Of Essence & Appreciation

Of Essence & Appreciation

Or why a vast amount is lost in translation

(This article will primarily focus on creative works translated from English to Japanese)

A video version of this review can be found here:

I have recently begun exploring the world of critiquing creative works on YouTube (a dangerous pastime, I know… ) and I came across a video analyzing Hayao Miyazaki’s marvelous film,「 千と千尋の神隠し」, or, as it is known in English, “Spirited Away”.

The YouTubers who analyzed the work, Daniel Greene and Merphy Napier, are both excellent and have a wealth of interesting content in their channels, but a few points arose from their analysis that I felt were inherent issues when a non-native speaker attempts to analyze a translated work. The video can be found here, and I feel it is well worth a watch.

I will state at the outset that I have no idea how knowledgeable either of these reviewers are of Japanese language or culture. Further, please understand that what I present here is in no way an issue unique to these two reviewers. I feel their analysis was very well thought out and presented. The issues lie in understanding the fundamental difficulties in transferring a creative work from one language to another, and it is my contention that distance, method of expression, and cultural factors all play a part in why quite a bit is lost in the translation.

That said, I want to explore these three factors because I believe that they are incredibly important to understand for people who plan to enjoy works that have been translated from another language.

A small digression before I begin, so that you understand my own background and experience in order to lend some credence to my arguments: I have a bachelors degree in history and East Asian languages and cultures, and my focus in history was Japanese history during the post WWII era. Further, I have a master’s degree in applied linguistics (language learning/teaching) and have been living and working in Japan for the past 11 years. All of this is to say, I do know at least a smidgen about the Japanese language and culture, and I also know a little bit about linguistics.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the first point:

Typological Distance

In short, typological distance talks about how different one language is from another. It looks at how the sentences are structured, how ideas are expressed, how verbs are conjugated, and so on. Ultimately, what is important to understand here is that the further apart one language is from another, the greater the gaps are that a translator must fill in to move one form of the language to the other.

According to a study conducted by the Foreign Service Institute, a training arm of the US State Department that prepares individuals for a life living and working in foreign countries, Japanese, the original language “Spirited Away” was created in, and English, the language it was assumedly being viewed in, are purported to be at the greatest distance typologically.  In nearly a half century of training these researchers came to the following conclusions:

Typological Distance

Jackson, F.H., & Kaplan, M.A. (1999). Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in
government language teaching. Georgetown University Press.

As you can see in the graphic, Japanese is one of the most incredibly difficult languages both linguistically and culturally for native speakers of English. This distance is not simply linguistic, however. It also has to do with both form of expression and culture, and these are the points I will move to next.

Before I do that, however, I want to provide a simple example to guide the rest of what I am presenting.

In the movie, “The Last Samurai”, there is a scene when Tom Cruise’s character approaches Koyuki’s character (his odd love interest, I say odd because so much of that film was odd) and he is telling her that he is leaving.

The English translation of what he said was, “I must go away.”

In Japanese he said, 「行きます」.

The romanization of that is, “Ikimasu”, and the plain translation of that is simply, “go”.

All his character actually said in Japanese was, “go”.

I will refer to this again in the later sections, but this highlights part of the translator’s job. They must take what is said and fill in gaps, and part of that is related to the distance from one language to another.

Indirect Subtlety Vs. Direct Verbosity

The next complication is the vast difference between expression in English and expression in Japanese. English is considered a direct language that tends to favor verbosity. Said in another way, English speakers like people to say what they mean, and they often do so using a plethora of words. Japanese, on the other hand, is an incredibly subtle language that often strives to take roundabout pathways to expressing the true meaning. This has often led to the argument that Japanese people are shy and overly reserved and English speakers are confident and often boorish. These are ridiculous characterizations that do not hold water, but it is nonetheless true that Japanese people prefer to soften their meaning by working around what needs to be said and leaving the true meaning to be inferred through implication.

This tends to be a point of great frustration for English speakers who prefer to get straight to the point and have people mean exactly what they say. Of course, this is also not always true in English, nor is what I put forth about Japanese true in all situations, but this does highlight another area where the two languages are vastly different.

I will provide another example here.

If one were to take a broken device to a Japanese person to have it fixed, and the item were beyond repair, the most often heard reply would be, 「難しい」(muzukashii), which translates to “difficult”. That is where the response would end. If an English speaker walked up to a person in the Apple store and asked them to fix their phone and the only response they got was, “Hmm, that would be difficult.” One assumes the next thing out of the requester’s mouth would be, “Yeah, but can you do it?”. The Japanese person would likely continue to respond with, “Hmmm, that would be difficult.”

The end result of this is that one needs to imply from the response you have been given that it is in fact not possible to fix the item, but it could be considered rude and too direct to outright tell you in Japanese that fixing it is impossible. In essence, you need to understand that “difficult” in this situation means “no, it’s not possible”, and that meaning must be inferred through experience and cultural understanding.

This is a point where so many English speakers struggle in mastering Japanese, understanding the wealth of subtext in an incredibly subtle language. Where English can tend to use far too many words to describe what we are thinking or feeling, speaking Japanese is more a sophisticated art of conveying your meaning in as few words as possible and leaving a lot to interpretation. Interestingly, this is why most Japanese people argue that Murakami Haruki is writing for foreign people, because his books are too long and he is often accused of overwriting, which explains, in their view, why he is so vastly popular in foreign countries.

Going back to the line from “The Last Samurai”, this also illustrates how and why the translation was different. In English, to just walk up to someone and say, “go” would never work. To be crude, the person may assume you are speaking in some form of Tarzan speak. However, in Japanese, many of the sentiments that are included with what Tom Cruise’s line was translated to can be understood by both parties through understanding their situation and knowing the surrounding context. In this instance, a single word provides a wealth of subtext. However, in English, this isn’t always the case.

To further this point, if Tom’s character had tried to say directly what the line indicated, 「私は行かなければいけません。」it would have sounded formal, and put a bit of distance between the two of them by his choice of words. His choice of words then indicates that these two have a close enough relationship to use this kind of language, and that leads to the final point.

Cultural Divide

Language and culture are intrinsically linked, and a vast amount of artistic expression is tied to a depth of cultural understanding. I have been married for nearly 10 years now to a Japanese woman and I cannot recount the number of times we have had to question each other about a situation that arose in either film or text where a meaning that was perfectly clear to the native speaker did not register with the other. This has become increasingly interesting for me in watching recent Disney films with my wife and daughter. Situations arise so frequently now in these films that involve cultural stereotypes or in-jokes that require no explanation for native speakers but pass by second language learners completely unnoticed. Were it not for my laughing, my wife and daughter would never have known that something amusing took place.

The same is true with Japanese film and writing, and I would argue, it is even harder to unpack. The reasoning for this is incredibly complex and far too detailed to cover in a simple blog post, but it is important to realize that culturally, Japan and the western English speaking countries that have become enamored with its manga and animation are as distant as their languages. There are a wealth of ideas and representations in film and manga that, for a Japanese person, having it explained would be unnecessary and, more often than not, annoying. It would be the equivalent of the Toy Story characters explaining the cultural context of the all the Barbie jokes in Toy Story 2. For a native speaker we would feel like the film was treating us like, well, children. We do not need that explained, we understand it perfectly without it.

A good example of this could be taken from Princess Mononoke, another of Miyazaki’s famous films. In that film there are forest spirits that twist their heads about in odd ways and make a kind of rattling sound. In Japanese these are called Kodama. Even small Japanese children know what those are because it’s a part of their culture. My wife talks about them all the time when we go hiking, because she really wants to find one. Explaining this in a way that western viewers would understand would be the equivalent of having a Scottish movie going through a thorough explanation of what a will o’ the wisp is. For them, it can be understood with having a thorough explanation. However, for western audiences who have not been culturally exposed to these things, it can seem odd and abrupt that the creatures appear without an explanation of what they represent.

An example that is interestingly amusing from “Spirited Away” is the moment when Chihiro smashes the bug and Kamaji tells her she must, “cut the line”. This is performed in Japanese culture when someone is said to have some kind of impurity, having another person cut a line between their index fingers is meant to bring good luck. I say this is amusing because Miyazaki got upset with the young girl who voice Sen/Chihiro because she did not know it. He gave her the quintessential “whipper snapper” talk. However, it is something that the vast majority of Japanese people recognize and do not need explained.

The same can be said of a minor point that Merphy pointed out in her review of the film. She noticed a small moment when Sen tapped the front of her shoe on the floor to get her foot into it properly. To a westerner, this stands out because it is not as culturally relevant. However, if I went down to my daughter’s elementary school and showed you a video of them leaving to go home, every single child would do it before leaving. Why? Because shoes are not worn inside the house in Asian cultures, and the shoes one wears outdoors, cannot be worn in school. So, every child must change their shoes when they get to school from their outside shoes to a pair that is only worn in school. The amount of times one must put on and take off shoes in Japan is likely unfathomable for a westerner. However, for someone living in this country that moment blended so far into the background that I did not even notice it until the reviewer brought it up. This moment is part of everyday life in Japan. It’s culturally normal. However, for a westerner, this is a strange thing to include.


I began this in order to come to this final point: the assumed meanings and representations that one takes away from a translated work will always vary in some degree from that of a native speaker. Furthermore, there will often be moments within a work when a non-native speaker will feel that the work did not sufficiently explain the reasoning for their actions or presented ideas that appear completely random and inexplicable. I would argue that, in many cases, this boils down to the often vast divide between the linguistic and cultural understanding of the viewer and the source material. I am in no way attempting to pick on the reviewer, but she did allude to several plot points and ideas that she felt were improperly explained or completed, and I can say with certainty that some of those are not the fault of the film, but of the imperfect science of translation and, possibly, her imperfect knowledge of Japanese culture.

Even in something as simple as the name of the film there is a wealth of difference. Spirited Away is an interesting word play, as to ‘spirit away’ something means to sneak it off and including the word ‘spirt’ plays on the ghost like characters in the film. However, there are deeper implied meanings in the original title that native English speakers often are unaware of. The Japanese title, “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi”, has a couple levels of hidden meaning. First, “Sen to” when put together is a name for a hot spring bath, where the film is set. Sen is also what the main character’s name is changed to when she, in essence, sells herself to Yubaba. “to” also means “and”. So, in another way the title means “Sen and Chihiro’s…”. Then there is Kamikakushi, which, the rough translation would be “Spirit/God hiding”. This is a difficult cultural phenomenon that is too complex to cover here, but it is also something that many Japanese people are intimately familiar with. All of that is to point out, again, even when it comes to the title of the movie, compromises must be made to translate it.

This film is one of my favorite films and my wife often argues that it is because many of the concepts fit the stereotypes westerners have of Japan, and she was honestly shocked at how many of those concepts she had to explain to me. These were aspects that were not spelled out in the film, but for her did not need to be. It was buried in subtle context and the way in which something was said to a particular character. Eleven years later, I am still struggling to dig into the subtext.

In recent years Japanese manga and animation has become incredibly popular in western countries. I think this is fully justified due to the high level of talent in artistry, storytelling, and dedication to perfection that defines the Japanese people in my mind. However, one must accept the reality that it is nearly impossible to fully appreciate a work that must be translated. As soon as you take something from the original language it was created it, some meanings and intentions will be altered and, at times, outright lost. That said, I fully appreciate the fact that not everyone has the time or desire to delve into learning the language and complex cultures of popular foreign films and texts. However, I think it is important for us as viewers to consider that what may seem inexplicable to us has simply been lost in the translation.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I would love to hear any experiences or feedback you have!

PS: Please take a moment to check out the YouTube channels of the reviewers. They both have excellent content on current books and film/television.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s