[Discourse] Why aren’t problematic translations fixed?

When the first episode dub of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid came out, fans were quick to notice a problem: lines which had been accurately translated for subtitles had been revised for the dub.

This is not unusual; lines must be expanded or trimmed to synchronise with lip flap movements, and jokes in particular can fall flat if not overhauled. But that’s not what happened here.

Miss Kobayashi, wearing glasses and a hoodie and looking unimpressed, speaks to Tohru, a feminine young woman in a maid's costume with dragon horns and a tail. Subtitle: "I'm a woman, though?"
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, episode 1

Tohru
Japanese: Tohru wa Kobayashi-san ga daisuki desu!
Subtitles: I love you, Miss Kobayashi!
Dub: I love you, Miss Kobayashi!

Kobayashi
Japanese: Taberu ki?
Subtitles: Are you planning to eat me?
Dub: You’re gonna eat me?

Tohru
Japanese: Chigaimasu! Seiteki ni desu!
Subtitles: I don’t mean that way! I mean sexually!
Dub: No, not like that! Like sexually!

Kobayashi
Japanese: Watashi wa onna nandaga…
Subtitles: I’m a woman, though?
Dub: I’m not into women, or dragons.

Tohru
Japanese: Watashi wa Kobayashi-san ni tasukeraremashita!
Subtitles: You saved me, Miss Kobayashi!
Dub: Yes, but I can’t put a label on what I feel for you!

The subtitles are all literal translations of the Japanese. For the first three lines, the dub adheres to this translation. The fourth line, however, turns Kobayashi’s question about Tohru’s perception of events to a statement about Kobayashi’s own identity. Not only is that a major liberty for a translator to take, it is a translation decision which completely changes the dynamic between the two main characters and shuts down a queer interpretation of the show.

With a first-episode confession of sexual attraction by one woman to another, of course this show has a following of people invested in a potential romantic relationship between the two female leads. The show appears to encourage this; in the Japanese version Kobayashi is unimpressed by Tohru’s confession, but she does not shut Tohru down. She points out to Tohru – who is a dragon, and has already demonstrated unfamiliarity with basic human concepts – that she is a woman. Tohru is unaffected, focused on her feelings of love and gratitude towards Kobayashi. At no point in this episode does Kobayashi comment on her own feelings towards Tohru. Instead, she simply accepts Tohru’s feelings.

That right there? That’s a big deal. To lesbians, to other queer viewers and allies, a direct confession of sexual love from one woman to another which is neither fetishised nor shut down is a big deal. Lesbian subtext is not unusual in anime, though often targeting male viewers. Textual lesbian relationships are rare and precious, the reason queer anime fans will fiercely defend and cherish anime such as Revolutionary Girl Utena or last season’s FLIP FLAPPERS. That a dub production team made a creative decision which erases this interpretation is a big deal.

In addition, it changes the central relationship between the protagonists. Suddenly, Tohru is not a girl with a crush and hope that her love can be returned; she is a predatory pest, forcing her feelings on an unwilling straight woman. Suddenly, every decision Kobayashi makes to become a little more intimate with Tohru, such as allowing Tohru to sleep in the same bed as her or to hold hands in episode two, seems cruel. When a creative decision distorts our understanding of the characters, you don’t have to be a translation purist to consider that overreach.

To all appearances, a writer came up with the line “I’m not into women or dragons”, thought it was funny and cute and decided it would serve the same purpose as “I’m a woman, though?”. I don’t know the writer’s identity, but it’s a reasonable guess that this is straight privilege in action; we don’t have to look for subtext in order to see ourselves represented, so it’s easy to dismiss subtextual messages which hold less meaning to us. For the writer in question, “I’m a woman, though?” was equivalent to a rejection. To a queer viewer, the lack of an explicit rejection in response to an explicit confession spoke volumes.

Victor sits on a bench outside in Hasetsu, smiling as he talks to Yuri, who is off screen. Subtitle: "Do you have a girlfriend?"
Yuri!!! on ICE, episode two

This isn’t about any single writer and I have no wish to target any one person for criticism. This is a structural problem in the way anime is translated for streaming video-on-demand services, and affects more than any one translator, team or company. For example, Funimation are handling the dub for Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, but there are multiple examples of this kind of problem in Crunchyroll’s subtitles of smash hit Yuri!!! on ICE, most notoriously in episode two:

Victor
Japanese: Koibito wa iru no kai?
Literal: Do you have a lover?
Subtitles: Do you have a girlfriend?
Dub: Do you have a lover now?

Yuri
No.

Victor
Japanese: Mukashi no koibito wa?
Literal: How about lovers from long ago?
Subtitles: Any ex-girlfriends?
Dub: What about ex-lovers?

Yuri
N-No comment.

Victor
Japanese: Boku no hanashi wo shiyou! Hajimete no koibito wa-
Literal: Let’s talk about me! My first lover was-
Subtitles: Let’s talk about me! My first girlfriend was-
Dub: Then let’s talk about me! Let’s see, my first lover was-

Yuri
Stop!

From a post we published shortly after episode seven:

Heteronormativity, the assumption that people are and/or should be heterosexual, has been an issue in Yuri!!! on ICE since episode two, when the gender-neutral word ‘koibito’, pointedly used three times in an eight-line conversation, was translated to ‘girlfriend’ in subtitles (a problem repeated in later subtitles but fixed in the dub). This presumably reflected a translator looking at a script without context and deciding that girlfriend is the most natural translation for a conversation between two men. Which, in 99% of sports anime, it would be.

 

Thing is, it would be in Japanese too. To use ‘koibito’ meaning ‘lover’ instead of the word ‘kanojo’ meaning ‘girlfriend’ is definitely the less ‘natural’ choice for a conversation between two Japanese men, because what is ‘natural’ in this case is heteronormative. The word in Japanese was carefully selected, while the chosen translation was most likely automatic – why wouldn’t two guys discussing relationships be talking about girls? Thus the deliberate ambiguity was lost and the queer subtext erased. But queer anime fans know subtext, and each subsequent episode has provided more and more support for a queer reading of this show.

The word ‘koibito’ was a deliberate choice. To use it three times in six lines of script was a very deliberate choice. To incorporate a conversation about relationships using the word ‘koibito’ three times in six lines in the second episode of a sports anime was an extremely deliberate choice. Even looking only at the script, any Japanese speaker familiar with director Sayo Yamamoto’s track record of including openly gay characters in her work would probably have been wondering about the significance of this repeated ‘koibito’.

However, translators need to work fast, especially for simulcasts, so translations will inevitably be subject to each individual translator’s unique set of unconscious biases and privileges, working to what can be a punishing schedule. Mistakes will inevitably slip through the net. The question Yuri!!! On ICE’s subtitle controversy raises is why, once it became evident that the translation was inappropriate and unpopular, the decision was made to keep the subtitles unedited. In the opposite situation to Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, for Yuri!!! on ICE the Funimation dubbing team took note of the public reaction and corrected it in their own script for the episode. Why not fix the subtitles?

There may well be perfectly valid practical or contractual reasons for this but outcomes>intentions, and the outcome is heteronormativity enshrined in a misleading translation. Unfortunately, this was used by straight viewers as a stick to beat queer viewers in two ways: 1) as “evidence” that the queer interpretation was wrong, and 2) to fuel anger towards queer viewers for “making it gay”.

This post is not about translation errors. This is about the choice simulcasting companies currently make to leave such problematic translations intact. From the outside, it looks an awful lot like simulcasting is structured to support the unconscious biases of their employees, with no form of accountability for queer erasure, heteronormativity or even the inappropriate use of slurs.

In the female character's imagination, effeminate boy Koujuurou sits in a short skirt, bare legs and unbuttoned shirt on the lap of his classmate, Masamune, whose shirt is also unbuttoned, Masamune gently touching Koujuurou's chin. Subtitle: "Well, otokonoko (boys) and otokonoko (traps) are two different things."
Masamune-kun’s Revenge, episode three

From Masamune-kun’s Revenge, episode three:

Japanese: Otoko no ko to otokonoko wa betsubara dakara!
Subtitles: Well, otokonoko (boys) and otokonoko (traps) are two different things.

Traps. TRAPS. This is not only offensive, centring around the idea that men who dress as women ‘trap’ innocent straight men into sexual situations, but also dangerous, perpetuating an idea that literally costs trans women their lives.

To add insult to pretty serious injury, it’s not even a defensible translation. ‘Trap’ would be an acceptable translation for a comparable Japanese slur towards a trans woman. Instead, the line includes wordplay about the two meanings of ‘otokonoko’ in Japanese, literally ‘boy’ and a more slangy meaning of ‘boy who dresses up to look like a girl’. The hateful nuance of ‘…in order to manipulate straight cisgender men, and is therefore deserving of violence’ is completely absent. The context is actually a girl daydreaming about how hot an effeminate boy would look in women’s clothing while with another male classmate. Far from ideal representation, but not the kind of interaction for which ‘trap’ would be an appropriate translation.

The final nail in the coffin is that the very next line is the end of the joke and a gift to the translator tasked with the ‘otokonoko’ wordplay:

Japanese: Nanka, onaji kotoba na no ni, chigau imi datte tsutawacchaundakedo!
Subtitles: They’re the same word, but I can tell you mean them in totally different ways!

In other words, the translator could have said pretty much anything in the previous line and it would have been explained by the image on screen then put to bed with “I can tell you mean them in totally different ways!”. For example, “Well, there are pretty boys and then there are pretty boys,” would have lost some nuance but avoided using romaji, parentheses and actual slurs. That should be the bare minimum marginalised viewers can expect from official translations.

However, the main problem is that translation occurs without accountability. I saw this Masamune-kun’s Revenge screenshot brought to the attention of Crunchyroll staffers shortly after simulcast. The individual staffers were obviously appalled and wanted to fix it. I assumed that when I got around to watching this episode a week later it would have been changed. It was not. This is where we need to start asking questions.

Dub teams have an advantage. They have the benefit of knowing what the immediate response was of anime fans – including Japanese speakers – and can amend their script accordingly to fix the problems discovered in the subtitle stage. Why on earth would a dub team change a literal translation with multiple possible faithful English alternatives to be so far from the original in spirit? Why on earth, when this problem was pointed out to them, would their first response not be an immediate public apology and an offer to fix it for the DVD release?

Subtitle teams have an advantage. They don’t need to hire writers and voice actors to fix a problematic line, they can just  go into a piece of software, retype the line and save the change very quickly. Again, there may be perfectly valid practical or contractual reasons why this doesn’t happen, but a) most outside the companies providing these official translations are in the dark as to what they are, and b) if it’s baked into a contract or internal processes that problematic language cannot be changed, the outcome is still a situation which disadvantages marginalised people, whose viewing experience is most likely to be affected by unconscious bias. Why on earth would subtitling teams not make it a policy to amend problematic language within two working days of it being brought to their attention?

As a Japanese speaker myself who had to endure too many contemporary and classical Japanese translation assignments to get my degree, I’m not naïve to the obstacles a translator faces or denying that their task is a challenging one. It’s a job of constant compromise under a time limit, and, as with any compromise, results will inevitably not please everyone. That’s to be expected. I’m also not naïve to the PR minefield of attempting to be sensitive to issues outside my experience and understanding, or to the frustrations of feeling attacked over something that seems unfair when I have broadly good intentions.

However, intentions are always secondary to outcomes. The handful of companies responsible for streaming simulcasts and simuldubs do not seem to currently have effective processes in place to amend genuinely problematic translations. Whatever the reasoning or intentions behind this, the outcome is that marginalised viewers are left with a substandard viewing experience, and no sense that it is anyone’s priority to fix it. Considering how many marginalised people are drawn to anime precisely because it resonates with them in a way that western media does not, this is a problem we need to acknowledge and address.

 

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Not sure where to start? Some questions to kick off conversation:

  • Do you work at one of these companies and want to share your experience of why problematic subtitles or dubs aren’t fixed?
  • Do you have examples of problematic subtitles or dubs in anime other than those listed here?
  • Are you aware of similar incidents in other media, such as manga or video games?
  • If you are an LGBTQ+ viewer, how do these incidents affect you?
  • What kind of process would you like to see put in place going forward?

 

Amelia is the editor-in-chief of Anime Feminist, has a degree in Japanese Studies and is a freelance writer for websites and magazines on film, television, anime and manga. 

Being funded solely by patrons enables us to act freely according to our principles. We have no commercial ties, no contractual obligations and no need to structure content in order to drive traffic to our site. If you want to help us keep it that way and can spare just $1 a month please become a patron today

  • Brainchild129

    There’s another hurdle to making changes: dealing with the original Japanese licensors.

    Obviously the exact details depend on what the licensing contract states, but any sort of change usually has to be run by the licensors for approval. Even in this digital age, that means going through a lot of red tape and bureaucratic hoops. That in turn leads to delays. That’s presumably the reason that the American licensors can’t just make those changes so fast. It sucks but it’s also unavoidable.

    • Brainchild129

      Although I may be wrong on the matter, at least if this Answerman installment from last October still holds true: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/answerman/2016-10-28/.108210

    • David

      Yep. I totally agree with the article, and wish it were easier to just change these things. Unfortunately, the practical reason alluded to here is very real – every single thing done with a show has to go through approvals on the Japanese side of things, so even going in and changing a line in Aegisub isn’t as simple as it sounds (or, really should be).

      However, stuff like the “trap” line in Masamune-kun really just shouldn’t be happening these days at all. Funimation tweeted last year using that word, were informed of its issues, and quickly deleted it and replaced it.

      https://twitter.com/funimation/status/568438556315811842

      I’m surprised and sad to see it still being used in official translations.

      • Exactly, I think if a translation includes a slur and it’s brought to the team’s attention it’s a bad sign when it’s not dealt with. However, the fact is that heteronormative translations like “I’m not into women” or “Do you have a girlfriend?” are imprecise to the point of inaccurate and misleading. I understand not wanting to correct everything simply in the name of a purer translation and I did try to be mindful that there could be practical considerations outside my awareness, but CR and Funi have been committed to breaking down the walls between industry and fandom and where there is an outcry from marginalised fans I think they need a better process for responding to it, or at least greater transparency around why their hands are tied to the point that they can’t even remove a slur.

        At least these questions are coming up with companies that have such strong online presences and contact with fans. If Amazon screws up the subs for Scum’s Wish, for example, it will be much harder to get a response from them. Another reason why we need dedicated services like CR and Funi to lead the way and set the bar for the Amazons and Netflixes of the world.

  • marthaurion

    i dont have any specific insight in the industry, but my guess is that there’s no real incentive to go through the trouble of making the fix. it’s not like there are so many companies releasing subs/dubs in the west and the majority of viewers probably won’t notice. and especially with dubs, the amount of work you’d have to do to fix it is probably not gaining you too much.

  • JohnClark

    So Lover is a good way of avoiding the heteronormative connotations of boyfriend/girlfriend then.

    • Caitlin

      It’s a little clunky but probably the most neutral choice

      • Valerie

        I think “partner” might be a good alternative, as “lover”—at least in my view (as a non-native speaker, for full disclosure)—runs the risk of sounding slightly melodramatic. However, “partner” and “lover” both seem out of place for younger characters, which may not be a problem for Yuri!!! on ICE but means they cannot convincingly be used in high school settings, for instance. Perhaps rephrasing the line as, for example, “Are you seeing/dating anyone?” is more useful (but not always possible, of course).

        Then again, I also think Yuri might be likely to interpret “partner” as “ice skating partner”, so using a more explicit term like “lover” is probably the better option in this context, especially considering “koibito” is unambiguous as well. (I don’t remember what preceded the exchange cited in this article, but I’m basing this on my personal understanding of Yuri’s character in general.)

        • I think you can get away with ‘lover’ in YOI because Victor’s not a native English speaker, but a more natural gender-neutral way to do it would be with something like “Are you in a relationship right now?” or “How about exes?” It’s not always relevant because koibito’s not always used to deliberately maintain such ambiguity, but where it is there are definitely natural alternatives.

          • SC

            How about “steady”? Does it sound too outdated?

          • That was always more an American English phrase so I’m not sure. British English is “Are you going out with anyone right now?” which would be much too long! “Are you seeing anyone?” could work in both countries, I think.

  • I always assume that if a dub i vastly different, they still imagine censorsh out there complaining or have issues around their own sexuality that precludes those words.

  • The main issue that I have with CR not changing the subs is how the subs aren’t hard-coded to the video (you can change the subs or turn them off iirc)

    • I think they are either stubborn or lazy, because I noticed some anime misspells names. For example “Fran” in Katekyo Hitman Reborn is subtitled on CR as “Flan”, even though it is “Fran” by canon if the manga creator’s and merchandise with English letters “Fran” are to be believed. I don’t think they fixed it yet, but I haven’t checked since I saw it years ago.

  • redsilversnake

    Funimation actually has a precedent for queer-phobic lines; the dub for the Ouran anime apparently had a transphobic one early on.
    CR has a history too. This is hardly the first time the word “trap” has appeared in their subs, and whoever wrote the subs for Drifters leaned way too heavily on”twinkies” as a translation for okama. Though it is weird that staffers would react the way you describe and still not change that line, since there have been changes before (the one I know of being in Akatsuki no Yona, where, a few days after a particular episode was uploaded, they changed how they rendered a name or two to be more in line with romanized Korean).

    • Caitlin

      I’m willing to give Funi some slack (not a lot, just some) on the Ouran dub because there’s not really a nice way to translate “okama”. It’s a word for a cross-dressing man with negative connotation, and seven years ago very few people were aware of transgender issues. They were undoubtedly ignorant of just how strong a slur their choice was.

      • Ayanami

        That’s a good point. Similarly with the Drifters translation, that’s a problem with the source material just outright being offensive and not with the translation itself. Should it be up to CR to make problematic source material less offensive, at the cost of translation accuracy? If they did that, audiences would scream censorship. I don’t think there’s really a perfect answer.

  • Matthew Kelly

    As an example, the handling of Rui Ninomiya’s gender in the subtitles was rather cringe-inducing in Gatchaman Crowds. It was clear that it was being subtitled by someone who was not sensitive to transgender issues. It is unclear as to whether Rui Ninomiya identifies as trans, because it never comes up in conversation in the show, but the translators should be aware that the character will be read as trans by Western audiences and so should be handled with care.

    • Ayanami

      I imagine that if Rui uses a gendered Japanese pronoun (atashi, boku, etc), then the translations would be based on that. Using whatever Rui uses is probably the best way to go about it anyway. But, I can’t find any information to that effect on google. I guess I’d have to go back and rewatch it.

      Anyway, I’ll leave it at that, since this conversation always ends up in a “what gender is Rui” argument, and I think there are enough of those on the internet.

  • Brainchild129

    Funi’s redone lines for their home releases. The most notable example is with Prison School. People called them out for adding a Gamergate joke to the simuldub. The line was changed for the home release & all declared it an improvement.
    It’s hard to say if this will be true for Crunchyroll’s own releases until they actually start putting out DVDs.

  • Sim Le

    I really respect you for writing this article because I have to be honest that the nature of AniFem’s Staff also being employed by major anime companies does represent a potentially major conflict of interest. If AniFem only addressed social issues without being concerned by the broader economic power structure that perpetuates those issues it would be failing in its mission.

    So it’s really important that you draw attention to issues like this in the industry that not only perpetuate antifeminist ideas but which, also, misrepresent the source material as being less nuanced than it actually is. This type of journalism makes me proud to support this site and I hope you’ll continue to maintain your conviction even if it means being critical of powerful figures in the industry.

    • Thank you, I’m really glad this kind of work validates your support! Hopefully this piece will put to bed the idea that we are in any way affiliated with Crunchyroll. We have some freelance writers in common, freelance writers of course being free to work for multiple sites, but only one of the team (Peter) is actually a Crunchyroll employee. Both Crunchyroll and Anime Feminist have been clear from the start that his writing and editing work for us is completely separate to his job at Crunchyroll.

      Specifically, I’ve never paid Peter a penny for his work, he just stepped up and volunteered from day one, plus I have been careful not to involve him in articles which could cause professional difficulties for him in any way. He knew that I was writing a post on the topic of problematic translations but gave no input at any point and did not see any of the piece until it was published. In the Fan vs Service post he wrote right at the start, he compared two shows, only one of which is on Crunchyroll – and that was the one he was critical of! As far as I’m aware, his CR coworkers have been nothing but supportive of his work with me, which says very good things about it as a company.

      What it comes down to is that if the Crunchyroll team read this article and are unhappy with me, there are no negative outcomes for us at AniFem (though I would personally be very sad!). However, I’m pretty sure a number of the CR team see this as a problem just as I do, I just don’t know what their reasons are for not making the changes listed. I’m hoping that at the least we’ll get some greater transparency around these processes, or in the best case scenario a commitment to meaningful improvements in the processes going forward.

  • Alicia

    Look.

    I agree with you that the translation is wrong, and that it might very well have been based on a homophobic decision to tone down the same-sex attraction being displayed by the character.

    Having said that, you are talking about a yuri-tease moe anime.

    A yuri-tease moe anime which, if you go to the site of the original manga serialization, you can see is clearly being sold to its main (straight, male) audience through half-naked, moe-style, big-breasted girls. http://webaction.jp/monthly_action/

    And you are calling this an important example of queer representation for lesbians and allies?

    With no caveats at all about the social context behind this? (The discussion of yuri, yaoi, and personal enjoyment vs. representation is way, way more complicated than what you’re displaying here.)

    And you’re the person who started out writing a blog with the specific purpose of warning fellow female viewers of female objectification in anime?

    Are you really, really sure this is what you wish to be doing?

    On a site which has yet to discuss even a single piece of Japanese media created specifically by and for self-identified Japanese LGBT people, just to add insult to injury?

    Really, now?

    • Valid questions, thank you for bringing them to me.

      There are two lines of thought which come up in these conversations: yuri-tease moe anime are for men and therefore never good representation of queer relationships, or yuri-tease moe anime are enjoyed by queer women too and therefore should always be considered in conversations of queer representation. As far as I’m aware there is no majority consensus on which of these is “right”, meaning no matter which one I express I will be criticised by someone who strongly disagrees, which is fair enough.

      In specific discussions of a particular representation, as an ally I will take on whichever view queer women I follow online hold about how positive or negative a specific representation is. In this instance, I saw a couple of tweet threads from a trans lesbian writer I follow (https://twitter.com/andrearitsu/status/827033287306670080, https://twitter.com/andrearitsu/status/827241850591387649) which were retweeted by other queer and trans women I know, often including commentary about how frustrating and upsetting this erasure was for them. I don’t want to speak for these women, and if anyone had got in touch to pitch this piece over the last few days I would have gladly paid them to write it instead of me. However, something of feminist interest happened in fandom and we had a short window in which to publish it before the internet moved on completely. This isn’t the kind of thing the major sites will be able to talk about, either because they have relevant commercial interests and/or it’s outside their remit. This is exactly the kind of topic we exist to write about, topics which would otherwise stay in thoughtful posts on personal blogs with lower reader numbers.

      That all said… In retrospect, I wish I had approached individual writers to invite them to pitch on this subject, since I really don’t want to write about issues outside my experience wherever possible and there were a number of women I respect talking about this who I could have approached. I’m still getting used to the fact that we have money to pay people and I don’t have to do everything myself anymore. That’s something I need to work on.

      Commentary about social context for enjoyment of yuri and yaoi vs. representation would have honestly been outside the scope of this article. It’s a huge topic that I would prefer to address in its own right, but it has been discussed on many other sites for many years so we would need a writer with a particularly strong knowledge base (e.g. academic), a less common relationship with yaoi/yuri (e.g. a fudanshi) or a fresh angle on a much-discussed topic. I am more than happy to publish on this, but it was not practical to do so in this article, which is already over 2000 words.

      I did start out writing a blog with the specific purpose of warning fellow female viewers of female objectification in anime, but that’s my own blog, not what AniFem is. I am not the only writer on the site, especially not now we can pay people. My voice will hopefully be much diluted going forward, ideally to a point where I only write a monthly site update. I want to build up a diverse bank of reliable writers who I can call on to write posts like this when these issues come up. We’re not even four months old yet and have only been paying writers for a few weeks, that will take time. However, I am really, really sure this is what I wish to be doing. Really. I might not be as good at it yet as I could be, but that has always been the goal.

      Finally, I would love to publish a piece on Japanese media created specifically by and for self-identified Japanese LGBT people! Please pitch me here and we’ll make it happen: https://www.animefeminist.com/contact/submissions/

  • Out of curiosity, is there a better substitute for the slang “trap”? I know it’s offensive, but there doesn’t seem to be any easier word for this, other than “girly boy”, or “crossdresser”, but both seem to not always be equal to the anime “trap”, and I think it’s not meant to equate to real people, so there must be some other made up word for it? Otokonoko of course is in Japan, but it’s kind of hard to type it in English, and I never see English speakers use it.
    However I don’t like the idea of using a word that already exists for real people with different meaning, such as “femboy”, because femboy doesn’t necessarily mean a boy who crossdresses to look female or has female curves/skeleton. I noticed a LOT of “trap” in anime/manga looks to have a female body with the wide hips and tiny torso/shoulders, which makes me wonder if some are closer to Futanari than biological male, if they are not seriously transsexual people.
    I think at this point it must really be purely comical fantasy or fetish fanservice, and not meant to represent real transgender people at all. I don’t think I could identify them as real transgender or transsexual people because it feels disrespectful to associate the impossibly fictional fetish with a real group of people. It’d be the equivalent of calling Futanari in hentai “Transsexual”, when Futanari is purely fetish fantasy. Unless there is such a serious story to them, so I have been continuing to refer to these characters as “trap”.

    If on the other hand, there is a story involving the realistic depiction of transgender/transsexuality like “Wandering Son”, I would refer to them how they are represented. I never call the characters in this anime “trap” since they have realistic physiology.

    A counter-example is Kobayashi in Rampo Kitan, who has a very much female-shaped body. He looks female in every way including a big butt/hips and tiny torso that is obvious even in pant-suits. He still identifies strictly as male and wears pant-suits normally, only wearing a dress for fun. I cannot call him transsexual or transgender, because of the insistence that he is male, but his physiology is so unrealistically feminine (in other words, not a femboy), I cannot think of a more accurate word than trap, because it is beyond cross-dressing…

    However, I also noticed sometimes anime or manga will make a “trap” character that seems to have the mentality more like a MTF transgender, where he/she is ashamed of their being born as a male, but then on the other hand, still referring to themself as a boy in their inner monologue and not ever having or considering any sex change or HRT, though naturally has a female-shaped body. In these it seems to be just a plot device rather than serious representation.

    I wonder if it’s because of Japan being less adamant about LGBTQetc representation, or if the LGBT community in Japan doesn’t get offended by it since it seems to be exclusively an anime/fiction thing? I imagine it’d be more problematic to lump these fictional characters into real peoples’ identities.
    I’m also LGBT+, but do not have a problem with anime doing this fantasy as long as they do not claim them to be realistic when they are not. I do not like the fanservice/ecchi anime at all so I just avoid it when possible. In the end, fanservice anime will always fantasize the viewer’s preferred gender/sex/fetish to the point of unrealisticness that ciswomen and even some cismen(BL/yaoi) are not exempt from.
    I’ve only met one Japanese transgender person in Japan, and they seemed fine with it (they enjoyed “trap” characters), but they were FTM. I do not know how it is for Japanese transwomen in Japan.

    Sorry for the TL;dr.

    • “Trap” is not a legitimate piece of vocabulary; trap is a slur against trans women, listed under the defamatory language section on GLAAD’s website (http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender). Individual opinions are irrelevant. To say there’s no option but to use it is like saying there’s no possible alternative to calling a person of Arabic origin a “raghead”. It is that bad. It should never appear in subtitles unless being used specifically by a cis character to be derogatory towards a male-bodied character presenting as female. However, that would require an anime to seriously engage with trans issues in a sympathetic way, which is extremely rare.

      On that note, I appreciate you have good intentions, but use of the word “trap” as a neutral descriptor of a character will be moderated out of this site’s comments. Our priority is to protect these comment sections as a safe space for marginalised people, and transphobic language being used in a way which does not acknowledge its transphobic nature is incompatible with that. There is no such thing as “a trap character”, as that implies a male-bodied character dressing up as a woman specifically to trap cis men who would otherwise be unwilling into having sex with them. Considering that sexual activity with cis men who are unaware of their identity can literally cost trans women their lives, let’s just assume that’s not a scenario that actually happens. What would even be the point of it? To punish cis men who could literally kill them by showing them a dick when they weren’t expecting it? I welcome any trans readers to add their experiences here, but my guess is that most trans women will choose to disclose their status to potential sexual partners well before their relationship becomes sexual, out of pure self-preservation.

      Back to your question, about how to describe these male-bodied characters who look like attractive women. Using the romaji “otokonoko” was, honestly, a bad decision on the translator’s part, and I can only imagine – or hope – that they were extremely pressed for time. Using romaji at all for Japanese words English speakers are unfamiliar with should be something of a last resort, especially a word like “otokonoko” which is pronounced the same way for two different meanings which are differentiated only by kanji. I would prefer to take my cues from trans/non-binary/gender-fluid people on how they would most like these characters to be referred to, but even if it’s inelegant I will use as many words as it takes (e.g. “male-bodied characters who look like attractive women”) rather than use a known transphobic slur.

      I’d like to hear from other commenters on this – what suggestions do you have for ways to describe these characters?

      • NightWingDing

        N.B: (most likley) cis-male, (I’m still questioning).

        The whole thing is massivlely complex. Most people in general don’t have a decent understanding of the differences between crossdressing and being trans*, let alone the sub-culture of a sub-culture that is the “otokonoko” genre. Ideally you’d always be able to make that distinction and could use “conventially attractive crossdresser” or “conventially attractive transwoman” as approriate. To refer to both of these as a group, I think “conventionally attractive crossdressers and transwomen” works best.

        I’d, of course, be quite happy to be told I’m wrong by people with more exerience than me. 🙂

        • I tend to use “trans woman” as separate words, so as not to present “transwomen” as a separate species from “women”. It makes it more like black women, or disabled women, or any other equally neutral descriptor.

          I agree that it is massively complex though, it would be good to get a range of opinions on what the most appropriate terminology would be! This kind of character is definitely an anime trope, we’ll probably have to discuss it as some point.

          • emlans

            I think you should probably change your discussion plans from “at some point” to “ASAP” because how do you expect people to stop using Trap for the common ‘cute boys who look/dress like girls’-trope when there’s no good alternative to offer right away? People use that word since it’s quick and catchy without reflecting on what it actually implies since it’s just been used as a tag for this type of character forever.

            “Femboy” I’d say is the closest we’ll ever get to a good EN option even though it’s not quiiite there…Unless “Otokonoko” starts getting used a common term like how “Tsundere” shows up as-is even in english translations. Using a long typed out PC sentence to truly show what you’re describing works in essays but won’t cut it for casual chat between fans and translations in manga/anime when the trope is brought up. Specially not for the otaku who likes the them the most.

          • I expect people to stop using ‘trap’ for the common ‘cute boys who look/dress like girls’-trope because it’s the right thing to do not to use words once they are deemed to be slurs. This is common decency, surely? If you’re not willing to respect transgender people to the extend of avoiding transphobic slurs in casual conversation because you’re unwilling to use a few extra words and think it’s ‘PC’ rather than ‘not being a dick to people who already get dumped on a lot by society at large’, you probably don’t belong on an intersectional feminist website.

            When I said we will look at it ‘at some point’ I meant as an article topic, ideally written by a trans/non-binary/gender-fluid person. For a discussion ASAP I can only invite input in the comments – which is exactly what I did. There are no trans people on the team, so it’s not our place to dictate what terms trans people ‘should’ feel comfortable with as an alternative instead. This article has been fairly widely circulated, including by trans women, and I will be receptive to anything I hear about a preferred alternative term. Until then, I will use as many words as it takes to describe the character without transphobia – because it’s common decency to do so.

          • emlans

            Oh it seems I wrote it badly; I wasn’t arguing that people should get to keep using it, but the literal reality is that “Trap” is never going to go away unless a short and simple alternative gets mainstream enough for everyone to pick up on in it and that’s why it’s EXTRA important to include such an alternative right away when informing people why Trap shouldn’t be used, which is lacking in this OP (even though ‘Pretty Boy’ is a decent pun for this one gag).

            I expect and want people to not use slurs either, but majority of anime fans who use this therm are either kids who just uses the word everyone else use without reflecting on it or cis boys who will either argue ’til the cows come home that it’s not an offensive word since That’s Just The Tropes Name and/or they really couldn’t care less if it’s transphobic or not. So expecting people overall to just be decent is already out the window.

            It’s frustrating that I’ve seen multiple PSAs about this therm being bad yet no one tend to really dare give alternatives, that’s why I ended up reading your “at some point” as kind of wave off-y. I guess it’s a bit of a hot potato no one is comfortable to pin down? I do hope you manage to find people who’d be up for it since I want so see further discussion on good alt word/s.

          • NightWingDing

            I agree with your point on the naming of trans women, I’ve updated the original comment.

          • Zoe Le Loir

            Personally, as a trans woman, I loathe the term “trap” and the trope as the whole “trying to trick guys” thing is a belief that leads to violence and even murder of trans women. Heck, I’ve run into scary situations before when there was absolutely no flirting going on, just talking tech or science fiction and suddenly… Bam!.. Scary hostility. I’ve never tried to trick a guy, it’s not my fault that a guy found me attractive and then realized I was trans, I wasn’t leading him on.

            Sorry for venting on that, but it’s a horrible trope.

            I’d just like to see the trope die.

            The term I’d use is trans woman also.

            But honestly, the trope just needs to die.

      • SC

        I read in Japanese wikipedia that otokonoko is translated as “tomgirl” or “femboy” in the west. I’m not familiar with the term “tomgirl.” Does anyone know the nuance of the word in the context of anime/manga?

  • Ashen

    I was baffled reading the translation comparisons for Dragon Maid. I’ve no personal interest in the show itself but I agree with you wholeheartedly; if the dub or subtitled translation changes the intention of a scene or the very dynamic of two characters’ relationship within the show, then it’s a problem that needs to be given proper weight and addressed accordingly.

    I was even more surprised by the YOI comparison. I can see the argument a casual observer might make (“it’s practically the same”) but after a second I caught up to my own internal bias it seems: while “lover” may seem overly formal/sexual/odd to the average English speaker, “girlfriend” is not a fair substitute precisely because it ONLY denotes A FEMALE PARTNER. I was taken aback by my delayed realization of that, even if it was only for a second. I love that Japanese offers such precision with certain word choices and there ARE parallels in English in some ways. Saying “friend” vs. “acquaintance” denotes a familiarity or lack thereof, so for another country to translate that as interchangeable would be a mistake.

    I’m loving this site more and more and hope to see an uptick in articles like this. The conversion of one language to another while retaining the original’s intent is a fascinating process and one I’ve enjoyed learning more about immensely.

  • It’s great that you know trans people who are not personally negatively affected by the word ‘trap’ in their media, but 100% of the trans people I know see it is transphobic and GLAAD lists it as defamatory language: http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

    • Ambition Amethyst

      I would see ‘trap’ as being transphobic in much the same way it would be offensive to call someone who is Sikh, a Muslim. The word itself is not necessarily offensive. It is simply irrelevant to trans people.
      It could be used to say “you’re just a man in women’s clothing” which would be an offensive way to use such a word, but referring to a male who identifies as male but presents as female either as a fetish or full time; I can’t agree that it is offensive in such a context. When there is a crossdressing culture in japan that refers to those who can present unquestionably as female as being traps, that is not being used to offend anyone.
      It is simply an irrelevant term.
      It can be used to offend, and in context of trans women, it would be offensive.
      The word on its own however, I will have to agree to disagree with you there.
      It is however a word that if not fully understood could cause a lot of confusion, and much like any defamatory word, it should be understood why it may offend rather than simply being taken as an ever-offensive brick wall.
      I have seen the term trap even used to guage if someone would be open to being with a trans person. It can be a huge relief to speak with someone who says they enjoy trap manga, anime or characters, and can boost confidence in ‘coming out’ to people.
      The word ‘trap’ itself does not murder or inflict transphobic feelings. People who use it in a transphobic light, people who have intent to hurt others based on any kind of identity. They are the problem, not the word.
      This is an interesting discussion though and I would love to hear more opinions on the matter.

      • Others can comment on this if they wish to, but I personally and Anime Feminist as an organisation will continue to treat it like a slur, and we will not approve comments which use ‘trap’ as a neutral descriptor without editing them so that this usage of the word does not appear in our comments section. I’ve made my point in other comments on this subject, so will step away from this conversation now.

  • Alexisonfire

    Excellent article. I’m glad I was linked to it! I have very little interest in anime, but many of these issues have a lot of relevance to the field I do work in (video games). The struggles between being faithful to the source and being respectful to the audience during the localization and translation process is a tough one, especially with the tight constraints of time and money on the pipeline, but we must all work to correct our unconscious biases that will hurt the product and, more importantly, the more vulnerable members of our audience.

  • Lori P

    Is it weird that I chalked up “I’m a woman, though?” to other homophobic anime lines? Like, I get it, Kobayashi knows that Tohru is a dragon, and may not understand human anatomy or whatever, but at the same time, I feel like they do this in anime a lot. Whenever someone says something kind of gay, the first response is “But I’m a guy!” or “But we’re both girls!” or something…so in *that* sense, I could see how the translation would be taken to shut Tohru down, since it sounded like a “subtle”, “vague” style of a Japanese shut-down in the original language. But I could be wrong.

    As for the trap thing…I’ve once heard people defend it like “Trap isn’t transphobic!! It’s a fetish!!” which????? Like they pretty much admitted to fetishizing trans women while at the same time claiming to NOT be transphobic :’) Otaku are so gross

  • Legato Williams

    Not to troll or anything, but isn’t the subbed line, “I’m a woman, though?” just a more passive assertion of the same point as its dubbed version? The line seems to purposely point out her gender, implying the strangeness of Tohru’s love for a WOMAN, instead of her species, which would imply the strangeness of Tohru’s love for a HUMAN. Perhaps this is just over my heterosexual male head, but isn’t pointing out her gender in this way a method of resistance to a homosexual advance? That’s how I understood it when I saw this episode.

  • I felt like something was off about the girlfriend lines in YoI when I watched it… I don’t have a good enough knowledge of Japanese, but I had a feeling. There’s no reason not to go back and fix a clear mistranslation like that, especially when fans point out to you that there is a better alternative.

  • drumstick00m

    Late arrival here, and about to pass out for the night, so had no time to read the comments.

    Anyway, text-to-life: if I remember the eight years of serious foreign language classes I took right, only one of them ever seriously taught anything like this WELL. Grappling with these injustices would have motivated me to learn more to be able to do more about them…