The Nameless Terror


When is a personal name more terrifying than a word? I’m sure most teachers taking attendance on the first day of school have stories about name-terror… and so do translators, sometimes. For a Japanese-English translator, the terror can go beyond a simple “How do I pronounce this?” to “How do I spell this in the Latin alphabet? Because I have three equally valid guesses that are spelled absolutely nothing like each other.”

That’s right: in languages that share alphabets, names are (allegedly) easy to “translate” because you simply copy and paste. Your name is your name is your name. But put it into another alphabet–like Japanese, in which the same sounds have different characters and the same characters have different sounds–and it all goes downhill fast.

“What’s this name written here?”
“I don’t know; I don’t know that guy.”
“But I thought you could read Japanese.”
“Oh, I can read it; I just don’t know what it is. I can give you a guess, if you want.”
“Should I ask a Japanese person?”
“Sure; they’ll give you a guess too.”

So you would think that the easiest thing I translate would be staff lists, because they’re just people’s names. Instead, they’re difficult and rarely satisfying, because you want everyone to be credited correctly with their actual (romanized) name, but unless you’ve met the person or they have their own website or you can find someone who knows them, there’s just no way to be sure. You see, when you fill out paperwork in Japan, next to your name there’s always a space for “how to pronounce your name.” This is because two people could have the same Japanese character as their names, yet the names could sound completely different: 真 could be “Shin” or “Makoto.” They don’t even share the same number of syllables, let alone any sounds! So it’s a language where you have to routinely tell other people how to read your name.

Sometimes an anime licensor or business client will be able to check each name on the list and let you know if anything is incorrect. But other times, they’ll be able to look it over, but there might be people on the list who worked out of house and are not available anymore, and nobody is actually sure. So it’s just you and your best strategies… and when all else fails, your best guesses.

These days I give all my clients this disclaimer:

Since not all translation companies deal with Japanese regularly, my policy is to always advise my clients that on a legal document, you will need to confirm the name spellings with your client before considering the product final. Name spelling confirmation on other documents is also advisable. Japanese names are written using Japanese characters, and English spellings for the “same names” in Japanese can vary wildly based on individual preference (example: “Kosuke” vs. “Kousuke”). In addition, wildly different names can be spelled the same way, giving the entire name an unknown status (example: the given name 昌 could be either “Akira” or “Sho”).

Otherwise, what do you do with names in other alphabets? A few approaches I use:

1. Google the name to see if the person happens to have their own website or blog, and if so, whether their name is spelled out there in your alphabet or at least given a pronunciation.

2. See if the person has an account on a social media site like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, and ditto. (Warning! There are always many accounts for different people who happen to have the same name, so in this technique you have to make sure it’s really and truly the person you want.)

3. If you know or can discover a company the person works for, check the company’s website to see if their name appears.

But sometimes, it will sadly come down to “This is my best guess based on statistical averages.” We always want to do right by everyone on that list, but it’s just not always possible.

And then there’s birth certificates, where making a mistake or bad guess is NOT a good thing! You better bet every client gets this disclaimer when I do a birth certificate!

Wham, bam, pow! And Scarier Sounds in Translation

“Hey guys, does anybody know what doom sounds like?”

On Friday I came across a perfect example of a classic translation challenge in Japanese fiction. It all started when an editor reviewing a TV episode showed me some onscreen Japanese text that said “gogogogo.”

Now, anyone who spends time watching or reading Japanese media is pretty used to seeing sound effects scrawled everywhere, like the old Adam West Batman where all the fight scenes were punctuated with word bubbles exclaiming “Bam!” and “Pow!” The Japanese language loves onomatopoeia, the sound-words that we English speakers usually associate only with comic books and children’s songs (“Here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink”). Though English is pretty stingy with its sound-words, Japanese and some other languages use them in a much wider variety of contexts and have a much richer trove of them. In Japanese, they don’t stay confined to comics and songs; they permeate every area of conversation and life. A non-native speaker of Japanese who never gets the hang of using them in speech just never sounds quite right. I know that as an American, when I use onomatopoeia it can sometimes become the first moment of real connection between me and whoever I’m speaking to, even if I’ve spoken to them many times before. A former coworker and I once bonded when she was handing out crunchy snacks and I told her I liked her choice because I think paki-paki snacks are better than bari-bari snacks–in other words, I like a more understated style of “crunchiness.” All of a sudden the two of us, who honestly didn’t get along that well normally, were launching into an animated conversation about crunchiness values, and for those few minutes getting along beautifully. It wasn’t because the eternal chips vs. pretzels debate was really that important to us; it wasn’t because I’d said anything particularly clever (paki-paki usually doesn’t even describe food). I think it was because for that brief span of time we just sounded right to each other. These sound words are one component of “naturalness” in Japanese.

In fact, sound-words feel so natural that Japanese a whole category of them called gitaigo (擬態語), which are mimetic words–sound-words for things that don’t make sounds. For example, when you stare at someone, your eyes go jiro-jiro. When you tear up, your eyes go uru-uru. This isn’t the “wham, bam, pow” or even the “pitter-patter” you find in English. Not only is no sound being made, but no sound is really physically plausible. But we can still use these mimetic onomatopoeia to talk about emotions or states of being, and they’re every bit as much a part of everyday life. In Japanese, everybody knows exactly what silence sounds like, because the sound of silence is “shiiiin.”

In translation, these sound-words often disappear. Instead of following Japanese conventions literally and saying “I feel so [invent a sound of anger to replace muka-muka with here],” I’ll use “I feel so pissed off!” in my translation of a story. But working in TV shows or comics, sometimes we’re confronted with sound-words plastered all over the screen or page, staring at the viewer and demanding to be translated by the force of their presence. So every few days I find myself being shown a screenshot of a grinning boy with the word niko-niko over his head, and saying, “Oh, that’s the sound of him smiling. How about we caption it as ‘grin’?”

Which brings us back to the beginning of this post and Friday’s “classic translation challenge”: what is this gogogogo the editor showed me? Well, it’s one of my favorites when I don’t have to translate it, and one of my least favorites on days like Friday… it’s the sound of impending doom. (Unless the doom is already here, in which case it’s the sound of a very ominous situation indeed.)

As my dear friend Ada Palmer and I once discussed, this is no problem in a comedy. In a comedy, we can simply scrawl “DOOM!” across the top of the frame in dramatic ALL CAPS and be done with it, and it’s perfect. But in a serious show, unfortunately, that doesn’t work. It’s one of those translation situations where you have to climb the same mountain all over again every time, because every time the task is impossible and every time it refuses to submit to the same “solution” you came up with last time.

In this particular case, the editor showed me the translator’s solution and asked me what I thought. I said it worked for me unless anyone else could come up with something that sounded more like doom.