Why Aren’t Problematic Translations Fixed?

By: Amelia Cook February 4, 201745 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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?


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

N-No comment.

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-


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.

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