I watch anime in subtitles, and that affects the voices of the characters in my mind’s ear. Among other things, any attempt to translate titles in dialogue often sounds extremely unnatural to me. Character thoughts call for translation. Those are explicitly narrated through someone (me) the reader can expect to speak English. In speech “out loud”, however, the titles are very much part of the characters’ names, and I treat them as such.
Exceptions are made for series like Fushigi Yuugi or Gundam Wing, which, before I ever wrote for them, inundated me with so much gratuitous Japanese that I translate all the vocational titles just to stop myself cringing.
For those who need to know, or be reminded, here are translations of the titles I use in fic. Common titles are first, and series specific ones after them. Click on the menu below to jump down to particular series’ titles.
Additional notes contributed by Hope Ashley; many thanks!
- Fullmetal Alchemist
- Prince of Tennis
- Final Fantasy VII
- Petshop of Horrors
- Saiunkoku Monogatari
o-: Honorific prefix.
-sama, -san, -kun, -chan: The common name suffixes, in descending order of social elevation.
-Sama: applied to both names and positions, implies both extreme formality/respect and no intimacy at all. Roughly equivalent to “Ma’am” or “Sir.”
-kun: for boys, this implies both familiarity and informality. Can sometimes be used to imply a lack of formality while retaining unfamiliarity, in the case of a social superior addressing an inferior, but always when they are both part of something: the same school, company, whatever. In that particular register it is used for both boys/men and girls/women. For boys, in general it’s roughly equivalent to a friendly nickname. English has nothing that corresponds to the very specific meaning of this when it is used for a girl.
-chan: for girls, this implies both familiarity and informality. There is a diminutive aspect to it, but for women this isn’t considered particularly significant; it’s more like a general nickname. Used for small children regardless of gender, it sounds rather “cute.” Boys, however, grow out of it; by the time they’re about 10, you can expect a boy to get embarrassed by people calling him “-chan” and want them to switch to “-kun”. From teenage years on, “-chan” on a boy implies extreme informality and intimacy, and is used almost exclusively by close family, generally female, a sister or mother, and lovers.
-San: like –sama, this can apply to both names and positions; it’s a bit of a catch-all, and the boundaries depend on the person. If you don’t know a person well enough to use –kun/-chan, and ‘-sama’ isn’t appropriate, you use –san. Likewise you would use it if you are being respectful or acknowledging the societal rank of someone you are close to, like a parent or an elder sibling.
-ue: Also an honorific suffix, sometimes combined with -sama. This suffix is not in common use any more, but it often shows up in historical-drama settings. It is sometimes used in contemporary settings for emphasis, or to indicate that the character using it is of very high class. Additional note: literally meaning “up/above,” it specifically deals with societal rank—the speaker is placing the person in question above them.
-dono: Another honorific, also not in common use any longer. Its connotations vary according to time period. In most cases it can be considered similar to -sama in level of politeness, though in a more intimate register. This can lead, at times, to it implying a lesser formality or respect, used to an inferior, or a certain privilege or close relation, used to a superior. Additional note: unlike –sama, -dono does not necessarily imply either personal respect, distance or formality, being more of a title than a standard honorific. Instead, it has to do with rank, indicating that the person is noble, but not necessarily implying anything about the speaker’s relationship to them. “-sama” says that the person in question is far above and distant from the speaker, and that they are highly respected by the speaker; “-dono” just means that the person is of high rank.
Nee/Nii: Sister/Brother (elder). These can take various honorifics. Some common options are aniki, nii-san, onii-sama or aniue in ascending order of formality and respect. There is a certain gender slant common in the use of -san versus -chan. A younger sister might use onii-chan to an older brother, but onee-san to an older sister. A younger brother would likely use -san to a brother but -chan to a sister. Additional note in re aniki and aniue: aniki and aniue are both based on “ani,” the term used when speaking about your older brother to an outside party; ‘aniki’ being rather rough and informal is a fairly recent development. However, more than one Japanese professor has pointed out that both have become somewhat unusual terms of address. (As in, ‘stop that, only people in anime use that, you sound like an idiot.’)
Kaa/Tou and Haha/Chichi: Mother/Father. The first set is less formal than the second. Again, these take various honorific additions. Kaa-chan is intimate and affectionate, while Ohahaue-sama is extremely formal (and, frankly, a bit over the top in modern usage).
Oyaji: Old man/One’s father/boss. This one is a very casual thing to call one’s father, equivalent to that use of “old man” in English. A note of interest is that the oya, here, is the kanji indicating parents. Deriving from that, in most cases, are the meanings “ruler”, “master/primary”, “intimacy” and “kindness”. Usage, in this particular case, has considerably depreciated the respect of the term. Additional note: the ‘ji’ in this case means ‘old man’, and while ‘parental-old/elderly-man’ is quite a polite and respectful to use on people who were not your father, using it on your actual father is rather rude, both because you aren’t actually crediting them as your dad, and because you’re calling them old.
Senpai/Kouhai: Senior/Junior. These apply to any and all organized groups—school, work, teams, hobby-groups, monasteries, mystic warrior gangs, you name it. Might also be rendered, “fellow/group-member who came before” and “fellow/group-member who came after”.
Sensei: Teacher/Doctor/expert. More literally, “having prior life/experience”.
Daisoutou: The writers translate this, not incidentally, as Fuehrer. In the spelling FMA uses, Soutou is a word for “president” or “ruling general”. Dai is an intensifier meaning great or large.
Kakka: Generally translated as “your/his excellency”, often used as a suffix for a name or title. The kanji it is spelled with is the one indicating Cabinet or Minister—a designator of high political rank. In FMA, you can hear Bradley called Daisoutou-kakka, or His Excellency the Fuehrer.
Military Ranks: Among commissioned officers in the WWII army organization, on which the FMA ranks are based, there are three levels (-i, -sa and -sho) and four steps within each level (jun-, shou-, chuu- and tai-). It goes together like this. Equivalent ranks within Western armies are given in parentheses.
|sho||Taisho (General)||Chuujo (Lieutenant-General)||Shousho (Major-General)||Junsho (Brigadier-General)|
|sa||Taisa (Colonel)||Chuusa (Lieutenant-Colonel)||Shousa (Major)|
|i||Tai-i (Captain)||Chuui (First Lieutenant)||Shoui (Second Lieutenant)||Juni (Warrant Officer) じゅんい, notじゅに|
See Wikipedia for the kanji and insignia of WWII era ranks. Note of interest: while it’s spelled with very different kanji than are used for military ranks, Junsa is how the word for police officer is pronounced.
Hagane: Translated by the writers as Fullmetal. The more common/conversational translation is “steel”. I rarely use this one, as it’s an exception to my general rule of title translation.
Buchou: Team Captain. A note of interest is that buchou is usually used in corporate situations, chou meaning “leader” and bu meaning “section” or “department”. This rather emphasizes the captains’ responsibility for the school club as a whole, rather than simply the team of Regular players.
Kantoku: Supervisor/Director. In this context, both team coach and club director, with a certain emphasis on the latter.
Taichou: Division Captain. More literally, “unit leader”. Often used in military and paramilitary contexts.
For my translations of the organizational names, see my Bleach webpage.
Final Fantasy VII
Shachou: President. The sha here is the one used for “company” or occasionally “business”.
Oshou-sama: A respectful form of Master (as in, of a trade or discipline). Using this to address someone implies that you are their student or apprentice. Additional note: this one also has religious connotations, as of a head priest or monk.
Petshop of Horrors
Taizu: Crown prince. D, in this case, seems to be using the Chinese pronunciation. The same characters in Japanese are pronounced taishi.
There are a vast variety of titles used for government employees, and some of them are rather confusing. Note that many of these are not found in a standard Japanese dictionary and I had to take a few wild guesses based on related words and the Chinese readings I could find.
Shousho: Secretary within the Ministries. Shou is used for Minister or “ministry/ministries”, also the word for a Chinese province. This sho is the character used in “secretary” or “clerk”. Thus, Shousha-shou is the Ministry of State, which has six rikubu (departments), one of which is Kobu (Department of Finance), the head of which is Kou-shousho (Ministerial Secretary Kou). Got all that?
Jirou: Vice-secretary. The ji here is commonly used for sub-positions, and my best guess is that the rou is 老, a word used during the Edo period for official or authority.
Kanri: Official. Generally used in SaiMono as a suffix to a name, e.g. Ro-kanri.
Shinkan: Official. Generally used in SaiMono as a stand-alone position/title, e.g. Shinkan-san.
Shougun: General. Daishougun, the title of the Koku and Haku lords, indicates that they are what we might think of as five-star generals, though this is likely more a function of their nobility than anything; the troops they command as the heads of the palace guard seem to be fairly small compared to, say, a national army. This shou indicates “commander” or “leader”, while the gun is the character for “military”.
Taishi: Grand Advisor, Shou’s title. Shi, in various spellings, does appear in a few words for advisors or counselors, but I’m guessing that this shi is the character for official. He seems to be in Prime Minister, charge of the ministries, as well, though it’s hard to tell if that goes with this title, or is a position he holds separate from it.
Taifu: Grand Guardian, Sou’s title. I believe this may be the fu that means “instructor” or “tutor” and has a connotation that the one tutored is royalty.
Taiho: Grand Mentor, Sa’s title. All these titles are rather fuzzy, to be sure. My guess is that the ho, here, is the one indicating a counselor, advisor, or one who gives help and aid.
Koushi: Imperial heir or crown prince.
Genin, Chuunin, Jounin: All three are based on 忍 for ninja. The rank prefixes are 下, 中, and 上—loosely “low”, “middle”, and “high” rank. That last, for example, is also the character for “ue”, defined above.