Japanese cursing translated into English

I was kind of hesitant to make an entire topic for this question, but it’s had me wondering for a while now. My question is: What makes an interjection cursing in Japanese? The reason I ask is because sometimes I’ll be watching anime, and a character will shout out what seems to just be “What?” in Japanese, but in the English subtitles, it’s translated as, “What the h***?” or something worse. :sweat_smile: It makes me wonder if they were actually using any expletive terms, or if it’s just their tone of voice that makes it translate into a cursing phrase in English.

I hope you all understand what I’m saying. And I hope this topic isn’t too inappropriate or anything…


Well without specific examples it’s hard to say. But translators are often very liberal, sometimes to the point that they change the tone or meaning.


Sometimes translators use the method of “what would an English speaker say when placed in an identical situation” rather than a direct translation.

Though, いったい is an intensifier frequently used in Japanese that’s typically translated as “~ the hell” or “~ on earth” or similar. For example いったい何 = what on Earth?


Somewhat related to your topic, most Japanese people I’ve talked to have said that there are no words that are at the same level of intensity or vulgarity as English cursing. This makes translation difficult for them


It usually has to do with the tone/ context. For example, when characters say “何してる” they’ll usually subtitle it “What are you doing?” or “What the hell are you doing?!” based on tone and the context.


From a translation perspective, the problem you face is characterisation. Translation is not a word-for-word affair, not even a sentence-for-sentence affair. So, once you decide that such character is the rough cursing type, they may need to be swearing at appropriate times. (A bit caricatural, but you see my point.)

Deciding whether a character should be the cursing type is a tough question, and up to the translator. It will often be felt that if you translate everything in a straight fashion, characters will appear too polite (or undifferentiated, given that some Japanese speech patterns cannot be easily reproduced) for the social group they are expected to belong to (e.g., teenagers all speaking mildly among themselves). But then there’s a difficult question of whether you should render it as such, or whether it should be left implied. You can write scripted dialogue that implies vulgarity or such, even in cartoon, without resorting to straight swearing, but curse words are an easy way out (and some people just like that direct style better).

One thing people tend to overlook is the fact that curse words are often very marked. I can’t speak for English, but in French, every such word comes with its own stereotype. Not only that, but different social and demographic groups will perceive it differently, too. This explains why this kind of translation may sound “just right” to some, yet totally off to others. Of course, inversely, if nobody swears, the audience might not like it either. At the end of the day, it’s up to the translator.


I don’t know very much about this topic, but I think it’s worth mentioning that in Japanese something can become rude just by using the wrong politeness level. So if in a certain situation you were expected to use keigo, and instead you used informal speech, that could be akin to using actual swear words in English, I think.


Red hair — cursing type.
Green/blue hair — non-cursing type.

Number and shape of horns may also play a role.


and the other way around, too. Passive agressive keigo usage is a thing.


Oh, true.
Although, I don’t think passive aggressive keigo would be translated into swear words in English (though I don’t think you were implying that). It would be insulting to be really polite in a stiff and affected way, but it’s not the same thing as swear words. I think talking in a way that seems really civil on the outside, but due to context is actually insulting, is something that you can do in English too, although it wouldn’t be as obvious as in Japanese–it would probably be shown mostly through intonation.


Oh, your highness, thank you for gracing us with your wisdom.



Surely Niles from The Nanny is the perfect example of being insultingly polite in English. :slightly_smiling_face:


Based on my limited experience with watching stuff get translated into English, it’s really just filling in the blank using the general tone of the scene.

English is very liberal in what constitutes a proper sentence, meaning that “Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo” is actually a grammatically correct sentence.

Which is also why the synonym for copulation has so many uses(NSFW. Language).

So when you hear “NANI?!” and in the subs you see “What the eff?!”, it might actually be valid, because if an English speaker were in the same situation, they’d use that expression, and more often than not, they wouldn’t even realize it, because that word has become so ingrained in daily use, that if you pay attention, you are subconsciously adding that word in whenever a fictional character is in a serious situation, but did not use that word.

This is also why I love ダンベル何キロ持てる?so much(And find it hilarious), because the Russian girl is dropping the equivalent of an F-bomb every 3 sentences on average(Which is also, along with the Putin worship), culturally accurate.


The YouTube channel Japanese Ammo with Misa has a video talking about swearing/rude language in Japanese. She also has a bunch of other videos, like how not to sound like an anime character and a lot of useful videos on grammar.

I personally hate swearing, but I do see why translators add it, because it just doesn’t sound right when a Yakuza type character says darn or something lol


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