When English-original visual novels read like translated Japanese

I spy ganbatte

I don’t read many visual novels because they’re almost all uh… pretty bad. I’ll occasionally pick up a free or cheap one on Steam because Steam’s awful recommendation algorithm won’t stop suggesting them. But then, they almost always disappoint. They often run the same anime girl archetypes (and it’s almost always girls. Not much otome seems to make it onto Steam), most have weak art (4 original character designs and 5 backgrounds is not a selling point!), and, most of all, so many of them have terrible, terrible writing.

I’m not here to complain or put down the visual novel medium because, again, I only ever really read the free ones put out by hobbyists that take advantage of Steam’s lax store policy. I know that I don’t have a fair sample for careful commentary.

Instead, I just want to observe a personal point of interest: so many English-language visual novels, even those originally written in English, read like translated Japanese. Or in other words, instead of simply borrowing the visual novel medium to produce fresh English-language works, some visual novel writers seem intent on imitating both the tropes and the language of their Japanese inspirations, resulting in a hodgepodge of stodgy prose that doesn’t quite sound translated Japanese… and doesn’t quite sound fluent English either.

Today I’ll be picking on Kill or Love, a free visual novel on Steam by Andy Church about “obsession, loneliness, and, based on your choices, varying amounts of murder,” not because it’s good or bad but because it has so many examples of such odd pseudo-translated writing (and because it has Yandere, yum yum). I’m not going to pretend to be rigorous or even generous – I’ll just note some of the lines that interested me and give a probable Japanese inspiration. So, let’s start off with a fan-favorite onomatopoeia:

Tch. チェ

This single sound prompted me to look for other ‘pseudo-translated’ lines because it felt so out of place in English dialogue, especially when spoken by a well-kept young woman rather than some sulky shounen action hero. “Tch” is a sound I only ever hear in the animanga sphere (and it’s not even common in spoken Japanese because it’s pretty rude!), making me think that the writer inserted it in imitation of Japanese visual novels without considering the flow of the conversation. So many natural English alternatives exist here, like “pft” “tsk” “tsh” or, always my favorite, “ugh.” Why rely on the trope?

Let’s give it our all today! 頑張る

From the picture above, this seem inspired that ubiquitous Japanese word ganbatte — do your best! But though it sounds like common enough English, thinking it through, I never hear the phrase spoken that way outside of an animanga context. Tellingly, a Google search for “let’s give it our all” brings up dictionary references for foreign languages, including Japanese, but few examples of the phrase used natively in English beyond bland motivational announcements for charities. In context of the visual novel world though, I suppose it works to establish the character Grace as a sweet deredere anime girl archetype in the same way a Japanese work would do, even if I could hardly imagine an American shelf-stocker ever saying it in earnest.

I see. そうか

Another of those ubiquitous translations of a ubiquitous Japanese phrase, I often think that “I see” feels bizarrely formal and out of date, like it’s still coming out occupation-era US Army phrasebooks. Colloquially, it almost always sounds better as a simple “oh” or “ah, right” in casual English. To see it so often then in Love or Kill caught me off guard… sometimes the dialogue in the novel read more like anime subtitles than a book!

Dear diary. I’m troubled. I’m starting to think that Jack is not pretending 困っている

“I’m troubled” alone, without any explanatory “by X” is such an odd phrase to hear in modern English. I think of old Appalachian mountain talk and bluegrass folk, or the language my great grandparents might have used. It has a direct translation in komatte iru — 困っている though. Is it drawn from Japanese?

Um, Don, you can switch with me, all right? You can go help Susie. I already did the bottom shelves there. あの~ね

A lot of fan-translated Japanese works fill up with sentence starters and enders to imitate the Japanese “ne’s” and “na’s” and “yo’s” that simply don’t exist in English. As an English-original work, Kill or Love isn’t so bad in that sense. But still, I think the author perhaps overused such filler to further the construction of the deredere archetype mentioned before.

My health is vastly improving. Doctor’s words, those.

This is may be a dialect difference where British-er English-es won’t find as much of a problem with emphatically ending a sentence in a noun or demonstrative pronoun as my American ears. It is, however, much more common in Japanese, reminding me of those odd translated lines that insist on preserving the word-order of the original language despite the target language not cooperating. Off the top of my head, I think of examples like yasashii ne, kare wa — やさしいね 彼は coming out as “He’s nice, isn’t he, Steve.” rather than something more naturally English like “He’s pretty nice… Steve, I mean.”

“I—I promise. I’ll recall it all

What an awkward sentence to say aloud! Ullullull in the back of the throat… it reminds me of when young writers take advice to “avoid repetition” to mean “avoid repeating the same word” instead of “avoid repeating the same idea” and end up with a well thesaurized but still very repetitive paragraph. And then in anime subtitling, it’s like when the translator finds a synonym in the original language so feels the need to use a synonym in the target language as well, fluency be damned. For example, maybe using “remember” for oboeru — 覚える but then “recall” for omoidasu — 思い出すwhen both basically just mean “remember.” In To Kill or To Love, why not just write the above sentence as “I’ll remember everything?”

It was a plate wrapped in plastic wrap. There was something brown on the plate.

Brownies. I’m sure you’ll like them, Jack.”

Another laugh out loud moment, like when an amateur fan translator comes across an obscure word, doesn’t know the meaning, and so just… guesses until context answers them later (for example, I think of one fan translator for Senryu Shoujo, who translated ajidama — 味玉, the soft eggs served in ramen bowls, literally as “flavor ball” rather than “ramen egg!”). Beyond that though, it’s also a totally unnecessary bait and switch. What’s on the plate proffered by our psychopathic yandere stalker? Oh, just brownies? I see. Tch.

I could dig through the novel for more examples, but the awkwardness is better experienced in its totally than through isolated examples (and, to be honest, I don’t want to replay the novel for another two hours). I suppose I could also conclude with a hoity toity English teacher’s point about bad prose, but I don’t feel experienced enough in the medium of visual novels to do so. Instead, I’ll just leave with the curiosity that lead me here, and a question:

Do some people’s media diets consist so wholly of anime, manga, or visual novels that they have begun to adopt the quirks of translated Japanese in their own native language? It’s an odd thought, but as the medium grows in popularity in the West, maybe it’s something to keep an eye out for …ne.


5 thoughts on “When English-original visual novels read like translated Japanese

  1. It’s probably just genre imitation. I’ve hung around on writing forums for a while, and people generally think the way it’s done is the way it’s supposed to be done. From what I see, the character designs are very much anime-inspired, too. It’s interesting they’re using English names, in the first place.

    Something brown… Brownies… The big twist: it’s a few dead Scottish pixies, instead of cake.

    I don’t find the “Doctor’s words, those,” line that bad, but it does feel a little awkward. Not sure why, or where I get my intuition from. I’m not a native speaker, and my English is probably a mix of wherever-I-heard-it-firsts. It’s surprisingly hard to research this; it’s some sort of complement inversion, and a verbless clause, but I’m not sure under what terms people would research this. I’m intrigued. (Linguistics geek, here.)


    1. Yeah, I agree on the genre imitation idea. And like I said up there, the “doctor’s words” part probably just isn’t common in my dialect. It (and the brownies) doesn’t really fit the translation argument, I know, but, to borrow from another dialect, I’m just kinda taking the piss with this post! I took screenshots whenever something seemed odd or funny and rolled with those rather than reread it.


  2. There are some really good VNs out there, but most of them aren’t that cheap. I’ve avoided the kind of stuff you’re talking about here, but if the writing’s like this then I can see why you don’t like them very much because they sound horribly awkward. Some people really do start using those Japanese-to-English phrases without thinking about them. I’m surprised “it can’t be helped” didn’t make the list, because it’s so common now it’s become a joke. 仕方がない does show up a lot in VNs, anime, and manga, but from what I understand there’s a lot of cultural context there like with 頑張る so why have native English-speaking characters even say it?


    1. Yeah, I was just having a laugh with this post. Like I said at the start, I don’t read enough to have a good sample and won’t pretend to know the medium well.

      I would have put in “it can’t be helped” if I had found it! I think it’s one of the most awkward translations in all of the Japanosphere. I don’t know why more people don’t use something like “it is what it is.”

      Liked by 1 person

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