The majority of the English version of Renta!’s content comes from the Japanese website and is, therefore, originally in Japanese. Japanese is spoken primarily in Japan, but there are pockets of Japanese-speaking communities around the world. These pockets are mostly native speakers of Japanese, but include a small number of non-native speakers as well. Thus, in order to reach a larger audience overseas, our content must be translated into English. This is where our job as bilingual editors comes into play.

I’ve only been working at Renta! for seven months, but I have lived in Japan for nearly a decade and have been involved in freelance translation for most of that decade. In this blog, I’d like to outline two of the common translation challenges we face in our daily work. Perhaps many of our readers have studied or are studying Japanese and will nod their heads in understanding/agreement as they read along.

1. Names

This one is tricky for two reasons.

One of the reasons is that some characters who appear in manga are never named in the original. They may be a teacher, a boss, a coworker, a fling, or whatever else you can think of. In most of these cases, Japanese can do without naming them specifically since their professional title can be used as a form of address. For example, a teacher may be addressed simply as the Japanese equivalent, sensei.

How do we handle this? We cut sensei from the translation. This can present further problems since there are instances where the speech bubble may only have sensei in it. In this case, we would look at the rest of the sentence and split it up so that we can avoid a random, blank speech bubble. So, if the first speech bubble says “Sensei…” and the second one says something like, “What are you doing?”, we may split it as:

Speech bubble 1: What are you…
Speech bubble 2: doing?

In the lettering stage, we may find that the first bubble is too small and can only fit one or two words, so it could be split differently, as:

Speech bubble 1: What…
Speech bubble 2: are you doing?

The second reason this is so tricky is that even if we know the character’s full name, Japanese tend to address one another by their family name with the suffix -san (equivalent to Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss). Let’s say there is a character named Taro Tanaka in a series. In the English translation, he may be called Taro by his colleague, Satoshi, but in the Japanese version, he will call him Tanaka-san. Tanaka-san and Satoshi are assigned a huge project together and have to spend countless nights together in the office alone working on it. They start to get to know one another. Their feelings start to get stronger for each other. Taro shoves him onto the desk and starts undressing him. Satoshi moans out, “Tanaka-san! Tanaka-san!” Tanaka-san leans into Satoshi whispers in his ear, “Call me by my (first) name” – in other words, “Call me Taro, not Mr. Tanaka!”

Wait a second…

In the English Satoshi’s been calling him Taro this whole time. Wouldn’t it be strange if Mr. Tanaka suddenly asked him to start calling him Taro? How the heck do we treat this line in English?

We often encourage the translators and editors to come up with something that works with the flow in English, but doesn’t stray too far from the original idea, either. The easiest workaround for this, then, is to have Taro whisper something like, “Call me baby” and any time Satoshi calls him Taro in the Japanese after that, we would translate it as “baby.”

We sometimes encounter yet another hiccup in the translation process regarding names. Say, for example, the Taro above never has his first name mentioned in the Japanese version at all and is simply called Tanaka-san because he’s constantly surrounded by colleagues. In this case, we can either call him Mr. Tanaka or Tanaka (up to the translator/editor). This can get even more messy when it’s a series published by chapters or volumes. Mr. Tanaka shows up at work one day in volume 10 and his colleagues greet him in the morning: “Good morning, Taro!” Crap. All his colleagues have been calling him Mr. Tanaka in the English version for the past 9 volumes. If they suddenly call him Taro, won’t it be quite confusing? In order to maintain consistency and avoid confusion, they would still greet him: “Good morning, Mr. Tanaka!”

2. Phrases Unique to Japanese.

Japanese has set expressions that are used in a wide variety of situations. When they are translated for their meaning in English, they may sound extremely odd in many contexts. The list is endless, but I willy only share a few examples.

i. Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu. Literally, this would translate as, “I kindly beg you.” Students of introductory Japanese classes will know this one by heart, since it can be used when meeting someone for the first time. Typically in Japanese the dialogue would go something like this:

Hajimemashite. Tanaka to iimasu. Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu.

Rendered literally in English, it would be something like:

“For the first time. I’m called Tanaka. I kindly beg you.”

What!? Thankfully, manga is drawn, so we could infer from the visual context of the situation that Mr. Tanaka is likely introducing himself to a new business client if he’s in a suit and tie and handing his business card over to another businessman in an office. However, without any visual clues, we could probably guess that he’s introducing himself, but we’d need some more context. Even though we have visual aids, we still want the English to be as natural as possible, so the final translation would be something along the lines of:

“Hi. I’m Tanaka. Nice to meet you.”

Japanese tends to omit or abbreviate words because the context would make it clear – at least, for native (or highly proficient non-native) speakers. The hajimemashite (“for the first time”) in the introduction above is actually an abbreviation of the longer hajimemashite o-me ni kakarimasu, “This is my first time meeting you” (literally, “I’m dangling in your eyes for the first time”).

Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu can be used in countless situations – so many that it would probably fill a volume or two of books. To name just a few off the top of my head:

・Making a request to someone (equivalent to “please” or “thanks in advance”);
・Asking to speak to someone on the phone (“May I speak to…?”);
・Calling out to staff in a store when you need help/want to make an order (“Excuse me”);

ii. O-jama shimasu. Literally, this would translate as “I’m going to bother you” or “I’m going to intrude.” Often it is used when entering someone’s home.

Host: Douzo.
Guest: O-jama shimasu.

If we rendered the above dialogue as below, it would sound rather strange to English speakers:

Host: Please.
Guest: I’m going to bother you. (I’m going to intrude.)

So, we would opt for something like:

Host: Please come in.
Guest: Thank you.

Other times, we encounter phrases that have English equivalents, but are used in ways unique to Japanese. Hai means “yes,” but can sound rather strange in English if it is always translated as yes. Take the dialogue below, for example:

(There’s a knock on the door to the room where Taro and his colleague, Satoshi, are having their secret tryst.)

Taro: Wait right here. I’ll see who it is.
Satoshi: Yes.

What would be the most natural equivalent here?

Taro: Wait right here. I’ll see who it is.
Satoshi: Okay.

We have many wonderful translators and editors who know just the right phrase to work around the above issues, so thankfully we don’t encounter them that often, but they do pop up occasionally.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the myriad of challenges we face in translations, so I think I will break this up into a series of blogs. Keep an eye out for them. Thank you for reading this first installment! Please let us know what you think in the comments below!