atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

El Hazard and a look at translation

I am full of anime commentary today.

El Hazard is one of my favorite series. In fact, it's somewhere in my top five all-time favorites. In fact, I'm no longer sure which series are in there, but I know that El Hazard is one of them.

I probably ought to figure that out.

El Hazard is subtitled "The World of Endless Adventure", a phrase which seldom fails to send chills down my spine.

El Hazard is the name of an alternate world made up of several countries. The one we hear the most about is the country of Roshtaria, for several reasons, not the least of which being that the main characters end up there when they find themselves in El Hazard.

In the first episode, the main character--Makoto Mizuhara--finds a mysterious woman in the ancient ruins under his high school (which had themselves only just been discovered) and she sends him--and other people within a certain radius of her location--to El Hazard.

The main characters of the series are divided into two major groups, one from Earth and one from El Hazard.

Makoto Mizuhara: a smart but naive high school senior
Katsuhiko Jinnai: Makoto's self-styled arch-enemy
Nanami Jinnai: Katsuhiko's younger sister
Masamichi Fujisawa: Their alcoholic geography teacher, who is also an avid moutain climber

El Hazard:
Shayla Shayla, Priestess of Fire
Mizu Mishtal, Priestess of Water
Afura Mann, Priestess of Air
Ifurita, "Demon God"

There are other characters who are important to the plot but who don't drive it. I'm not going to give a full summary of the series here (just buy it and watch it!).

Everyone who goes to El Hazard from Earth ends up with a super power. Makoto can interface with ancient El Hazard technology; Nanami can see through illusions; and Mr. Fujisawa--when sober--becomes super-strong.

Jinnai (Katsuhiko is always called, simply, Jinnai, except by his sister) gets the ability to understand the language of the Bugrom, the giant bugs who have been trying to overrun El Hazard since time immemorial. Jinnai ends up leading the Bugrom in a war against the Allied Nations of El Hazard, and doing very, very well. (I would not care to face Jinnai across a game of Axis and Allies. He could take Japan, and I could take everyone else, and I suspect he would still win. But then, I'm a lousy strategist.)

Roshtaria is first among the allied nations because the two princesses of Roshtaria--Rune Venus and Fatora--control the Eye of God, a potent superweapon left over from the ancient El Hazard civilization. Fear of the Eye of God is what keeps the Bugrom at bay; but Fatora has been kidnapped. The Eye of God requires two princesses to control it; since Roshtaria is shy one princess when Fatora is kidnapped, they effectively have no Eye of God.

Makoto just happens to look exactly like Fatora, but for the hair; so he ends up impersonating her (a la Prisoner of Zenda). Since the allied nations have no Eye of God, they have no defense from the Bugrom; and when Jinnai arrives, the Bugrom get the strategic talent they need to mount a major offensive against the allied nations.

(I am skipping past the back story around Fatora's kidnap.)

To combat the Eye of God, Jinnai--when he learns of it--activates Ifurita, the most dreaded "Demon God". Ifurita turns out to be the mysterious woman in the ruins below their high school, but she does not know Makoto, and since Jinnai is the one who activates her, he controls her.

And so here we have a love polygon: Makoto is in love with Ifurita, but Shayla-Shayla and Nanami are in love with Makoto. Meanwhile, Mizu Mishtal (her first name is pronounced MEEZ, by the way) latches onto Mr. Fujisawa as "perfect husband material". At age 29 she is desperate for matrimony....

So now that I've discussed the story a bit, I'm going to delve a bit deeper.

The world of El Hazard is fantastic. The writers and artists did a wonderful job of creating a whole new world, from the smallest to the largest things.

El Hazard is obviously a world which was once devastated by an apocalyptic war. We are shown glimpses of Ifurita's memories showing what that final war was like; and the enormous amounts of energy which are slung around by the Eye of God when it is activated shows what kind of utter destruction must have occurred in that war.

So the society which exists has come up from the ashes of the old; and it has obviously been some time (on the order of centuries, at least; more probably millennia) since the ancients of El Hazard bombed themselves back to the stone age. Ancient technology is often found scattered around, and one of the characters (Dr. Schtalubaugh) makes a study of these artifacts. Ifurita is, herself, just such an ancient artifact.

I just can't get away from these sidebars, can I?

I have a theory that El Hazard is not, in fact, an alternate reality, but this reality, thousands of years in the future. The "ancients of El Hazard" are us; our society evolved until we could build the types of weapons we see in El Hazard, and then something happened to cause an enormous war. I don't think there is any serious indication of this anywhere in the series, but it's a theory which I enjoy thinking about once in a while. But I'll save it for another time.

What about the translation? I mention it in the heading of this entry, so let's discuss it a bit. In particular I'm talking about how profanity is used in anime.

Fujisawa, upon hearing a scream: "Oh shit! Someone else is out of alcohol!"

Jinnai: "Your ass is finally mine, Makoto Mizuhara!" and
"Makoto, you bastard! This is your handiwork! Ow, shit, why is this swelling?" and
"God damn it! Withdraw! Bitch."

Princess Fatora: "I'll do anything to make those blue bastards suffer!"

The swearing is perfect.

I have seen examples where it was not. In a fan-subtitled episode of Sentimental Graffiti, for example. In the episode, which echoes "Pygmalion" rather nicely, a high school girl is asked how she is. She replies with a highly informal reply--one definitely not warranted by the situation--and it is translated as "Fucking great!"

Now, I know what effect the translators were trying for, but there is simply no way to say "fucking great" in Japanese. The words do not exist in that language, and even using the rudest possible words don't rise to the connotation that "fuck" has in English. "Fucking great" is right out, in other words.

The Japanese word "kuso", basically, means "crap". It's a not-polite word for "feces". But too often it is translated as "shit", incorrectly.

If some character screams KUSOOOooo and is obviously really pissed off or upset, then yes, "shit" is a reasonable way to translate it. But the problem is, "kuso" crops up in situations where the character is saying it lightly; and in those situations it's more appropriately translated as "damn".

The Japanese have another word that I have never seen spelled (it sounds like "chi-k'sho") which is frequently translated as "damn it" but, again, in extremity it can be amplified to "shit" fairly reasonably. "Che" is most frequently translated as "damn", too, which is reasonable. "Shimatta" usually has the visceral slug of "darn" or "nuts" but it, too, can be amplified depending on the tone of voice used.

"Shimatta" does not translate to "shit"...but I've seen that done, too.

My favorite over-the-top example of swearing in anime is the dub of Violence Jack. I never saw it, but a friend of mine played it for me. A character says:

"God damn it! Where the hell is Jack? Fucking chicken shit! Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Fuck! Shit!"

I have also seen it minimized; Ranma 1/2 tends this way. Ranma himself is a rather coarse character; yet I have heard him say "hell" exactly one time: "Do you mind telling me what the HELL you're doing here?" Other than that, "heck" and "darn" are it...and I think he'd say "damn" and "hell" a lot more than they have him do in the dub. His nickname for his father is "kuso-yaji", which could be translated as "old fart", but isn't....

El Hazard makes none of these mistakes. All of the swearing is perfectly executed and fits the situation exactly. When the characters swear, it is always in character. Fujisawa is upset that he has run out of booze; and when he hears a woman scream, his first reaction is, "Oh shit! Someone else...."

The translator must walk a fine line, and in dubs it's a line made even finer by the fact that the words spoken must match the "flaps", the opening and closing of the character's mouth. That's why we get some strange lines once in a while, like the breathless lines from the Speed Racer dub from the '60s which is often parodied.

In El Hazard, the characters never break characterization, even allowing for matching flaps--not even during the horrible first five minutes of the dub. Ultimately that's the real test of a good translation: does it match the character? Do the things said by the characters match their personalities? In the case I mentioned from Sentimental Graffiti I don't think it did; in the case of Ranma 1/2 I think it errs on the side of caution.

The dub of El Hazard is so good that I never watch the sub version. Most of the first series I have on hybrid laserdisk, so the sub is an option, but I never avail myself of it.

There is one other series in which the dub is actually more enjoyable than the sub: Golden Boy. In that series, Doug Smith does a fantastic job giving Kintaro Oe his voice--so well that when Kintaro says, "Awww, shit!" in the first episode it is so utterly perfect that you have to stop the playback while you laugh your ass off. The sub, strangely, is not as entertaining as the dub, because Doug Smith did such a fantastic job. That is a rarity in translated anime.

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