On Retitling Anime: or, Turning Poetry into Mush

Translation is hard and inexact work, and something always gets lost in the process. I’m conscious of this every time I read Greek and Hebrew and have to try to render it in English with my lousy beginner skills, and so I have great respect for those who are fluent in other tongues and translate for a living. (Like the co-host of this blog!) Without them, our culture would be robbed of the treasures of other cultures and times–not the least, of course, being anime and manga from Japan.

Nevertheless, I loathe it when American licensors turn beautiful original Japanese titles for shows into mush. (EDIT, 5:29 PM: I stand corrected on assuming Funimation wanted the title below. My aesthetic points, though, still stand.)

At least they throw a bone in the small text between the words.

My recent poster child for this is the show now known in the English-speaking world as Rumbling Hearts. Its original Japanese title, Kimi ga Nozumo Eien, is understandably difficult for non-Japanese to remember. But a more literal English translation of this–roughly, The Eternity You Wished For–is not only better sounding, if a tad vague and melodramatic (which befits the show anyway). It conveys the cautionary, living-with-the-consequences-of-your-actions theme that pervades the show.

Rumbling Hearts, by comparison, is aesthetically deficient–the word “rumbling” just doesn’t sound right to me, though it’s better than “trembling” or “quaking”–and, maybe more importantly, it’s even vaguer than the original title to the point of meaninglessness. A heart can “rumble” because it’s sad, or because it’s happy, or because it’s about to have a heart attack. And yes, the lives of the characters are certainly “shaken.” But the show, however, is decidedly about sadness, pain, and betrayal, and how “we may be through the past, but the past ain’t through with us” (Magnolia).

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There are more prosaic but bad examples of title changing, too, like changing Rurouni Kenshin to Samurai X (though Kenshin isn’t ever a samurai) or Karin to Chibi Vampire (though Karin isn’t chibi). And even when they’re trying to translate something directly, a lack of aesthetic sensitivity gives rise to monstrosities like calling Mushi-shi Bugmaster at Sundance, giving the impression that it’s some B-monster movie rather then the contemplative show it is. I can understand striking “Laputa” out of Castle in the Sky in a country where many people speak Spanish, though. Japanese titles aren’t sacrosanct; they can be as silly and awful as anything (Kiddy Grade is no way to title an otherwise serious show, especially in the later parts). I’m mostly complaining about bowlderization, when the language is deliberately dumbed down.

Seminarian rant: If anything, it reminds me of a lot of modern translations of the Bible that “explain” the poetic metaphors by making them literal and rendering everything into 5th grade English. In art and good writing you can’t separate form and content so easily; part of what is conveyed is the way it is done. A responsible translation needs to balance understanding and sensitivity to the original tongue, of course, and adjustments made for different audiences. But when in doubt, I think it should err for accuracy. We enjoy the works of other cultures partly because they are different, and thus new and enlightening in that way. Turning things into homogeneous mush detracts from that joy. end rant

Anyways, I’ve said my piece. What do you think? How would you approach a difficult Japanese title (like, say, the recent Utawarerumono) and market it for the English speaking world? Are there any titles out there you think are egregiously bad, or ingenueously translated?

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.

8 thoughts on “On Retitling Anime: or, Turning Poetry into Mush

  1. “Rumbling Hearts” always sounded like it should be the title of some wrestling romance; I believe Karin was changed to prevent confusion with Kamichama Karin, but Chibi Vampire is hardly the most edifying replacement name.

    Sometimes it just depends on which one you get used to first as to name preferences, though- for example I always think ‘Someday’s Dreamers’ rather than ‘Mahō Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto’ even though the former doesn’t really make much sense. I quite like the practice of just shortening the Japanese titles into something memorable if not necessarily meaningful, such as Saikano or Kare Kano.

  2. I think it was the Japanese licensor that requested that KimiNozo be called Rumbling Hearts here (“Rumbling Hearts” is also the name of the OP theme of the game, btw), so I don’t have a huge issue with it… though I do have an issue with “Chibi Vampire”. I don’t get it… I have no problem telling the different between Kamichama Karin and just plain Karin (^^;;) And now it’ll confuse people since Geneon’s licensed the Karin anime (and is keeping it Karin).

  3. That’s a good point, Karura, about the shortened names. Japanese titles can sometimes be unbelievably long by English standards, and even difficult for them to remember. I’ve always called it “Kare Kano” or “Saikano,” and it’s interesting that in both cases the English versions either simply just translated the full title or even kept the Japanese abbreviation (“His and Her Circumstances” and “Saikano” respectively).

    As I said, it’s always a trade off. I guess what they really need in the translation offices is someone with a good feel for not only Japanese but also English–someone, in short, without tin ears. 🙂

  4. My favorite horribly adapted anime title belongs to the recently licensed Ayakashi. Originally the series is called “Ayakashi – Japanese Classic Horror” because the series is an adaptation of three classic and well-known horror stories. For the US license it’s been given the title “Samurai Horror Tales” which is simply pathetic. (Also, I see no reason in trying to market the show to people for whom old Japan = samurai…)

    Another title translation I’m not happy with is that of Shoujo kakumei Utena which was translated as “Revolutionary Girl Utena” even though the title actually means “Girl’s Revolution” or “Girls’ Revolution” which makes so much more sense in the context of the show. I’m not saying “Revolutionary Girl” is a bad translation, though, because it’s certainly more catchy and flows better than any alternative.

    As for ‘Rumbling Hearts’, though, I think that’s kind of alright. ‘Kimi ga nozomu eien’ is great as a Japanese title, but ‘The Eternity You Wish For’ sounds very awkward and stiff in English. ‘Rumbling Hearts’ sounds like a title of a Harlequin romance novel which is perfect for the kind of melodramatic soap opera that the series is. ‘Utawarerumono’ is a similar case – though ‘Shadow Warrior Cronicles’ or whatever is certainly a bad title, a literal translation of the Japanese title would be just as bad. (‘The One Being Sung’… ow!)

    Anyway, my own approach to difficult titles (as one who actually has a say in what anime series get titled in my language) is to forget literal translations if they sound too stiff or strained and try to come up with something witty or clever that reflects what the show is about. Like ‘Ghost in the Shell’ – it’s not a translation of the original ‘Koukaku kidoutai’ but it works very well.

  5. People reflexively blame the American licensors for stuff like this, but it’s often the Japanese companies who are responsible. “Samurai X” was the brainchild of Sony executives shopping the franchise to American companies IIRC; we actually have Media Blasters to thank for the TV series being released under the Japanese title. “Bugmaster” doesn’t even have a US distributor yet.

    As for English titles I don’t care for, there are a few. Geneon released Soukyuu no Fafner as just “Fafner”–I thought “Fafner in the Azure” (the official translation on the series’ soundtracks) was a lot more evocative. Also, by releasing Saishuu Heiki Kanojo as “Saikano”, Viz wasted Gonzo’s superb official translation–“She, the Ultimate Weapon”. Not as marketable, I guess, but then “Saikano” tells you nothing about the show, whereas the full title communicates the show’s premise quite nicely–a girl[friend] who is the ultimate weapon.

    I actually didn’t like Saikano that much, so it’s not a huge loss for me.

  6. Good points all around, everyone. I’ve made a correction above to reflect the stuff I’ve learned from y’all.

    Matthew: Thanks for the info. I never learned the name of KimiNozo’s OP while I was watching it, believe it or not! I should have been paying attention. And I agree with you on Karin.

    kuromitsu: Wow, someone who actually does this for a living! Thanks for your educated input. I’m not actually sure I’d quite put KimiNozo in the same category as Harlequin Romances (which “Rumbling Hearts” is definitely reminiscent of), but you’re absolutely right that it is a soap opera, in the same league as “Days of our Lives” or “Party of Five.” And GitS is definitely an example of an ingeneous title–it expresses the show’s central premise and philosophical issue in a phrase with roots in the philosophical tradition. Plus as a translator I do think you have a prerogative to go with what works in the language (Utawarerumono definitely doesn’t work in English). I just don’t like the sound of Rumbling Hearts, I guess.

    Matte: amen. But Andrew F is right, there is no official distributor, only talks at Sundance. I probably should have made that clear.

    Andrew F. : I loathed the ending of Saikano myself, as I found it nihilistic to the point of repulsiveness, so I don’t consider it a huge loss either. 🙂 And yes, you’re right, Japanese licensors are often the ones to blame, and I guess that mitigates it a little if it’s not their native language. Nevertheless this whole post was triggered by seeing all these banners for Rumbling Hearts and saying…”ugh.”

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