View Full Version : Discussion Honorifics Philosophy

August 10, 2009, 01:28 AM
I have a philosophical question for all the translators out there. It seems that the convention is to retain most or all of the honorifics from the Japanese text (e.g. -san, -sama, -chan, -sensei etc.) in scanlations. I think this is a phenomenon unique to the scanlation community, because translations of Japanese literature don't include them as far as I know. The translators of those works must find ways to work around it, although I admit I haven't read too many of them, so I don't know for sure.

My question to all of you is two parts.

First, why has the community decided to keep honorifics in the translations? For my own part, I can think of a couple of reasons.
1) Japanese culture has a much deeper hierarchy of respect than English-speaking cultures. Since these levels of respect are integral to many conversations, they've been retained.
2) The level of intimacy between two people is conveyed quickly and accurately by the honorifics, and the majority of scanlation readers will be familiar with how this works to some extent.
If anyone has any history or insight into why this became the convention, please share. Feel free to also share your own reasons why you keep them and what, if any, particular conventions you've developed surrounding them.

Second, has anyone considered dropping the honorifics in their translations (or implemented it)? And if so, why did you do so and how did it work out? For my part, I lean towards keeping them. Let me give you a hypothetical situation in which it would be problematic to omit them.
This is a love story about Boy A and girl B. A meets B at school. B is somewhat tsundere and so she addresses him as A-san at first. As they gradually get closer through various comical and romantic moments, A and B develop feelings for each other, but B still calls him A-san. A is frustrated by B's hesitance. Then, one night after some momentous event in their relationship, B bids A farewell by saying, "Good night A" (omitting -san). This unexpected expression of intimacy causes A to blush.
Had she kissed him, his blushing would have been obvious. However, since their relationship is developing slowly and A is unsurprisingly bad with girls, this difference in address has a lot of meaning. The question is, how on earth do you express this in English? B wasn't necessarily calling him "Mr. A", nor did she suddenly call him "My little A-poo". If one were translating this as it serialized, he'd have no idea that this event were coming and could not therefore develop a convention to work around it.

If anyone has read much Japanese literature translated into English, could you also share how the translators dealt with honorifics there? If you have any ideas about how they could be handled, please share those too. Apologies for the wordy post. I hope it generates a lot of discussion.

August 10, 2009, 06:21 AM
Well, I know Del Ray kept the archaic honorifics for Basilisk, so not all publishers drop them.

But I go for translations without them, since they aren't an English thing. You just gotta mess with your dialog to show the intimacy/respect level. And really, it doesn't seem like you lose much from dropping the honorifics that can't be implied from the character interactions. Honorifics are meant to show hierarchical status in the culture and since English relies more on subtle, implied interactions, they don't seem necessary.

In relation to your hypothetical, I doubt many scanlation readers would notice the sudden drop in honorifics, and imply that it's a drastic change in the relationship based on context and the fact that the obviously tsundere girl suddenly says "I love you", a classic archetypal transformation in the genre. Also usually those characters have a stern expression throughout the manga (to signify their character type) and I'm sure when she finally says the heart-renching words, her expression changes, another implier of the relationship change.

August 10, 2009, 03:23 PM
My policy is never to use the Japanese honorifics in translations. However, my experience with the Japanese in English is that they would attached them in any correspondence they have with me. They have continued to attach Japanese honorifics despite the lack thereof on my part in replies.

There are some cases where keeping the honorifics would have made translation much easier. In other cases it's not that helpful since even with the honorifics, the English readership is still missing necessary information with which to interpret the situation. For example, when two very familiar people get together, and one calls the other by their given name with "-kun" honorific. The other responds by calling the first by their family name again with the "-kun" honorific. This immediately establishes some level of superiority and inferiority in a relationship that is already very friendly. Can readers pick up on this?

Personally, I think it's much better to make side notes of significant deviations from normal etiquette and formality so that readers don't have to rely on cultural knowledge that they may or may not have with respect to Japanese honorifics. Another method is modify the script to reflect the various levels of intimacy and respect. Yet another method is to for the typesetter to work out the right fonts to depict the correct mood.

August 17, 2009, 10:49 AM
I tend to translate with honorifics. To be honest, it can get annoying with it tho, but it would be just annoying without. I think people do it because they feel it's more classy to stay as consistent to the original as possible. I mean, yes, the original would be Japanese, and keeping in honorifics isn't even remotely comparable, but I like to think of it in terms of foreign movies. There are a greater number of people who like to watch foreign movies with subtitles than dubs. Why? Because dubbing can force you to mangle a translation in order to fit it in the space given, whereas subtitles could give a better explanation while you are able to hear the original. Albeit manga is an entirely different format, but I'd like to think that the same thought process could apply.

As for the situation you mentioned. Creating a brief idea of a tsundere girl in a romance story without the use of honorifics... I would have had the girl calling the boy by his last name, making her sound a little rough. Then when the situation calls for the drop of the honorific, I would have just had her use his first name to show the clear intimacy of the situation.

October 31, 2013, 03:36 AM
Hi, I'm not a translator/scanslator (though, I'm planning to be one) but I am a Japanese language learner and I just would like to express my thoughts in your question.
In most of our Nihongo Classes, we do a lot of reading Japanese materials and translating them. In the process, it has been our habit to retain the honorific when translating so as to give the translation a Japanese touch, or to retain its "Japaneseness". And if ever I would be engaged to translation works, I would still retain the honorifics with those reasons. Also, Manga is a Japanese work so as translators we much keep the Japanese touch to keep its Japaneseness

January 16, 2014, 06:00 PM
Good discussion. I think the main point isn't about what you keep, by keeping them, but about what you lose when you don't.
The omittance of honorifics in Japanese is just as important as the use of them.

Basically, I'd keep them as they are, and explain them, for a series in a very Japanese setting (like Natsume Yuujinchou for example... you can't escape giving some background info for the youkai anyway and the honorifics have a lot of meaning.)

If requested, or when I think it suits better, it's possible to leave them out and try to adapt as much as possible. Although it usually sounds so stiff in English to say 'mr.' or 'lord', and since I'm not a native speaker of English, adapting the entire dialog takes a lot of time for me to figure out the best solution... I definitely don't think it's bad to leave them out if something is done about the text to make the original meaning clear in the translation.

What I also do is... mix it up. Leave out -san, and keep the endearing ones (-kun, -chan) and the special ones (-sensei, -sama). But this gets confusing sometimes, haha xD The thing is that people who look up non-mainstream manga are definitely aware of the honorifics in Japanese and don't need much explanation. So for me there is a difference between formal translation and scanlation work.

(What I don't approve of in translations is not translating/adapting oniisan, jiisan etc, especially if it's not even the real brother or gramps, but 'guy' and 'old man'. Those are actual words, people... xD)