Let’s not mince words here. The ellipsis is a blight upon English translations of visual novels. It must be uprooted and killed with fire.
Before the slaughter begins, however, let’s review some basics. As the name suggests, the ellipsis represents an elision — that is to say, omitted content. It functions as the “yadda yadda” of the English language. It is the “Step 2: ???” before the all-important “Step 3: Profit!” A writer deploys those three little dots to indicate either the intentional removal of something that once was there, or the pointed absence of something that should have been there.
That’s it. That’s what the ellipsis is supposed to do. You wouldn’t know this, however, by reading nearly any English translation of a Japanese visual novel. Ellipses are scattered across the text like so many rhinestones on the sweatshirt of a Midwestern mom. They’re at the beginning of sentences, the ends, stuck randomly in the middle — sometimes even chained end to end like a writhing Human Centipede of punctuation, each little dot in the chain crying, “Kill me now!” into the anus of the next.
It’s an absolute abattoir in there.
This particular road to hell is paved with good intentions, however. You see, all those ellipses are also present in the original Japanese and, in an attempt at faithful translation, the TL teams have left them all sitting there for you to enjoy. The original writer had a reason for putting them in, the reasoning goes, and it’s our job to offer the purest translation of his/her vision possible.
This, of course, is bollocks. Punctuation operates differently in different languages. Japanese ellipses are used much more liberally than their Western forbearers, particularly in popular culture (e.g., manga. light novels, etc.) Want to indicate a pause? Ellipsis. Silence? Ellipsis. Passage of time? Ellipsis. Need to fill some empty space? Ellipsis. Is it Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday? Ellipsis, ellipsis, ellipsis. When ported over to English, most of these usages look less like carefully crafted sentences and more like a transcript of a particularly drunken Snapchat session.
Put simply, what works in one language doesn’t always work in another. When I’m translating a Line of Text from German, for Example, I don’t capitalize all the Nouns because that’s how it was in the Original. I normalize it for English. The same needs to be done in any VN translation.
My current rule of thumb while editing — I’ll bold it for you in red here — is as follows: Remove/replace all ellipses in a line of Japanese text unless doing so irreparably breaks the sentence or significantly changes its meaning.
Luckily for us, English has a toolbox full of punctuation to get the job done. Commas, semicolons, periods, dashes — they’re all your friends. So let’s discuss some common situations in VNs and how we might handle them.
The trailing ellipsis
You’ll see lots of these littering the ends of sentences and lines, mostly to little effect. More often than not, they indicate a thought closing on anything other than a 100% full and decisive stop. Since they don’t hold the place of omitted text, we can almost always replace these ellipses with periods.
Original: He walked down the street, a song in his heart...
Revised: He walked down the street, a song in his heart.
Original: There’s nothing better than a cold beer on a hot day...
Revised: There’s nothing better than a cold beer on a hot day.
There are a handful of situations, however, where keeping a trailing ellipsis makes sense. These include:
The Pregnant Pause:
When something’s strongly implied at the end of a sentence/line, but left unsaid for dramatic effect.
JOE: I really shouldn’t have seconds, but... (Implied: I’m going to anyway.)
The ellipsis fills the place of the implied content, so it gets to stay. (Fun bonus fact: pauses are the only things that can get pregnant in VNs.)
The “And So On”:
When a statement is implied to continue for an unspecified length beyond the end of the sentence/line.
JOE: My favorite beers are Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Michelob...
BOB: Dude, don’t you drink anything good?
The ellipsis here indicates there may have been a few more beers after Michelob, but the writer has decided to spare us and jump straight to Bob’s objection. Had this been more interruptive in nature, with Bob cutting Joe off immediately after “Michelob,” the ellipses would have replaced with an em-dash (—).
Similar to the “And So On,” but with the character choosing to let a statement taper off into nothingness, rather than the author.
JOE: The ghosts in Pac-Man were Inky, Blinky, Pinky... There’s a fourth, right? Stinky?
The opening ellipsis
You’ll see these slightly less often, but they’re by no means infrequent. Typically, they indicate some slight hesitation at the beginning of a line of dialogue. But again, the nuance ends up being so slight and the impact so watered down through overuse that you’re almost always better off removing these ungainly beasts. An exception can be made for:
The Reverse Pregnant Pause:
Just like the original Pregnant Pause, but it appears at the beginning of a sentence. Often holds the place of something a character doesn’t want to say.
BOB: You don’t think I’m a bad guy, right?
JOE: ... Well, you have good taste in porn.
Rather than just pausing in passing, Joe is actively not admitting he thinks Joe is a jackass. That makes this line a strong candidate for an ellipsis.
The mid-sentence ellipsis
So, so many of these. You’ll close your eyes at night and they’ll haunt you. They’re almost always meant to indicate a slight pause in speech or thought, but trying to the read the resulting text is an exercise in frustration. There are... just so... many unnecessary... gaps. (Full disclosure: When writing scripts for TV, I’ll use ellipses like this a lot. But that’s for a very specific purpose: helping to communicate the particular rhythm of a line to the actor(s). I always avoid this in audience-facing text.)
In almost all cases, unless there’s a marked pivot in thought, a comma will suffice.
Original: There I was, walking down the street... when I saw a Trader Joe’s.
Revised: There I was, walking down the street, when I saw a Trader Joe’s.
If the ellipsis is holding together two complete yet interwoven thoughts, a semicolon will do nicely.
Original: You don’t understand... I’m allergic to wombats.
Revised: You don’t understand; I’m allergic to wombats.
If the ellipsis is holding together two complete and independent thoughts, a period should be used.
Original: Look how late it’s gotten... Do you think the poutine shop is still open?
Revised: Look how late it’s gotten. Do you think the poutine shop is still open?
If ellipses are used to indicate an interruptive thought, one that breaks the main flow of the sentence, em-dashes can be used.
Original: There’s something about cobras ... any kind of snake, really... that give me the creeps
Revised: There’s something about cobras — any kind of snake, really — that give me the creeps.
Again, there are a couple situations where these mid-sentence ellipses can remain:
When a pause is used for obvious dramatic effect, the ellipsis should be kept.
WENDY'S: It’s our great pleasure to introduce... the Triple Baconator!
JOE: Triple Baconator, I don’t know how to say this, but I think I... love you.
When halting or stilted speech is intended for dramatic/comedic effect, ellipses may be retained.
I... am... a... robot. Beep. Boop.
The empty line ellipsis
You’ll see a lot of these. Holdovers from manga and light novels, they are explicit indicators of silence, being at a loss for words, holding one’s tongue, etc.
JOE: Triple Baconator, I don’t know how to say this, but I think I love you.
TRIPLE BACONATOR: ...
JOE: Please, Baconator! Say you love me too!
TRIPLE BACONATOR: ...
In English prose, these silences would normally be held with narration — e.g., “Baconator just sat there, dripping ketchup.” You’d never see a sentence such as: ‘Harry Potter said, “...” and continued looking out the window.’ That’s because, unlike most VNs, traditional novels don’t have the crutch of character sprites and name cards appearing alongside dialogue. Due to such VN conventions, along with the technical limitations of translation — it’s frequently impossible to replace character dialogue with unvoiced narration — you should almost always leave these ellipses in place. Based on your best judgement, you can also choose to leave such variants as the questioning silence ("...?") and the excited/alarmed silence ("...!").
It should be noted that such empty line ellipses can also be used outside of dialogue. Often, these will just indicate time passing. There’s also a long tradition in Japanese art of the “pillow” — a held moment of contemplative emptiness. It’s the bit of formal textual throat-clearing at the start of a poem. It’s the 10-second cutaway to a babbling brook that connects two scenes in a movie. In a VN, this pillow can evidence itself as a single line of narration, empty save for an ellipsis. There’s no good English alternative for this, so it should be kept wherever you encounter it.
Extra credit: The multi-line ellipsis
I saved this one for last, because it’s a bit of a special case. Against all my better instincts, it involves adding ellipses in places where the original text has none. It’s painful but it’s for a good cause.
Sometimes, when editing or translating a VN, you’ll run across sentences that spill over onto two or more lines.
Joe and Bob couldn’t believe their good fortune. Not only had they been featured in a blog post by Darbury Laine,
they’d also killed the porcupine that had been vexing them all year. Life was good.
Unlike in poetry, which uses line breaks to very deliberate effect, these multi-line monsters are almost always the result of the VN writer just running out of highway and choosing to keep on driving. Whenever possible, you should attempt to restructure such sentences so they don’t break across lines. Often, splitting an overly long sentence into two smaller ones will do the trick. If it resists your best efforts, however, maintain the break and indicate it with ellipses — one at the end of the first line, the other at the beginning of the second.
Joe and Bob couldn’t believe their good fortune. Not only had they been featured in a blog post by Darbury Laine...
... they’d also killed the porcupine that had been vexing them all year. Life was good.
How many dots? ALL THE DOTS!
Another peculiarity of ellipses in Japanese VNs is that they don’t always have three dots. Depending on context and the arbitrary whims of the writer, you’ll typically see anywhere from two to six dots at a time. I’ve even seen 27 in a row once. I think it was a sex scene. Or a fight scene. Maybe both.
Don’t let this worry you. If you’ve been following my advice, you’ve already purged most of the ellipses from the text. Of those that remain, almost all can be reduced down to familiar three-dot English ellipses. But as always, there’s at least one exception.
Content-bearing pauses: In most cases, it’s of little concern to us whether an ellipsis consists of three, four, five, or even six dots. They’re all slight variations on the standard pause, but since English punctuation doesn’t make any such distinction, neither will we. An exception comes when the length of a pause not only adds flavor, but provides content. Consider the case of an ever-lengthening silence:
BOB: Yup. That porcupine is definitely dead.
The lengthening of the line suggests the passing of increasing amounts of time; the scene isn’t the same without it. Or consider an explosive outburst after a deafening silence:
JOE: Hey, are you still mad because I slept with your mom last night?
BOB: ....................................... YES! OF COURSE I AM!
If you opt to stretch out an ellipsis like this, only do so in increments of three. If you’re musically inclined, think of three dots as a quarter note, six dots as a half note, etc., each one holding the silence just a bit longer than the last. Following the rule of threes keeps the text visually streamlined and helps if you ever need to convert a bunch of soft ellipses ( “...”) to hard ellipses (“…”) late in the translation process.
A quick note about spacing
I opt to keep things simple. If an ellipsis is at the start of a sentence or line, put one space between it and the first word. If it’s anywhere else, use no space before the ellipsis and one space after. If it’s a string of ellipses, it should be an uninterrupted series of dots with no spaces in between.
JOE: ... And that’s why they call me Lefty.
JOE: I could go on and on and on...
BOB: ............ Shut up.
JOE: That's so... so... mean!
There are also differing schools of thought as to whether an ellipsis at the end of a sentence should also be followed by a period, resulting in four dots total. Again, I opt for simplicity here and advise three dots in all cases.
The mark of the beast
It’s easy to tell professional translations from fan projects, it’s said; just count the number of dots. While not always true – plenty of slapdash commercial releases exist in the wild — there’s definitely something to this. More often than not, fewer ellipses are a sign that someone has taken the time to not just translate a text word for word, but thoughtfully localize it.
Seriously, just dump the dots, folks. Your readers will thank you for it.