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Kanashii vs Sabishii: The Untranslatability of Nuance

Well, here’s an interesting one I pulled out of my “things to write about” hat, which is growing larger and larger.

In Japanese, there are multiple words for “sad”.  I’m not going to pretend “kanashii”, and “sabishii” are the only ones.  They might be, they might not be.  But they are the words I know.  And they cause no end of grief for watching subtitled anime.

The word translated as “sad” in Sound! Euphonium is “sabishii”.  That isn’t a word that directly means sad.

In the tenth episode of the second season of Sound! Euphonium (minor spoiler), Kumiki has just found out her older sister has left home.  She is on the train and starts crying.  “Sabishii”, she chokes out.  “I’m sad”.  This is also a word for “sad”, but it has connotations of isolation, of loneliness.  In some contexts, it would better be translated “lonely”.  I’m not entirely sure that’s not appropriate in this case, though there are arguments that could go both ways.

(And let me just say, parenthetically, that they nailed that scene emotionally.  The train announcer saying to not use your cell phones, along with the background music, gave it just that little bit of punch that made her emotional state so much more poignant.  Sometimes when you’re crying you’re just struck by how normal things are around you, and that just makes it so much worse in a way.  That poor girl…)

It’s hard to translate these words, I think.  Because there are no direct translations in English.  There are close translations, and there are good enough translations, but no direct translations. (“kanashii” is the closest to a direct translation – and other words are chosen.)

The same problem exists with the word “kawaii”. In English, we translate it as “cute”, but it’s not really a great translation.  I mean, it gets the message across, but “cute” in English has a different meaning than “kawaii” in Japanese.  It’s easy to translate in one sense, but you’re not getting the full message across. (Kawaii has connotations of childlike innocence, which is why so many stuffed cats have pink cheeks).

Also, the word “kuyashii” has similar issues.  In the first episode of Sound! Euphonium, first season, Kumiko’s middle school has just won “dud gold” at a competition.  She says to the girl next to her, Reina, “you didn’t really think we’d make it to nationals, did you?”.  Reina responds “Kuyashii!  Mechakucha kuyashii!”  This is translated as “I’m upset!  I’m totally upset!”  This word is also translated frustrated, angry, even mad.  It’s has all those connotations, but it’s difficult to pick just one word, because it’s very context sensitive.  I actually don’t think “upset” is a good word here.  It’s not strong enough, and doesn’t quiet get the emotion across.  Maybe “pissed” would be a good word in that context.

It’s the nuance that’s not getting across.  And the only way you can find the nuance is to understand the language.  You can see “sad” in an anime, and it could come from two or more different words, and each one with a slightly different nuance.  And how do you translate that?  Answer:  you just do your best, because you’ll never get it exactly right.

One of the reasons that localizers are so bad at their job is that they’re not translators.  They’re working off of already translated scripts.  So what they get is already devoid of quite a bit of the cultural context that makes anime, well, anime.  They take that translated (and somewhat neutered) stuff, and then their “job” is to make it palatable to a western audience.  Which is two levels of abstraction away from the original Japanese, and unwittingly double-blind, at that.

“We gotta protect our phony baloney jobs”, as a wise man named Gov. William J. LePetomaine once said.

The only way to understand what you’re missing is to, well, learn Japanese.

And while Japanese is too hard, a lot of fans are just too lazy to even make the slightest effort towards that.

They don’t even know what they’re missing.

That’s amazingly, well, sad.  Kuyashii sad, not sabishii sad.

I couldn’t watch anime without subs right now, even though I can pick up about half the conversation without them.  But I think we should bring back the gatekeeping, to some degree.  When it comes to understand anime the way the original mangaka wanted, you have to actually be able to speak some Japanese.  That’s just not negotiable.  The fact that people who can’t speak Japanese (and worse, are proud of that) are in charge of localization and have an outsized voice into how anime are presented to western audiences is one of the greatest travesties ever.

Because, the more people that learn even a little Japanese, the more we don’t need localizers.

And having every single one of those a-holes out of a job would be a net win for everyone.

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