We often hear the commonly discussed point of contention in regards to subtitles being less accurate, precise or not getting the whole gist of what the original cartoon, film or documentary was conveying. This is especially frequent in regards to the translation of Japanese cartoons, anime, and Japanese comics, manga.

Points have been made in regards to the honorifics, -san, -sama, -chan, -kun, -dono and so on, but there is another type of words within the Japanese language that arguably has even more nuance that is lost when translating from one language to another. As a personal and prefatory note, it ought be said that I will at all times try and translate everything one hundred per cent, wherever possible, since it is the onus and task of a translator – thankless at times – to be the invisible and seamless intermediate link between intended audience and work and to a further point the author themselves.

Japanese pronouns convey age, personality, societal standing and much more – often depending on when and where. The language itself heavily favours the aspect of pronoun dropping or “pro-drop”, where one infers from the context of the sentence who or to whom the message is about. Akin to German and Spanish language where the pronominal conjugations are already built into the verbs themselves, i.e. bist (2nd person singular present tense, German) and estar (2nd person formal present tense, Spanish), where in the case of the latter pronouns are rarely used if only for the sake of emphasis.

Japanese is moreover a language redolent in its societal colouring, politeness even at its most informal shows in the exclusion of pronouns as to appear less egocentric or confrontational, thus the formal neutral second person pronoun in the singular anataliterally means “honourable direction ” (貴方), deriving from an adverb meaning “yonder.”

Omae”and “temee”, close in meaning to “you arsehole; you fucker” when used in an formal setting, derive from distance related words, former “august presence” and the latter a humble self-reference “in-front-of-the-hand.”

That being said, the first person pronouns constitute the most troublesome aspect for a translator to communicate in an English translation, for example. We must needs change the tone of the words of the speaker in order to efficaciously render the personality and meaning of the pronoun used by the character. Below are some typical problems and also the most pertinent in regards to first person pronouns:

Part I: A Difference in masculinity and femininity:

Boku-guys and ore-guys – 70s versus 90s:

おれは闘いのプロだ きさまには殺せん!

“It is not all excessive in front of the heir of the assassin’s fist, Hokuto Shinken, to stop a bow-gun’s dart with a mere pole. I am professional at fighting. You cannot kill me.”

The most famous user of  ore is Kenshiro from Tetsuo Hara and Buronson’s 1984 martial arts epic “Fist of the North Star” (北斗の拳). Notice how he use おれ in hiragana rather than katakana, this was very much common practice during this early period, where during the later decades オレ won usage, but おれ still lingers.

It ought to be noticed that Kenshiro otherwise, like most male characters in the series, uses archaic constructions and at times uses the emphatic particle わ (wa), ordinarily an element of female sociolects, but an archaic masculine emphatic particle, and still current in the dialects of Tokyo for male speakers. As an 80s hero, he stands in contrast to the boku-heroes of past series.

な、なぜ ぼく……
W-Why am I… able to do such things!?

The cybernetic hero, Joe Shimamura of Cyborg 009 by Shoutarou Ishinomori, is a famous user of boku(ぼく), here in hiragana due to the typographical preferences of the time. He does use ore (おれ) early on, but switches to the other pronoun, presumably to reflect his more gentle nature.

Girls who use masculine pronouns, and those who nearly do so:

Tomboys are no stranger in Japanese media and culture. In manga and anime, which is the specific media type that we shall be covering here we will be looking into a few examples:

Akira from Hunter Cats:
うるせ!! オレたちに「わらわれやすい服装してこい」なんて注意するほうがちがいだぜ
(Shaddap! It’s different to tell us to “come and wear ridiculous clothes”, don’t ya think?)

Notice オレたち(ore-tachi) which is the masculine plural pronoun used, in singular and kanji form

俺 (ore). Furthermore there is うるせ (uruse, “annoying/shut up”) itself a more rough version of うるさい (urusai, “bothersome/annoying”), and the masculine emphatic partile ぜ (ze). This is in contrast to her fellow Hunter Cats who use standard female language such as わたし (watashi) for the first person singular pronoun. Such archetypes are colloquially known as オレ子 (ore-ko, “ore-girl”).
She gets confused for being a male later on.

(I feel sorry for ya, but you’ll have to die for our sake!)

Next is Shîna from the Tales of Symphonia series of games who uses the rough female plural あたしら (atashi-ra). This accords with her usage of the 2ndperson singular あんた (anta), an abbreviated and slangier version あなた (anata). The usage of the rough plural suffix 等 (ra) versus that of 達 (tachi) signifies a slightly more masculine approach towards her presentation. She does however switch over to much more courteous forms when addressing her superior.

Hence as we can see with the above, even though one uses a standard male pronoun and the other a slangier version of わたし (watashi), they both use masculine speech patterns.

Yellow de Tokiwagrove from Pocket Monster Special:

That sounds great. I would like such friends, too.

Initially she uses the standard 私 (watashi) during her début in the third volume of the manga.

Later on, concealing herself as a boy per instructions from the Gym Leader, Katsura, she uses ボク (boku), and continues to do so even after her true identity has been revealed to the main cast.

I will help him!

Such as seen in the image above.