LOST IN TRANSLATION

Hearing of Initial D through peers in the drifting community, and seeing it referenced regularly on automotive forums, I became motivated to investigate the show for myself. As is the case for most anime, I knew it was unlikely that I would encounter Initial D on Australian free-to-air television, so I began tracking down torrents containing each ‘Stage’ (the term used to describe each addition to the storyline). As someone who had only encountered English-dubbed anime in the past, I was happy to find the first two ‘Stages’ in their dubbed form, and became instantly enthralled by the faithful recreation of popular vehicles used in drifting and the driver inputs required to make them do so, such as pedal and steering techniques.

After completing the ‘Second Stage’, I found that dubbed versions were no longer available; something I later learnt was due to licensing issues with TOKYOPOP, the series’ North American distributor. Initially hesitant to continue, I pushed through the language barrier and found myself increasingly appreciative of the more faithful textual translation of the Japanese language provided in subtitles. By the time I’d reached the ‘Final Stage’, I realised how important attempts at articulating the nuances of Japanese language were to my understanding of the plot, and begun questioning what I may have missed in dubbed anime I had previously enjoyed.

NOTE: Turn captions on to view subtitles

For this post, I encountered the subtitled version of Initial D’s first episode for the first time. To make any differences obvious, I watched both the subtitled and dubbed version in tandem, flicking back and forth between the two and examining the subtle differences in translation. I noticed that whilst fairly close in simple translation, the dubbed version failed to accurately communicate context, tone and the respect that is central to Japanese language, instead ‘Westernising’ character communication by adding what I can only explain as attempts at accentuating humour that I believe a Japanese audience would find rude. I found that a comparison of the two clips embedded above highlights this particularly well, with the first encounter between the Akina Speed Stars and the Akagi Red Suns taking on two distinctly different meanings.

Analysing my observations, I realise that while falling for the ingrained East-West dichotomy, I am in-fact comparing two different ways for English-speaking individuals to access a niche anime that appeals to drift enthusiasts. Having taken part in the Japanese drift culture, meeting a number of Japanese drifters and experiencing the unbelievably organised street drifting subculture first-hand, I realise that I am not only reading the subtitles for their textual meaning, but also through a lens of my own personal experience and at least a superficial understanding of Japanese culture. It is because of this personal experience that I realise I cannot quite grasp the true meaning of anime without a fluency in Japanese, so that in effect, the more I know about Japanese culture, the less I understand due to losses in translation. Due to my fascination with Japan, however, I do not find this discouraging, instead attempting to further my understanding by accessing Japanese media in forms I can understand. In this way, it may have been a blessing that I first encountered the dubbed version of Initial D, as it suited my understanding of Japan at that time, and if small alterations through translation are required in the pursuit of cultural compatibility, then so be it.

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5 comments

  1. I see where you are coming from here, by trying to understand another culture you at the same time continuously keep coming up against the idea of ‘west’ that supposedly is distorting your view. However, this seems like too much of a cope out.
    There is so much at work when we hear and see other cultures, what we are creating when we interpret them I think is also part of what is being produce by the culture itself, what I mean when I say that, is that what you heard in the dubbed version was another version of Japanese culture, it was the part of Japanese culture that is a direct response to ‘western’ culture as much it was a ‘western’ response to Japanese culture. They are linked and move in unison, in short, is what I’m saying. When they are created together there no one and other, they are moving together to continuously make an open interpretation.

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    1. If you truly believe that dubbed versions of anime are created in unison with the original versions by Japanese producers as a response to Western culture, then I would argue your simplistic understanding and articulation of cultural influence is, in-fact, the “cope out”. The majority of dubbed anime, and certainly the dubbed seasons of Initial D, are produced in the U.S. by the lowest bidder, with sup-par voice actors putting very little effort in to articulating the incredibly complex messages originally encoded in Japanese.

      This, however, is external to my avenue of enquiry; an investigation of the nuanced Japanese language and the gaps created by attempts at translation. It is not “the idea of ‘west’ that supposedly is distorting” my view, but my inability to fluently speak Japanese. My basic understanding of the language and culture has made obvious the fact that subtle messages, such as the inherent respect of Japanese culture and the way this influences phrasing, will inevitably be lost in translation. While I do have aspirations of gaining at least a functional grasp on the Japanese language, I understand that this is beyond the goals of many English-speaking anime fans, so I believe an investigation of anime translation from an English-speaking perspective is an interesting subject for me to explore autoethnographically.

      In that respect, I can agree with you that international media is always open to interpretation, but it is the base from which we create open interpretations that I wish to dissect.

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  2. I’m sorry if I misunderstood you, I only referred to it as a ‘cop out*’ in a trivial sense, I didn’t mean it to be expressed negatively. What I was I trying to communicate (poorly) was the movement that culture displays have when they are translated. The fluidity that creates culture while it is becoming that enables each of us to reach a different perspective when culture is witnesses. This is where I see the dichotomies of ‘east’ and ‘west’ as being the base for investigation as problematic. However, I would consider them as aspects to be used while sifting through cultural dynamics in a phenomenological type pursuit.

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  3. Sharing a similar love for Japanese cars as you, it’s definitely interesting to compare the origins out our passions and where they’ve come to collide.

    As a kid my love for matchboxes developed into an addiction to car magazines and car racing. Only in my late teens did I actually discovered a love for the 86, which to me at the time was an indicative figure of the grass roots, do-it-your-own-way approach to car the Japanese instill their car cultures. But, this didn’t come from Initial D the film ironically, but rather from the Panda 86 model I received randomly as a gift.

    From here my love for older Japanese vehicles developed, and ultimately lead me purchase my own cars and modifying them accordingly. Even to this day though, I haven’t been able to push through the first season of Initial D. I’d say this comes down to the restrictions of my own cultural boundaries. Guess I should have another go!

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