I mentioned in a recent comment thread that I had developed some sympathy for BabelFish’s entertaining but mostly useless translations from Japanese to English.
It started with Mahoromatic, a manga and anime series that I’m generally quite fond of. The official web site for the anime includes a lot of merchandise, and I was interested in finding out more about some of the stuff that hasn’t been officially imported to the US market. So I asked BabelFish to translate the pages, expecting to be able to make at least a little sense of the results.
It was worse than I expected, and it took me a while to figure out why. At the time, the translation engine left intact everything it had been unable to convert to English, which gave me some important clues. It was also possible to paste Unicode text into the translation window and get direct translations, which helped me narrow down the problems. [Sadly, both of these features disappeared a few months ago, making BabelFish a lot less useful.]
The clues started with the name of the show and its main character, both of which are written in hiragana on the site. BabelFish reliably converted まほろまてぃっく (Mahoromatic) to “ま top wait the ぃっく” and まほろ (Mahoro) to “ま top”. The one that really got me, though, was the live concert DVD, whose title went from 「まほろまてぃっく らいぶ！＆Music Clips」 to “ま top wait the ぃっく leprosy ぶ! & in the midst of Music Clips”.
With apologies to Vernor Vinge, it was a case of “leprosy as the key insight”. It was so absurd, so out of place, that it had to be important. Fortunately, the little kana “turds” that BabelFish left behind told me exactly which hiragana characters it had translated as leprosy: らい (rai).
But rai doesn’t mean leprosy. Raibyou (らいびょう or 癩病) does, but on its own, rai is one of “since”, “defeat”, or the English loanword “lie” (which should properly be written in katakana, as ライ). So where did it come from? Rai is the pronunciation of the kanji 癩, which means leprosy. Except that it doesn’t, quite.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Every kanji character has one or more meanings and pronunciations. Some came along for the ride when the character was borrowed from China (the ON-reading), others are native inventions (the KUN-reading), but neither is necessarily a Japanese word. There are plenty of words that consist of a single kanji, such as 犬 (inu, “dog”), but not all single kanji are words.
Our friend rai is one of the latter. It has only a single ON-reading, which means leprosy, but the Japanese word for leprosy is formed by appending another kanji, 病 (byou, “sick”). So while rai really does mean leprosy, it’s not the word for leprosy. BabelFish, convinced that anything written in hiragana must be a native Japanese word, is simply trying too hard.
So what was it supposed to be? That little leftover kana at the end (ぶ) was “bu”, making the complete word “raibu”. Say it out loud, remembering that the Japanese have trouble pronouncing “l” and “v”, and it becomes “live”. The correct translation of the title should be “Mahoromatic Live! & Music Clips”; neither of the words in hiragana should be translated, because they’re not Japanese words.
In fairness to BabelFish, the folks responsible for Mahoromatic have played a dirty trick on it. It’s actually a pretty good rule of thumb that something written in hiragana is Japanese and something written in katakana is not, and, sure enough, if you feed in ライブ instead of らいぶ, it will correctly come back as “live”.
I fell for this, too, when I tried to figure out the full title of the Mahoromatic adventure game 「まほろまてぃっく☆あどべんちゃ」. The part after the star (adobencha) is written in hiragana, so I tried to interpret it as Japanese. I knew I’d gotten it wrong when I came up with “conveniently leftover tea”, but I didn’t realize I’d been BabelFished until I said it out loud.
Isn’t Japanese fun? My latest surprise came when my Rosetta Stone self-study course threw up the word ビーだま (biidama, “marble” (the toy kind)). I thought it was a typo at first, this word that was half-katakana, half-hiragana, but switching the software over to the full kanji mode converted it to ビー玉, and, sure enough, that’s what it looked like in my dictionary.
A little digging with JEdict provided the answer. Back in the days when the Portuguese started trading with Japan, their word vidro (“windowpane”) was adopted as the generic word for glass, becoming biidoro (ビードロ). The native word for sphere is dama (だま or 玉). Mash them together, and you’ve got a “glass sphere”, or a marble. Don’t go looking for other words based on biidoro, though, because it fell out of fashion a few centuries back; modern loanwords are based on garasu.
After reaching the end of Angelic Layer, I found myself thinking about the unsatisfying conclusion to Mahoromatic, and I think I finally understand how it went wrong.
Warning: severe spoilers for Mahoromatic ahead. Safe for people currently watching Angelic Layer (hinthint). I’ll defer a full discussion of that ending for a while. I want to go back and watch the whole thing again first.
First, an annoyance. The main character’s first name is Chitose, chi-toe-say. In the dub (and the previews that appear on other DVDs), this becomes Cheetos. Everyone calls him this, even the shy class president who has a crush on him and wouldn’t dream of calling him by his first name. Other than that, the dub isn’t wretched, but it’s not very good, either, and as usual you should leave the dialog in Japanese with subtitles.
Second, a clarification. The Happy Lesson manga is proceeding more slowly than the anime, and in a slightly different direction (even the main character’s name is different, but it’s still not Cheetos), but it was the first thing to come out in English. They released the TV series next, and just recently the first three OVA episodes, but I think the latter should be watched first, since they introduce two characters who aren’t in the manga and just show up out of the blue in the TV series. The first episode of the TV series is an alternate edit of the OVA opener, but the rest is different, and develops the cast a lot more.
Third, it doesn’t really end, because they made a second season (as yet not officially licensed for US release).
With all that out of the way, what’s it like? Well, imagine a typical harem comedy where beautiful women move into a house with a hapless teenage boy and compete for his affections. Got that in your head? Okay, now throw out the romance angle, and replace it with motherly affection. And make the five sexy roommate-mothers his schoolteachers. Add in a shy-but-stacked classmate as the real love interest, two old friends from the orphanage Our Hero lived in until recently, and (eventually) a socially-phobic mad scientist, and, as they say, “wackiness ensues”.
Yes, that’s nine females fussing over poor Chitose, but their looks and personalities are distinct and interesting, and all of them get at least a little bit of character development. Another sharp departure from the harem anime tradition is the relative lack of fan-service; the women are lushly drawn, but outside of the bath, their clothes stay on, their skirts stay down, their breasts remain ungroped, and the boys aren’t popping nosebleeds all over the place in response to a quick flash.
The plot, such as it is, that ties things together is the lovestruck classmate’s attempts to both discover what Chitose is hiding about his home life and to reveal her feelings to him. It builds up nicely as the series progresses, and ends with major achievements toward both goals, which, unfortunately, are abruptly reversed in the final scene. I had that “Bobby Ewing steps out of the shower” feeling as the writers hit reset and prepared for the next season.
It’s light and fluffy, but well done, and a refreshing take on the harem clichés. I’ll definitely pick up any additional releases in this series. But I’m kinda pissed about that last scene.
Warning: there’s so little plot in Steel Angel Kurumi that I can’t possibly talk about the ending without revealing most of it. If you’re spoiler-shy, stop reading now.
Since he brought it up, I thought I’d give my own reaction to the endings of some of the anime series I’ve been watching. For obvious reasons, one should BEWARE OF MILD SPOILERS below.
[update: cleaned up the formatting and added a review of Please! Teacher]
For my recent road trip to Kirkland (which was what cut my road trip to LA short), I filled my suitcase with anime DVDs, most of which I picked up based on recommendations. Somewhere along the way, I started thinking of one-sentence summaries of the stories, for both the new stuff and the ones I’ve had for years.
Possible mild spoilers…
Continuing my trend of finding out about DVD releases a month after they reach the stores, I tripped across a copy of Dirty Pair: Project Eden today. I practically knocked over the shelf in my haste to grab it, because my ancient bootleg VHS copy is almost unwatchable, and this is one of my favorite OAVs. There’s just something about scantily clad Women of Mass Destruction.
[The Dirty Pair Flash DVDs, and the recent graphic novel Run From The Future, on the other hand, do nothing for me; I don’t like the art, and I don’t like how they redefine the characters. The rest of the stuff is action/comedy gold, though.]
My other recent discovery was the John Carpenter cult classic They Live, best known for the lengthy and surprisingly realistic fight scene, in which two big guys beat the crap out of each other, and then spend the rest of the movie limping around like someone just beat the crap out of them. Loads of fun, and a far better alien-invasion story than just about anything else ever made in Hollywood.
None of the local retailers have They Live in stock. When I asked, one chain store manager complained “they ship me two copies of a great film, and thirty copies of crap I’ll never be able to sell.”
The local Borders cheerfully offered to order it for me, and since I’ve still got at least a dozen DVDs piled up to watch, I told them to go ahead. When I checked back today, I discovered that they expect it to take one month to get the order in, if it’s in their warehouse.
WTF? A recent release, and the best they can do is send the warehouse a polite note asking if they could pretty-please send one along sometime after Thanksgiving? Should I point out to them that borders.com is an Amazon storefront, and I could have it before the week is out?
While making dinner just now, I had a truly evil thought about who should provide the voice for an Ann Coulter audiobook: anime voice actress Kotono Mitsuishi, playing the title character from Excel Saga (link goes to MP3 clip).
It’s such an appealing thought that I’m tempted to grab a bunch of video clips of Excel and re-subtitle them with one of Coulter’s articles.
[for more fun, IMDB reports that the same actress also voiced the busty assassin Christie in the two Dead or Alive Xbox games (DOA3 and DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball), as well as the title character in Sailor Moon. Don’t go there. :-)]