A translator, in the end, is a messenger between languages. Their work is ultimately to make the incomprehensible understandable between two people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have a discussion. There will be cultural and tonal clashes, as often the two sides will be met with something that they find offensive, weird, funny, or just incomprehensible again due to having different cultural contexts. It’s like how in some parts of the world nodding is a sign of an agreement, while in other parts it’s the opposite. In the same manner the choice of words can cause some head scratching situations, for better or worse, and often there ends up being no real good solution.
Like any other job, translator’s job is invisible until something is got wrong or the translated text reads terrible. Doubly so when the translator is not native speaker. Yours truly has English as his third language, so a lot of local tone sneaks in all the time. Nevertheless, the text needs to be converted from one language to another without meddling with the core message itself. If that message or a joke is hard hitting or would end up causing some ruckus, well, the translator just has to roll with the punches and make the best of the situation. They’re hand in the middle and not in charge of rewriting the target text. If they were to rewrite something, change it somehow not to carry over the same intention or core, that’d be like the cashier giving financial advices while you’re making your purchases. They’re working with money all the time sure, but not exactly in the position to give it.
You get hubbub about translations all the time. Sometimes the localisation is a bit overdone to the point of obfuscating the original intentions and even removing points and elements. To some it’s a worthwhile mission to be sure the work is clean and as inoffensive as possible, even to a point of removing play elements from games (that’s not even a localisers job to decide, if we’re going to stick to our guns) while others approach their work in that the original work is comparatively sacrosanct, something that’s “simply” to translate, sticks and stones included. The latest hubbub in fan-translations concerns about Goemon 3 for the Super Famicom. Go grab the translation from romhacking.net, where all good things go to me modified. The supposed is with the word newhalf, the Japanese term for pre-operation or non-operated man-to-woman transexual. There is no English equivalent to this term and does not see use outside Japan. New original words constructed from loanwords aren’t exactly a rarity in languages, but what is a translator to do in a situation like this? In the game’s context, there is a character who is played out as a woman, and asks the player if he should tell his boyfriend that he’s a newhalf. There’s no real way to get around the topic without rewriting this bit of conversation, something that would’ve been done if Goemon 3 would have been localised back in the day due to Nintendo of America’s standards for censorship. Of course, man dating a woman who is really a man is the second oldest joke in history. The oldest joke is man dressing up as a woman, like Francis Flute in the play-within-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What is a translator to do? The two extremes I had above would have very different kind of approach. One would find the best English original equivalent word in a same tone, while the other would find ways to mitigate the issue. There are no good options here really, not one that would satisfy everyone. The fantranslation went with tranny for the translated word, for better or worse. It’s short and to the point. The word is seen as derogatory at least by some of the transexuals and people around them, but at the same time it isn’t uncommon to see and hear it being used within the community as a pet term (for the lack of better word) and the like. It’s similar how despite nigger or nigga has its own negative connotations, African-Americans do seem to have the tendency to use it among each other in the same, pet-name kind of fashion. Automatically assuming the translator wanted to hurt feelings by the word choice is assuming the worst, which seems to be standard today. Yours truly is at fault in this as well. Nevertheless, in now deleted tweet in a locked-down account the translator did mention he chose the word because it is being used as a pet-name, it was the best, short equivalent. It’s a case of word having different strength depending who and in what situation it is being used in (though personally the who bit should be irrelevant, language should not be exclusive use for some but not for others.) Newhalf in itself is a term that gets used by the Japanese as much for positive as it goes for negative. It really depends what is being tried to convey there. Someone might use it as a way to put someone down, while a pre-op person uses it freely with no baggage intended. We can just as well assume that the character was using the words without any malice, but as usual, people like to contest positive interpretations like this. Japanese can change the impact they way something is said. We should assume that the original line, じつは わたし ニューハーフなのっ！[Jitsu wa, watashi newhalf nano!] sounds rather playful because the scene is played for a joke. The translated line doesn’t really convey the playfulness with I’m actually a tranny… so maybe something like The thing is, I’m really a tranny! would worked better, but that doesn’t exactly convey the playfulness either. Perhaps this is one of those cases where you simply have to bring in the playfulness with an extra line. You could ask if its good comedy for sure, but that’d be an issue to be raised with the original writer. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Why locked down account, you ask? Issues like this tend to throw people into overdrive and pile on someone, and there’s no real way to sidestep it outside just ignoring the incoming bombardment if you’re intending to stick to you grounds. The more you read about stuff like this, the more contradictory statements you’ll end up finding and nobody is happy with someone else’s results. Perhaps using the aforementioned words in a far more positive manner and taking away their negative connotations would be an admirable goal, but that can really be done if they’re taken as a badge or token of pride rather than as derision. Words only have so much power over us, especially if their strength is taken away by the receiver.
The approach a translator becomes essential. The audience for the translated work or the translator can’t make any difference what’s in the original work; it has been published for the wider release like that. Changing the translation doesn’t change the original text. The question is if it really needs to be changed either, the original works should be untouchable in the base sense. If this was an official release, it would be probable that the bit would be rewritten either to dance around the topic, or changed completely for something else. Not in the fear of controversy or something similar, but because it’s a more sensible solution financially. It would sell better. You can see where this then starts tumbling down. While a translator in official circles has to function as a cog in the whole system and often has to lean according to whatever winds the upstairs, a fantranslator like this can decide wholly his own approach. Sometimes you might find yourself face-to-face with something like this, where translator didn’t want to mess with the original script’s content to any real extent, and other times you come across translators that end up changing whole characters and what they’re saying for whatever reason. There should be no need to raise hell towards a translator, fan or not, if the translation itself is sticking to the points of the original script. I don’t really see Konami really caring if a 1995 Super Famicom game has something that offends people in a country the game was never published in, so I guess people need to vent their heat whatever convenient target there is. Though as usual, if you look at the Internet camps, it’s divided into people who enjoy the translation nevertheless, people who find that one line offensive enough to delete the files, and then there’s the third camp that doesn’t find it offensive. Personally, I have to admit being in the first camp. I don’t have qualms about a free translation for a rom file being what it is, which is the opposite to official products I’d need to pay for. It wouldn’t be too much a task for someone to nab the translation and make whatever changes they see fit, something that isn’t exactly rare. I’ve seen old subs for shows being taken, cleaned and reworded to some extent in new releases by another group, and usually in these cases the original translators are credit.
Outside the topic of the post, I really hope you go and play those Super Famicom Goemon games somehow now that English translations are coming along nicely. The series used to be Konami at its best. As a side note, did you know a Transfan used to mean a fan of The Transformers? It certainly was a niche term, but nowadays it means something a bit different.