Impossibilities in Translating Queerness: Suki or not suki?

“Hime hime, hime, suki suki daisuki!” (From Yowamushi Pedal, ep 1.)

No discussion of the nuances of translating queerness could possibly be complete without diving into the messy, messy world of suki (好き). This slippery little word, taught in first semester Japanese classes everywhere as “like,” as in “I like pizza,” often finds itself sitting in some fuzzy space between the emotions of like and love. This isn’t a huge deal when we’re talking about pizza; but as soon as the emotions are applied to relationships between people, a whole heap of contextual nuance and cultural baggage works its way into the interpretations.

“Z-z-zutto s-suki deshita! Ts-tsukiatte kudasai!” (From Boruto: Naruto Next Generations, ep 7.)

These ambiguities and contextual differences are obviously not unique to Japanese; in English as well, the words “like” and “love” have wildly different implications in different situations. The rather goofy gif above emphasizes two things at once: First, that not only can suki have romantic connotations, but it is in fact part of the most classic stock phrase for confessing romantic feelings; and second, that the English “like” can also have a clearly romantic meaning in the right context — in this case, the context is the first confession of a crush between teenagers, so it makes sense that the translators went with the lighter “like.”

The following (adorable) progression of scenes from MY Love STORY!! again demonstrates how sensitive the translation of this specific word is to the interpretation of the context:

(From eps 1, 4, and 10 respectively.)

The Japanese in each of these three scenes is identical: “Suki da!” It’s this very repetitiveness that creates the humor — similar cinematography, the same intonation each time. But the English subtitles chose to forgo that aesthetic of repetition in favor of escalation, emphasizing the fact that these very same words, at different stages of the developing romance, reflect different underlying emotions.

So we’ve already seen suki translated as “like,” “really like,” and “love.” The following translation from Lupin the Third: Part 2, kicks the intensity up yet another notch:

You tell him, girl. (From ep 60.)

The Japanese line here is “Lupin, chikyuujou no otoko wa zenbu shinitaete, anata hitori ni nattemo, atashi kesshite anata o suki naru koto wa nakute yo.” Importantly, the word that’s being translated as “be in love with” is the simple unadorned suki: “Even if all men on earth were wiped out and only you remained, there’s no way you’d become [suki] to me.” There are contextual cues even within the sentence itself that back up this translation: By referencing specifically all other men dying out, Fujiko implies that her declaration is about (heterosexual) romantic attraction; otherwise, why bring gender into it? Indeed, in all of the examples we’ve looked at so far, there are ample obvious contextual indicators of romance or the possibility of romance. And hey, in an intriguing coincidence, all of the examples so far have featured totally heteronormative interactions. Hmm…

D’aww. (From ep 82.)

In this scene, Zenigata, believing Lupin has been killed, breaks down in tears and says “Lupin… Tachiba chigatte itemo washi wa omae ga suki dattan da,” to which Lupin, in fact alive and in disguise (uh, spoiler, I guess?) thinks “ore mo suki yo.” In both cases suki is translated as “like.” Just as I discussed with the translation of koibito in Yuri!!! On Ice, so many layers are piled into these lines and their translations. Of course “like” can have a range of connotations in English as well, including romantic ones; but in the two previous gifs where suki was translated as “like,” the context was specifically a teenage crush or a first impression, nothing this dramatic. In those cases there were also clear indications (from the surrounding dialogue or the cinematography) that the emotions expressed were unambiguously romantic. The context here is — at the most superficial level at least — more ambiguous. There are no sparkles or blushing or clover tiaras or invitations to a date.

But overly dramatic sparkles aren’t a prerequisite to a romantic interpretation; and even today — let alone in the 1970s when this show was made — queer romance isn’t generally depicted with the same openness as normative straight relationships or romantic overtures. There may not be sparkles and blushes in this scene, but this is an intense outpouring of emotion delivered among sobs, a confession after Lupin’s death of something maybe more difficult to express directly to him in life. Genderswap either character here and no one would argue that the context itself isn’t inherently romantic. That doesn’t mean that “I was in love with you” would be a better translation; the ambiguity is intrinsic to the Japanese. But there’s something jarring about “I liked you” juxtaposed with such an over the top display of grief; and it’s hard not to wonder whether the genders of the characters prevented a translation of “I loved you.” It’s certainly worth paying attention to the fact that the exact phrases used here, in more heteronormative contexts, are routinely translated with the verb “love.” And in fact, if we zoom out from this specific scene to the more general context of Zenigata and Lupin’s dynamic throughout the show, we find that in fact the show often uses stereotypical romantic tropes between them. In that broader context, the use of the rather weak “like” in this translation feels even more like straightwashing.

And stay tuned, because Elizabeth will be exploring all the complexities of this relationship in future installments of her Lupin the Third guide! (From ep 1.)

The semantic nuances of exactly how to convey the meaning of suki in different contexts are clearly complicated and important, but I’m personally even more obsessed with the tricky syntactic puzzles presented by the differences between Japanese and English grammar. Going back to the sequence of gifs from MY Love STORY!!, you probably noticed that, just like with the translations of Killua ja nakya dame nan da that I discussed previously, it’s not just the translation of suki that changed between these different scenes: The translation switches between third person (“I like her.”) and second person (“I love you.”). This is where it gets really fascinating to me. Japanese sentences don’t require a subject in order to be grammatical, and that leaves the door open for specific uses of deliberate ambiguity that are hard to port directly into English.

A perfect example is the ending of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun (which is a fantastic and hilarious show and you should watch it… possibly before reading the rest of this article, if you care about spoilers I guess). The show is brilliantly bookended by failed confessions of love: In the first episode when Sakura attempts to confess her feelings to her crush, the eponymous Nozaki, all she can make herself say is “I’ve always been your fan,” (“Zutto fan deshita”) leaving enough semantic ambiguity that he misunderstands her to mean she’s a fan of the shojo manga he happens to write. In the very last episode she finally, finally works up the nerve to voice the confession she ought to have said at the very beginning, and, well…

…..Straight people, amirite? (From ep 12.)

Notice that the subtitles don’t really uh, make sense? She says “love you” and he responds with “I also love fireworks”? Did he mishear her because of the noise? I feel for the subbers here; the joke simply doesn’t work naturally in a language that requires subjects. Here’s the Japanese:

Sakura: ((thinking)) “Demo ne, watashi, Nozaki-kun no koto¹ zutto, zutto…” ((out loud)) “…suki da yo.”
Nozaki: “Ore mo suki da yo. Hanabi.”

Oof, poor Sakura. You can do better, girl. Anyway, Nozaki’s misunderstanding now makes perfect sense (syntactically at least). The fact that he phrases his agreement in such a way as to get her hopes up for a moment is obviously for humorous effect, but it works grammatically. One could even argue that this exchange leaves some open questions: Is Nozaki really as dense as he seems here? Does he use that word order deliberately because he wants to reciprocate her feelings but is hesitant? Does he tack on the “hanabi” (“fireworks”) clarification because he realizes she might misunderstand? Is he just an oaf? Mysteries abound.

I mention this example because the exact same deliberate syntactic ambiguity is used in one of my favorite scenes from the delightful Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens, a gloriously queer and ridiculous show about assassins and baseball and everything uh, in between?

Seriously, watch this show. Like literally right now, stop reading this and watch it. I’ll wait. (From ep 12.)

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is one of those shows that pretty much spans the Queerness Quadrants: Several of the secondary characters are explicitly gay (the guy in the gif above is a former hairdresser who’s now a bartender running a revenge-for-hire business and raising this girl with his super buff partner… listen just go watch the show, why are you still here??); the main character is an assassin-for-hire named Lin who dresses and presents completely femme (but identifies as male); the whole story is about a sort of found family of misfits on the outside of society, a theme often found in metaphorical explorations of queerness (although the metaphor is never made as blatant as in e.g. Devilman Crybaby or Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid). The main focus, and main strength of the show, is the relationship between Lin and Banba, another assassin with whom Lin finds himself living with for a while. It’s here that the show, despite all of its extremely explicit queerness, holds itself just barely on the implicit side. Lin spends much of the show denying out loud that his feelings for Banba are romantic, and that’s never… quite… contradicted.

…Or is it? Well, you decide. In this scene from the final episode, after Lin has freaked out at the growing closeness and domesticity of their relationship and tried to run away, the two are discussing whether they can truly, uh, “trust” each other.

Speaking of things that are impossible to translate, “Ban-baka,” Lin’s nickname for Banba, is possibly the most adorable pun in all of anime.

At a symbolic level, the meaning comes across just fine here in the English. Banba’s obsessed with baseball, and Lin has always grumbled about it. There’s some metonymy here: By admitting to coming around on liking baseball, Lin is tacitly admitting something about his feelings for Banba.

But take a look at the word order in Japanese, and compare it to Nozaki’s sentence above:

Banba: “Kedo, ore wa shinjitou yo, Lin-chan no koto.”
Lin: “Yakyuu shitee dake darou ka, Ban-baka. Demo, ore mo saikin wari to suki da ze. Yakyuu.”
Banba: “Sou ne.”

Banba’s statement is about their relationship, not about baseball. Lin’s response first defensively tries to dismiss the sincerity of Banba’s declaration (he needs Lin around to have enough people to field a team, is the accusation here). But then he hesitantly admits that he’s come around to liking……uh, baseball (yakyuu). That word order is deliberate and meaningful. As awkward and qualified as it is (wari to is like “somewhat”), there’s a moment in this sentence when it sounds like a confession of romantic feelings, just as Sakura briefly misunderstands Nozaki’s meaning. The particle mo (“also,” a nuance which didn’t make it into the translation) is doing a lot of work, carrying both sides of the ambiguity: On one level it’s referencing Banba’s own love of baseball, but on another level it’s acknowledging what Banba actually said, making Lin’s sentence a reciprocation of something (notice that both Lupin’s line and Nozaki’s line also begin with “Ore mo…”). The use of mo could suggest that Lin’s sentence parallels or echos Banba’s previous sentence, and the grammatical subject² of Banba’s sentence was “Lin-chan no koto.” For lack of another subject, and given the “mo” as an indication of parallelism, it would make sense to fill in the blank with a parallel phrase, “Banba no koto.” That blank is quickly filled in instead by Lin’s tacked-on “Yakyuu,” but the sentence hangs there for a moment, the ambiguity out in the open.

(Incidentally, the particle ne indicates shared or previously known information, not new information, so Banba’s response is closer to a Han-Solo-esque “I know” than to the “I see” of the subtitles…)

Does the failure of the subtitles to fully capture the grammatical nuances and suggestive ambiguity of this sentence completely destroy a queer reading of the scene? Obviously not — arguably the soft look in Banba’s eyes is plenty to indicate what’s going on, even if we turned the sound and subtitles off completely. But it’s in the accumulation of tiny details like this that implicit queer narratives take form and substance, making each detail, each small layer matter. And as always, I’m most interested in the cases where even careful attention to context and sensitivity to the queer readings don’t offer a simple solution to conveying the same layers in English.

Words like suki, which carry intrinsic ambiguity and sensitivity to context, are especially interesting and important to pay attention to when looking at queer works in translation. Implicit or subtextual queer love isn’t signaled in the same blatant ways that cishetero love is, and the heteronormative lenses of translators and audience alike can make it easy to choose the less romantic translations in queer contexts, or to assume a less romantic implication of exactly the same phrases. But this also means that writers can play with those ambiguities deliberately to allow characters to express those emotions while still staying under the radar. It’s a fascinating and complicated dance, and I’d love to collect more and more examples; if you have favorite (or least favorite…) examples of translations of suki or similar words, let us know!

In the meantime, never forget that anime… is gay. (Yowamushi Pedal ep 1.)

Endnotes

  1. For those wondering, using “Nozaki-kun no koto” here rather than simply the name is emphasizing that the meaning is the actual, embodied person Nozaki, with all of his traits (koto means “(intangible) thing(s)”); the unadorned name can be taken as a linguistic pointer, not capable of being loved. This nuance doesn’t matter a ton — it wouldn’t be odd or ungrammatical to just say “Nozaki-kun ga suki” — but it is true that the “~no koto” form is the traditional, idiomatic way to phrase this sort of confession of feelings.
  2. Yes, subject — although in the English translation the “you” in these various sentences is grammatically a direct object (“I trust you,” “I love you,” etc.), in the Japanese it is grammatically a subject. In the case of sentences with suki, suki functions grammatically as an adjective, a feature being attributed to the object of whatever sort of affection. In Banba’s sentence here, what he actually says is closer to “I want to trust you” or “I choose to trust you;” shinjitou is a variant of shinjitai, expressing will to do something (in this case, to trust Lin), and the ~tai ending is a predicate adjective that turns what would be the direct object of the verb into the subject. None of this especially matters; I’m just geeking out about Japanese grammar now. But despite how it’s rendered in English, I do in fact mean it when I talk about these sentences having ambiguous subjects, not objects.