Artistry of Translation | Accenting Localisations (& A ‘Loveless’ Language?)

To properly articulate translation, is to essentially define it as a genre of artistry.

‘Artistry’ implies subjectivity. It confirms uncertainty, the lack of objectivity and exact science in translation as a craft and process. But translation as a craft also evokes a desire to understand; to render the unfamiliar so it may become familiar, if one were to paraphrase Hayden White (1978). This relationship of translation certainly reads like a process of linkage; a transportation railway that delivers meaning from one isolated frame of context (could be as vast as a country, or as mundane as an imperial/metric system transfer) to another. However, as I will be discussing here, such a reading on the art of translation would utterly erase the accents of such processes which give the newly translated entity its unique existence. Nothing exists as merely a ‘substitute’ for another.

At any rate, I would like the readers to interpret this essay as a figurative experiment: a self-serving metaphor for a multi-faceted definition of translation, which the essay will also be positing and exploring in a (somewhat) conventional format.

From Shaolan Hsueh’s ‘Chineasy’

Retooling Mieke Bal: Aesthetics of the Accent &  Contemporary Localisation

“Metaphor, understanding, making familiar and troping are all parasynonyms of ‘translation’. Nothing promises the possibility of translation. This is why translation is always tentative, approximate and incomplete, an unfulfilled promise, necessarily trailing in its wake, the ‘remainder’ or its past, no longer accessible.” (Bal, 2007. p110)

Such is the opening position from which our exploration begins.

The main identifiable personality of this statement stands to be its definite confidence in defining translation as indefinitely imprecise. But in understanding the grander ideas behind Mieke Bal’s paper ‘Translating Translation’, the cardinal term ‘accent’ naturally drifts to the forefront of the discussion. Bal began her paper with a brief note on a phenomenon within the translation ecosystem, which is explored decidedly more meticulously elsewhere (see Don Mee Choi): the dominance of English as a ‘global language’ in the contemporary world, and the resulting selective translation of non-English texts that are chosen for their popularity (i.e. interest amongst the English audience) and their continued adherence to the pre-conceived notions of the origin of the ‘original’ text, therefore severing the abundance of more ‘culturally bound’ texts from being exposed to expanded readerships, which inevitably leads the conversation towards the contemporary markets of localisation (which I will be getting into later).

But where exactly does ‘accents’ fit into all this? Mieke Bal introduced ‘accents’ in her paper strictly within the context of spoken language: lingering flavours of a past dialect that failed to disappear upon learning to speak a new language (before diving into the cultural enrichment of food…although I will be focusing on spoken language for this section). It is clear that Bal intended to proclaim it as a desired ‘flaw’: an enriching blemish that enhances the translation, rather than what she observed to be an all-too prominent predicament for individuals who spoke with an accent: “The accent is the trace, the remainder of the language the subject cannot speak. As such, it is a taboo, an inhibition, even a violently imposed incapacitation.” Instead, Bal wishes to honour that remainder: the accent as “an extra, unexpected resource…accents that remind us of the translated quality of the words spoken can also be seen as cultural, specifically linguistic, enrichments.”

This…appreciation of the lingering anchor as the text gets translated, very much serves as a departure point for my exploration of the politics of translation through the lens of Japanese-English localisation, because the sentiments presented by Bal extends even beyond the scope of her paper, in that it eloquently juxtaposes artistic agency in the process of translation with a characteristic desire to ‘retain’ the spirit of the ‘original’ text. And so, in translating such sentiments as appreciating the untranslatable ‘accents’ of the ‘original’, I would like to push this discussion into a more localised narrative, where constant tension is present between the perceived original artist, the translator and the consumer.

The contemporary global anime fandom (this essay will be referring mainly to the English-speaking segment in regions such as the US, UK and Australia) serves as a very fitting catalyst for this innate conflict between artistic agency of the perceived original artist, the function of the perceived translator, and an end consumer base who desire to receive the experience ‘as originally intended by the creator’…even though they lack the linguistic ability to even hope to do so. (Of course, one can even argue the impossibility of a 1-1 meaning transfer from the creator to the appreciator unhindered by external influence and interpretation, even if both parties share the linguistic context of speaking the same language.)

For the next segment of the discussion, I will be referring to the video essay ‘Why do Anime Dubs Change the Original Script?’, by Eric Dorcean and Abhi Kapoor of the YouTube channel ‘Cartoon Cipher’, as it explores the process of localising anime for a western English release. In particular, I would like to address this curious disconnect of association between perceived originality, and the understandably murky line that can be drawn as to whether a translator has interpreted a text with ‘too much’ artistic agency as to utterly miscommunicate the intent of the original creator.


The Spoken Dub, The Printed Sub & The Transcribed Meaning

So, what exactly makes translation from Japanese to English in particular, difficult? Author and translator John Nathan approached answering this question by first addressing the goals and intended effects he aims for when translating:

“The translator’s task is to create for the reader in the target language the opportunity to experience the original work in all its dimensions. Ideally, this means that whatever meaning or resonance is contained in the original text to be perceived or felt by the native reader, whether the author intends it or not, should also be rendered accessible in the translation.” (Nathan, 2005. p29)

Such an answer immediately brings forth sparks of Susan Bassnett’s appeal to semiotics as a central core of translation, as well as her subsequent quotation of Edward Sapir’s claim that ‘language is a guide to social reality’. The medium of expression is central to a society’s collective experience, which is far beyond the narrowly linguistic approach, that translation is merely the transfer of ‘meaning’ contained in one set of language signs into another. (Bassnett, 2002. p22) It is precisely this function of language as expressionistic cultural anchors that damns the job of translators to such excruciating difficulty.

Hardly surprising, this difficulty is further compounded by the sheer bombardment of narrative, cultural, intertextual and political contexts when localisation teams faces the task of bringing a Japanese animation product to the west. Translating in this context becomes decidedly more complicated than just transferring dialogue in a grammatically intelligible manner.

In approaching such a topic as technically and creatively vast as the localisation process, Eric Dorcean and Abhi Kapoor were practically required to outline the numerous influences and intentions that inform the translated product, from the different delivery formats of dubbing and subtitles, to the rewording of dialogue to help local audiences appreciate the intended effect, when there exists no convenient translation for the original. This understanding; that the functional aesthetic needs of the format is influencing the translation process, makes the exploration decidedly more interesting. For instance, dubbing a show (re-voicing the characters without altering the visual component and non-dialogue specific audio elements of the production) requires the translators and script writers to rework the original Japanese script to such an extent, that the result sounds vocally natural to the English-speaking ear, while also adhering to the western aesthetic requirement of matching the characters’ animated lip flaps. Subtitles are less restricted, but the translators still need to pace their wording structures, so they can be easily understood being read while simultaneously watching the visuals and hearing the audio. (Dorcean, Kapoor, 2017. Timestamp: 02:10)

Of course, this brings the conversation to instances when the translation can be deemed a ‘failure’, a desecration of the original artistic product. But how exactly can an artistic reinterpretation ‘fail’?

Returning to John Nathan for a moment: the key problematic aspect of the Japanese-English translation process in particular, is the transference of the original author’s style; his artistic nuance. Literal translations of Japanese literature were criticised by Nathan as “conveying a sameness…unobjectionable, featureless.” (p30). To him, transferring the stylistic voices of the original author is paramount in retaining its artistic value, and he illustrates this point by criticizing his own past works: “I am sometimes told…that my translations of Kenzaburo Oe are ‘easier to read,’ ‘clearer, ‘better’ than Oe’s original…but to me they confirm that I have failed to reflect in English the dense complexity of Oe’s idiosyncratic style.” (p30)

In this regard, translation is active dialogue between cultural contexts, so it can certainly be argued that a translation’s quality can be somewhat quantified by whether this dialogue was able to produce new enrichments in the new context, if I were to briefly adopt Bal’s sentiment. In his book ‘The Stray Dog of Anime’, Brian Ruh lambasted the English dub of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film ‘Ghost in the Shell’ as “horrendous…it almost turned me away from one of the greatest directors in Japanese animated cinema.” In stating that it was the subtitled version with the Japanese dialogue that honed him into the subtle complexities of Oshii’s filmmaking, Ruh has illustrated a popular sentiment among large segments of the anime fandom; one that is decidedly biased against English dubs for their perceived tendency to ‘overdub’ the original creations’ intentions. (Dorcean, Kapoor, 2017. Citing Ruh) However, as usual, there is a flip side to such an argument, which in this instance came from director Mamoru Oshii himself: “Languages are not truly translatable. A film made in Japanese will be a different thing once it’s dubbed in a different language…so I think the idea of true translation is an illusion.” (Oshii, 2004. Innocence home video extras)

Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence 30.01

The Poetics of Love & Misunderstandings

For the final section of this essay, I would like to narrow the theme down to a single word: Love.

Having spent the majority of this discussion exploring the cross-language contentions between Japanese and English in the context of localisation, I believe that this final study brings to the table a wonderfully poetic illustration of the utter artistry one can find in translation, especially when it comes to an instance where a concept of emotional passion is coloured by localised tradition and customs: this is a cultural nuance that is entirely intralinguistic, but can still be further illustrated in comparison to an interlinguistic reading.

It is important to note the unscholarly but candid comments made by YouTube personalities Rachel and Jun, as it grounds this discussion to the normal lives of a very different cultural context: the literal Japanese counterpart for ‘I love you’, ‘愛してるよ – あいしてる’ (ai shiteruyo) has such a level of intertextual intensity to it, that it is rarely uttered amongst the Japanese population, it is reserved for occasions such as weddings or farewells at deathbeds. (Rachel & Jun, 2015). Thus, the cultural frame of Japan having multiple layers of ‘love’ and ‘like’ in their language would indeed influence the translation value between English and Japanese: we will have to consider the emotional context when we translate an English instance into Japanese.

[HorribleSubs] Tsuki ga Kirei - 03 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_20.44_[2017.04.21_19.38.49].jpg

If we were to instead consider the instance of the ‘告白’ (kokuhaku) or ‘confession’, then we have an instance of cultural familiarity that simply has no real counterpart in English. The 2017 anime romance series ‘月がきれい’ (Tsuki ga Kirei) explores this cultural understanding of the confession literally starting from its title, which translates roughly into ‘The moon is beautiful’.

This blog has previously explored this romance slice of life’s specific stylings, which had garnered plenty of praise from yours truly for its sensitive and endearing depiction of teenage romance. So I do think it is fitting that I provide it with an encore, as I dive into a specific scene, where this linguistic personality shines.

The specific instance of awkward comedy between the main characters in episode 3’s final minutes, when Kotarou asks Akane out with “付き合って” (Tsukiatte) or “go out with me”, is planted directly within the Japanese dialect: Akane mistakenly thought Kotarou was saying “the moon is beautiful”, since “月がきれい” is pronounced very similarly to “付き合って”. Now throw in the fact that ‘月がきれい’is also the show’s main title?

This poetic connection can be described as lyrically potent, and it also links to another historically significant instance in the Japanese literary culture, which is the famous translation by Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume of the English phrase ‘I love you’ as ‘今日は月がきれいですね’ (Kyō wa tsuki ga kireidesu ne) or ‘The moon is beautiful tonight’. (Kondo, 2006. p181) Natsume reasoned that a literal translation by one of his students, who suggested ‘君を愛す’ (‘kimi o aisu), which more or less translates into ‘I like you’, did not meet the Japanese sensibilities, and thus would not satisfy the linguistic intent of ‘I love you’, if an individual were to attempt to have his feelings be understood or accepted in a Japanese cultural context.

And thus we have come full circle. This translation of ‘I love you’ exists as a very beautiful example of an ‘accented’ artistic interpretation that not only inform the original meaning, but also highlight the Japanese cultural sensibilities of preferring lyrical elegance over open honesty.

Not bad for a culture that barely uses its language’s phrase for ‘I love you’, huh?


Bal, M. (2007). Translating Translation. Journal of Visual Culture, 6(1), SAGE Publications: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore

Bassnett, S. (2002). Translation Studies, Psychology Press, revised

Dorcean, E. Kapoor, A. (2017). Why do Anime Dubs Change the Original Script? YouTube URL:

Nathan, J. (2005). Conveying the Author’s Voice. Translating Style, Translation Studies Journal, University of California

Kishi, S (2017). Tsuki ga Kirei. Legal streaming on Crunchyroll.

Kondo, M. (2006). Multiple Layers of Meaning – Toward a Deepening of the “Sense”: Theory of Interpreting. University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, China

Ohara, A. (2013). Japan and the World: Through Travelers’ Eyes.

Oshii, M (2004). Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. Accessed from 2009 home video release, Madman Entertainment

Rachel & Jun (2015). Japanese don’t say “I love you?” YouTube URL:

Shoji, K. (2017). The Japanese and Love – More complicated than you think.

White, H. (1978) Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.