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What are honorifics? Commonly known also as suffixes for names, honorifics are an integral part of the Japanese language to provide some context to a sentence, in the same way an employee would refer to someone as “Boss”, or a student would refer to an older student as “senior”. Some of the commonly seen honorifics in anime are terms such as -kun, -chan, or -sama, but there are many more honorifics beyond those.
In terms of the Japanese language, honorifics are absolutely essential to immediately clue in the audience on the context of a person. For example if it is said “kore wa Jin-san desu”, we immediately know that the introducer knows the subject in question, but isn’t extremely close or intimate with them. Conversely, if a boy introduced a girl as “kore wa Risa-chan desu”, we quickly know that the girl could be his sister, extremely close friend, or even his lover. However, that is all in the context of the Japanese language alone. When it comes to including them in subs or dubs, it is somewhat debatable about whether they are needed as the English language does not use honorifics, and often times the sentence structure of the English language is enough to clue us in on the status of the person in question.
Here at Honey’s Anime, we like to tackle hard questions like this, so we hereby present to you the tough question! Honorifics; do we keep them or lose them?
Japanese to English
As stated several times earlier, honorifics are an essential part of the Japanese language. Much of the language relies on simplicity and elegance, using the fewest amount of words needed to convey a larger meaning, as opposed to the English language that can usually span large sentences to convey a single statement. Translators are usually adept enough at converting the nuances of what the characters are saying into English that we oftentimes do not even need the honorifics to understand them. Indeed it can be said that the winner of the day will always be our common sense. If we see a character with weirdly coloured hair and a distinct outfit standing in a group of delinquents, we do not need a character to call him “aniki” or “-sama” for us to immediately know that this guy is most likely the boss of the delinquents.
Even from a pure translation point of view, if a lowly serf was introducing their Lord and they said “Kore wa Nishiki-sama desu”, a good translator would immediately grasp the intent of the sentence and translate it into “This is my Lord, Nishiki.” In that sense, honorifics are not needed at all when it comes to subs or dubs, mostly because most of us possess the super power known as common sense.
Wait, What Do You Mean It’s Done Wrong?
Of course, the above argument completely assumes that the characters in anime aren’t humans and are robots that always use the right honorific to match the situation or context. To begin with, there are plenty of gag characters that like to use their own honorifics like “-chama” to indicate closeness to someone that they think is superior to themselves.
Even with the proper honorifics being used, they are often used incorrectly by the characters present in the show. Someone could be referred to as -sama by other characters, despite not being important or thought of as superior to them, because they are purposefully mocking them by using the opposite honorific of what they think they are. Similarly, a female could be referred to by -kun to denote how tomboyish she is in comparison to her more feminine counterparts. The point that is being communicated across is thus; while a “perfect” usage of the Japanese language can easily be communicated into English with all the intents of the sentence being expressed perfectly, it is rarely the case that anything spoken by characters is the “perfect” usage. Not that we would want it to be that way, because such usage would mean that all the characters in the show are nothing but robots that don’t have their own personalities.
It’s All About the Intent!
So far, we have established that in a null zone of zero interference and perfect usage of the Japanese language. It is 100% feasible for translators to communicate the intent of a sentence when it is translated into English, rendering the need for honorifics in English translations completely void However, we have also established that such situations rarely occur, because we are watching shows that have humanistic emotions and will rarely stick to the proper forms of the language, with characters choosing to interject their own ways of speech and even warping the words to their own use.
Now that we have established two points that completely neutralise each other, let’s end with one that is in favour of keeping the honorifics when translating anime into sub form. When we speak to someone, the words that we say are actually the least important part of the scenario. It is often the tone which we take and the body language that we portray that tell a larger story, and it often betrays our intent to hide our well…intent. For example if someone said “**** you!” to a friend while laughing and joking around, we immediately know that it is all said in jest and no offence was meant despite the harshness of the words themselves. If the same were to be said but with an angry tone of voice and aggressive body language, then a fight is about to ensue.
That said, the words that are used still matter to an extent. If say, a servant bowed to her master and spoke to him submissively, but the master is referred to by name without any honorifics, it would certainly create a dissonance between her tone and body language versus the words she uses. But if using honorifics was the norm in translations, then the exclusion of it in this context could immediately clue as in that the servant is more or less mocking or teasing the subject matter.
Moreover, some situations are practically built on honorifics. In a harem anime, despite the (crappy) protagonist being unimportant in some nondescript school, some of his harem girls will refer to him as “-sama”. The context is all wrong, but the intent of the girls is to defer to the protagonist. Therefore it can be said that the sama honorific is practically the foundation of the harem genre.
To summarise, while there are textbook ways to use honorifics, what we are truly trying to grasp is the intent of the characters in order to more deeply understand their characters’ personalities. And by excluding the honorifics in translations, we will lose just one more important clue that helps us sympathise and empathise with the many characters that we come across.
At the end of the day, it is all well and good for a formal textbook or instruction manual to be translated into English from Japanese without the honorifics attached in the translations. However, anime, manga, and even light novels are mediums that are filled with living beings. Albeit fictional living beings, each and every one of them has a depth that must be conveyed.
Not only does attaching the honorifics help the translators by providing context to walls and walls of text, but it also clues us in on many things about the characters using the very honorifics we are discussing. It could tell us if a pair are friends or lovers, or show us how much respect a junior has for a senior. It could even tell us that a girl is a complete air-head if she ends every sentence with “nanodesu”!
Have any thoughts about how essential honorifics are in subs and dubs? Share them with us in the comments below!