Recently, I was talking to someone on Twitter, comparing different subtitle translations for a given scene. I was commenting that the ones which left the honorifics in seemed better to me. After the discussion, as I started noticing more when subs kept the honorifics versus removing them, I felt honorifics in translations would be an interesting topic. Thus, here we are.
Before we start, this is specifically for translations to English. As a native English speaker, I can’t comment on other language translations. So yeah, there you go. Okay, aside over.
What are Honorifics?
Honorifics are those suffixes that you see at the end of a name. I actually used them in my post discussing My Dress-up Darling. Even if you haven’t seen them used in subtitles, you may have heard it in the Japanese audio.
Far and away, the most common would be “-san”, like “Kitagawa-san” as an example. You see this frequently translated as “Mr”, “Mrs”, or “Ms” (it’s gender-neutral). It basically serves as a way to refer to someone while being polite. This translation is probably the most accurate of the ones we’ll discuss, though I don’t know if I’d say it’s a perfect translation.
Two that are quite common as well are “-kun” and “-chan”, such as with “Gojo-kun” if we continue with the My Dress-up Darling references. This is where we start to run into difficulties. These are still polite, but less so than “-san”, and are often used for people younger than yourself or people you’re close with (though very close relationships, you’d usually drop the honorifics entirely, something you see sometimes in romantic anime).
I don’t know if the following examples are technically classified as “honorifics”, but I’ll add them here for completeness. There are some which are specific for certain relations to the person, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ve heard some of them.
Two that you’d likely hear in a slice-of-life or some other school-based series are “-sensei” and “-senpai”. The former refers to your teacher or instructor. “-senpai”, often frustratingly mistranslated as “sempai” (I don’t know why that bothers me so much…), refers to your senior, like someone in a grade above you or a co-worker that’s been there longer than you. Both can be used on their own to refer to the individual as well (I regularly called my Japanese instructor “Sensei”, leaving her name off entirely).
For familial relations, it’s pretty common to see adaptations of the actual relation name itself appended as an honorific. “-onee-san” and “-onii-san” seem the most common, and refer to older sister or older brother respectively. These can be modified to be less formal, such as “-onee-chan”, or more informally “-nee-chan”. The suffix’s… suffix (uhh?) can even be dropped to “-nee”.
The point is, you can use family relations as honorifics. I’ve also encountered instances of using “-obaa-san” or “-ojii-san”, which seems a bit complicated, but it’s basically just grandmother and grandfather respectively.
There’s a whole slew more (like the common “-sama”), and variations on them (for added cuteness), but we’ll leave those aside for now. On to the main topic.
Why Drop the Honorifics?
A big reason I’ve identified to remove these honorifics from translations is for better localization.
Most languages I’ve encountered don’t use honorifics the way Japanese does. Japan has historically been a very vertical society, with respect being shown to those “above” you. Without a similarly vertical social structure, there’s often not a good way to translate it.
There can be confusion about their meaning if you’ve just encountered them. When I was younger, I didn’t understand what these suffixes were. There were instances where I thought it was some weird thing missed during the editing.
Arguably, it can be easier to drop them entirely also. How would you translate “Gojo-kun”? Mr. Gojo wouldn’t work really, otherwise there’d be no distinction between “Gojo-kun” and “Gojo-san”. And this is simply with “-kun”. What about “-sama”? What’s more respectful than “Mr”?
At the end of the day, to avoid confusion and difficulties in how to translate it, just dropping them would be the simplest solution.
Then… Why Keep the Honorifics?
I’m glad you asked, stranger on the internet that I hope is reading this. After considering the above points, I still believe it’d be better to just translate them with the honorifics intact.
I admit, honorifics can be confusing at first, but they’re so common that after a while they become second nature. I couldn’t even write “Kitagawa” without the “-san” at the end in my post. It’s as though it’s part of their name at that point.
There’s also countless interactions where a character asks another to be less formal with them, like in Shijou Saikyou no Daimaou, Murabito A ni Tensei suru. Eventually, through just encountering it, you learn the inherent meaning. Maybe not exact, but close enough that I was able to walk into my Japanese class and understand the basics each of the honorifics we covered.
I’m usually not a fan of their attempts to directly translate. It often ends up feeling off, or a bit stiff. Referring to him as “Ard-kun” is not the same as calling him “Ardy”. Just… no. I’d probably be more okay if she called him “Ard-chan”, but not for “-kun”. These kinds of awkward things happen a lot too.
When someone is called “Koyomi-onii-chan”, it’s not technically wrong to be translated as “big brother Koyomi”. The issue is it sounds awkward. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to their older brother like that. Leaving the honorifics here would actually make it flow better, in my opinion.
There’s Meaning There
Another major issue is the loss of meaning. “Koyomi-onii-chan” and “Araragi-senpai” are used specifically to denote their relation to him. While not technically related to Nadeko, he is her friends’ older brother, thus treating him similarly.
This happens quite a bit too with even less of a relationship. It’s not uncommon for a character to refer to someone they respect highly as “-onii-san” or “-onee-san”. There’s a subtle merger between respect and closeness in this that is entirely lost no matter how you attempt to translate it.
This can often be used for character design also. You also get the cute younger kohai referring to their senpai with “-nee” or other honorifics. It’s part of their character to have this cuteness, but dropping the suffix loses this aspect of their personality. This is doubly so if they end up not attempting to translate it and dropping it completely, hiding that this character quirk existed at all to begin with. Yes, technically you can infer it by the voice acting, so I guess it’s more of an issue in manga translations.
Furthermore, it can be used to show a lack of respect or politeness. Iino-san (see? I did it again, just can’t type some names without the honorific…) doesn’t respect Ishigami-kun here. While it’s hard to tell from the subtitles omitting any honorifics, she actually just calls him “Ishigami”, no honorifics at all. Her attitude toward him is represented graphically, with how they animated her here, as well as verbally.
There’s also something to be said for learning about a culture through it’s media. As I had stated, I learned about much of this just from exposure. I don’t see a reason to hide it from the viewers.
At the end of the day, I think there’s more to gain from keeping the honorifics in. Or rather, more to lose from removing them.
While, yes, it takes some time to get used to them, it will happen. When you finally understand them, the subtle meanings and differences with how characters refer to each other conveys a deeper meaning than can be translated.
There’s character tropes that rely heavily on these also, and not including them removes a part of their character. I love characters that use “-onii-chan” or “onee-chan” with another character. It adds to the moe factor. I’d rather not see a character’s design be butchered by localizing their speech patterns.
Well, that’s my two cents. I’m 100% in the keep ’em camp. If you agree or disagree, let me know down in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think. Okay, catch you in the next one.