To -san or not to -san?

The Twitterverse was buzzing today over the news that MX Media, the team behind a lot of the translations that appear on the Crunchyroll simulcasts, was going to stop including Japanese honorifics from their English translations. The announcement caused rage with some fans, and a number even threatened to quit Crunchyroll because of it.

Was this announcement really all that Earth shattering?  Just how important is it to include honorifics in subtitles?

While we simply use “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in English as a sign of respect in very particular situations, the Japanese utilize honorifics almost every time a name is uttered. The suffix you use to address another person often depends on your familiarness with the individual and / or their relation to you in the “pecking order” of society.

Ever since Mr. Miyagi called his pupil Daniel-san in that 1984 Rocky Jr. film, mainstream America has had just a small understanding of the Japanese honorific, if only for the novelty of it all. But anime fans have had much more exposure to the concept through their viewing. After many examples of what characters are called -san, -chan, -kun, or -sensei, they often pick up a very good understanding what situation calls for what suffix.

So after the American fans have learned this fundamental concept of a completely foreign language, they feel more educated and more cultured in the ways of the Japanese. And by MX Media now saying that they’re not going to bother explicitly writing it in their translations, the fans feel like they’re missing out on the authentic experience of watching anime.

But when it comes down to it, how important are the damn honorifics to anime anyway?

Well, I actually consider it to be very important.

Along with establishing the type of relationship between two characters, I think the honorific also becomes a part of their personality. Attaching the -chan honorific to a character automatically gives them a cute childish impression on the viewer. Harumi-chan of the Phoenix Wright video game series (renamed “Pearl” in the English version) will always be a -chan in my mind because she inhibits all the characteristics that having the suffix would imply.

So I think that understanding the honorific is critical in a story set in Japan, because it is a very critical part of the culture. When I downloaded the dub-only version of Moon Phase from iTunes a few years ago, it drove me completely nuts not knowing what Hazuki was calling her “big brother” Kohei in the original script. Was he an oni-chan, or what he an oni-sama? Saying one over the other would change her character significantly in my mind.

This actually comes up quite often for me while watching dubbed anime. Because I have familiarized myself with the culture so much, I feel that there’s a critical piece of information missing in the translation when you don’t include the honorifics. So I rewind back a few seconds in the video, switch to the Japanese audio track on the DVD, then listen to the line again in Japanese, paying attention for honorifics and speech patterns.

And that right there is my point. I listened to the audio to figure out what the honorific was. That’s the beauty of these basic Japanese words, they say them out loud right there in the dialogue. If the subtitle says, “Kyo-kun,” it’s most likely because someone said “Kyo-kun” out loud in the audio.

Open your ears, peeps. Even if the honorifics are not explicitly written in the subtitles, they’re still there. You don’t even need to know Japanese to figure then out. Just passively listen for the name of the character to be mentioned, then pay attention to the word mentioned after the name. That’s it! That’s the honorific.

What’s the point of watching an anime subtitled if you’re not even going to listen to the audio?

So the notion of MX Media having to keep in honorifics is silly. After all, they’re translating into English, and we don’t use honorifics in English! It’s silly to have them there in the first place. Mr. Miyagi is looked at as being silly for using the suffix, and that’s why “Daniel-san” has become just as much as a catchphrase from the film as the ridiculous “wax on, wax off” is.

Yes, the honorifics are important, but only for those of us who have taken the time to learn their meanings and significance. There’s no need for the rage. If you believe that those fundamentals are really that critical for your anime viewing, then just listen to the audio.

Screen cap provided thanks to Shiroi Hane.

Comments are closed.