The ambiguity of gender in Japanese is definitely something that has always drawn me to it – especially as a queer trans person – compared to the gender-heavy European languages I learnt at school. Although it can often be frustrating to deal with as a translator, I have always found it fascinating. The title of this article was actually the title of my undergrad thesis, which I explored in a 10,000 word essay analysing my own translation of Shimanami Tasogare by Kamatani Yuhki. Instead of publishing all that, I thought I’d draw on the key themes of my paper and make a slightly less exhausting read!
You may have heard people claim that you can speak Japanese without referencing gender at all. This can be a curse – for example, having to try and guess the gender when translating into English – and a blessing, especially when gender ambiguity or neutrality is intended and desired.
You may not have heard much, however, about all the ways Japanese can imply gender that we don’t use in English. Here are just a few:
- Honorifics (you might know the classic examples -chan and -kun, which are typically used for girls and boys respectively, though not always)
- Personal pronouns (classic examples include ore used by men, atashi used by women, boku used by men, though not always)
- Gendered register (for example, women often use the feminine wa at the end of sentences in popular Japanese media, though not always)
Notice how at the end of every bullet point, I added “though not always.” Gender indicators are used a lot more fluidly between genders in Japanese than in English. In English, third-person pronouns pretty much always correlate with gender identity outside of LGBTQ+ circles and drag/crossdressing. In English we only have the gender-neutral “I,” meaning gendering is often something other people are forced to do to us when talking about us. This is why there is such an emphasis on using the correct pronouns in English trans spaces to affirm people’s identity. In Japanese, the situation is much different.
In fact, it may be better to consider Japanese in a binary of “bluntness” and “softness,” as Harz Jorden does in her book Japanese: The Spoken Language; it just happens to be that bluntness is traditionally associated with men and masculinity, and softness is traditionally associated with women and femininity. Hence why when a man uses more traditionally “feminine” speech in Japanese he may be signalling his “femininity” and associated qualities, rather than that he identifies as female, and vice versa.
So you can see why translating these indicators into English may be difficult. You may make assumptions about someone’s gender by the way they speak, how they look, or how others speak about them, and then later be proven wrong, which can make for some awkward continuity errors.
Not a lot of research has been done into how to translate this phenomenon from Japanese to English, compared to the translation of gender between European languages and English. I really struggled to find evidence for my paper, so I had to draw a lot of conclusions through my own experiences and experiences I had heard from other translators.
Though translators must endeavour to be unbiased and faithfully translate the original text, there’s always going to be some degree of adaptation in the translation. With regards to gender, this becomes increasingly fraught when the history and culture of gender and sexuality in Japan and English-speaking countries are quite different. There is a temptation to assume gender or assign labels (such as “trans” or “non-binary”) when they were never explicitly stated as such in the original, because that’s what we would conclude based on our own cultural upbringing.
This is especially tempting when encountering Japanese gender words that are exclusive to Japan, such as x-gender (neither male nor female) or onabe (people assigned female at birth with masculine gender expressions who may identify as trans men, drag kings, lesbians, crossdressers, butches, non-binary, sexually dominant lesbians, etc, with a different meaning to every individual who identifies with it, created within the queer community to accompany the often derogatory alternative okama, which is similarly vague and means– see, how am I supposed to fit this into a translation note?!).
Engaging with the task of translating gender in discussion with post-colonial theory is particularly intriguing to me, as texts have often been sanitised and culture erased through their translation into English throughout history. However, to what extent is this avoidable or not? It depends on the purpose (called “skopos” in fancy translation theory) of the text and its translation, its individual challenges, its format, its intended audience (and their politics), and a bunch of other factors.
Though I have a big interest in this particular niche, gender is just one of the many challenges that go into translating from Japanese to English. I hope this can serve as a little case study of just how complicated some of the negotiations are when we’re translating your favourite Japanese media!
If you are interested to read a more in-depth analysis of any of the points raised in this article, let me know in the comments! I have a lot of Thoughts.
Jorden, E.H. 1987. Japanese: The Spoken Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.
For more information on onabe, watch Shinjuku Boys, dir. by Kim Longinotto and Jano Wiliams (New York: Women Make Movies, 1996)
Vermeer, H.J, ‘Skopos and Commission in Translation Theory,’ in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. by Lawrence Venuti, 3rd edn. (London and New York: Routledge, 2012) pp. 191-202