Translating between languages can often be a complicated task, more art than science.
Considering the highly contextual nature of language, the potential for miscommunication while making formal or colloquial linguistic choices, and the fact that dialect is a moving target and words are constantly evolving and new words are being added to the lexicon every single day… Let’s just say it makes sense that many languages, such as English and Japanese, have adapted to be quite flexible, often borrowing words from other languages rather than inventing new ones--which can both solve problems and create them for translators.
On one hand, once a “foreign” word becomes common enough parlance, we no longer have to explain it, we just use it and its meaning is clear. However, if the word is obscure enough--like parlance, perhaps, which originated from the French parlaunce or parler "to speak"--then it can become an active language barrier.
Some translations, like Jeremy Blaustein’s English translation of Hideo Kojima’s video game and art piece, Metal Gear Solid, are painstaking labors of love. Others--too many others to single out a quintessential example, although if I had to pick just one I’ll call out old Sailor Moon dubs every time--are ill-informed labors of necessity and it really, really shows.
Sites like Babelfish and GoogleTranslate might provide quick and straightforward answers, but those answers may come at the expense of accuracy.
Take for instance the concept of yōkai. A quick internet search would tell you that yōkai are mysterious and mischievous demons, the Japanese equivalent of faeries. And in some ways, that wouldn’t be wrong. In a lot of ways, however, it fails to convey all of the layers of nuance that accompany the concept.
A translation site specifies that the word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious” while a specialist describes the linguistics in much more compelling detail. “They are the embodiment of a moment: a feeling of dread and bewilderment, or awe and wonder over an extraordinary event; or a strange sound or peculiar scent that demands an explanation; an ineffable phenomenon explained only by a supernatural entity. Little wonder then that the Japanese characters for Yokai are 妖怪, which taken individually could mean strange or alluring mystery!”
While evocative, neither of these descriptions of the linguistic elements really explain what yōkai are, however, nor their role in traditional Japanese lore.
Many creatures may find themselves considered yōkai. Yurei (ghosts and phantoms), kami (gods/goddesses), henge (shapeshifters), and--as far as I can tell--most mythological creatures in general seem to fall under this umbrella term.
Any number of mahō shōjo--or magical girl--story have one. An incredibly cute but wise beyond all reason creature who bestows the protagonist’s powers upon them and leads them through the narrative while offering plenty of adorable comic relief. But what exactly are they?
Affectionately coined “mentor mascots” in English, these magical guides of magical girls usually come in the form of a talking animal or faerie. Except, nobody seems to really know what they are. Sometimes aliens, sometimes interdimensional beings, always wrapped in an element of mystery, these wee supernatural beasties don’t seem to fall into the yōkai category. And why not? They provide mystery, often bring calamity, get into mischief, they’re clearly supernatural.
Where does the linguistic line get drawn? And just how firm is that line? Do you dare cross it while telling a story of your own?