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Eep Opp Ork Ah Ah (Editing Onomatopoeia in VNs)


Darbury

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There is a secret language spoken in the darkest corners of the visual novel world, a cant so ancient and intricate that none know its origins. To be initiated in its ways, one must drink from the Dread Chalice and be reborn in fire. Only then will the caul be drawn from your eyes.

You shall know onomatopoeia. And you shall know fear.

Sploosh 101: What is onomatopoeia?
Before we jump in with both feet — *splash!* — let’s do a quick primer on terminology. An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates, resembles, or suggests the source of the sound it describes — i.e, it sounds like what it is. Like clink, yip, kaboom, swish, meow, oink. (That’s the verbatim transcript of my bachelor party, in case anyone’s wondering.) This is different from a word that describes a sound or action, but doesn’t actually imitate it — e.g., sneeze vs. achoo, punch vs. kapow, close vs. slam. The latter are onomatopoeia; the former, I call ononotopoeia.

For the sake of brevity, let’s refer to these O and not-O.

The Japanese language is rich in O. There’s a sound effect for everything. There’s probably a sound effect for there being a sound effect for everything. (If there isn’t, I’d like to propose one now: darubu.) There are even sound effects for things that don’t actually make sound — e.g., “jii” for staring. While it’s woven into the fabric of the modern Japanese language, O is especially prevalent in manga and, to a somewhat lesser extent, anime. Since visual novels draw heavily from these two worlds, they too feature lots and lots of these words.

English is relatively impoverished in O by comparison, and therein lies the challenge for VN translators and editors. Do you leave these essentially untranslatable sound effects as they are? Or do you try to translate them, losing some of their immediacy and, for lack of a better word, oomph?

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Across the great divide
The VN community seems to be fairly split on that question. In one camp, we have the purists. By and large, these are readers who are already comfortable with Japanese O through manga and anime. They consider it part and parcel of the VN experience. Learning and appreciating such terms is simply part of becoming an accomplished reader. It’d be like going to a fine dining restaurant and, instead of the chef presenting you with “the amuse-bouche,” he just came out and said, “Here’s this small appetizer thingy I made. Hope you like it.” The vocabulary is part of the experience.

In the other camp, we have the reformists. To them, leaving O untouched isn’t translation; it’s mere transliteration. It denies meaningful content to the uninitiated English reader — e.g., if you don’t know "munyu" means to grope someone, you’ll be clueless when the best girl hauls off and smacks the protagonist in the very next line. To extend the fine dining metaphor, it’d be like going to the same restaurant, being handed a menu that was all in French, and having the waitstaff snootily refuse to tell you what anything meant. Hope you like thymus glands, mon ami, because that’s what you just ordered.

When it came to KoiRizo, I was a reformist editor on a purist project. I joined the team after the translation had been completed and a lot of the big up-front decisions had already been made: Will this be a literal translation or liberal? (Literal.) Will we keep all the honorifics? (Yes.) Will we keep all the onomatopoeia? (Yes.) MDZ, the KoiRizo project lead, was very up-front about all this. And that was fine. The job of a VN editor is to facilitate and execute on the project lead’s vision. It’s great if you’re involved early enough to shape that vision, but it’s ultimately his/her show, not yours. (If you’re not okay with that, go start your own TL project.) So with that in mind, I did the best purist editing job I could.

But what if I had carte blanche in how I approached O? What would I do differently? As luck would have it, I’ve given that some thought.

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Onomatopoeia in standard scripts
For the majority of scripts, it helps to separate O-words into two groups: content-light ad content-heavy. The content-light group tends to consist of interjections, exclamations, grunts, groans, laughs, etc. These are mostly self-explanatory terms, communicating very little other than the fact that they’re a familiar sound. Some examples include:

  • Ho
  • E
  • A
  • Heh
  • Uuu

At most, I’ll clean these up to make them friendlier to Western eyes — “A! A sea cucumber!” becomes “Ah! A sea cucumber!” (In this case, it’d be too easy to mistake the “A” sound for a stammering repetition of the indefinite article “a.”) Otherwise, I’m happy to leave them be.

On the other side, we have the content-heavy O-words. These are either (1) terms that have a very specific meaning you’d never be able to guess at without prior knowledge, or (2) common sounds that are rendered much differently in English than Japanese. These are the words that, if you ignore them, will result in meaningful content being lost in translation. Some examples include:

  • Kakkun = the “sound” of hitting someone in the back of the knees. Based on a kids’ game.
  • Su = the sound of something suddenly appearing (among other meanings)
  • Gusu = the sound of a whimpering sob
  • Hakushon = the sound of sneezing
  • Chikutaku = the sound a clock makes

Our first line of attack is to see if there’s any suitable English onomatopoeia we can swap in. It’s rare that it works out so neatly, but it does happen. So "hakushon" becomes “achoo,” "chikutaku" becomes “tick tock,” etc. If this doesn’t work, we fall back on another common approach: turning not-O English words into O by enclosing them in asterisks. So:

“Gusu. Why won’t you return any of my calls?"

becomes:

*whimper* “Why won’t you return any of my calls?”

As your final line of defense, you might consider abandoning O altogether, instead relying on some explanatory text to flesh out the intended meaning. So:

Su.
“Where do you think you’re going, jerk?”

becomes:

She appeared out of nowhere.
“Where do you think you’re going, jerk?”

I’d recommend turning to this as a last resort, however, since you can see a certain staccato elegance gets lost in translation.

As for where you can find out what all these untranslated O-words mean, there are all sorts of online resources to be had out there. I tend to use the Japanese > English SFX dictionary over at The JADED Network, but I’m sure there are plenty of others just as good.

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Onomatopoeia in H-scenes
Sex scenes are something of a special case. You’ll find there are large blocks of text that are nothing but wall-to-wall O. (I see what you did there, you sly dog you ...) Here are some sample lines from KoiRizo:

Sango: “Nafufu. Fumu, Juru, Zuzuzu."
Sango: "Rero, Chu, Chuu ..."
Sango: "Hamu, Chuu, Chuu ... Rero, Juupu, Zuzu."
Sango: "Jupo, Gupo, Zu."
Sango: "Juzuzuzuzu."
Sango: "Fumu? Fua ..."

During editing, I liked to call these sections “word salad.” They’re an unholy mishmash of content-heavy O, content-light O, and nonsensical fuck-grunts. It’s a tangled mess of syllables that can make even the bravest editor or translator turn tail and run. In my earlier post on editing H-scenes, one of the commenters — smile for the camera, Ittaku! — suggested it might just be better to replace these sections with ellipses and let the VO do all the heavy lifting. It’s a tempting thought. But despite all appearances, there’s content to be had there — content the Japanese reader would have understood, and which the English reader will miss out on ... unless you take action.

Let’s see what happens if we (somewhat liberally) run it through the techniques we’ve discussed so far.

Sango: "Ummph. Umm." *slurp* *sluuurp*
Sango: “Mmm.” *suuuck*
Sango: *nibble* *suck* “Mmmm ...” *bob* *sluuurp*
Sango: *sucksuck* *slurp*
Sango: *slurpslurpslurpsluuurp*
Sango: "Mmmph? Ahhh ..."

Okay, it ain’t poetry, but at least we’ve transformed our tossed salad it into something with actual meaning. Even without having read the rest of the scene, you can guess that Sango is vigorously polishing the protagonist’s knob. Or is trapped in a vat of ramen and eating her way to freedom. It can be improved upon, of course; all those asterisks start getting visually distracting, so if the VN engine supports it, italics might be a better choice here. But I’d argue it’s much better than what we started with.

Feeling more confident? Good. Go forth and sploosh.

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You know, there's nothing wrong with literal translations provided they are accompanied by a shitload of translator notes. If no translation notes (or explanations) are forthcoming, then leaving Japanese words in the script is poor translation philosophy. In fact I'll go one step further, leaving unexplained Japanese words in the script is an incomplete translation. It's why literally translated literature come with 400 odd translator notes in the back, and it's part of the reason why official anime is localised (because it's not a medium that can support such TL notes well.) 

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You'll get no argument from me.

 

Moreover, I tend to think most visual novel TL footnotes are a bit of a cheat. Rather than spending the time required to find a more elegant solution, the TL/editor break immersion by forcing the reader to refer to extratextual notes. Meh.

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I think it depends whether the goal is to give a similar experience, or give the reader all the information to understand the work. The elegant solution is elegant in that you can appreciate the editor/TL coming up with it, but it might not be inherently better than the footnote. It's just that more often than not you are trying for seamlessness.

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/me smiles

 

Nice article again. For the most part I usually translate onomatopoeia to their equivalents or explain them out, exactly as you've said... apart from H scenes. While your "translated" sounds are great for the H scene in that example, the problem I encounter is simply running out of equivalents. So I translate the obvious ones (slurp, suck, etc) and transliterate the rest. Good thing there are great editors out there like yourself to "fix" this problem :)

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I think it depends whether the goal is to give a similar experience, or give the reader all the information to understand the work.

 

Absolutely ... and my own inclination is to go for the immediacy of the experience. By and large, I see VNs as popular entertainments. And just as I might get annoyed by a constant barrage of linguistic footnotes in something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so too would I rankle at having to wade through TL commentary on cultural context before I could enjoy a simple dick joke.

 

That doesn't make me right, of course. It just makes me opinionated. :)

 

The problem I encounter is simply running out of equivalents. So I translate the obvious ones (slurp, suck, etc) and transliterate the rest.

 

I know, right? It's HARD to keep from repeating yourself. That's why the first tip in my last H-scene article was to check out some good English language erotica. You'd be surprised how many versatile verbs, nouns, and moans you can swipe find in just a handful of stories. I'm trying to keep a running cheat sheet of those for future projects. :)

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I prefer footnotes rather than having the whole dialog changed just because it doesn't "translate" to another language, when you change something you are loosing the original meaning and that's a big no for me.

Also I prefer repetition than having something really elaborated that changes the meaning of some dialog, in the Japanese language (maybe in all asian languages I don't know about this) you can repeat the same thing over and over again without any problem, but in English, Spanish, Portuguese etc etc (most of the western languages) if you repeat something you are labeled as a kid or that you have poor writing skills, why is it that for a culture repetition is something normal but for another is a bad thing to do.

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You'll almost always lose something in translation: the literal meaning of the original, the cadence of the original, or the in-the-moment experience of reading the original. It's a bit like that old consultant's joke: "Good, fast, cheap — pick any two."

 

But you raise some good points, Deep Blue. Everyone's got a difference tolerance for what they're willing to give up for the sake of translation. Maybe I'll touch on that in a future blog post somewhere down the road.

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"but in English, Spanish, Portuguese etc etc (most of the western languages) if you repeat something you are labeled as a kid or that you have poor writing skills, why is it that for a culture repetition is something normal but for another is a bad thing to do."

 

Depends on what kind of repetition you’re talking about. Some repetition in English is good, some is bad, it’s merely a language technique people use. Most language techniques differ from language to language, for example the Japanese use a lot of adjectives, ellipses, and passive voice whereas these things are discouraged in English. The author would use these language techniques in Japanese to create a desired effect in the reader, whereas these same techniques used in English create a completely different effect. And now, like Chrono said, you can choose to provide a similar experience for the English audience that the Japanese audience receives, or to preserve techniques as accurately as possible. The latter is more common in literature than entertainment.

 

Regarding repetition specifically, sometimes in English repetition reads like you’re hammering away at an idea which can be considered disrespectful to an audience, it could showcase a poor vocabulary, and sometimes repetition is just redundant. Poor vocabulary and plenty of redundancies are hallmarks of childish writing in English, so yeah sometimes the two (repetition and juvenile writing) are connected.

 

Why do different techniques mean different things in different languages? Culture and the language’s evolution I suppose. Languages evolving in two completely different regions of the world being influenced by two different cultures and with the languages themselves following two different methods (Japanese relying in part on logograms while English do not, for example) will naturally encourage different properties in writing. It’s just something to be aware of. Editors and authors (in English) talk about cutting repetition from works of fiction on a frequent basis, so there's plenty of people to listen to if you're looking for why.

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I could copy paste a wall of "literal vs. liberal" translation I wrote a while back, but I'd probably be running away from the main topic at a high velocity.

 

As for which I prefer, I have no particular opinion.

Just try to avoid a situation where a voiced line clearly says something and it gets Englishified and mismatches what is heard.

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Just try to avoid a situation where a voiced line clearly says something and it gets Englishified and mismatches what is heard.

 

So if the VO says "Tadaima" and the translated text says, "Nice chainsaw. Did you know I like salmon fishing?" — that's a bad thing? Crap crap crap.

 

:)

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So if the VO says "Tadaima" and the translated text says, "Nice chainsaw. Did you know I like salmon fishing?" — that's a bad thing? Crap crap crap.

 

:)

No no, that's not a bad thing at all. You just have to make sure to keep consistent.

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On 5/18/2017 at 10:31 PM, Fred the Barber said:

Has to be a typo. Refer to (this one obviously on purpose):

 

Thanks senpai.

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