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 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

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A few impressions from Kiyosawa’s Diary of Darkness

Via Amazon

I’ve been reading A Diary of Darkness, kept by the Japanese journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi from 1942 until his death in 1945 (trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie). Oh, it’s so good.

The diary covers international affairs, political happenings, and daily life in Japan over the course of the Pacific / Greater East Asia War. Despite strict censorship enforced by the military government and the arrest of several of his intellectual friends for “thought crimes,” Kiyosawa bravely risked his own arrest to produce an honest account of the madness that descended on Japan during the war.

But it’s not just a typical diary either. Kiyosawa kept the journal on the hope that he could use its material to produce a history of Japanese international relations after the war. Thus, along with recording illuminating vignettes of everyday life, Kiyosawa managed to produce a real-time account of the collapse of the Japanese homefront with scholarly rigor as good or better than any secondary source for understanding Japan’s progress during the war.

In politics, Kiyosawa was a committed liberal – more than anything, he complains about the stultifying effect attacks on the freedom of speech had on Japanese society. It’s remarkable then that the journal survived, a powerful testament to the singular importance of that freedom in maintaining a peaceful and democratic society. I regret that he did not live long enough to see Japan become such a society. But hey, it’s nice that he tried.

So anyway, in lieu of something more substantial, here are three quick impressions:

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Buddha and the Boozer

Habushu, an Okinawan snake alcohol. Image: Wikipedia

Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?

I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English in Japanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”

But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:

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Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

Image via Amazon

[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

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Weird Japan: the tomb of Jesus Christ and Isukiri’s Creed

The apparent final resting place of Jesus Christ in Shingo Village, Aomori Prefecture, Japan

[Like before, the usual disclaimer: I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This week, I’m traveling so I don’t have time for any rigor-ish research. But just google “tomb of jesus christ shingo.” — It’s the bizarre intersection between the occult fascination of a Japanese “new religion,” the credulous hucksterism of a small-time mayor looking to boost his isolated village’s image, and the indifferent villagers (only one of whom is Christian) who put up with the odd tourist in exchange for a little spare commerce. And if it isn’t obvious, Isukiri’s creed is my fictional creation]

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Ineffective Altruism? The Japanese charity that trades bottle caps for polio vaccines

Those bottle caps aren’t even worth a penny

[I left most of the numbers in yen, but since the recent exchange rates have hovered around ¥107 to the dollar, just divide any yen value by 100 to make a rough conversion. And sorry, most of the links are in Japanese… I couldn’t source any of this in English.]

Last week, a student gave me an essay about the “EcoCap Movement,” a Japanese charity which collects and recycles bottle caps in order to exchange the plastic scrap for polio vaccines (among other causes). As she tells me, she has started collecting caps with her friends on the volleyball team so that she can “save the life of a child.” Because a polio vaccine costs ¥20 and 430 bottle caps scrap for ¥10, she just needs to gather 860 caps. The team goes through dozens of sports drinks at practice every week so they should reach their goal in just a couple months. A solid charitable effort by middle schoolers, right?

But woah woah woah, back up. 860 caps means 860 bottles of water, tea, soda, or other soft drinks. How much did those cost? At Japanese convenience stores, most plastic-bottled drinks retail for between ¥100 and ¥200 — enough to buy 5 to 10 vaccines for the same price as one cap. Why not just skip the sports drinks for a day and bring tap water in reusable bottles to practice? The whole team would save a couple thousand yen, which they could then donate for the purchase of over 100 vaccines, thus “saving the lives” of dozens of children without waiting months to accumulate 860 caps.

I don’t want to criticize some feel-good altruism by a bunch of children too harshly but um… this might be the most absurd charity I’ve ever heard of. Yugh… too harsh. Let me explain with some middle-school grade math and a bit of behavioral economics…

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Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon

Source: Pexels public domain images

[Since I don’t have access to an English-language library out in rural Japan, I found all of the translations online so it’s a mix of serious academic efforts and maybe some more casual ones. I’ve included links, though a couple of the websites are absolute fossils that are difficult to search, so sorry about that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss Inter-Library Loan when I left university…]

Last week at my adult English conversation class (“eikaiwa”), I thought I would shock and sensationalize by presenting a bunch of middle-to-old-aged Japanese ladies with haiku in English via some of Jack Kerouac’s American “pops.” They found the idea of haiku outside of the Japanese language hilarious (seriously, they laughed at me!) and accused Kerouac of writing senryu (“no season word!”), but their surprise at the topic triggered some of the best discussion I’ve had since I started the class almost two years ago.

But better yet, after class one of my students emailed me an early 19th century poem from the haiku master Kobayashi Issa with the message “Tonight’s moon is good. Do you think so? This haiku is famous” (too bad I had already gone to sleep!). She sent me the text in Japanese, which I have transliterated and lazily translated below:

名月をとってくれろと泣く子かな

Meigetsu o (5) / totte kurero to (7) / naku ko kana (5)

harvest moon / get (bring) it! / child that cries…

You can break down the literal sentence like this: “harvest moon” is the grammatical object (を particle) of “get / bring,” an imperative verb (ろ ending) in indirect statement (と particle) to “cries,” which then modifies “child.” The last two beats with “kana” modify the whole sentence to mark uncertain thinking like an ellipsis… I suppose here you could take it as something like a gentle, thinking-out-loud observation along the lines of “Hmm…” or “Oh” or, if you want to sound fancy, a sighing lamentation like “How!” or “Alas!” As I first read it, I came up with this unpoetic line translation:

Oh child that cries… bring (me) the harvest moon!

In terms of the rules of haiku, harvest moon (meigetsu) is the season word (kigo), recalling the autumn, while that “kana” I discussed before is the formal cutting word (kireji). As I imagine it though, I like to think of “to” as an informal cutting word as well, splitting the poem into two voices: a young child making an impossible, maybe humorous demand (“gimme the moon!”) and an adult then quoting the child to make a melancholy or frustrated reply (“oh kiddo…”). But before revising my line translation to account for the haiku features, let’s see how a few other translators have rendered the poem in English:

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Weird Japan: two fascist monuments in the samurai city of Aizu-Wakamatsu

[content warning: historical suicides]

In Rome or Wakamatsu?

[My main historical sourcing for this post comes from Reto Hofmann’s 2015 book The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy, 1915-1952 and Michael Lucken’s chapter “Remodeling Public Space: the Fate of War Monuments, 1945-1948” from the 2008 anthology The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. For the sake of convenience, I’ll cite them both by last name only (since you can search both on Google Books) and link any other sources when necessary. Aaand… ugh, stricken by inadequacy again. I regret that I cannot read Japanese better; I would have liked to learn more in the nearby museum. But eh, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered: the displays focused on the Boshin War, not the fascist connection]

It’s “Golden Week” in Japan, this year extended by some extra public holidays for the coronation Emperor Naruhito to usher in the new Reiwa era. So, I’ve been playing the tourist again with some short trips in Tohoku, including one to Aizu, a volcanic mountain basin in western Fukushima Prefecture best known today for its proud history celebrated in the small “samurai city” of Aizu-Wakamatsu. I’ll keep my disclaimer from last time — I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This is not a country profile. But ohhhhh my god, I found something really weird: two memorials dedicated to fallen samurai children …donated by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany!

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