You think the anime movie’s body-swapping teens have it rough? Its translators are the ones in a real jam.
It’s been said that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. For a joke or gag to work, it has to set up the situation, defy an expectation, and emphasize that gap all in a split-second, without any additional edification slowing down the snap reaction.
So translators working on Makoto Shinkai’s amazingly successful anime Your Name must have been pulling their hair out when they came to one of the funnier moments in the movie. Female protagonist Mitsuha’s soul has jumped into male lead Taki’s body, and she’s doing all she can to continue living his life without anyone catching on. But her cover is nearly blown when she’s talking to Taki’s friends and makes the shockingly huge mistake…of referring to herself as “I!”
ビバリーヒルズの映画館で一番爆笑をかっさらっていったシーン（たたみかける字幕に注目） #君の名は https://t.co/LI3bfBdjzt—
石松拓人 (@notactor) January 23, 2017
Actually, the character’s dialogue is four distinctly different words in Japanese. However, as shown in a series of photos Japanese Twitter user @notactor surreptitiously snapped at during a screening that he says took place in Beverly Hills, the lines are translated as
So what’s going on? Well, at first, Mitusha (in Taki’s body) calls herself watashi, which is indeed the Japanese word for “I.” However, Japanese has multiple pronoun options for the first-person singular, and as with many things in the Japanese language, the relationship between the speaker and listener is extremely important.
Yes, watashi is the first thing you’ll see listed for “I” in an English/Japanese dictionary, and it’s also the first pronoun you’ll learn in any Japanese class. However, watashi has a very dry, polite nuance to it. In conversations with peers or close friends, Japanese males, just like their counterparts in other societies, tend to use more coarse language to show familiarity and a lack of pretentiousness, so when Taki’s friends hear watashi coming out of his mouth during a lunchtime conversation, it takes them completely by surprise, as it’s closer to the softer speech usually used by women in Japanese.
Flustered, Mitsuha takes another swing with watakushi, the “I” alternative that’s closest in pronunciation to watashi. However, watakushi is even more baroquely formal than watashi. She gets a little closer on her third try with boku, since that’s definitely a word males use for “I” when talking with their friends…provided they’re all pre-teens, that is. So while Taki’s friends no longer think he’s talking like a girl, he now sounds like a little boy.
Finally, Mitsuha gets it just right with ore. While it’s too rough for most conversations in the business or academic worlds, ore is indeed the go-to choice for teenaged and adult men when talking with their buddies, as it implies a certain masculine confidence that guys are generally expected to acquire as they mature.
Alas, all of this is more or less impossible to directly translate into English, which is why the subtitling team essentially threw their hands up and just added each Japanese pronoun after “I” in the subtitles. Unfortunately, that means that the only people in the audience who’d appreciate the humor are the ones who don’t need the subtitles in the first place.
In the translators’ defense, the timing of the tweet, and the location mentioned by @notactor, imply that the shots are taken from Your Name’s limited Oscar-qualifying theatrical run. Hopefully a more elegant rendering will be in place for the film’s wider North American release this spring, but in the meantime, one has to wonder if Your Name would have had just a tiny bit better chance at landing an Academy Award nomination if its humor had been a little easier to convey in English .
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s more likely to use ore than any other Japanese pronoun.