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.