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Oh, The Jokes I Have Broke (Part 1 of ∞)




As any translator can probably tell you, Japanese jokes are a huge pain to capture in English. There are unfamiliar memes, cultural references, wordplay, riffs on kanji characters — none of which are particularly easy to convey to Western audiences. If you get lucky, a few nips and tucks in editing are all you need to make one of these unwieldy beasts work in English. If you get unlucky, however, you end up having to grab the rib spreader and do some major linguistic surgery.

Sometimes the patients pull through. Sometimes they die on the operating table. These are their stories.

Joke 1: Pearls before swine
In this scene from KoiRizo, Soutarou has just finished giving one of the girls a bit of helpful advice passed down to him by his grandfather. The raw translation is below:

Soutarou: “... That's the motto that they followed back then, I think. Well you know, according to my grandfather.”
Riho: “Your grandfather's ball bag?”
Soutarou: “A-Although I think that he got it from my grandmother...”
Riho: “Ha ...?!”
Soutarou: “...”
Riho: “I just said a really strange thing ―!”

Get it? Get it? No, of course you don’t. KoiRizo was intended as a literal translation, and read literally, this makes zero sense. At this point in my editing, the only choice I had was to go back to the original script, break out the Japanese > English dictionaries, and see if I could figure out what the hell was going on here.

As near as I could figure, Riho meant to use the word “chiebukuro” — literally, “sack of wisdom.” She intended to say something about Soutarou’s pop-pop being a pretty smart guy, chock full of good advice. Instead, she uses “tamafukuro” — literally, “ball sack.” You can understand Soutarou’s confusion when Riho starts talking about his grandfather’s wrinkly old nuts. Nice guy that he is, however, Souatrou tries to give her a graceful out, suggesting it was actually his grandmother who provided the advice. Riho realizes her error and is appropriately mortified.

Great. We’ve puzzled it out ... but at this point, the joke still doesn’t work in translation. “Sack of wisdom” isn’t a common English phrase, so the reader won’t catch the intended meaning behind Riho’s mistake. It just sounds like a plain old non sequitur right now. So our next task is to change her line to something that (1) works as a Freudian slip, (2) comes out of the blue, and (3) is sexually shocking enough to catch Soutarou off guard.

The version I eventually settled on ran something like this:

Soutarou: “... That was the common advice back then, I think. Well, you know, according to my grandfather.”
Riho: “Your grandfather must have really liked giving you pearl necklaces, huh?”
Soutarou: “A-Actually, it might have been my grandmother who liked giving out pearls of wisdom ...”
Riho: “Ha ...?!”
Soutarou: “...”
Riho: “I can’t believe I just said that ―!”

Here, we’ve keep the same basic structure, but rather than “sack of wisdom,” Riho tries (and fails) to say “pearls of wisdom,” a much more common English idiom. And now, rather than Grandpa’s gnarly ballsack, we have the even more shocking image of the old guy giving his grandson pearl necklaces on a regular basis. Soutarou still gets to save the day by pivoting to his grandmother, and then the rest of the joke plays out pretty much as originally written.

Does it work? I hope so, but one could just as easily argue that I broke it. It’s a different gag; there’s no doubting that. But at the end of the day, I’d rather have a joke that works and maintains the original’s spirit than one that’s accurate to a fault.


Joke 2: Deflowering the girls
Here’s a joke I know I broke during editing. Smashed it to the ground and danced on the pieces. In my defense, it was looking at me funny.

In the raw translation of this scene, resort manager Nagisa has just asked the staff to gather in their swimsuits for a big announcement:

Nagisa: “I have a reason for calling you all here like this today.”
Nagisa: “I'd like everyone to become the 'detergent' of the facilities.”
Sango: “Detergent? Us?”
Nagisa: “Oh, sorry. By detergent, I was referring more to advertising material.... In other words, I need you guys to photograph for an advertisement.”

Again, another joke that makes no sense when read literally. And the only TL note I had to go on said, “This translation won't work in English.” Agreed. So I hauled out the J>E dictionary again, but had much less luck this time. At best, I came away with a wisp of a shred of a guess. My hunch was that Nagisa was using one very specific meaning of the word “senzai”— the foremost part of a garden, the loveliest flowers intended to set the stage and entice visitors in deeper — and Sango interpreted it as another more common meaning of “senzai” — namely, detergent. Nagisa clarifies her meaning, everyone has a chuckle, and the scene continues.

I wasn’t sure if I was right — I’m an editor, not a translator — but lacking any better options, I decided to go with it. And I promptly flailed about like a clown being drowned in a bathtub. Right off the bat, I knew there weren’t any good English sound-alikes that would work here. So instead, I wrote about a dozen variations on garden and flower puns, but none of them managed to weave plausible misunderstanding with Nagisa’s actual meaning. Worse yet, they just weren’t funny.

Next, I tried a few bawdier versions, but quickly abandoned those as well. This scene is going to get more risqué in a minute, but throwing in a sex joke right now would be tipping our hand too soon. (In one draft, I had Nagisa say she wants the girls to be the hook that lures visitors to the island. Sango replies, “What?! You want us to hook for you?” — i.e., she thought her boss wanted to pimp them out as resort hookers.)

Having hit brick wall after brick wall, I decided to strip the joke down to its essence. What’s the basic structure here? Nagisa says she wants to use the girls to help sell the resort. Sango suffers a comic misunderstanding. Nagisa corrects her. The end. So that’s what I wrote:

Nagisa: “There’s a reason why I’ve called everyone here like this today.”
Nagisa: “I've decided to sell you.”
Sango: “Sell us? Is that even legal?”
Nagisa: “Oh, sorry. By ‘sell,’ I meant using you to help advertise the resort ... In layman’s terms, I need you guys to model for some publicity photos.”

We lose the poeticism of the original — that image of the girls as flowers drawing visitors in — but in exchange, we get something that actually works as wordplay in English while still delivering the necessary plot info (Nagisa’s marketing brainstorm). It’s still not a particularly hilarious gag, but then again, neither was the original.

In both examples, I ended up completely rewriting large chunks of each joke. And while I'm not entirely satisfied — I wish I could have kept more of the original language — I'm okay with the result. Editing is a balancing act. You want to remain as faithful to the original text as possible while maintaining the audience’s immersion in the work. If the reader suddenly comes across a joke that clearly doesn’t parse in English, that immersion is broken. They stop. They scroll back and re-read it a few times, trying to make sense of it. They wonder if they’re missing something, or if the TL team just messed it up. BAM. They’re now completely out of the world of the visual novel. The magic is broken.

Because magic is only magic until you notice the strings. Or that dead clown in the bathtub.


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As a non-native english speaker I didn't understand the first joke either, I had to look and see what "pearl necklaces" meant, is it ok to re-work a joke just for a very narrow audience, in this case USA? I know you are translating it into english so it make sense but you have to be american to understand it so it ends up being the same thing.


When I looked for 知恵袋 and たまふくろ the joke made sense like you said and it was funny even if I don't know many phrases in japanese.

But then again like you said if you translate it literally it just doesnt work.


There is a lot of work into this type of translations like the one you are doing and that's something that anyone should appreciate and be thanks for even if you don't agree with the method of doing it like myself :P

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I hear what you're saying, Deep Blue, but I think if you're going to translate/edit a work into English, you need to do so primarily with native English speakers in mind. Otherwise, you end up cutting yourself off from a huge swath of idiom and poetics just because the non-native speaker might not have been exposed to them. The resulting prose would be functional yet totally flavorless.


Anyway, I don't think I'd call the entirely of the native English-speaking world "a very narrow audience." This particular slang usage of "pearl necklace" can be found in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. I don't know about New Zealand, but I'd have to imagine that if the Aussies are on board, then so are the Kiwis.


All that said, I honestly feel bad that non-native speakers like yourself might be (literally) left out on the joke. So you have my apologies for that. If you ever find yourself in New York, I'll buy you a beer as a make-good. :)

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To be fair, I live in the USA and have never really heard pearl necklace used before, so it's not really a case of it being a region specific term. That said, it's probably the best substitution you'll find, despite the word being a little obscure. 

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Anyway, I don't think I'd call the entirely of the native English-speaking world "a very narrow audience." This particular slang usage of "pearl necklace" can be found in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. I don't know about New Zealand, but I'd have to imagine that if the Aussies are on board, then so are the Kiwis.

Haven't heard of the term, but anyone who didn't and googled the term like me would be suitably mortified.

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You find new expressions in literature (lol VN's) all the time.

It's a mite different to Google a Japanese expression with no English equivalent or an English one only used in the British Antarctic Territory.  In one of them, your Google search actually has a chance of producing results, and you of learning something new.

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So what have we learned today?


(1) The term "pearl necklace" is more unfamiliar to people than I might have imagined. Clearly, I've been reading too many of the right wrong sites.


(2) If your girlfriend asks you for a pearl necklace for her birthday, think long and hard before you answer.

As for the joke itself, that slang being esoteric might actually work in its favor. A few lines later, Soutarou marvels to himself that Riho knows the term. All of which is nice foreshadowing for her route.

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Ah the good old "japanese only context/subtext jokes that do not work for any other country/in any other language" Indeed it's one of the things lost in translation that will either fly over our heads or come off as a very lame joke. 

I know the feeling as my favourite anime "Nichijou" is rife with japanese jokes and puns. I had a hard time

figuring what the context of the jokes was and even when I got the meaning behind them, they weren't very

good for a gaijin like me. :P

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