Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I translate sex scenes (エロシーン, ero-scene) in visual novels. It is one of the least pleasurable aspects of my hobby, and I’m rather glad that I never had to deal with ero-scenes during my time as a fansubber. Ero-scenes are notoriously difficult to translate well; several inherent linguistic barriers prevent accurate and succinct translation. What I am proposing here may not be new, or radical, and by no means is it perfect, but I believe it to be a different take on the translation of the ero-scene. This system will not make the reading of an ero-scene enjoyable. An ero-scene is an inherently cheesy, silly thing to read, and nothing that I, or any other translator, can do would change that. Rather, this is simply a way for translators to cut their losses. I have always facetiously advocated that there is no such thing as an ero-scene translation that is good; there are simply those that do not suck. Leave the sucking to the heroine, I say.
(WARNING! This article is filled with boring linguistic technobabble. In addition, people might think you’re a freak if you read this at work, or at any other time, for that matter. There are no NSFW images in this article, I promise. Also, please note that this does not represent my general translation philosophy. It is an extrapolation thereof, and in no circumstances should be applied to non-ero scenes. It would be a terrible choice.)
Before we go any further, I will make two definitions:
1. ero-scene: Any sex scene. Oral, anal, vaginal, gay, straight, animals; doesn’t matter.
2. The ero-scene is voiced. This is absolutely crucial. Without voices, the entire system collapses and becomes invalid.
There is very little literature (indeed, very little discussion) within the community about the translation of ero-scenes. It may simply be that no one wishes to breach the subject. I certainly sympathize— the translation of ero-scenes is a nasty, time-consuming, brain-wracking experience. One can not help but feel slightly foolish when reading the script of any given ero-scene in a visual novel. When the translator looks, finally, at the translation he so painstakingly crafted, he can only cringe: it is inevitably riddled with awkward euphemisms and strange onomatopoeias. Current practices regarding eroge translation are both redundant and ineffective. This inefficiency stems from translators’ assumption that ero-scenes should be treated with the same sort of attention and detail that non-ero scenes warrant. We are justified in thinking so— after all, an ero-scene is text, just like everything else. Why should it deserve special attention, or be translated according to a different set of standards?
The ero-scene is fundamentally different from every other scene in a visual novel, mainly because it serves a different function. One can interpret the ero-scene as a reward for the player, a pat on the back of sorts. While it does advance the plot, and more often than not, have a few hilariously corny lines here and there, its main function is to reward and arouse. It is an excuse for the player to (finally, after a very long time) whip it out and joff. Given this mentality, I make the following assumptions:
1. Most people aren’t scrutinizing the text, especially not the dialogue, in ero-scenes.
2. They are, however, focused on the voice, and on the art.
Therefore, when translating an ero-scene, the translation should be as sparse and unobtrusive as possible. As you all may know, I am not a fan of verbosity to begin with, but I believe that minimalism is key to a good ero-scene translation. Let the player focus on the art, not on the text, which is mostly comprised of gasps, moans and panting. When there is dialogue, or a joke, or a corny line, translate it, but do not bring attention to it. I will expand on dialogue lines later in this article.
Fundamentally, Japanese and English depictions of sex diverge massively. Japanese offers a substantial competitive advantage over English when it comes to describing sex; descriptions in Japanese are onomatopoeic in nature. Consider this line from Baldr Sky -Dive 2-:
If we directly transliterate this into romaji, we get:
Aki: Haaaa, aa… hauuuuun!
Needless to say, this translation is problematic for many different reasons. We note several salient features in the original Japanese that make it an acceptable depiction of sex, but not in English:
1. はぁ (haa), in Japanese, is a standard onomatopoeia for heavy breathing. The English equivalent would be something along the lines of pant or huff or puff. These, however, violate the minimalist principle I previously proposed, and, therefore, should not be used as an alternative.
2. Note that each Japanese character block has the small っ at the end. This is a Japanese description of being out of breath. The letter itself has no phonetic value, except to cut short whatever preceded it. It enhances the panting onomatopoeia, and allows the text to a better approximation of moaning. However, this feature does not exist in English, making it somewhat difficult for translators to carry over this connotation. The closest approximation we have in English is the exclamation mark, !, but we have our own set of connotations and assumptions regarding this punctuation symbol, and it is ultimately an inadequate substitute.
3. The repeated use of う in the last portion of the line is an attempt to “feminize” the moaning. From what I can tell, it is an exclusively female sound. In English, this is problematic because “u” can be pronounced more than one way, and also does not carry the connotations of cuteness that it does in Japanese.
So what do we do? If English alternatives are inferior or inadequate, do we simply stick with the Japanese transliteration? No. Rather, I am proposing that we delete it altogether. Forget the onomatopoeia. Readers will inevitably be listening to the voices, and there is no adequate textual representation of the sheer beauty and passion invoked by the work of a good voice actress. Instead of detracting from the experience by inserting intrusive, silly-sounding text, it is perhaps better that we rid ourselves of it altogether. This allows the player to focus more intensely on the art, the main focus of the scene, and the voice of the character. Text comprised mostly of panting, in my opinion, is a rather useless complement and contributes little to nothing.
This rule is especially important in oral sex scenes, where Japanese onomatopoeias become rather bizarre and translation or transliteration is even harder to justify. How are we to translate れろれろ (rerorero) into English? The transliteration is obviously ridiculous. The closest approximation, slurp slurp gulp gulp, faces the same problem as pant and huff above: it is too intrusive, and is too far away from the actual line being spoken (spoken? Can we even call a line like that “spoken?”).
We now move on to dialogue. The principles here are more or less the same as they are with regards to non-dialogue, purely onomatopoeic lines. Leave the dialogue, take the onomatopoeias out. Again, a very common example, taken from Baldr Sky:
Even those of you who do not speak Japanese can see the massive repetition of characters that symbolizes panting or moaning. The only (questionably) important part of this line is 「もう、ダメ！」, and this should be the focus of our translation:
Aki: “I can’t… no more…!!
Which is good, but still slightly problematic. This line makes it sound as if Aki doesn’t want it. But oh she does! Remember functional equivalence? From my experience, women do not say “I can’t take it anymore” when they are on the verge of orgasm. They say:
Aki: “Oh God… I’m gonna come…!”
Which I believe is highly controversial, as it keeps no part of the original Japanese line. It does, however, capture the essence of the scene, which is why I believe it to be more superior. Naturally, there will be those who say that I have no way of divining authorial intent, and therefore, I do not actually know what the essence of the scene is; however, I believe that, in this case, the intent is more or less able to be inferred. There will also be those who say that I set a bad precedent, and that this method of translation quickly becomes a slippery slope if we apply it elsewhere. My answer: don’t. As I have previously stated, I believe the ero-scene to be unique and fundamentally different from other text in a visual novel. We can debate that if we so wish, but that is a discussion for another time.
In an ero-scene, there are usually several key lines. Aki’s line above is indicative of one of them: the pre-orgasm line. There are usually one or two of these, and they all convey the same meaning. It is up to the translator’s discretion what English stock phrases (or not) to use in these cases. I personally frown upon repetition, but since sex is inherently a very repetitive act, I believe that, if done correctly, repetition may work to make the translation better. Think specifically about what we say when we have sex in English. Why shouldn’t we use those lines, instead of translating the original Japanese? What justifies our use of translation over equivalent transposition in this case only?
Finally, we have the third element of the ero-scene: description. This may be the hardest part of translating an ero-scene. Everything up to this point, we could take cues and hints from pornography and personal experience. We’re on our own now, and I do not know of a fail-safe way of making descriptions during ero-scenes not sound, well, retarded. I do have my own philosophy regarding this, though:
I drop all the corny, Twilight-esque metaphors. No allusions to swords, spears, bananas, cups, chalices and certainly not caves. A cave is cold and dark. Vaginas are not. (Hopefully they’re not.)
The oft-used euphemism 俺のもの (my thing), used widely in Japanese, should not be translated into English directly; it evokes a sense of childishness that is absolutely inappropriate in a sex scene… unless, of course, you’re a sick freak who plays games with prepubescent couples getting it on. Why not use slangy, non-euphemistic terms for genitalia in English? It is somewhat less artificial that way, in my opinion.
Nouns aside, we have the issue of verbs. I believe that there are many verbs to describe sex, and each verb should play its part. Depending on the nature of the scene, we should aspire to use different verbs: for more intense, violent scenes, verbs like “pound, hammer, drill” come to mind. For softer, more gentle scenes, perhaps verbs like “insert, move, wiggle (in certain circumstances.)” Never should the word “rape” be in an ero scene, even if it is a rape scene. Show, don’t tell.
A word on profanity: English is a profane language. Sex is a profane act. I think that, to a certain degree, maybe there should be some profanity in our translation of sex scenes. I caution against the use of “fuck” in sex scenes— it’s a pretty special case, and deserves special attention. If one over-utilizes it, it becomes less effective. Same goes for other profanities.
Ultimately, my proposition is this: Get Creative. Ero-scenes are inherently ridiculous, and the text is even more so. There really is no way to produce an ero-scene that reads naturally, so I say have some fun with it. Think about it in new, creative ways. Try to capture the ecstasy, the joy, the exhilaration of sex, and focus less on a direct, straightforward translation of Japanese onomatopoeias and mangled metaphors. Perhaps we can turn one of visual novel translation’s greatest headaches to one of its greatest joys.
Postscript: I originally conceived of this article at 3 AM on a Saturday morning, bored with nothing to do. I understand that it is a long, technical article on something that few, even within the community, care about. Therefore, I am especially thankful for any comments I receive, and if this article starts a discussion, I would be most glad. I am especially thankful to Sorrow-Kun for putting up with all of my vulgar shenanigans.
Baldr Sky is an amazing game. Seriously, everyone get it.
In addition, I am still researching Gonzo. I believe that I have most of the pieces in order, but I am missing some crucial evidence. Please stay tuned.
This is a work in progress. I am still not satisfied with my treatment of nouns in description. This is another reason why there needs to be more discourse on this issue.
Final question: Does anyone here actually read ero-scenes, or the dialogue in ero-doujin, or read the text when watching ero-anime? Seriously? I might as well just paste Bible verses. Works just as well, I say.