Posted by on Jan 19, 2010 in Retranslation log | 8 Comments

When translating from Japanese, you need to consider how to treat honorifics: -san, -chan, -senpai, and so on. In a lot of pop culture, localizers have started just leaving them in and thus preserving their meanings; if your audience is Japanese pop culture aficionados, then you can trust them to understand. This works when the story is set in Japan, but it is odd when English butlers or medieval swordsmen go around calling people -kun.

In most cases, it is best to simply translate the honorific when it sounds natural in the target language, and drop it otherwise. Think about how the characters would actually address each other if English was their native language: classmates don’t use titles for each other, but adults are often called Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So.

Of course, the Ar tonelico 2 localization offers a middle-ground approach that results in the worst of both worlds. They translate every honorific, regardless of whether it makes sense. So, you get high school students calling each other “Ms.”, a senpai called “Master”, and so on. The dialogue ends up at least as awkward as it would have been with the Japanese honorifics, but without the nuances of the original words for people who know them. This policy continues throughout otherwise Japanese-culture-saturated parts of the game.

In our relocalization, we’re taking a hybrid approach. Almost everywhere, we translate addresses to be as natural as possible for native English speakers. But in the fantasy side-stories that take place in a fictionalized Japan, full of references to Japanese school life and popular culture, it makes sense to include the original honorifics. When the character is a moe-crazy otaku in a maid cafe, seeing him address someone as “-san” is not going to bring the story crashing down.

The official localization’s honorifics policy is odd for a game that included “moe” as a bullet point in its marketing.

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    January 19, 2010

    Personally I’d prefer honorifics to stay regardless of a setting. So I don’t need to rely on translator to grasp what character may be impying (happens sometimes).

  2. Anonymous
    January 19, 2010

    “Senpai” as “Master” … ? You mean “Sensei?”

  3. fetjuel
    January 19, 2010

    Anonymous 1: I guess if you don’t trust the translators to grasp the nuances of the dialogue, you’d have much larger concerns than just the addresses getting interpreted correctly. Every line we translate requires some judgment call or another.

    Anonymous 2: Sadly, no. For sensei it would kind of make sense. But Soraneko’s characteristic address of Luca is “senpai”, which doesn’t really work as “Master”.

  4. Keichi's Fur Seal
    January 19, 2010

    All I can say is thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Leaving in honorifics is an incredibly annoying practice that rarely makes sense and results in a stilted translation. I cringe when translators leave words like onii-chan and oba-san in Japanese. Most English speakers fail to realize that while English doesn’t have a specific set of suffixes to denote familiarity, we have other equally significant ways of referring to each other based on familiarity.

    Localizations have to translate the spirit of the original language, not just its literal meaning. It’s very professional of you to do things this way, and I wish more translators would make their goal bringing the depth of the original writing to a new language, rather than handing over a literalistic and wooden narrative in the name of “authenticity.”

  5. Anonymous
    January 20, 2010

    Ah, so it’s like a maid cafe.

  6. Sirius
    January 25, 2010

    I would prefer honorifics myself but your approach sounds cool so it’s all good.

  7. HollowNinja
    February 20, 2010

    I also would like continuous honorifics, or none at all. But yeah, this is more than acceptable, and a giant leap forward from NISA’s version.

    It’s mainly for a matter of consistency for me.

  8. Sakura
    March 7, 2010

    @Keichi’s Fur Seal

    words like onii-chan and oba-san These are not honorifics so I have little idea as to the point you’re trying to make.

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