Before I proceed any further, I would just like to make it clear that I am aware that this post is simply contributing to a large circlejerk in which all the participants are sad Japanophiles, and I would also like to make clear that my Japanese is still not all that great. I can already hear the cackles of far more experienced students of the language coming from their tall ivory towers before I even hit the publish button on this post. So, if these 1500 words aren’t too boring for you fine men and women who already know the language, please feel free to point out anything I got wrong.

People always talk about how things get “lost in translation” or how “anime just feels different in Japanese” but I haven’t seen many people on the blogosphere attempting to qualify these statements, even though they’re 100% true.

Ever since I’ve returned from my journey to the East, I have been watching anime without subtitles more often. That said, I’m still in the habit of acquiring subtitled versions afterwords in order to pick up anything I may have missed, but there are occasions where I will simply watch entire shows in raw Japanese. As you begin to watch more things purely in their native language, one thing you begin notice is a lack of nuance across a lot of translations. However, what’s missing is something that isn’t lost as a result of poor translation–what I’m talking about are the fundamental aspects of the Japanese language that are simply unable to be carried over into English. Again, I realize this may have been noted time and time again, but I wish to cite examples.

Japanese is a very contextual language. In English it’s not often that we can reduce an entire sentence to just a verb or a noun, like you can sometimes do in Japanese. Japanese is very keen on leaving out words if the context is understood, even if that context may not be obvious to foreign listeners. Here’s an example that confused me pretty good when I was in Japan: We were all watching TV, and Yamazaki Masayoshi came on. Closet otaku K-san says to me, “Popular amongst girls.” Note, that is the literal translation of what he said. (A lot of these translations will be intentionally literal in order to draw attention to the linguistic quirks they’re meant to highlight.) A more sensible translation would be, “He’s popular amongst the girls.” But what he said to me literally was “popular amongst girls,” and Fresh-Off-The-Boat me was pretty confused for a few seconds. That’s just how they roll over there.

Another example of Japanese’s contextual nature can be seen in the omission of entire clauses in sentences. One good example–regarding Japanese’s much loved te-form verb conjugation (there will be more on te-form later)–can found here, in this post on How to Japonese. I’m not going to say that similar things are completely alien in English, but this certainly happens more often in Japanese.

Another thing the Japanese like to do is end sentences with “kedo,” which translates to “but” or “however.” The use of this can be pretty obvious to English speaking listeners. For example, say Guy A asks if Guy B can help him out, and Guy B responds with, “Dekiru kedo…/I can help, but…” which basically implies that he can help out, but there’s a catch. A response like this isn’t totally out of the blue in English. However, here are some examples I can’t get my head around–“Majide kawaii da kedo/That’s really cute, but…” for when someone is looking at something particularly cute, and “Moshimoshi, XXX desu kedo/Hello this is XXX, but…” for when someone is answering the phone, with XXX standing in for their name. My Japanese teacher at Sophia told us that this use of kedo was simply to soften sentences, since the Japanese tend to avoid being direct, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it.


Aside from all that contextual junk that the Japanese are famous for, the fundamental structure of Japanese sentences is different. In Japanese sentences the most important stuff goes at the end, and the most important part of any sentence is its verb, so expect that at the end about all of the time. Particularly poor translations will sometimes keep this sort of sentence structure when it’s used for dramatic effect. Here’s an example you’ll probably see in shounen fight shows a lot: “Omae wo… korosu!”, which means “I WILL KILL… YOU!” for those keeping score. The verb to kill is korosu, and as you can so plainly see, it is at the end. There are more complex examples, and they get pretty difficult to translate effectively. Especially when the surprising part is at the end, and the only way to have it make sense in English is to put that surprising part in the middle.

On the subject of verbs, Japanese verbs have far more conjugations than English verbs. English employs the use of helping words to communicate various nuances one may wish to apply to a verb, but in Japanese such ideas can be conveyed by simply conjugating the verb. For instance, say you want to say that someone “can eat.” In Japanese that’s simply the verb “taberu” conjugated into “taberareru,” which is the potential form.

Here’s some other examples:

  • Causative Form: “Allowed to eat/Made to eat.” -> “Tabesaseru.”
  • Volitional Form: “Let’s eat!” -> “Tabeyou!”
  • Passive Form: “Was eaten.” -> “Taberareru.” (Passive form conjugates in the same way as potential form in some cases.)

In the end, communicating these same ideas in Japanese may not be faster (especially when you put these verbs into a real sentence with a main topic and particles), but these ideas being rolled up into one word is one of the things that gives Japanese a flavor different from what you encounter in English.

Lastly, I’d like to address the mysterious te-form–a conjugation (I think it’s a conjugation? I’m not a linguist, so excuse me for any misuses of certain linguistic terms up to this point.) that can do a variety of magical things. However, I am only going to address two of its magical abilities. One usage is to justify actions–you can change both verbs and adjectives into te-form, and use them to justify the actions that follow. Here’s an example: “Samukute kooto wo kiru” or “It’s cold, so I will put on a coat,” with “samui”–meaning “cold”–changed to “samukute.”  There are of course other ways to communicate the same idea in Japanese–“Samui kara kooto wo kiru” and “Samui no de kooto wo kiru” to name a couple. But the use of te-form and similar types of abbreviation gives Japanese a more compact and efficient flow than what can be found in English.

The other usage I’d like to address is its ability to link actions and list off adjectives. Once again, I will turn to How To Japonese for a fine example of this right at the bottom of this post. While we list off items in a similar manner in English, there is one key difference–the use of “and”. In English when we list off things, we typically preface the last item in the list with the word “and.” In Japanese you have to do no such thing. Further more, you can mix and match these uses of te-form (within reason) to come up with sentences like, “Atsukute kurushikute aircon wo tsuketa,” meaning “It was hot and suffering so I turned on the air conditioning.” Here te-form’s ability to link items and to suggest cause are used together.

So what am I trying to say with these 1500 words of boring Japanese lecture? It’s as I said when I started out–there are certain nuances to the Japanese language that simply cannot be translated. Rather, they should not be translated. If you came out with an English translation that tried to capture the things I outlined above, it would be pretty unreadable. However, if you do know the language (or kind of know it, like me) then it’s possible to appreciate the things I mentioned above, along with a whole host of things I neglected to mention or simply don’t know enough (or anything) about. What I outlined was mostly in regards to how efficient Japanese is as language, along with its unique (to English) sentence structure and how most of the time these things are unable to carry over well into English. But there are lots of things I’m not prepared to talk about, like the magical properties of kanji…

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11 Responses to Anime IN THE RAW

  1. Tasaio says:

    I completely agree. There are a lot of qualities in the Japanese language that are best left untranslated. If you were to translate this, you would end up with awkward English, and you don’t really need it to get the show. It get’s more interesting, though.

    As a westerner, I find the language very interesting, which Japanese people has a hard time to understand.
    Also, I simply love kanji.

  2. Ryan A says:

    Chaining :3 guuuu. -te form and the to particle enable some ridiculous chaining, but I don’t think translating is silly, at least not all the time. The context patterns should be known I guess, though I’m not an expert or anything, but /to/ is a good example when used with or without certain verb conjugations (conditional). I guess there would be certain situations where an idea or meaning makes sense, but trying to translate does not offer the closest similar meaning, and from there I suppose it would be better to call it rewriting/retelling.

    From that point, I suppose it would be like attempting to put a dream and associated feelings into words. Sometimes we can’t do it, although we completely understand the experience (the dream), we cannot put it into words directly; I tend to rely on simile and metaphors, but that doesn’t work in translating.

  3. jpmeyer says:

    I like to flip things and mention English words like “hello” or “ow” that don’t actually have meanings when people try to get all anile about a lot of the “nuances” in Japanese.

    Also, I like pointing out the way that active voice works in English and compare that with passive voice in Japanese. English wants active voice so much, and requires subjects, that we often end up inventing subjects when we say sentences “you” or “they” end up doing something even though no one in particular is being addressed.

  4. 2DT says:

    Not boring at all! That was a lovely post, and lines up with a lot of what I’ve picked up these last few months.

    In the case of why Japanese use “kedo” so much, try looking at it the other way around. I find now that when a sentence is NOT softened by -kedo or -ga or one of those things, it has a hard, final feeling, almost cold. Ditto not omitting phrases; when you include “watashi wa, anata ga etc.” in every single sentence, it feels terribly uptight… or, well, like you’re a language learner. :) Very different from our mother tongue, which holds on quite tightly to its Germanic grammatical structure.

  5. Dokuro-chan says:

    I know you know that what you are saying can really only be of use to the much smaller (compared to the Western anime fandom in general) group of anime fans with good knowledge of Japanese, but, as one of those not so knowledgeable as to actually understand the language, I still feel like I get what you are saying.

    When I first started watching fansubbed anime, I was very keen on making sure I had the most literal subs possible, so that I could have the best chance of figuring out what the original Japanese was supposed to communicate (rather than letting some fansubber of unknown ability interpret it for me). Over time, of course, the quality and nature of the translation have become less and less important to me, as I begin to understand what is really going on in the language for myself. This could be something as simple as not caring about the presence of honorifics in the subs anymore, to something more complicated like the things you mentioned here, such as understanding why “surprise” sentences always have a different meaning when translated into readable English.

    What you seem to be saying here, though, is that there is much more to it than anything I could simply “pick up.” In that case, it seems like speaking the language really does amplify the benefits of understanding… What I would wonder, though, additionally, is if you feel like you pick up on the nuances of Japanese more when you watch without subs. It sounds like you think you do, probably because you are paying more attention to the dialog when you have to actually understand it yourself.

  6. uncreative says:

    Ah, Japanese grammar. It’s definitely pretty different from English, as the stumbling, confused attempts at translating relatively simple sentences by students can attest.

    As a general rule, I don’t watch raws very often anymore. It adds that much more time to watching things that are already stretched too thin, although the first episodes of new shows are often an exception. However, I’ve still yet to watch about half of the first season of K-ON! with subtitles, having watched it raw during the fullscreen broadcast and then never quite gotten around to watching it subbed in widescreen. I find, though, that what I’m generally doing anymore is hearing the Japanese and having the subtitles append meaning onto it if there’s anything I don’t get right away. So it’s kind of the best of both at the first viewing.

    The contextual thing is common enough in English as well, but because it works differently, you really don’t notice it as much, coming from inside it. A large part of it is that where English uses pronouns, Japanese simply omits the words instead, since the grammatical postpositions mean you don’t need to worry about word order. The study of contextual things and similar nonsense (why do the prepositions “behind” and “inside” convey meaning differently, for example?) is called “pragmatics,” and Japanese is a good language to pull examples from certainly.

    For your next post, you should try to explain the difference between kureru and morau :3

  7. Lishtenbird says:

    Having read this, I somehow felt that the situation is a bit better with other more frivolous languages – like Russian. You get a lot of freedom in translating, swapping words, changing their places – or even making words out that can imitate the original emotional context. I may be wrong as I deal with basic English (and English fansub) as a rule, and there’s not much I can understand in Japanese at all, but it makes me think that English is more appropriate for delivering the idea than emotions. Japanese sounds so fluent, deep and authentic, that watching dubbed anime is evil. But the truth is that most Russian fansub is translated from English – what a waste, isn’t it… >_<

  8. Pepe says:

    Quite interesting.

    Since I’ve been watching subbed anime for a while I’ve started picking up some of the linguistic “quirks” of the Japanese.

    Note aside, I’m actually from a Spanish speaking country so it’s even more interesting to be able to compare to foreign languages at the time. In Spannish you can actually say “¡¡Te voy a MATAR!!” or “¡¡voy a MATARTE!!” or “¡¡Te MATARÉ!!” and even “¡¡Voy a MATAR a ese maldito!!” (the last one is “I’m gonna Kill that bastard”). “Matar” is Kill and you can add the conjugation or leave it like that with auxiliary words.

    Oops, sorry if I bored you. See ya!!

  9. kuroyuki says:

    I’m a student of both Spanish and Japanese language, and as Pepe pointed out Spanish is a lot more similar to Japanese in terms of the whole pronoun and sentence structure thing. What I’ve learned over the years through my studies of different languages including Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and some Chinese is that English is very rigidly defined language. In other languages a lot of the information is left implied and is contextual. English, however, requires definition for every part of the sentence. This is why English is considered a good language for creative writing like poetry because there are so many different ways to express the same idea. On the other hand, it makes us English speakers horrible foreign language learners as we have to try to translate our overly descriptive ideas into other languages which have less emphasis on wordiness.

  10. Nis says:

    I really never comment on any of your posts, Wah. But just for this time I think I’ll leave one because I can’t remember the last time someone said something I agree with so much.

    Keeping in mind I never formally learnt Japanese, and all my Japanese skills are acquired from knowing Chinese before hand, and a lot of mis-spent/mis-spending years on visual novels/eroges/anime/etc. (Let’s not get into the argument of whether or not the two languages are similar, it is at the very least I can read and recognize a lot more kanji before hand)

    Nowadays I’m confident that I can understand at least up to 60 – 70% of any Japanese context, usually more.

    When I first started watching anime, I really didn’t know any Japanese and simply pass the meaning over as the subs would have it. Nowadays I watch anime and I realize there are a lot simplified and completely adaptive meanings in the subs that honestly completely changes the nuance of the sentence. Although I can sympathize with the translators because from time to time while I’m playing my VN and I try to explain a joke to my friends and I realize…I can’t. There is no good way to convert or translate the language without losing the impact and what makes the sentence stick in the first place.

    Anyways, enough babbling. In short…Japanese -> English just doesn’t work.

  11. uncreative says:

    >>Anyways, enough babbling. In short…Japanese -> English just doesn’t work.

    Now, I do have to take exception to that. English is highly dissimilar to Japanese, it’s true, but it’s no more untranslatable than anything else. The simple fact is that most fansubbers simply aren’t good enough translators to do it exactly right. In fact, most professional translators aren’t either. But it can be done. It just requires effort.

    If anyone is bored enough and willing to put up with its somewhat over-familiar tone, “Le Ton Beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter is a sizable volume dedicated to almost nothing but the issue of translating from one language to another, with particular attention paid to poetry translation; a particularly difficult area. I can’t agree with everything he says, and his examples are sometimes quite silly, but it’s certainly a strong argument against “untranslatable” as a description. Something to look at if you happen to find translation interesting.