English And The Spiriting Away Of Translation Anxieties SomeGuy

The following was originally written on April 11, 2006 as a university term paper for a Children's Literature course; Spirited Away happened to be on the "reading list" that semester. As such, this was written with someone without an extensive anime background in mind, so there's a great deal more explanation than what others more familiar with anime may need. Something to consider as you read... (SomeGuy)

"No cuts," Hayao Miyazaki’s producer at Studio Ghibli famously told Disney’s Harvey Weinstein using a note attached to an authentic Japanese katana; he did this when Disney attained the distribution rights for Miyazaki’s earlier film Princess Mononoke, and Weinstein demanded to make several edits to no avail. By the time Studio Ghibli’s 2001 film Spirited Away came into Disney’s proverbial hands, everyone knew the rules.

That said, western audiences did not miss a single frame of animation in the North American release of what would later become the 2003 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature. Still, the nature of localisation means that some changes shall always be unavoidable, particularly in the case of dubbing a foreign language. Consider, for example, how the Japanese language uses different words to separate the idea of older and younger siblings, but has none to differentiate "bread" from "buns".

Fittingly enough, for a film as focused on identity as Spirited Away is, a great deal of the identity and characterisation of the film changes from the original Japanese audio track to the later recorded English dub. Whether in names, subtleties of language, or major differences of motivation – especially in the case of the titular Chihiro herself – the different language tracks end up showing just how open Miyazaki’s visuals really are to interpretation, and how audiences might wish to learn to appreciate that versatility by looking at all sides of these interpretations.

Most obviously out of all the changes, the North American release’s title, Spirited Away, shortens the longer and perhaps slightly more unwieldy Japanese title of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. Along with being more specific to the plot of the film by adding character names, the title also contains a curious ambiguity as to how one should read it – it could just be a sloppy title decision, but it really is hard to imagine the choice as a mistake after looking further into the matter.

Most often translators read the title as "The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro". However, much like in English, one can also read the "to" (analogous to the English "and") as a coordinating conjunction instead of a correlative one, making the title instead read, "Sen and the Spiriting Away of Chihiro". Both readings correctly explain the premise of the tale, but the latter one also expands on the nature of the film itself. While interesting enough that a single character has both her names in the movie title, the second reading makes a further suggestion of not just having two names, but of replacing her real name and not just forgetting it. The whole issue of losing or forgetting one’s name in turn ends up being a focal plot point of Spirited Away, being the way Yubaba asserts her control over her employees.

While on the subject of names, Chihiro’s change to Sen shows another moment of language play. "Sen" in Japanese means "one thousand" and makes the whole scene of Yubaba contracting Sen to work both clever and perhaps even a little conventional; the protagonist has her individual literally name exchanged with a number. Names like Chihiro or Sen in Spirited Away lend quick hints as to the nature of the characters they describe. Yubaba’s name comes from a combination of "bath" and "grandmother" or "old woman"; other characters like Zeniba ("money" and "old woman") or Kamaji ("boiler" and "old man") share in similar punning. While a viewer without foreknowledge of these very minor points could watch the film without any repercussions, a young Japanese child watching would have that much more to latch onto and understand about the characters.

As a character, Haku portrays many of the subtle translation nuances that occur with the English and Japanese tracks of the film. The nature of Haku’s full name brings substantially more complexity than a simple naming pun, even if the pun is also present – "haku" literally means "white" which connects to both his clothing and his colouring as a dragon. The English dub abridges the substance of his full, true name, giving it as “Kohaku” or “The Spirit of the Kohaku River.” The translation does retain the essence of the scene very nicely, and there’s little to complain about in terms of misrepresentation. Still, the original Japanese elaborates more on the issue, in which Haku remembers his full name as "Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi" with Chihiro’s help. His name sounds extravagant and impressive and, when considering he needs to repeat it to the barely-grasping Chihiro (she goes on to remark, "What a name! Sounds like a god!") – Miyazaki clearly meant for that.

Going further with his status as a kami or god (something that loses emphasis when he refers to himself as a "spirit" in the English), Haku portrays himself in a manner befitting his traditional, godly name. For one, he dresses in traditional shrine clothing; for another, he speaks in a formal tone with formal vocabulary which is especially noticeable in his use of pronouns. While English has but one form of the first-person singular "I", Japanese has several used in context of age, gender, and degree of formality required. Thus, Haku’s use of "watashi" to refer to himself basically belies his appearance as a young boy whom one would expect to perhaps say "boku" instead.

Furthermore, Japanese honorifics that come after names lead to further translation anxieties, and the English translators chose to dub "Haku-sama" as "Master Haku". Honorifics in themselves are not titles, and “master” perhaps sounds a little more weighty in tone than it should – the workers at the bathhouse give him a great deal of respect and reverence (and he expects as much for the most part), but he does not exactly demonstrate mastership over Yubaba’s other employees. It keeps the English elegant while not in any way being a complete or direct translation, and it would not be surprising to believe that English scriptwriters had to contend with such issues constantly.

Date Published
03/07/08 (Originally Created: 03/07/08)
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