Old vs. New Fansubs and Biblical Translation Philosophies

Paul “Otaking” Johnson is causing a bit of a stir with his half-hour Youtube documentary about why modern fansubbers are inferior to the older fansubs and official translations. He makes some excellent points, but I want to talk more about the translation philosophy he espouses–because it’s also been at the heart of debates over the main text I work with in translation, the Bible. Johnson’s views are a bit one-sided, even extreme, and I want to demonstrate why there needs to be a balance.

(The video above is only part 1; see parts 2, 3, 4, and 5. Also, be warned: this article is LONG, heavy on Biblical examples, and short on pictures. So for those of you who are tempted to comment as such, I’ll say it for you right now on your behalf: tl;dr.)

Two Translation Philosophies: Formal and Dynamic Equivalence

There are basically two philosophies in translation today. The first seeks to reproduce the original word-for-word as much as possible while still having fundamental English grammar; this is called formal equivalence. According to Johnson, modern fansubbers basically seem to follow this route, in their often literal reproductions of Japanese sentence structure and leaving honorifics, attack moves, and the like untranslated.

The second one is the one Paul Johnson believes in, which he considers the only true professional way: dynamic (or functional) equivalence. In dynamic equivalence translations, you translate “thought for thought” in a sentence rather than word for word. Readability and clarity in English are the top priorities, rather than preserving the exact words and sentence structure of the original. Any culturally idiosyncratic images, metaphors, or turns of phrase are translated into their nearest English equivalents.

The founder of dynamic equivalence is Eugene Nida–a linguist whose main work was in Bible translation, and who has an institute named after him for that purpose. He helped produce one of the Greek lexicons that I continue to use in my own Greek translation work. However, his work is considered standard in all translation fields now; notice that Johnson constantly cites Nida in his arguments, and more than half of the bibliography at the end of the video is of Nida! Johnson is right that most professional translators espouse this view almost without question now. Virtually every modern popular translation of the Bible in English today–the New International Version, The Living Bible, The Message, The New Revised Standard Version–uses dynamic equivalence to a large extent. The goal, as he cites correctly, is to “reproduce as much as possible the experience of the original audience.” What counts isn’t the words, but the content experienced by the reader.

There have always been people, however, who feel that Nida’s method is inappropriate, at least with regard to the Bible–a text many regard as holy. It’s felt by many that the originals are pure and should not be sullied by what are essentially paraphrases (which is what the dynamic method frequently must do). Cultural particularities get smoothed over in the effort to make things understandable. I suspect this is one of the chief motivations for modern fansubbers too in leaving lots of Japanese terms untranslated; they feel that by smoothing it over into a terse English formulation (“nakama” to “friend” for instance; different ways of saying “I”), they will be leaving out certain nuances.

God’s Long Nose: When Metaphors Don’t Translate Anymore

How far can you take that, though? Here’s an interesting example from Hebrew which shows why dynamic equivalence is often necessary. One word in Hebrew for God’s wrath or anger is, literally, to describe God’s “nose” (ap). In Biblical Hebrew, to have a “short nose” is to have a short temper; likewise, when the Bible describes God as “slow to anger,” it literally says he has a “long nose” (Ex 34:6).

Now, if you wanted to be 100% literal, you’d put that down: God has a “long nose.” But imagine you are a modern day American reader, picking up the Bible for the first time. You come across the image described there; what’s your first thought when you read “long nose”? Pinocchio, probably, and why did he have a long nose? He was a liar. So without explanation, it’s going to read like: God is a liar, like Pinocchio. This is clearly not what the text meant!

If one was like a modern fansubber, the text would still say “long nose,” but with a footnote below that explains: “a Hebrew metaphor for anger.” You’d have to look down at the footnote to actually understand what was going on, breaking the flow of the reading. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply translate it as “patience” or “forgiving”? It turns the intention, the thought, into clear understandable English.

Even more damning: not even the more formal equivalence Bible translations, like the New American Standard or the Engish Standard Versions, go that far. They also say “slow to anger” or “patient.” Johnson makes a good point here about the lengths to which some fansubbers treat the language as “holy”–if even conservative Bible translators who DO think the text is holy can agree that some images can’t be rendered literally, why can’t fansubbers working in an entertainment medium do so? Is it that important?

A Paraphrase Too Far

Not every example is quite that clear cut, though, and I understand the need to keep some particularities intact lest our own biases get written into it. Sometimes dynamic equivalence can go too far; in the New Testament, for instance, Paul literally says in 2 Cor 5:17,

Thus, if anyone is in Christ, new creation; the old things have passed away, and look! Everything has become new.

The most popular pure dynamic translation, the New Living Translation, renders this as

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Notice the change in nuance? It’s no longer universal and cosmic in scope; it’s about an individual person’s “life” (a word not present in Greek), reflecting the individualistic, American biases of the translator. Score one for a more formal equivalence approach.

I think this is what modern fansubbers fear, and it’s a legitimate fear. You do lose a little of the hierarchical nature of Japanese society by smoothing over honorifics and different ways of speaking. You do miss some of the vivid concrete imagery of the original language when it’s paraphrased or turned into a totally different expression in English. This is inevitable to a degree in any translation. But like many fans, I watch anime in part because it’s fun to see the differences to a degree, especially when they affect the storytelling. Not all fansubs are as obnoxious and showy as the ones Johnson put on his video, and sometimes–like the semapi/kouhei relationship–that nuance is important in understanding character motive. The question is always: how important is the linguistic nuance to the overall meaning? I think translation has to be done on a case-by-case basis rather than the absolute stance taken by Johnson. I would say “no” to “nose” and “yes” to “new creation,” and that’s not necessarily “hypocrisy” as Johnson would have it.

Final Thoughts

There is a place for both kinds of translation; the question is who the audience is. Generally, more literal translations are useful for those studying the original language or for scholars, and more dynamic ones are better for ordinary audiences. (Of course, there’s no reason why one can’t use both, too.) Johnson brings up a good point when he says that if fansubs were like they are now back in his day, he and others most likely wouldn’t have gotten into anime. There’s some truth to that, especially in subtitle-hating America. Covering the screen with excessive additional text is offputting to most and makes it hard to follow the show; I really think Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei would have benefited from a text file with the chalkboard signs rather than incorporating them in the show, for instance. A healthy balance is possible, though, and I wonder if some of Johnson’s criticisms are simply a lack of being used to the current regime of fansubbing and choosing only the worst examples to showcase. I’ve seen fansubbers who are far less intrusive and amateurish than the ones he picks on.

Ultimately, as long as I get a reasonable rendering of what is going on, I can live with it until the professionally done DVD comes out. If fansubbing were only limited to pros, there also probably wouldn’t be nearly as much of an anime scene today, either.

Author: gendomike

Michael lives in the Los Angeles area, and has been into anime since he saw Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1999. Some of his favorite shows include Full Metal Alchemist, Honey and Clover, and Welcome to the NHK!. Since 2003 he has gone to at least one anime convention every year. A public radio junkie, which naturally led to podcasting, he now holds a seminary degree and is looking to become Dr. Rev. Otaku Bible Man any day now. Michael can be reached at mike.huang@animediet.net. You can also find his Twitter account at @gendomike.

16 thoughts on “Old vs. New Fansubs and Biblical Translation Philosophies

  1. You’ve explained some distinctions I was aware of while wrestling with languages at school, but could never put into words. Personally I always liked to have both translations available: somewhere in a folder at home I have two translations of the second book of the Aeneid, one which tries to retain (as much as possible, and sometimes a little beyond what’s possible) the Latin word-order and tenses, and one in flowing(ish) English.

    And my greatest dislike is always reserved for a translator who doesn’t understand the implications of the choices he or she is making, rather than for the proponents of any particular approach.

  2. This clears up a lot of things I was taught in high school and college in regards to translations. No one ever gave us the back story or why we should do things a certain way. Very insightful, thank you for posting this.

  3. Since you were already delving into the realm of Classics (albeit Biblical Studies rather than true Classics) I suppose the apt comparison is whether you’re the type of person who prefers the “Penguinized” translation or the Loeb Classical Library. Penguin is for children, Loeb is for scholars. Clearly Otaking is a Penguin type of guy. There’s nothing wrong with a fansubber attempting to maintain some closeness to the original, and if that occaisonally requires a footnote, that’s what the ‘pause’ function is for. Apparently some people are too lazy, or indignant, to learn while they are entertained.

  4. Great article Mike! I didn’t even think about bible translations when watching this documentary. You make some excellent points.

  5. @IKnight, Caitlin: glad to be of some help. My stance on this matter actually used to be much more on the formal equivalence side–but that was before I started learning Greek and Hebrew. There’s another article to be written one day about why many modern translations are not only inaccurate, but aesthetically awful too. It’s too bad a talent for Biblical Studies is not often accompanied by a talent for English style. (For a rare exception, see Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms.)

    @schmitea: what do you mean “rather than true Classics”? 🙂 Though it’s true that classical Greek is definitely several orders of magnitude more difficult than koine Greek, which is what I learned. I have a lot of respect for people who have facility in that and in Latin, which I have yet to learn myself. So kudos to you, as I assume you and IKnight do have those skills.

    I haven’t used the Loeb library much but it was definitely made for scholars, since it has the original language on the opposite page of the translation. (I have a New Testament laid out similarly, with textual variants marked too.) One of these days, I’d like to get at least some of the volumes that cover the Church Fathers. And if the Penguin editions–or the English translations I had in the Great Books of the Western World of Homer, Plato, and others–do a good job introducing ordinary readers, not just children, to the great works of literature, I have no objection to that. It is certainly better than nothing. I think pausing in anime might be more than a bit disruptive in the way that stopping to read a footnote every other sentence is disruptive. In both cases it was meant to be experienced continuously. But, as I said, it’s a matter of balance.

    @Benu: thanks. What triggered this article for me was the constant mention of Nida in the video. He is big in our circles and I was startled to find out just how big outside the field of Biblical Studies and linguistics.

    @jpmeyer: LOL, I knew someone was going to bring up a passage like that eventually! In this one, the literal images are indeed best, graphic details and all–I think most people even today would readily understand the analogy of unfaithful Israel being like a prostitute. Whoring like an animal yesterday and whoring today are not all that different. 🙂 Plus, making it more “nicer” or fuzzy would blunt the force of the text–not even the New Living Translation decided to do that. My example of God’s nose is one where a literal translation would be readily misunderstood without explanation. Eze 23:19-20 requires little additional explanation in the context of the chapter. The Bible was not written by prudes!

  6. I agree with your general notion (how can I not?), but I think the average American wouldn’t like Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei anyways–pretty much 90% of the really funny jokes are poking at some pop cultural Japanese item that far most fansub viewers wouldn’t know about. It is not a show which I would recommend to your typical anime fan who likes that 80s anime nonsense. But I say this only because I like how the on-screen text were translated; it fits the throw-away and transient nature of how on-screen text were used by the show itself.

    So in that sense I think the way it is done is exactly how it should be done, targeting the right audience.

  7. @omo: You’re probably right about SZS. That is one hell of a show to follow under any circumstances if one is a foreigner like me. Then again, how did the stylistically similar and same-staff Pani Poni Dash get picked up for official release? (That show came in for special criticism in the video too.)

    I also probably didn’t say enough about how many fansub watchers are, in fact, hardcore otaku rather than the imaginary newcomer that Johnson wants to speak for. They know the honorifics and know enough vocabulary and culture to make many of the literalisms almost invisible. Again, this is a matter of audience, and for that reason DVD subtitles will always follow dynamic equivalence as much as possible if they expect to have any sales. (Especially on dub scripts.) So for hardcore folks like us–why can’t we have both? Buy the DVD to support the industry, and compare and contrast with the fansub for greater comprehension? That’s why I consult multiple translations of the Bible when I translate myself! (And I encourage others to have multiple translations too.)

  8. @Mike

    I didn’t mean to insult Biblical Studies by differentiating it from Classics, merely to point out that while both involve the study of Greek and Latin authors, the authors chosen by each tend to be different, even if they occaisonally overlap. But back to the point at hand, if Otaking has such a problem with present day fansubs, he should simply stick to the raws, or start fansubbing again himself. After all, criticizing someone who is providing free translations, especially when the critiques are mostly petty, is impolite.

  9. To get back to you, Mike:
    “Then again, how did the stylistically similar and same-staff Pani Poni Dash get picked up for official release?”
    Well, ADV picked up all kind of nonsense for official release… But some humor transcend cultural and language barriers. I think with PPD, we are walking a thin line here that SZS is firmly on the foreign side. To contrast, Excel Saga is well within established parameters, and it offers on US release of the DVDs the menchi notes option–its own version of pop-up liner notes.

    And I agree, again, that as obsessed fans of certain works, we ought to obtain every translation worth having. That means both translate-by-thought and translate-by-text.

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