Have you heard the story of what happened during Yuri on Ice’s run? Early in the show, Victor asks Yuuri if he has a girlfriend, using the Japanese word for woman, “onna”, which is a natural way of trying to figure out his proclivities, if you know what I mean. From here on, when referring to potential or past lovers of Yuuri’s, Victor is sure to use the gender-neutral term “koibito”. Yet, the subs, at least in the initial airing, gendered this term, continuing to use girlfriend. In an ordinary show, this would be a frustrating decision, but a harmless one. In this series, one that consciously portrays gay characters throughout its run, a mistake like this is glaring, hurting the subtle romantic back-and-forth that takes up much of the show’s first half. While we can talk all day about how lover isn’t a perfect term, or how partner or SO convey nuances not contained in “koibito”, it can’t be argued that in this case, girlfriend was the wrong translation, one that’s actually managed to reach the ears of many anime fans due to the show’s high-profile nature as a queer work. Yet, Yuri on Ice is far from the only instance of this happening. Anime translations regularly remove gender neutrality present in the Japanese script. While it’s fine to add a gendered pronoun to a sentence that initially lacked one when we know the characters’ gender for certain, it frequently creates large issues in regards to queer characters. Subtitles are often, unconsciously to be sure, a tool of cisheteronormativity, entirely confusing viewers as to how scenes should be read. I can certainly imagine some watchers being perplexed as to why Victor, one of the gayest men alive, would assume the guy who clearly crushes on him has a girlfriend, even after being told that he doesn’t. This, indeed, is the actual problem with anime subtitles.
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