I think the short answer is, “You don’t.”
The long answer is you localize it- find an equivalent joke to use in its place.
Why am I writing a whole blog post over this? Because of the recent news that has devolved into a discussion of ‘censorship’ over The Legend of Heroes Cold Steel III.
In a recent stream, after being asked about handling jokes and puns in Japanese, Moet Takahashi said that some jokes were offensive and they were forced to rewrite them. But if you look back through Cold Steel III, there’s a ton of scenes that are pretty offensive in of themselves yet somehow didn’t get removed. So how does this run into with what Moet talked about?
First, in context, this is in terms of a joke. Puns, humor, and jokes, in general, are very difficult to relay into English, especially as they require cultural knowledge and understanding that doesn’t exist in our language.
There’s a wonderful video by That Japanese Man Yuta about Japanese comedy. You can find it below:
When discussing this with people, someone brought up an amazing thing in front of me, and it’s the idea of translating memes.
A couple of weeks ago, I read the light novels for Solo Leveling. There’s an entire section of a chapter in it where a bunch of characters are just chattering on in netspeak. While I don’t know Korean, I can say that it’s pretty amazing how well the fan translator handled this, because he likely had to make adaptations to ensure that cultural internet speak in Korean actually worked well in English. It was probably one of the parts I was most impressed with the translation.
You have to do these kinds of things to make something work ‘contextually’ in another culture. Translation isn’t just a matter of words, it’s a matter of conveying the intended ‘impression’ of the statement.
On this topic, I want to look at Bong Joon-ho’s acceptance speech when ‘Parasite’ won an award at the Golden Globes and the translation of his speech. You can find this here:
Not enough attention is being given to Sharon Choi, his translation in this video clip. (Thank you Hollywood Reporter for actually interviewing her, too!)
I found an incredible series of tweets that go into the nuance of Choi’s translation of his speech- unfortunately the tweets seem to have been deleted, but I was able to find a google cached archive of them here.
However, I will provide some screenshots of these tweets:
There are a lot of other videos out there on her translating for Bong Joon-ho. You should track them down if you can!
But with these things brought forward, let’s come back to the crux of the issue. Was what NIS America did actually ‘censorship’?
No, it was not. It’s true localization. And with what I’ve just explained, let’s go back to the amazing ‘hoes mad’ comparison that I saw online this week.
1. an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture
2. an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media
When you try to translate a meme, it becomes muddled and has no real power behind it anymore. An immense power of the meme is the cultural impact of it. Much like a trope would be in a storytelling element. By using a trope, you are eliminating the need to explain this information, as the reader is (potentially subconsciously) already aware of that ‘mechanic’ to relay a story.
A meme is the same thing. Seeing the woman yelling at a cat, you will most likely giggle, because you immediately think of something else you’ve seen related to said meme. The phrase “Die monster, you don’t belong in this world,” has more background impact brought about it by the fact that you are joking on a bizarre translation, instead of just being a pile of words.
And “hoes mad,” from a song in 2015, has most definitely become a meme this week that is now associated with the Smash community after the Byleth reveal.
If you were to try to translate the phrase ‘hoes mad’ into Japanese to explain to someone in a foreign language, you really can’t. Not without losing a lot of this meaning of it, and it just becomes… offensive. As a result, you would need to replace the joke with something else entirely.
This is pretty much what I believe Moet was talking about: a joke that doesn’t translate just became offensive and made no sense in English, and as such, had to be replaced entirely. If you want to be able to fully understand the connotation of the original joke, there may be a need to learn Japanese to the point that you get cultural in-jokes in dialogue and text. (Case in point, did you know that Sakurai made a joke at Japanese Fire Emblem haters in his Direct this week, as well?)
In reality, this is the long-form and the end result of what localization and translation should be doing for a userbase. Bringing something to be completely understandable for a broad audience that doesn’t speak the originating language.A random aside to add to this, I also think of Tom Ellis’ comment on playing the titular Lucifer in the Fox/Netflix series: he was originally asked to play the role with an American accent, but when he heard the things he was saying in an American accent, he said “I just sounded like a douche.” –but when he opted to use his own actual British accent, he found that he could get away with saying ‘douchey’ things and be funny with them. It’s all a matter of perspective.
In the end, translation is an art. It’s not a 1:1 act. Nor is it a science. Every translator interprets things differently.
In the tweets I posted earlier, I saw a response that had a quote in it- the original poster didn’t remember the source, and maybe it can be found one day, but it’s a good way to end this whole thing:
Translation is an art, not a science. You can never do it right. You have do it better.