From Tokyo to Barcelona: Translating Japanese Anime into Catalan Japanese translation jobs
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From Tokyo to Barcelona: Translating Japanese Anime into Catalan

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What is common between Japanese and Catalan – how can Japanese humor be expressed within the context of Catalan culture? This is the equation that the Catalan translators have to figure out in order for Japanese anime and manga to be enjoyed by Catalan viewers. Dr Jordi Mas López, translation studies scholar and freelance translator, shares his insights into the process. Read on to find out why the Japan portrayed in the anime dubbed into Catalan may not be a faithful rendition of the real Japan, but rather like a postcard sent from an exotic location.

Popularity of Japanese Anime in Catalonia

When Catalan fans of Japanese anime want to sit in front of their TV set to enjoy a new anime which has just come out on K33 – a Catalan channel aimed at young viewers – they have two basic options:

  1. watching a dubbed version in Catalan – Televisió de Catalunya, the TV station run by the Catalan autonomous government, always dubs anime, and only resorts to subtitles for songs and inserts on the screen
  2. or watching it in the original Japanese for the purpose of learning the language (the original soundtrack is also available thanks to the dual system).

Of course, the majority will go for the first option, with some viewers occasionally switching to the original version to listen to Japanese. A small number of people will even go as far as buying Japanese dictionaries and grammar books in order to teach themselves the language.

In Catalonia, there are now youngsters who are frustrated because they are not yet fourteen years old, the minimum age required to attend Japanese classes in the official schools run by the Spanish government. Their interest in Japanese is usually not limited to manga and anime, but often extends to Japanese culture and society. These keen learners of Japanese subsequently make up a significant proportion of the students who take Japanese as an option or read Japanese as their major language at university.

Ironically, if these students manage to acquire a sufficient level of Japanese and go to the trouble of comparing the Catalan versions with the original Japanese dialogues, they will probably be disappointed by the many discrepancies which exist between the two. In the absence of footnotes, when translating dubbed versions of audio-visual products, translators are forced to expand, cut, modify or indeed do whatever needs to be done for the sake of clarity – even more so, if they want to give the translated version the natural phrasing and appropriateness of the target language.

The Historical Background of Anime in Catalonia

Those Catalans who are now over thirty are most likely to remember anime titles such as Heidi, Marco or Mazinger Z, which they used to watch in Spanish when they were children – long before Televisió de Catalunya came into existence. At that time (the late seventies to the beginning of eighties), anime productions made up only a small proportion of the animation series broadcast on Spanish TV, and only young children paid attention to them.

However, a radical change took place when Dragon Ball – and, maybe to a lesser extent, Dr. Slump – were broadcast on Televisió de Catalunya. Even though they became very popular among young viewers, there was a significant group of older viewers, even in their thirties, who watched it. The same has happened, more recently, with Crayon Shinchan, an anime title intended for adults, which turned out to be a hit among audiences of all ages. Maybe the reason is that people who are now married and have children have themselves grown up loving this type of animation, and can now share this passion with their children.

Nowadays, most of the animation broadcast on Televisió de Catalunya is Japanese, and it is intended for a variety of audiences of different ages, ranging from very young children (Doraemon or Ojamaho Doremi), to teenagers (Yu yu hakusho or Slam Dunk) to adults (Crayon Shinchan).

Translation Process: Some Positive Developments

Changes in the type of the titles broadcast and the volume of series to be translated have also affected the way translations are carried out. The first anime shown on Televisió de Catalunya used to be translated from other European languages – mainly English, but occasionally from some others – and only those episodes for which an intermediate version (translation in one European language) was not available would be translated directly from Japanese. Having to work without a script was not uncommon, and a Japanese person living in Catalonia would be recruited as a translator. These translators, often without any background in translation, produced texts that may have been faithful to the original. However, the scripts usually needed to be rewritten in order to render them understandable and to make them sound natural in Catalan. Occasionally, content was translated into Spanish, in which case it was somebody else who translated it into Catalan (regrettably without having access to the original text).

These methods were due to the lack of Catalan speakers trained to carry out this type of translation. The situation, though, is changing, and as Televisió de Catalunya has increased the volume of anime broadcast and more trained translators are coming out of Catalan universities with Japanese language, more and more anime are being translated directly from Japanese by trained Catalan native translators. More original scripts are currently being made available to the translators as well. Now, translating from Japanese is the rule, rather than the exception.

This development has come at an opportune moment since many anime, old and new, of all sorts and for all kinds of audiences, are now dubbed into Catalan. Language expertise is required to produce translations appropriate (1) to the content of the series and (2) according to the unique viewer requirements. Nevertheless, the ultimate responsibility for the language quality in the dubbed versions is not the translator’s, but the language editor’s, an expert in Catalan now required by Televisió de Catalunya to check all final products to be aired.

Another Language, Other Voices: The Dubbing Process

The dubbing process is usually carried out in three separate stages:

  1. the translation of the original script,
  2. the adjustment of lip synchronization to the translated script to fit the lip movements of the actors (or animated characters),
  3. and the recording in the dubbing studio.

Translators are only supposed – and indeed paid – to translate the text, so they are not required to worry about synchronicity, even though most of them keep lip synchrony in mind when translating. In fact, translators are nearly always people who work outside the studio on a freelance basis, and whose profile is not even included in the job agreement for the dubbing sector of the audiovisual industry. It may sound odd, but they are not regarded as a part of the dubbing process!

Those in charge of the lip synchronization adjustment do not always have a linguistic background, and are not required to know the language of the original script, even when it is a European one. This means that they adjust the text without worrying much about the content, and only focus on lip movements and synchronicity in general. This sometimes results in the loss of coherence and other problems that have to be solved at the next stage by confirmation with the translator.

After the translation and lip synchronization steps, the content is sent to the dubbing studio, where the dubbing director will choose the actors. When the original product is in a European language, the dubbing director may know the language or feel able to decode the information about the characters and the acting to be conveyed by the voices of the actors in the film or the series. But when it comes to Japanese and other lesser-known languages, the decisions made are somewhat arbitrary. Voices are assigned merely on the basis of the gender, age and sometimes a general psychological profile of the characters. This leads, in some cases, to the acting in the dubbed version being out-of-synch with the original. From the linguist’s point of view, the dubbing process could well benefit from the advice of the translator who could suggest the ideal voice talent to be assigned for each character in order to recreate its personality in the target language.

Generally, it is the dubbing director who keeps an eye on the quality of the dubbed version of the audio-visual product. However, when the dubbing is made for Televisió de Catalunya, it also requires the presence of a language editor. The primary concern of the editor is to make sure that the language (Catalan) used in the dubbing is correct and appropriate. Thus, s/he will check the translated text after it has been synchronized for dubbing and will revise it again after it has been dubbed. If Televisió de Catalunya is dissatisfied with any take, it can demand a re-take at the studio’s expense.

Language editors are the only ones involved in the dubbing process who occasionally resort to the translator for explanations or comments. They may also have access to an English (or some other European language) version of the script, and use it as a reference when they do not understand some lines in the translation, or feel unsure about the meaning. This can prove tricky, since some translations may be inaccurate or simply wrong. On the other hand, the enormous gap that exists between Japanese and European languages always requires a degree of adaptation. The best adaptation can vary greatly, depending on the target language or even the style of translation favored.

Rethinking, Rewording, Remaking: The Case of Crayon Shinchan

Considering all of the above, priority is given to acceptability in the target language, rather than to faithfulness to the original text. Achieving this is also dependent on the availability of talent and the target audience. It is true that some viewers expect to learn about Japan and the Japanese by watching anime. For example, when older teenagers and university students download subtitled anime from the Internet in Japanese, they prefer the names of fighting techniques to be transcribed rather than translated. However, the vast majority of the audience is simply seeking entertainment: they expect to sit in front of the TV and enjoy a coherent, realistic story with easy-flowing dialogue.

This means that the original script will have to be changed whenever more or less literal translation is not enough, due to either linguistic or cultural reasons. For example, Japanese speakers tend to only imply dissatisfaction or even joy, rather than to express it openly. In a European language, it is necessary to make explicit what is implicit in Japanese, e.g., a maybe will become a clear-cut yes or no and a We’ll see will transform into Forget it.

There are also some expressions for which there is no exact equivalent in European languages. Crayon Shinchan sometimes uses these uniquely Japanese expressions in order to produce humor. For example, Shinchan, the cheeky 5-year-old main character, always uses the set expression okaeri when he returns home – literally meaning It’s good you’re back – an expression normally uttered by the people who are at the receiving end of returning family members. People returning home should normally say tadaima – I’m back. Furthermore, okaeri is an honorific expression used to show respect to the returning party, thus one should not use it for oneself. This deliberate misuse of okaeri by Shinchan is translated into Catalan simply as adéu (goodbye), so part of its humor is inevitably lost. Worse still, when Shinchan feels like expanding his okaeri into a pun – okaeringosarada (okaeri + apple salad), for example – the translator must come up with something equally ridiculous. In this particular case, it is hola, hola, escarola (hello, hello, endive), which does not make sense, but rhymes and sounds funny.

Puns have a very long tradition in Japanese literature and are often used in animation, even when a product is intended for very young children. Crayon Shinchan is an extreme example of this, with some of its episodes based mainly on puns which cannot really be translated, but which instead require a full re-invention. One episode was based exclusively on the similarity between three words: kama (oven), okama (transvestite) and Ōkama (a surname). Mr. Ōkama, a ceramic artist, was infuriated by being called a transvestite (okama with the short vowel o) by Shinchan all the time. In the Catalan script, the confusion was re-invented by using taller (workshop) and paller (straw loft). The artist was irritated by Shinchan looking eagerly for cows in his workshop in order to milk them. Obviously, the audience did not realize that the script had been totally re-invented.

Culture-bound objects and behaviors can also pose a problem. For example, in the original Japanese version, Shinchan’s friend, Masao, has a head that resembles an onigiri, a common snack food made from a ball of rice. In Catalonia, where rice-balls are unknown, his head thus resembles a billiard ball.

Some of the habits of Shinchan’s family members have also proved to be quite shocking to the Catalan audience. His father comes home completely drunk every now and again, and his mother never fails to hit him when she gets angry. The family sometimes discusses very scatological matters while having dinner. When Shinchan’s father takes a bath with Himawari, his baby daughter, he sometimes imagines how sexy she will be in fifteen years time, and wonders if they will still take baths together. This is not meant to be an incestuous thought, but rather a complex self-parody on the part of a pathetic middle-aged man. However, many Catalan viewers have failed to understand this, so Crayon Shinchan raised a heated debate when it was first broadcast. Since the Catalan government now considers its content inappropriate for younger children, the program has been assigned a broadcasting rating to warn viewers that it is suitable only for viewers over thirteen.

All of the above situations are also funny in translation, but the intent at parody is inevitably lost, and there is little that translators can do to prevent it. At most, they can introduce some justification in the lines of the characters for what is going on, or some clues to call attention to the unreality of the whole thing. But, in the end, it is up to the viewers – all types – to come up with an interpretation of what is taking place on the screen.


Many anime lovers would, no doubt, feel disappointed if they were aware of the amount of re-invention that occurs during the translation of the series they enjoy watching so much. But the two go hand-in-hand: re-creation is a must in order to attain clarity and audience-friendly language, and the only path that leads to enjoyment. The manner in which the script is translated, and the emergence of the original text with its linguistic and cultural peculiarities – however restricted in the final version – is the result of the dubbing process and the need to render the original product in a comprehensible version for the target audience. Perhaps the Japan portrayed in the anime dubbed into Catalan is not a faithful rendition of the real Japan, but rather like a postcard that a friend may have sent you from an exotic location – just enough to lure you to eventually go and discover the place yourself.

Jordi Mas López, MA, PhD., is a Lecturer on the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain. His research has focused on the influence of Japanese literature on Catalan literature. Mas López is also a professional translator who reinvents Japanese cartoons in Catalan.



Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
14 September 2004, Volume XIII, Issue 3.3.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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