June 08, 2017

Bleep the bleeping bleep

My loathing for postmodern jargon notwithstanding, cussing is, for the most part, a "social construct."

Especially when it comes to language, it's hard to get offended by something when you don't know it is supposed to be offensive. (Is "bloody" a bad word?) It's all the more difficult when you don't know what the word means. And even when if you do, why is "shit" worse than "crap"?

In Japanese, the offensiveness of crude references to certain body parts shares close analogues in English. Otherwise, most "swear words" are only as severe as the context dictates. Whether a kid's manga or a hardcore yakuza flick, the translation of the above is the same: kuso.

I was reminded of this watching (well, mostly listening while working on my computer) the movie review segment on the Friday "Premium" edition of Asa-Ichi, NHK's morning news/chat show (it means "Morning Market," the shopping sense not the Wall Street sense).

Most foreign movies are subtitled when they debut in Japan (a few blockbusters and Disney animations hit the theaters in both subtitled and dubbed versions). So I'm typing away and all of a sudden, Huh? What?

I turn to the TV and on Asa-Ichi they're showing clips from a film written by a David Mamet wannabee (or maybe even by David Mamet). And nothing gets bleeped. I don't mind well-written cussing. It's just a shock to hear it smack in the middle of the morning.

If Good Morning America played unedited clips like this, the FCC would come down on them like a ton of bricks. And NHK is a pretty conservative outfit. You don't see nudity. Then again, nudity doesn't need to be translated.

Cussing, on the other hand, isn't cussing if it's in a foreign language! If anything, Japanese subtitles can be more coy than their literal Anglo-Saxon equivalents, hitting a zone of vague linguistic neutrality. It makes marketing sense to avoid needlessly offending the audience.

When it comes to manga and anime, sensationalist reports in the western press suggest an "anything goes" attitude, when the opposite is just as true. Relying on a 1907 law still in force, Japanese censors can be stricter and more arbitrary than the FCC, the MPAA, and the U.S. courts.

Ironically, Japanese-English translators often wander off into the weeds by striving for too much "authenticity," producing scripts for manga and anime (especially dubs) that toss in vulgarities not necessarily in the original.

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# posted by Blogger IRX
6/11/2017 6:18 AM   
As a Japanese/English translator I can vouch for what you have written in this blog.

Quite often is the case where the translator wanders off and makes the translated script into something that the originals don't have and it is a pain to watch these shows.