The ACTUAL Problem with Anime Subtitles

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.

It’s very important that we target subs when looking at this. This isn’t because dubs aren’t a part of this dangerous trend; they very much are. Yet, dubs are far more blatant and as a result, far more frequently called out for this practice. It’s hard to discuss Sailor Moon, especially its initial English release, without the topic of “cousins” coming up and it’s far from the only case where this has happened. Yugioh GX’s dub gendered the antagonist Yubel, in spite of the fact that they’re a malevolent Duel Monster spirit who has no need to be gendered. Sure, they were a human at one point, but Nanachi was too and you don’t see the subs gendering them, now do you? Although now that I think about it, most of you probably don’t know that Nanachi’s gender isn’t specified. Hell, if you want an extremely prominent example, just look at Kirby. Even in modern times, dubs frequently get a bad rap for straightwashing characters, and for good reason. The Maid Dragon dub legitimately changes Kobayashi from a typical yuri character, “but we’re both girls”, into someone who’s specifically not open to dating another girl, “I’m not into women or dragons”. This is an egregious change, one I was upset about when it happened, and it certainly deserved the coverage it got; I won’t defend the Lucoa joke later in the dub, it’s not funny, but unlike that one, this legitimately changes a character on a base level and it’s a shame the Kobayashi example got less press. Wonder why the anti-SJWs didn’t get as angry at it. A real conundrum.

Anyway, while these are certainly bad changes that deserve to be criticized, they are criticized. Everyone is aware that dubs, especially old ones, straightwash characters and change the text. What people seem to forget, somehow, is that subtitles do the exact same thing. Any translation is, of course, a new work unto itself, and won’t ever give you a duplicate experience to someone consuming the original version. However, in simply being an addition, something you read at the same time as you listen to the Japanese audio, subs seem to subconsciously come across to most viewers as a natural part of the work, not a new entity. And so, when subtitles erase the gender-neutrality of a sentence, oftentimes irrevocably warping the perception of what’s going on, it simply goes unnoticed. After all, if you don’t know Japanese, how could you tell? And even if you do, you’re probably not paying the closest attention to the audio if you’re still at the point where you watch with subs, right? I know I’m not.

Yet this is still an important issue that needs to be addressed, no matter how hard it is to notice during a normal watch. This straightwashing and ciswashing that occurs through translation is something that almost certainly comes from unconscious biases, not active thought on the part of translators, and yet it’s detrimental, so let’s explore the ways it can hurt one’s understanding of a work, so that we can pay closer attention to it. We shouldn’t allow a situation as egregious as the Yuri on Ice case to occur once again.

I’d like to begin with a casual example of this, because it’s important to see how pervasive it is even when it doesn’t meaningfully impair the show. In Tonari no Kyuuketsuki-san, main character Akari meets and decides to move in with vampire Sophie after falling head over heels for her at first sight. When she goes to school the next day and talks about this sudden move, she never refers to Sophie’s gender and yet the subs use she/her. This ordinarily wouldn’t be the biggest problem, but immediately after this, one of Akari’s friends asks if she’s moving in with a boy or a girl, causing another friend, Hinata, to freak out at the prospect of her precious Akari, a mere high schooler and her crush, deciding on a whim to move in with a new guy. This joke doesn’t work when all of them refer to Sophie as a girl just moments prior. Fortunately, unlike in some cases, this does not strip the queerness from the anime, Akari is still in love with Sophie and Hinata’s crush on Akari remains obvious, it only hurts an inconsequential joke, but it’s a good introductory example of how this can occur. There’s no chance of malicious intent in this case, it’s simply a bad translation, and it’s key for us to understand that this is typically what happens here. Few translators are trying to remove queer subtext, they’re especially not trying to create nonsensical exchanges, most of them are just working off what feels natural, but what feels natural is not always what’s correct.

An interesting case occurs in Märchen Mädchen, where main character Hazuki is brought into a world of magic, quickly crushing hard on school leader Shizuka. Now, fortunately, when her step-sister corners her about why she’s skipping school, Hazuki refers to this person she’s come to like using they/them. However, this step-sister uses he/him in the subs, despite that not being the case in the Japanese. Compared to other examples, this isn’t actually bad. The translators clearly know to use they/them in certain instances and when they do use a gendered pronoun where it’s not in the source, it’s an instance where said character does assume the gender of the person they’re referring to; given that she talks about Hazuki being set for life, it’s clear she assumes that this potential partner is a boy. Yet it still indicates a potential poor direction, one that’s avoided here but oh-so-often not in other cases. I have no criticism for the translators here, it’s a solid adaptation that doesn’t fall apart like the series’s production does — Oh, poor Maerchen Maedchen, I love you so, if only you had been treated properly — and in many ways this serves to indicate situations in which it’s fine to add gender where it initially isn’t — after all, Japanese simply uses gendered referrants less often and it would be awkward to avoid in all cases, as long as the gender is known by the speaker and those they’re talking to, us transtrenders haven’t abolished gender quite yet after all — but there’s still a hint here of the danger that the other examples present. Let’s move onto cases where this danger actually crops up, situations where it’s not just bad, as in Kyuuketsuki, but actively detrimental.

Take the instance of Kino’s Journey. In the 2003 series as well as most fan translations — let’s not even get into the godawful Tokyopop version of the light novel, which outright butchers almost every element of the series that it touches, from gender to prose to not adding weird one-liners out of nowhere — Kino is referred to with she/her, in spite of the fact that they aren’t gendered by the text itself, being androgynous enough that others see them as either a boy or a girl, depending on the person. Say what you will about whether Sigsawa intended Kino to be non-binary, I certainly have my issues with the man’s politics — it sure is disappointing when writers whose stories I like get way too close to “Japan did nothing wrong” — but it’s inarguable that the text never says that they’re a girl, only that they were raised as one, and well, those aren’t the same thing. Gendering Kino here, at least outside of their origin story and especially after they truly take up the name Kino is wrong, it introduces an element to the series that is not present in the Japanese, and it’s just one example of this. Thankfully, the 2017 anime’s subs avoided doing so. Now, if only the 2017 series had chosen better stories to adapt and a better director to lead it, but hey, it was still a fun time.

Another clear example of this is Fullmetal Alchemist’s Envy. Envy is a shapeshifter and a homunculus, once again a character who has no reason to be gendered and, in the Japanese text, isn’t. Hell, their “main body” is pretty damn androgynous, so why in the world did every translator decide that they should be considered male? Is it because they’re flat? They have female voice actresses, so perhaps it was because of Viz’s decisions? Wherever the choice initially came from, it once again erases a character who’s not gendered in the source. Anime is hardly a place full of stellar non-binary representation but when what we do get is erased by subtitles, it only makes the situation worse.

Crona in Soul Eater provides another example. Unlike in Envy’s case, the fandom has conducted a lot of debate about their gender — it remains actively unspecified by the mangaka, it must be said — almost certainly due to the fact that, well, Crona is cute and Envy isn’t, unless you’re into them, which would be cool, I suppose. As the Lily “debate” shows, people want the characters they find cute to be cis girls. Compulsory heterosexuality sure is annoying, though I don’t think you should be into Lily beyond finding her adorable whether she’s cis — she isn’t — or not, given, uh, look at her. Regardless, Crona is intentionally ambiguous. Despite this, both the official manga and translations refer to them with him. This is slightly different than the other cases, as it was done less because the translators saw them as male and more because they didn’t think they had any options other than he/she; a common, though incorrect, idea, one that we need to abolish asap. Yet, it remains a problem, giving ample “official” ammo to those in the debate who refuse to recognize Crona’s ambiguous — and perhaps, non-binary — gender as what it is, not to mention all the confusion it causes. This is perhaps even more glaring than other cases, as rather than just not recognizing that the character is non-binary, they knew and just didn’t care.

Fire Emblem in Tiger and Bunny is yet another example, and this time, the subs damage a character who’s not just queer-coded or lacking gender but queer as such, drawing upon historical depictions of gay and trans characters in anime, no matter how fraught. Their narrative is bound up in the fact that they’ve faced oppression and scorn for being who they are, and at one point, they proudly state, “They say a man is made of courage and a woman is made of love. So what does that mean for people who are gay? We are invincible!” This is an out-and-out non-binary character, someone who’s had to deal with the way gendered expectations are forced on people, managing to overcome these expectations in becoming a hero, and eventually finding pride in who they are. They’re cool as hell and I doubt even the most backwards cishet could listen to that line without admiring them. And yet, the subs repeatedly refer to them with male pronouns. I could see that being the case for the characters, there are situations, like in Tokyo Godfathers, where active misgendering occurs, and he/him can be used in those instances. But when a gender ambiguous characters is referred to with ambiguous language, and yet the translation genders them anyway, it’s a problem, and once again a sign of how cisnormativity covertly sneaks its way into people’s’ minds.

Yet, the one that most bothers me is a decision made in the 90s shoujo drama, Oniisama e. After suffering the great hardship that’s only natural to a shoujo protagonist — seriously, this is one of the most melodramatic shows ever made and I adore it — main character Nanako is given a partner. As she says to her older brother, she’s fallen in love with a new person at her university, and she’s very happy, nice words to hear given how poorly her last love worked out. Yet, for some reasons, the subs refer to this new significant other as a man. I’ve checked this a good half-dozen times throughout the past year and I can say with certainty that the Japanese does not gender Nanako’s new partner. For a show that stands as both the first TV yuri anime ever made and an adaptation of one of the genre’s first manga, this is not just frustrating, it’s horrendous. I’ve seen people criticize the show for having a “gay until graduation” ending, something which admittedly was common at the time — though more often, the girls would just swear off romance or die after the failure of their first relationship — when that’s not what happens in the slightest. It may not say for sure that she ends up with another girl in the end, and perhaps that merits criticism, but it hardly forces her into straightness either. This is, I believe, the most detrimental example in the entire piece, because if you trust the subs here, your entire understanding of what the work’s conclusion is saying will be ruptured beyond repair. If you can see this example and still defend the process of removing gender neutrality purely because, “Using they/them is awkward”, then you’re not worth talking to.

In a world of expanding queer rights, as these topics come up more in anime, this is a problem we have to deal with. Viewers’ perception of certain characters and themes are entirely shifted by these simple errors and we as a community need to ensure that translations don’t do this. And, well, I suspect it won’t be long at this point before anime introduces an explicitly x-gender character. What does it mean to be x-gender, and why would someone who identifies that way show up in anime? Well, you’ll have to wait until the end of the month to find that out, but if you think I’ve made too many snipes at the right-wingers in the community in this video, or you’re happy to have seen me do so, get ready. Because next time, I’m turning my sights toward the bad apples on my side of the aisle.

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7 thoughts on “The ACTUAL Problem with Anime Subtitles

  1. I’ve finally gotten to the point with my Japanese studies where I sometimes read the subs and listen to what the character has said and realised they’ve changed or added something (not always, but my recent rewatch of Yuri on Ice I actually heard the difference in the question Victor asked compared to the sub coming up). It is a little jarring when you begin to realise that while some changes subs make are just to make it easier to keep the story going, and other ones actually have major impacts on how we understand the characters. That said, until I actually learn enough Japanese to do without the subs (that’s a long way away), I’m just going to hope that translations keep getting better (and a lot of them have improved over time with less outright rewriting of stories – though that still happens a bit).
    Nice post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s a serious problem for us folks who do not speak Japanese. Now I have to rewrite the script in my head to match the characters as I am watching it.

    Like

    1. As long as you only snipe at right-wingers who are also moral reactionaries that is fine by me. There are a few people on the right who don’t extend conservatism to gender identity. They tend to be a little bit more on the libertarian side. (I need to get my control key fixed so I don’t end so many comments prematurely. Sorry.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Speaking as someone who contends that the right/left political axis is an artificial construction to divide folks, I hope you don’t mind me sharing an observation.

    “but if you think I’ve made too many snipes at the right-wingers in the community in this video, or you’re happy to have seen me do so, get ready.”

    No. You haven’t made too many snipes at right-wingers. You’ve objectively pointed out obvious flaws and inconsistencies. Right/left doesn’t have any meaning in that context.

    In other words, you’re spot on.

    Please feel free to lambast my comment (or delete it!), but let me share a perspective as someone who holds a degree in Roman Catholic theology (it’s only a Bachelors, but my concentrations were in moral systematic theology, eschatology, and Christology, so I think it counts!).

    Anyone who contents that one human may mistreat another human…

    For any reason whatsoever…

    Is theologically incorrect.

    Period.

    Leviticus doesn’t overrule the Gospels. Heck, Acts doesn’t trunk the Gospels. There is simply no theological basis in any Christian faith to condemn another human.

    Especially when that other human has _freaking done nothing wrong._

    In my defense, you mentioned Lily, and I loved Zombieland Saga. I’ll switch to war footing to defend Lily! Though, of course, she’s a zombie, and she has absolutely no need for my help! But Zombieland being good fiction, it reminded me of what’s at stake, and your post harmonized with the same messages, so…

    Anyway, thanks for another article that’s simultaneously thought-provoking and reassuring. Not sure how you pull that off, but I really like it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Right and left” originated because of where people tended to sit in the French National Assembly during the revolution of 1789. Supporters of the king sat on the right while opponents sat on the left. This has absolutely no meaning in today’s government. Today the terms are mostly used as pejoratives for whoever disagrees with the speaker. (Most speakers insist they are centrists, wherever they happen to sit.)

      Liked by 1 person

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