Amongst the cosplays and merriment that was had at A-Kon this year was a series of panels that brought along an thoughtful, academic perspective into the culture which we cherish dearly. Stefanie Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Ohio conducted this panel over the subject of gender linguistic differences in terms of western films being subbed and dubbed for Japanese audiences. To break this down a bit, in the English language, most words are used by both genders and there’s no form that adhered to by either gender. Meanwhile, in Japanese as Ms. Thomas explained,” There lies a difference in form between male and female dialogue. For example: when using imperatives, Japanese men will use a blunt form while women have their imperative speech feel more declaratory and less harsh compared to men.” With this context into Japanese culture and language provided, Ms. Thomas proposed an interesting question that occurs when western and eastern culture meet: how are female superheroes dialogue affected during the subbing and dubbing process? Do these characters maintain their identity, or is it lost in translation?
To answer this, Ms. Thomas brought three examples from three films to explain. The first being Liz from HELLBOY, a pyrokinetic user whose power is influenced by her emotions. Next up was Hit-girl from the film KICK-ASS, a young woman who delivers vigilante justice alongside her widowed father. Lastly, Black Widow from Marvel’s THE AVENGERS was used for Ms. Thomas’ analysis. Black Widow herself is an internationally renowned spy known for for her expertise and time to time seductive methods. By cross referencing the dialogue for these three characters to the Japanese sub and dub dialogue, Ms. Thomas was able to draw conclusions at the number of differences made and prove whether or not these characters were accurately portrayed as their original counterpart.
In both THE AVENGERS and HELLBOY, the characters exhibit primarily female language with very few instance of blunt male oriented language while interestingly enough, Hit-girl’s dialogue is a derivative of the language which samurai spoke in the past. Upon further analysis, the translations for Liz and Black Widow had their characters personality in mind when being translated, as Liz is a character whose power is based on her emotions wouldn’t necessarily used a blunt form of dialogue but rather one with nuance and emotional sensitivity and weight. Meanwhile, Black Widow’s dialogue is appropriate because she is known for her seductive character which in the translator’s minds would not mix well had she been given male gendered dialogue. Hit-girl however, is an outlier in this analysis due to her dialogue in Japanese giving her a more bratty-like character as opposed to the young but already cynical towards the world, strong female character that the original version depicts her to be.
With a few parting words, Ms. Thomas noted that it is fairly common for the translators not to be listed in the credits which can make it difficult to hold translators accountable while giving them free reign over their translations. Personally, I found this panel to be fairly interesting because of the cultural difference and insight it provided. Gender roles and identity is often an element played around with in anime that can be profoundly interesting when looked under a microscope, but to toss in the cultural mix of east and west turns the whole matter into a multi-faceted subject of intrigue.