A Talk About Translation

Forget how juvenile the above picture is... Could you translate it perfectly? Is there even such a thing as a perfect translation for this?

Forget how juvenile the above picture is… Could you translate it perfectly into Japanese or any other language? Is there even such a thing as a perfect translation for this?


“Frozen” brings out all kinds of conversations.


This week I made the boldish move to show Frozen to my elementary school students. I was given chunk of time (after asking profusely) to show pure, unadulterated English that has been called “Enjoy English”. On the three days I attend my elementary school (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), I have 20-60 minutes after classes are over to entertain the students who want to come. A few weeks ago, while showing the English versions of the songs from Frozen, I got a surprisingly large attendance. Figuring the movie in its entirety would attract a similar audience, I managed to acquire it from a friend.

The movie is pretty good, as I’m sure ya’ll know. Like any children’s movie, the language is two-tiered—easy in some ways, difficult in others. Children can understand the plot easily enough through the basic language while adults can enjoy the interesting plays on words and clever interplays. In fact, the easy language tends to be obvious—you don’t need to understand the words to understand what’s happening. You can guess.

In any case, I’m of the camp that believes that more exposure to English will help a student learn, whether it teaches simple phrases, reinforces known words, or just gives them the motivation to continue their education.

When I started the movie, the school nurse, a young woman who once wanted to live in America, sat in the back of the audience.

“So, this is the real version of Frozen,” I said.

She gives a smirk as I say 本物. I guess it is ironic, given that I’m showing what’s probably a pirated copy.

“Disney is an American company,” I continue, “so all of their movies and television are originally created in English and then translated into Japanese. The version of this movie is exactly as the creators intended it.”

She gives me another look. I couldn’t really tell what she thought of my elitist rant.

“On with it!” one of the students shouts.

“Okay, okay,” I concede, letting the ensuing music silence both me and the audience alike.

Was it a grand success? Well, I got a sizable number of kids to watch the movie. They all seemed to enjoy it and continue to beg me to show it to them again, so it seems the language doesn’t impede that yearning. Sure, when “Do you want to build a snowman?” and “Let it go” played, students opted to sing the Japanese versions over the English version, but I wasn’t about to complain, even if I think the former is a great song to learn English with.

What struck me was actually how little students could actually understand. Like, when a character said “hello” or “nice to meet you”, it wasn’t immediately obvious to the student that that’s what a character said, even though my students can pretty much all understand simple phrases like the ones above. But I think by the end of the year, this aspect won’t be as much of a problem.


I walked to the damp outside, sky gray with the rainy season, to see the students off. They lined up like they always do, divided by their destinations, waiting to be released. A few odd students had their umbrellas fully open in spite of the lack of rain, while most seemed content holding the tool at their sides. I practiced some of the material with the students and gave them high-fives and played rock-paper-scissors when they win.

They really enjoy rock-paper-scissors.

When the students departed, I walked with a teacher two years my junior. He’s one of my only kouhai, so we have an interesting relationship. His English is also bordering on nonexistent, blaming the “this is a pen” teaching styles he was unfortunately exposed to.

“Can I have Frozen?” he asked. Although it sounds something more like:「アナと雪の女王をください」

“It’s all English,” I respond. “If you want it in Japanese, you’ll probably still have to go to the theater.”

“Eh, your version is free, right? If it’s good enough for the kids, it’s good enough for me.”

We start picking scum out of buckets where students are growing rice. He starts judging each one, noting which students took good care of their buckets. Unsurprisingly, the buckets of the three girls in the class seem to be the cleanest.

“Have you ever thought about whether or not a movie originally in English that’s been translated into Japanese has the same meaning in both versions?” I asked, the question coming out much more clearly in Japanese.

“Not really.”

“I mean, if something was originally created in English, then gets translated into Japanese, is the Japanese version the same as the English version?”

“Probably. Are you talking about dubbing? I’ve never thought about it.”

“In English, we have a phrase,” I say, throwing a hunk of scum into the grass, watching bugs scatter, “‘Lost in Translation’. That is to say, when something gets translated, not every part of it can be brought over. Maybe a joke is changed. Maybe a reference to something is removed. Worse, maybe the plot was censored.” I say, happy I remembered the word for censorship, 検閲. “ Or, simply, something that was written beautifully in the original could only be translated for the meaning. The beauty couldn’t be translated.”

“I think I get you,” he said, probably only paying attention at this point because I’m his senpai.

“I learned Japanese partially because I wanted to see the real versions of the anime and video games I played. So I could enjoy a Natsume Soseki or Haruki Murakami novel as it was intended to be read. I wanted the real versions.”

“Natsume Soseki is boring.”

“In any case,” I said, trying to get to my point before the conversation self-imploded, “haven’t you ever wondered about whether the version you’re seeing is the real version or not?”

He pondered the question for a moment. “Well, of course, if a Japanese movie or game or what-have-you is translated into English, maybe you lose something. ザ・原著の生命. But if something is translated into Japanese from English, than to me, the Japanese version is the genuine article. Whether or not it was originally in English or Japanese, if it’s a version I understand, it’s the most real to me,” he said in pure, unadulterated Japanese.

I smiled as I thought about his answer. We finished by washing our muddy hands off at the spigot and heading back indoors as the rain started to pour.

What I’ve noticed is that Japanese don’t seem to worry about translation qualities, which maybe makes sense with all the T-shirts out there. On the contrary, I’ve always worried about it, probably a product of being raised on web forums in an anime culture that shuns dubbing. While I actually like dubbing on the whole, the thought of creator intent has always hung in front of my face.

The original version of something is still important to me. The “real version”. Maybe it’s because I fancy myself an author. I can’t help but feel that something is always lost in translation, if only by virtue of the author having written something intending it to be read in that same language.

But my kouhai is right too. After all, like American Chinese food, even if it isn’t “authentic” per se, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In the end, all that matters is whether it’s good or bad to you, and that’s just a matter of taste.

. . .

But, like, Frozen is pretty good regardless of taste.

P.S. Most of the Frozen songs are semi-decent in Japanese, but damn… The Japanese version of Olaf’s “In Summer”… Did they even try to make it good?

1 thought on “A Talk About Translation

  1. Pingback: Titles Lost In Translation | The Japanese Role Playing Game

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