Sounding Foreign in My Mouth

Magic Bullets

Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A’s features a group of magical antagonists whose combat terminology is in German, although this is by no means the only foreign language used in the series (Bardiche and Raging Heart are noted for their English, while ‘Asura’ is a Sanskrit term and so forth). Quite what the status and connotations of the German language are in Japan I’ve no idea (though I’d like to find out) so I can’t guess what the intention of the staff behind Nanoha‘s German is.

For my part though, as the viewer rather than a creator, mixing magic and German brings to mind Goethe’s Faust and also the eerie casting scene in Der Freischütz. Not unhelpful associations, though it’s a little disorientating to be watching a magical girl throw bullets and thinking of Kaspar and Max. Unfortunately, because I actually understand a fair number of German words, sometimes the effect isn’t as impressive. When Vita shouts ‘pferd(e)’ I chuckle, because I can’t help but think of Karura:

HORSE: A type of Pleasure involving horses, HORSE is considered both desirable and acceptable. Brown and bay horses are most commonly used.

This HORSE experience illustrates the difficulty of encountering, in anime, non-Japanese words from a language that you yourself comprehend.

Allow me to pause, and recommend Avatar’s account of subtitling A’s. It’s interesting to read how all this works at the coalface, so to speak, and Avatar highlights how many minds the script has to pass through before it reaches the subtitle viewer:

I know practically no German whatsoever, of course . . . but that’s almost certainly the case for the translator as well, especially if they’re working from a script with the German poorly converted into romaji (and listening to it being read by VAs who don’t know German either, and even that is assuming that the Japanese writer didn’t blow it in the first place, which happens a lot too.)

In a glass darkly, or what?

Faustus Cover

Anyway, foreign words sound cool and a bit mysterious. You can see this in English: I’ll stick with Faust and use Kit Marlowe’s English Doctor Faustus as an example. Marlowe gives the bad Doctor a long summoning incantation in Latin which would sound much more pompous and stupid if Faustus just reeled it off in English. Latin, with its antique literary and religious associations, supplies a mystique which English doesn’t have (to an English-speaker).¹ The same thing’s going on when Wandering Swordsman: Recollection’ becomes Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal. (And why not? Samurai sell better to English-speakers than mere swordsmen.)

The other effect that foreign words have relies not on mysteriousness but on comprehension: ‘Ah, I see what they did there!’ A simple and classic example from English-language media is the name of the hero in The Matrix. ‘Neo’ is ‘new’ in Greek, and it’s also an anagram of ‘one’. ‘Ah, I see what they did there!’ say the fans, deriving some pleasure from the thought that some people won’t have seen was done there. Or they look it up later and derive some pleasure from the thought that, even if they didn’t get it at the time, they can at least use Wikipedia.

This is, in fact, a form of intellectual fanservice. It can be played on many levels, depending on the complexity and obscurity of the foreign words used. The Servants in Fate/stay night are a fine example of fanservice for mythology buffs. Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s opening sequence is, like the segmented structure of Foucault’s Pendulum, an exercise in fanservice for fans of Kabbalah. Kyon’s nickname is fanservice for fans of the Cynics. ‘Vader’ means ‘father’ in Dutch. And so forth.

Even after learning a foreign language, one translates the words into one’s first language in one’s head. It’s only languages learned in early childhood, and languages learned through long immersion, which completely lose their mystique. So the two functions of unfamiliar words – mystique and comprehension – are not really mutually exclusive. Put a main character in a Gundam called Justice, and you (first use) make him sound cool and also (second use) make a point about a change in his character and role to any fans who understand the word. Put him in a Gundam called Infinite Justice and you (first use) make him sound really cool and also (second use) make a rather blunt allusion to the original title of Operation Enduring Freedom – but perhaps that’s territory best left unexplored.

Unlimited Bayeux Works

This can be a complicated and confusing business for a native English-speaker. Sometimes, something which might sound utterly badass in Japan comes across as silly-sounding. For all I know, sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes these things can pass through silliness into badass territory on the other side: ‘I am the bone of my sword’. And sometimes, as in the case of My Otome‘s ‘Garderobe’ Academy, one doesn’t know what to think: Cupboard? Toilet? ‘Guard-Robe’ (which is not unlike the word’s origin anyway)?

Yet – perhaps because of these confusions – I like the use of foreign languages in my anime. By turns the use of foreign tongues makes me feel cosmopolitan, massages my ego, amuses me, and sends me Wiki’ing furiously. Now and then – as with the collision between Vita and Der Freischütz – it actually does something unexpected, brilliant and probably unintended on the scriptwriter’s part, and these moments of ‘*clasm’ (‘Linguaclasm’? ‘Glossaclasm’?) are one of the things I watch anime for.

In fact, I’m beginning to enjoy it more when English is misused in anime than when it’s used correctly. This is probably because I love wordplay so much, but – to take Code Geass as the almost-inevitable example – I like the way Britannian Knightmares have a loading screen which says ‘we shall be the shields which defend our momeland’. Why use ‘motherland’ or ‘homeland’ when you can have both? Similarly, the eyecatch says ‘Lelouch of the Revellion’. It’s almost certainly a mistake, but, as an accidental combination of ‘revolution’ and ‘rebellion’, it reflects the Black Knights’ uncertain status (a ‘revolution’ is more egalitarian, at least nominally), and it also reminds me how much I revel in the show as a whole. Strangely, the standard of Geass‘s English can be quite high.

Linguists divide languages into family trees, and I’ve heard English described as the world’s ‘rape child’. It’s an odd yet accurate metaphor. The precedent for all this was set by the Normans, whose conquest of England has certain superficial parallels with the fate of Area 11 (the arrival of new, more mobile warriors in the form of mounted knights, for example). It’s thanks to the period that followed that English-speakers usually have at least two ways to say what they mean, one with words derived from Old English and one with words derived from Anglo-Norman. And because I like the idea of new words, I’m broadly in favour of the Japanese – or anyone else – (ab)using English, however disrespectfully it’s done.

He Is a CHAR
Char was forever attracting young female newtypes and the indefinite article.

I was discussing this recently with a friend who enjoys josei manga. He pointed me to the discussion page for josei’s Wikipedia entry. One Wikipedian suggests that ‘josei’ may have been appropriated by English-speaking fans, and proposes renaming the article, and then a Japanese user chimes in:

‘Josei’ in Japanese connotes woman or women in general usage. Josei in Japanese does not connote ‘comic books intended for women’. If English-speaking anime fans think Josei connotes ‘comic books intended for women’, they are raping our Japanese culture by showing no respect for Japanese language.

[I should point out the misuse of ‘connotes’; it’s irritatingly common for people who have English as a first language to confuse denotation and connotation, so I’m not surprised to see it causes problems for people who learn English as a foreign language.]

Now I normally try to avoid reading the politicking of Wikipedians, and I’ve no idea whether they’re actually right, but I’ve noticed that fans outside Japan are frequently more comfortable with an adopted Japanese words. A little digging around reveals that a lot of our loanwords (like ‘hentai’) have been wrenched from their contemporary Japanese meaning – not that this means we should be trying to preserve ‘original’ meanings. I suppose I’m just newly aware of the importance of the mouth saying the words to the words’ meaning. (Not unlike the difference between ‘yaoi’ seen on a book and ‘yaoi’ seen on a paddle.)

Maybe the use of foreign languages is an exercise in остранение (now I’m doing it too), defamiliarisation – and here we come back to the first use for foreign words. Flip the girl upside down, silhouette her and throw some English in (‘she found herself on an island’ might be a good start) and you’ve created something considerably more interesting than just a picture of a pretty person and a comment next to it. I don’t want to sound too cynical about that, because that’s how these things are done.

I recall seeing an Othello set emblazoned with the slogan ‘The mysterious game from the East’. Although Othello was formulated in Japan, I’d hardly call it ‘mysterious’ – but of course if it’s ‘from the East’ then it must be mysterious in some way.


1. A mystique which is subverted at the close of the play when Faustus uses a terribly inappropriate quotation from Ovid, ‘Oh, run slowly, slowly, HORSEs of the night’ (‘O, lente, lente currite, noctis equi‘). Faustus is terrified because devils are coming to claim his soul but he quotes a lover wishing the night would pass slowly so that he can spend it in his mistress’s arms. This is probably a joke Marlowe threw in for the well-educated members of his audience (see the second reason I propose for using foreign words) as well as a subtle touch to remind us how sin-bound Faustus has become. (Marlowe, unlike Goethe, chose to give the story a BAD END. Very BAD indeed.)

UPDATE: Author comments on остранение and the dangers of o’er-broad terms (two subjects not unrelated).

20 responses to “Sounding Foreign in My Mouth

  1. While “Reckless Fire” certainly has some meaning, no matter how vague, the usage of “Drastic my soul” and “Drastic myself (or was that my self?) still stumps me after all these years — its transition from adjective to verb definitely puzzling.

  2. RAGING HEART, ONEGAI! is so much better than RAISING HEART, ONEGAI!

  3. Avatar said on IRC that we came to a hair to having raging heart in A, but someone caught it. It would be made out of lulz if they pressed DVDs with different translations across seasons.

  4. I never thought about how the history of English can basically merit its own “misinterpretation” in anime, so that was cool.

    On a random side note, when you were talking about Gundam names and first and second uses, I thought that when we interpret “use” as a verb, we pronounce it like “yooze” (I’m going to ‘yooze’ him), while when said as a noun, it’s “yuce” (what a great ‘yuce’!). I never realized that either…

  5. your post was so long that I had any number of things I could bring up, like people who insist that any girls love that isn’t sexual is called ‘shoujo-ai’ despite no such term existing in Japan. However, one thing stood out for me having happened today.

    Recently, I finally completed my reading of the (ever-excellent) King of Bandits Jing manga which I’ve been reading for 5 years now. The last volume involved frequent use of the term ‘momento mori’ of which I’m sure you’re familiar. Just about a week ago, I can’t remember where, I also saw this come up in a book somewhere, but undefined, so I was glad I’d learned the definition of Jing.

    However, today I was shocked when I fired up Persona 3 and the opening sequence I know and love had the term ‘momento mori’ written in numerous places and phrases like ‘remember that you will die’ which I had seen before but never realized the significance of before. There’s also a bunch of other apparently latin words in there that I’m interested in knowing now.

  6. The Xenogears and Xenosaga videogame franchise are also notorious for their heavy-handed appropriation of religious terminology to add “depth” to the plot. In Xenosaga, it obvious that these terms are being applied to events that have yet to occur, while in Xenogears, it’s debatable exactly where in the time line the authors expect the player to place the world as we currently understand it.

  7. I was under the impression that the Battle of Hastings was much more of a near run thing since William the Bastard was failing miserably at the outset as his knights could not charge properly up the slope. To bash those Saxons. It is unclear if a feigned retreat was part of William’s plan, but it if was, it worked. If not he was one lucky bastard. Harold had only just forced marched his forces from another battle against a Norwegian Harald and only needed to keep William occupied until he could be reinforced. Sadly for the Saxons they broke ranks and charged down the hill giving the Norman heavy cavalry the advantage.

    I just use German because it is in my opinion the most manly gutteral language there is. No matter what you say it will come off as angry! It is said that German is like the pounding of a thousand hammers. Besides there is a wealth of soldaten terms which I find deliciously cutting and dark. I tried reading olde English from the 1300s and man does it look different with the runic letters and the spelling.

    quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur

  8. It’s quite ironic…I was watching “Sword of the Stranger” last night (which I’ll be reviewing in the next day or two) and outside of the usual Japanese, a fair number of the characters were speaking in Chinese. Now, I’m no language expert, and “Chinese” is just a guess to the best of my ability (the hats, emperors and “Ming” terms seem to point in that direction), but regardless is was a noticably different language.

    I loved it. It added a depth to the movie that I honestly hadn’t recognized before. The addition of another language that was being used regularly by certain characters made me feel like whatever was happening in the movie, it was happening on a believable world scale. Although contained in Japan, the outcome of the plot had results that extended elsewhere.

    A bit of a rant, but I do agree with your enjoyment of multiple languages in anime, no matter how much they get butchered. It adds a nice flavor to the bread ‘n’ butter of most shows…and hell, I’m just a sucker for words.

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  10. @ Owen: ‘I totally drastic’d him’: no, it doesn’t make much sense. Though the idea of living life on the edge suggested by ‘Reckless Fire’ might tie into the drastic thing. Maybe.

    @ jpmeyer: Indeed. RAGING HEART sounds like something out of a hotblooded mecha show, while Raising Heart sounds like a healing move from an otherwise useless JRPG character.

    @ Pete: Heh, especially given that each season’s so short.

    @ lelangir: I’m beginning to suspect that almost anything will crop up in anime if you crash the two together long and hard enough. (Am I making the intellectual process sound too copulative? Probably.)

    The ‘sss’ vs. ‘zzz’ thing’s an interesting one, and I suppose it carries through into ‘use’s compounds too. I had a poke around in the OED and it sounds like the two different sounding uses might have slightly different etymologies.

    @ 21stcenturydigitalboy: I know the feeling – I’ve noticed sometimes when I learn a new word, I keep spotting people using it all the time.

    I’m a stranger to the Persona series, but I hunted down the opening on YouTube (I thought it looked pretty stylish, actually). I see it has Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, as well as part of its formulation in French (‘Je pense donc je suis’); he wrote in both languages and put the idea differently in different books. The longer passages of French and Latin are beyond me, though (YouTube’s quality is my excuse!).

    @ Will: I see TV Tropes says Xenogears had ‘a uniquely convoluted plot spanning ten thousand years, themes cooked out of Gnosticism, Jewish mysticism and Jungian psychology, and an atmosphere that was remarkably Animesque’. From looking up Xenosaga as well, it sounds like they went the way of the GITS movies: a nice-looking, reference-laden sequel which fails to Get the Basics Right.

    @ Crusader: That’s the long and the short of it, yes. Harold did amazingly well, since he’d just marched his army the length of the country to beat some Vikings (not exactly an easy task) at Stamford Bridge and then marched his army the whole way back again to meet William. Apparently the Saxon shield wall was more-or-less impenetrable to William’s knights on its hill.

    (If it’s true, as legend has it, that Harold really was killed by an arrow in the eye, then he must be one of the few historical figures where we can say for sure we know what was going through his head when he died.)

    I studied German for five years at school (not that I remember enough to speak it properly) and remember enjoying how you’re allowed to join nouns together to create giant compounds. Though I’ve heard Germans speak the language and manage not to sound angry.

    English text from the 1300s is a real pain to read, especially in manuscript: as you say, it retains some runic letters (the thorn and the yogh, I think), plus it’s written in gothic script. I’ve noticed several MA English courses actually have modules just to train people to read the script.

    Latin really will make anything sound profound. I suppose its use in the Catholic Church is partly to blame.

    @ Riex: As one sucker for words to another, I heartily agree. It makes anime sound, well, more cosmopolitan – which I suppose adds up to that international scale you mention.

    Also, I rather like the minimalist black-and-red text theme you’re using at the moment.

  11. I just watched the infamous “Quattro is a Char” episode today, and it really is one of the most hilarious uses of engrish. Tomino himself seems to me to rape language repeatedly. Some language must be butchered to hell for all those weird names (Hizack?), or else he’s just inventing a new language as he goes.

  12. Also, if you’ll accept my crude joke, at first glance I thought, in the glory of my dyslexia, that the title was “something foreign in my mouth”, which, coupled with the two balls in the picture, gave me a funny image in my messed up head.

  13. Latin is awesome, but I never did want to learn it. I’d much rather study Japanese first … and trace the evolution of this Engrish bowdlerization.

  14. @ Demian: Good timing then – it’s a bizarre piece of language, but oddly prophetic given how different series and universes have played on the Char idea.

    I’ve no idea where the Hizack comes from – MAHQ and Wikipedia don’t offer any answers (Wikipedia spells it Hi-Zack). I think it’s Zeta Gundam which has the Palace Athene, too – a very unhelpful misspelling.

    @ lelangir: Cannot unsee!

    @ Michael: It’s a fun language, but Latin can be unpleasant if it’s forced upon you. One of the things I find so intriguing about Japanese is its totally different writing system(s), as I’ve never studied a non-European language before.

  15. I think, the use of other languages in animes actually spices up the serie’s entertainment value. Take Gunslinger Girl IL Teatrino for example, the very title itself says much. A notable character would be Winner Sinclair from Chibi Vampire Karin, where his English-Japanese accent is actually the bulk of the anime’s humour. (:

  16. @ Hynavian: Yes, Gunslinger Girl says something about its genre (girls with guns) – something the show probably undermines later on.

    And thankyou for reminding me of Winner! He was hilarious, possibly the best thing about Karin. I remember his dad was called Victor, too, which I thought was a nice touch.

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  20. now that I’ve finally got around to watching this…RAGING HEART, ONEGAI! STAAAAAALLIHHHGGGTTTTT BUUREAEAAAAKKAAAAAAAA


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