Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

On the Pitfalls of Bilingualism

Movies are in an awkward position when it comes to bilingual characters, since of course most actors don’t do too well outside their native language and maybe an extra dialect or two. Were they only watched in the country of origin that might not be much of a problem, but of course the world is now rather flat, so unless it’s dubbed people somewhere are going to know that Arnold sounds just as bad in French as he does in English.

Anime is in a particularly awkward situation, both because Japanese people are particularly bad at English accents (doubly so American English), and because they’re pretty much guaranteed to be watched by a good-sized English-speaking audience, many if not all of whom are watching it subtitled.

It’s always weird, then, how little most anime productions seem to care about dredging up a native-speaker for quickie walk-on roles.  Seems like a non-actor pulled out of a college class with a native accent would be preferable to the blatantly-awful non-native accent they usually go with (compounded by not having a native speaker at least read over the lines for a simple grammar check). Really, you’d think that if you were going to publish something in a major magazine or put it on video in a form likely to end up in a foreign country you’d at least bother to grab a native speaker off the street and ask them if the grammar makes sense. Heck, simple pride in your work and not wanting to be laughed at by thousands of foreign anime fans would seem like it’d be  more than enough to spur at least that much effort.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a production does go the extra mile (really more like an extra few feet), like the native-accent walk-ons and grammatically correct, realistic onscreen English text in Daphne in the Brilliant Blue (plus consistent use of translation hardware), or the Australians they found to do the kidnappers in the Kimagure Orange Road OAV Hawaii episode. They may have sounded stiff and awkward, but at least you didn’t laugh at their accents.

Then there are the series that just fudge it, like Planetes, which operates under the assumption they’re speaking English unless otherwise specified, or Best Student Council, with its monosyllabic half-American character (though I admit her dialogue was far more fun than it should have been, and the last-episode explanation was a great joke) and her incoherent, sort-of-bilingual American mom.

Blood (the movie, at least—haven’t seen the TV version) would probably be the best-case scenario; Yuki Kudoh is as bilingual as the main character is intended to be, the one other bilingual character (the base nurse) is very good, and the rest of the roles are natives in the appropriate language.

I’d been wondering how they were going to handle Ohno’s American friends in the Genshiken 2 anime. I was quite impressed that they decided to full-on go there, leaving a solid half the dialogue in the relevant episode in nearly-perfect English. Huge points for effort, to be sure, though you figure given the self-referential material they must have assumed there would be similar geeks watching the show in America eventually. Ayako Kawasumi does a perfectly believable job as Ohno, who is bilingual but could certainly have an accent that strong, as anyone who knows some foreign students can attest (heck, I know people who’ve lived in the US for years who have an accent that strong). It’s disappointing that they didn’t get a native English speaker to voice Angela, particularly since she has no Japanese dialogue at all to worry about, but Yuki Kaida does a remarkably good job at sounding American—certainly well above what most voice actors can manage (Wikipedia says she is in fact bilingual, and also speaks some French and Chinese). She embarrassingly stumbles on a couple of should-have-been obvious words with funny spelling, but that’s relatively minor.

It’s that “nearly” that’s weird, though; the dialogue repeatedly used the word “sensible” in place of “sensitive,” which given the otherwise consistent grammatical accuracy of it (and Kaida’s level of English skill) shouldn’t have gotten by even a basic proofreading if the translator understood the context at all. How does something like that get by the editorial staff? Still, a good effort is better than none at all.

The Blade Cuts Both Ways

Of course, if you flip it around, English-speaking anime fans are in an unusually awkward position with things like this. Ignorance is bliss indeed—we, unlike Japanese fans, notice the poor English whether we want to or not. We’re cursed to cringe at every mangled pronunciation, however well-intentioned, snicker at unfortunate grammatical errors, and generally get our suspension of disbelief kneecapped by even minor mistakes whenever the topic of native English speaking comes up. If anything, dub fans have an advantage there. So really, my desire to see better English in anime is an entirely selfish one—I don’t want to have my viewing pleasure tripped up by should-be-trivial bits of English.

None of this is to say that the problem is unique to Japan, of course—there’s no shortage of awkward Japanese (I’m looking at you, Tom Cruise) in Hollywood movies.

I Have Seen The Enemy, and He is Me

This is something of a non-sequitur, but I this week had the somewhat disturbing (to me) revelation that I am what I mock. See, I have a tendency to get annoyed by Americans who litter their online ranting and real-world speech with random Japanese. I’m not alone—throw a rock and you’ll probably hit a webcomic that makes at least one joke along the lines of “idiot gaijin fanboy/girl who speaks no actual Japanese.”

The revelation was that I, in actual fact, insert far more arbitrary Japanese into everyday conversation than any of these people do. Listen to Akemi and I have a conversation, and you’ll get a bizarre hodgepodge of English and Japanese that’s pretty much unintelligible to anyone but us. I did not equate one with the other, but really, they’re more similar than different—mutilated language hybrid understood by almost nobody. For her, it’s the same as all those annoying anime characters who insert random English to sound cool—the personality may be different, but the effect is the same. (She, unlike me, has been aware of this for some time, and has to work hard at not doing it when in Japan so as not to sound like a tool.)

In my defense (or perhaps not—this might be worse), I’ve long gone out of my way to pronounce Japanese names and terms (say, Tsunami or Karaoke) with a flat American accent when speaking English, and vice-versa when inserting English into a Japanese sentence. I could pronounce them “right,” but it seems somehow show-offish to break the flow of otherwise normal accent with something pointedly not that the people I’m talking to probably can’t pronounce that way were they to try. It’s also a little easier not to shift accents mid-sentence, at least for me. (I will admit to not even trying with longer titles like  Kyouran Kazoku Nikki or Urusei Yatsura, though.)

Anyway, in the name of linguistic harmony, I’ve realized the relative error of my ways, and have decided to put more effort into helping rather than sneering. I figure if I do my part to improve the comprehension of actual Japanese, that should reduce the desire to use incoherent Japanese, or, failing that, at least make it more correct.

2 Responses to “On the Pitfalls of Bilingualism”

  1. Ghostwriter Says:

    Well,in my opinion,I don’t mind them attempting to appeal to an English-language audience no matter how hilarious the effects might be. I think that may be they should be working on how they portray America and Americans. You see,during the eighties and nineties,a number of Japanese animators had collaborated with American animation studios to create cartoons. I noticed that some of the effects that were used in those series later showed up in a number of anime. That collaboration is one of the main reasons for my interest in anime.
    To me,is it really necessary to have in many anime to have the American character as a rival or adversary? What’s wrong with them having the American character as a friend or ally? The reason I’m griping about this is that recently,I read on Anime News Network’s Shelf Life column about part two of the anime “Bamboo Blade.” In the column,the writer talked about the rivalry between one of the girls on the kendo team and a far more experienced American kendo player. I thought to myself “This is ridiculous. If this girl is as inexperienced as the writer says she is,shouldn’t she be the American player’s friend,so that he or she can help her be a better kendo player? Besides,the American probably learned from a Japanese person living in America,anyway.”

    Unfortunately,the portrayals of America and Americans in anime are a mixed bag. Some of them are positive like “Digimon” with have two American kids who are friends with the Japanese heroes of the show. Some of them are negative like the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise which has just about every American who shows up on that show a jerk or a villain or a combination thereof. Some of them are so bizarre as to be unbelievable like in “Baccano!” In that show,we have gangsters summoning demons in Depression-era America. I haven’t seen the show but I’d probably say “Oh boy!” to that one.
    So,what do I think they should do? I don’t know. Perhaps,they could make a show with a Japanese girl and an American boy fighting demons in contemporary America. And some of the demons could look creatures from different folklore around the world. Even in Japan,they know that there are people from other countries who live in America. Why don’t that utilize some of the creatures and monsters from those other countries and have them rampage around modern-day America. And since one of the big strengths of anime is their imaginative monsters,it would be great all around. This idea could even work on one of their established shows like “Bleach” or “Inuyasha.”

    The other thing they could do is have an American character resemble another character from an anime that was successful in this country. For example,I once read a review about a magical girl show parody in which the magical girl was a violent psychopath who basically pounded everyone into the ground. Maybe for the sequel,they could have a group of American exchange students come to this girl’s school. This psychopathic girl could fall in love with one of the Americans although he himself would say that he already has a girlfriend back home. Then,the American magical girl would show up. As you can probably imagine,she resembles Sailor Moon,an anime that was popular here for many years. Then,she proceeds to defeat the psychopathic girl by using her magical powers that she got from the same world that the evil magical girl came from.
    Recently,”Linebarrels of Iron” was released here. How about for an OVA where they have aliens in gigantic pokemon-like robots trying to conquer the United States? Naturally,the hero would come to this country to help us battle them. Again,”Pokemon” has been very successful over here so may be they could do something like that? Also,the “Sgt. Frog” manga and anime could’ve had an American character who was fascinated by aliens. They could have done that.

    I’ve also noticed that a number of anime-style shows have been made in this country. I’ve wondered for a long time how the Japanese feel about that,but I’ve never been able to find out. Could you find out?

  2. Ghostwriter Says:

    I’ve just reread your article and I think that this Yuki Kaida might do well in American cartoons as well as Japanese anime. She and a few others as well. I can’t see why she can’t do well on both sides of the Pacific. I read somewhere that two voice actors in this country speak fluent Japanese,Yuri Lowenthal and Janice Kawai. I think that Yuki Kaida should be given a chance to do something in this country. What do you think?