyway because I don't know how else we can see what the results are looking like, but it wanted me to sign in with Facebook or Twitter and I just didn't want to.)

Here's what I said over there:

"I want to address the concept that the use or disuse of honorifics is an indication of a translator’s skill. It would definitely be a skilled translator who can come up with a good one-size-fits-all equivalent of such things as -kun and -sempai, but in most translations that don’t use honorifics, those name suffixes are just omitted, and replacing something with nothing doesn’t really take a lot of skill. (Of course, if a translator decided to leave them out and then it came up later that the different forms of address were significant, it would take some skill to turn that dialogue into something that makes sense, but that skill would be more in creative writing than translation.)
And if a translator did somehow come up with a good English equivalent for -kun or -sempai that didn’t make the readers raise their eyebrows at the extremely unnatural English usage, chances are other translators would pick up on it and adopt it. Then it would turn into a one-to-one replacement, which also takes very little skill.

The idea, then, is that the translator can use the dialogue to express in English what used to be expressed by honorifics. The problem with that is that it assumes the Japanese dialogue isn’t already conveying that with more than just name honorifics, and that’s not true. Japanese dialogue uses more than just name honorifics to express levels of closeness and familiarity, and a good translator would be able to express that in the translation, with or without the name honorifics.

That being the case, whether or not you like name honorifics, I don’t think it’s a matter of skill so much as stylistic preferences (and of course, how significant you think the name honorifics really are). That being the case, I have to wonder: what are people’s opinions of European (non-English) honorifics? For example, would it take you out of the story if you were reading a translation of The Three Musketeers and someone called somebody else Monsieur?"

I tried to keep it short because as I was writing it in my head during the hour it took me to fall asleep and the hour I was awake before the alarm, I kept remembering an old TV show (I think it was Boston Commons, but it might have been a different one) where a girl was stressing out about a final exam essay thing, and she had a dream where her professor kept yelling at her, "The key to wit is brevity!" Then she went to take the test, and it was an essay with the topic, "The key to wit is..." So she wrote, "The key to wit is brevity!" And walked out of the class. I don't remember how she did on the test. But anyway, I'm not sure I succeeded, but I think my comment was shorter than it could have been.

But anyway, there's such an abundance of aspects to this topic that of course I have more to say about it. This time, because we've been playing Ace Attorney, which is all about turning things around and looking at them the other way, I thought, "But what about translating English honorifics into Japanese?" As a matter of fact, most Japanese incarnations of Sherlock Holmes that we've come across have Holmes always addressing Watson as Watson-kun. I always just thought of it as a nice little addition to the nuance in the Japanese text, but of course it doesn't exist in the English version, so that could be an argument for taking name honorifics out of English translations.

I decided to do a little bit of research, and I looked up a Japanese translation of the Holmes stories on the internet. I don't have a whole lot of free time, so I only skimmed one story (the one about Irene Adler), but I knew I'd find something if I just looked for katakana. Sure enough, there was a Miss somebody and a Mrs. somebody else (I'm not great at remembering names), and the titles were translated to -jou and -fujin, respectively. Now that brings up an interesting point, because neither of those are very commonly used in Japanese, or at least not in manga. You mostly see them in newspaper articles and that sort of situation. There were no -sans or -kuns, even with Holmes addressing Watson, which leads me to believe that the Watson-kun thing came from the movies.

...Well, that, and the fact that Japanese Wikipedia mentioned Holmes's most famous line as, "Elementary, my dear Watson!" with a translation that added a -kun. And that brings up the fascinating possibility of translating -kun as "my dear." Can't you just imagine it? All the high school students referring to each other as, "My dear Yoshida." "My dear Yamaken." That second one is especially great, because Shizuku calls her boyfriend just Haru.

Anyway, I think the conclusion here is that Japanese and English titles do not have common use equivalents of each other. So let's get back to Ace Attorney.

In the Ace Attorney game that we've been enjoying so much recently, you have two Japanese characters visiting London. Even though they're supposedly speaking English the whole time, the man calls everyone -san and the woman calls everyone -sama (she's very polite and this takes place in the Victorian Era). So it seems like the game writers just "translated" the honorifics into Japanese. But then they meet Sherlock Holmes, and he calls everyone Mr. or Miss (misutaa and misu). So maybe the Japanese characters are still using Japanese honorifics while speaking English? But then! you have the cute little English girl, who calls everyone -chan and -kun.

...So I think the moral of the story is just do what feels right.

Today I'm thankful for getting to have a pizza for dinner, finally getting that comment about honorifics off my chest, still having super cute fingernails, having some time to play Devil Survivor for reference before finalizing this translation, and having ice cream in the freezer for later.
Tags: ace attorney, language geekiness, sherlock holmes, translating

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