Morgan Sleeper, linguistics, shares his research on Sailor Moon

I’m working with Daphne Iskos ’21 (Minneapolis), and we are studying Sailor Moon in translation. Sailor Moon is a big global franchise, but it started out as a manga (a Japanese comic book). It was originally translated into English in 1998, but we also have a newer translation from 2011. We’re looking at how Japanese manga in translation has changed in English in that time.

There has been a lot of awesome work on manga and translation in Japanese studies, popular culture studies, and media studies. What we are doing differently is looking specifically from a linguistic perspective. What are the linguistic features that go into these different translations, and how do readers use language to interact with them in  ways that we can look at?

Looking for resonances

We use a specific linguistic methodology called digraphs where we line up lines from the original Japanese and the translations, sort of like a grid. Then we look at what resonances we see: What things are carried across through the translations, what things change, what things are added, and what things are removed? This methodology was originally used for studying conversation to see what resonates between turns in a conversation. We are adapting it to see what resonates between different translations of the same texts.

Daphne is majoring in Japanese and linguistics so the project really plays to her strengths. I’m a linguist, but I don’t speak Japanese. Daphne has been doing all of the Japanese translation and all of the Japanese glossing, which is not just translating, but in a linguistic way really breaking down the individual morphemes and syntax of the original Japanese. That gives us a clearer sense of what the language is actually doing functionally, rather than just a literal translation that we’re comparing to both published versions. She’s also looking at the cultural context from the original Japanese, which is helping us understand the context of the translations.

The meaning of otaku

One of the things we have found has to do with loanwords in the English text—how things get translated. For example, there’s an early scene in the original Japanese where somebody is introduced as an otaku. The 1998 translation renders that as “This is our class nerd.”

However, the 2011 translation actually says in English, “Here’s Umino, he’s an otaku,” using the Japanese word in this English translation. There’s a lot going on there.

First, there are cultural differences between a class nerd and an otaku. But to be able to fully understand this sentence in the more recent translation, not only do you have to be familiar with this Japanese loanword of otaku, you also need to know two ways to understand it.

One way is the sense that English speakers use otaku as a loanword to mean a fan of anime or manga or certain other aspects of Japanese culture. The other sense is how the word is used in Japan, which also implies hyper-focus and database-like knowledge of a very specific topics. It’s nerdiness, but it’s not necessarily a good thing, and – especially in the ‘90s and early 2000s – carried a negative association with antisociality and obsession. To really understand the sentence, English speakers who are reading this need to know both senses of otaku.

The first translation is using linguistic features to erase the Japanese setting and Japanese-ness of the original text, whereas the second translation is actively bringing the Japanese into it by using untranslated Japanese loanwords in English. You get these interesting differences and connotations between English speakers reading these Japanese words and Japanese speakers reading the Japanese words.

The rise of “cool Japan”

When people were reading Japanese comics in English the ’90s, a lot of the appeal was that manga is quite different from American comic books in many ways that don’t just have to do with the language and the culture. Manga has different visual iconography, a different flow and very different storytelling. Those were the things many readers were focused on when they were excited about reading Sailor Moon in the ’90s.

After the ’90s and into the 2000s, you see the “cool Japan” phenomenon really taking hold in the English-speaking world and people being really excited about Japanese culture in general. And so now what you have is fans and people reading Sailor Moon who are excited about it not because of different visual iconography or different kinds of stories, but because it’s Japanese.

This is central to how many of these newer readers identify as fans. It’s not just about enjoying Sailor Moon, it’s about being able to know what words like otaku mean in Japanese text. This insider knowledge becomes part of the reader identity. That’s the secondary part of our research. First, we are looking at the actual text and the translations and looking at the linguistic constructions of those. But then we are looking at the discourse: the linguistics of how fans talk about these translations. As we continue our research, we are looking at online reviews, tweets, and blog posts and it’s really cool to see people create their identities as readers around these different linguistic considerations.

March 4 2021

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