Something I see a lot on the internet is debate over the use of honorifics. Should you use them at all? Which ones should you keep? When should you use them, and why? What I see very little of, however, is actual explanation that’d justify making those decisions – honorifics have become one of those things that’s just so tied into the history of subtitled anime that it’s kind of assumed people know them, which can be off-putting. So, having nothing better to do, let’s try and explain ’em.
Honorifics are, simply put, a way in the Japanese language of indicating the speaker’s relationship with the person they’re referring to. This could be to show respect, familiarity, or just indicate their profession. Not referring to someone with an honorific in Japanese is either a sign of immense affection or immense rudeness, with the basic -san being considered a minimum for all but the least formal of settings.
Obviously, with anime being Japanese, honorifics are used all over the place. As a translator, it’s important to ensure their use feels natural. Using honorifics is, by it’s very nature, being cheap as a translator. Whilst it’s true that honorifics are something that doesn’t really exist in the same way in English – with the less nuancy system of Mister/Mrs/Dr address – the job of a translator is, obviously, to render the Japanese into English. Is not doing so cutting corners? Possibly. But sometimes it’s easier on both yourself and the viewer to use “-sempai” rather than constantly have to worry about ensuring your dialogue is constantly giving off an air of worshipful respect to a senior (but only because they are a senior, and not necessarily out of any genuine relationship!)
Let’s quickly look at some of the most common honorifics:
-san: The most common honorific. Shows simple respect for the person you’re talking to, kind of the cultural standard – like “Mister”. That said, it can also be used amongst friends, especially in more grown-up settings or around company or in formal settings when more informal honorifics aren’t suitable.
-kun: A more informal honorific, generally used to refer to boys. Has a kind of mischievous feel to it, and is often used to describe boys. It’s kanji derives from the slightly more accusatory or commanding form of “you”, and hence is often used by ‘superiors’ (such as bosses or teachers) to refer to their pupils or subordinates.
-chan: A cute, informal honorific. Often used to refer to girls, especially younger ones. Amonst equals, it shows a real sense of familiarity and friendliness, but can also be used just in a general sort of easygoing way. For example, if you were going to ask a co-worker how their daughter was, you’d probably use -chan on their name, etc.
-sempai: A respectful honorific, used by a junior to refer to their senior. This can be literal in terms of age – someone in a lower year at school would use sempai to refer to an upperclassman, especially if they were in some way notable. In addition, a new employee might use it to refer to the person who teaches them the ropes and gets them used to the place – even if they later outrank them!
-sama: The ultimate respectful honorific. Used to refer to someone you hold in supremely high regard. You might not use it to refer to your immediate superior, but the head of a company perhaps, or a noble. Lower villains will almost always refer to the big bad boss as “-sama”, but you see it used in other situations too.
See? Nuance. Tons of it. Using honorifics allows you to convey a large amount of nuance very simply, which is a nice touch to be able to have. Personally I’m finding that as I grow as a translator, and am more confident in being able to tailor dialogue to fit the tone of an individual character, I grow less and less close to honorifics. But they can still be useful!
The important thing is a setting. An anime like Precure, which focuses on school age characters and the complex interactions between them, lives and dies on honorifics. A character could be “[surname]-sempai” to one character, “[firstname]-san” to another, and just “[firstname]” to one more close to them! Honorifics help to map out the relationships between characters and show at a glance what people think of each other. At the same time, if you’re translating an anime like… I dunno, let’s say Gundam. It’s set in a futuristic setting where humanity has basically become innately multicultural, and whilst characters are tossing around honorifics all over the place because the dialogue is in Japanese, you have to consider – these characters wouldn’t be using those honorifics if they were speaking English. You can’t say the same for a 14-year-old magical girl in Japanese middle school. It’s important to know when to turn off the honorifics and get translating properly.
That counts for Precure villains who happen to live in another dimension, too. Nightmare is exempted because the business use of -kun is fucking hilarious.
The other aspect that comes into play a lot with Japanese are role-based suffixes – not really true honorifics, but still stuff that gets appended onto someone’s name. In the same way as you’d call someone “Doctor” or “Professor” before their name in English, these get appended in Japanese – as stuff like “-sensei” or “-hakase”. You often see these when dealing with military ranks, like a commander might have “-shireikan”, or a captain “-taisa”, etc.
They’re also used for family relationships – but in this case, they tend to get combined with honorifics! For example, one would generally refer to their father as “tousan”, with tou meaning father and then a -san honorific… but then in more traditional families, you may well see “tousama”, or the more respectful yet “otousama”. A wife might even refer to her husband as “touchan” in front of the children to maintain the whole “call your father Dad rather than his name” thing when a child is in their formative years.
Another such combination uses the dreaded -tachi. -tachi is a yet another weird non-honorific suffix – it’s used to indicate groups. For example, if Mark was with a group of friends, I could refer to the group by just saying “Mark-tachi” and it’d indicate I was referring to the people with him. This is one of those nuances of Japanese grammar that’s entirely alien to English speakers, and as such should really be worked out – either replaced with a suitable “and the others”-equivalent or, failing that, just listing the relevant people individually.
If you don’t, you end up with weird kind of layered honorifics. Theoretically, there’s no reason you couldn’t have a triple layered “[name]-onee-san-tachi”, which is pretty much the subtitling equivalent of getting your brains buggered out your ear by an elephant. This is another reason being a bit liberal with your translating can really help make a script sound natural – sometimes you have to think about what the character WOULD be saying if they were speaking in English rather than tying yourself down to the exact morphemes of the Japanese.
Anyway, hopefully this helps to clean up the honorifics thing a little. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no doubt that their use can sometimes keep a line looking cleaner and tidier than if you attempted to scoop the nuance into English. Often times, however, it’s perfectly possible to translate their nuance fairly seamlessly. The issue is, of course, striking that balance.