Random Musings: Queer Theory, Japanese Literature, and Translation

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture by J. Keith Vincent, a professor at Boston University whose primary research interests include queer theory, Japanese literature, and translation. The lecture he presented was “Out Gays” or “Shameless Gays”? What Gets Lost, and What is Gained, when U.S. Queer Theory is Translated into Japanese?. The talk is a work in progress and was the third version of the presentation that he has given. In this case, it was tailored for an audience that already had a background in both queer and Japanese studies. I found the lecture to be absolutely fascinating and wanted to share a few of my thoughts.

At this point, queer theory is at least twenty-three years old and can be traced back to as early as the 1990s in the United States if not before. In Japan, queer theory has only become prominent within the last ten years or so. Queer theory continues to develop and evolve and it still has a tremendous amount to say about sexuality, language, and power—subjects that are very important in literature as well. Because language plays such a critical role in queer theory and sexual politics, it makes sense that by extension translation also has a significant role to play when introducing concepts from one culture or language into another.

Vincent makes the argument that the very act of translation is in itself a queer practice. While the original work will always remain the same, new translations provide new interpretations, analyses, and contexts. Natsume Sōseki’s novel Botchan, which has had no less than six translations in English, is one example. As times and ways of thinking change, translation is something that is always in process and can never really be declared definitive—it’s more of an art than a science, which is not to say that there cannot be poor or inaccurate translations. This impossibility of translation can be seen as a metaphor for the impossibility of identity in queer theory.

When dealing with queer sexuality in translation—whether in works of fiction or nonfiction—there are several things to take into consideration. Though hopefully not as common now as it once was in the past, queer sexuality was often left out of translated works or otherwise altered during the domestication of the text. On the other hand, translation may actually erase the homophobia (or other phobias) that exist in a text if the translator is worried about its offensiveness. This, too, is problematic. Probably one of the most difficult tasks for a translator is to accurately convey the tone of the original in another language.

In some cases, translation warps or distorts queer sexuality, especially when there are words or concepts which don’t have a direct correlation from one language to another or which don’t carry the same cultural context when translated. For example, the use of term “queer” is becoming more common in Japanese (written in katakana), but the word doesn’t have the same history or negative connotations that it does in English. Similarly, Japanese terms like “nanshoku” or “okama” don’t have an exact one-to-one English equivalent. Word choice in translation is critical and those choices can completely change the meaning, interpretation, or nuance of a work.

While the focus of Vincent’s lecture was on queer theory and literature in translation, both into and from Japanese, the issues encountered when attempting to translate queer sexuality are also encountered when dealing with other topics. A great translation requires that the translator has fluency in all of the languages and cultures involved as well as a strong understanding of a work’s history and subject matter. Simply put, translation, like identity, is complicated.

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  1. Great post! The lecture sounds very interesting, I don’t think I’ve often thought of how translation choices could effect something like that, but he’s absolutely right. I remember a lot of people freaking out over some of the new translation choices in Sailor Moon, for example, because Kodansha’s wording of something made it sound like Sailor Uranus was a hermaphrodite instead of someone who was genderfluid.

    • Thank you so much! It really was a very interesting lecture.

      The recent Sailor Moon translation is a great example of how subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) choices in wording can impact the interpretation of a work.

    • Hi, I know this reply is 4 years too late, but the translation for Haruka was correct, it’s just that the audience was missing an important piece of pop culture knowledge. Japanese audiences recognized that th line “she has th heart of a man and a woman” was a reference to Safire from “Ribbon no Kishi” (which was published in English as “Princess Knight”). Safire was actually born with the heart of a boy and a girl so that she could pass as a boy, since her father’s kingdom was entailed. It’s a famous story in Japan, and the audience would have recognized the reference there without a note.

      In the 1990s. Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko confirmed that Haruka and Michiru are lovers, fwiw.

  2. This is one of those things were I have to tread lightly both do to my own personal ignorance of various strata of critical theory and my personal moral beliefs as concerns human sexuality.

    That being said it is interesting to see how translation effects characterization one example I can think of (from an Anime) is in the subtitles for Mayo Chiki in which the phrase Boy’s Love” is replaced in subtitles with the term “Slash Fiction” despite the fact that the Japanese seiyuu can be heard to say BL or Yaoi in the audio an there’s even a copy of a Be-Boy Gold parody and it’s referd to as “slash fiction”. Just an odd aside if any.

    • Another good example! While there are certainly similarities between BL and Slash Fiction, there are differences, too.

      • the sad thing I couldn’t tell you word one about Slash Fiction but I even knew it was bad translation given the cultural context of Japanese Fujoshi culture but I could tell that doesn’t seem right.

  3. Sounds like an amazing discussion. Seems like it stimulated some interesting ideas. Where was the lecture given, out of curiosity?

    • It was very thought-provoking. I was already familiar with many of the concepts, but hadn’t seen them all pulled together like that before.

      The talk was part of a public lecture series in Ann Arbor. Vincent is the current Toyota Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan.

  4. It sure is a fascinating topic. Trying to translate sexuality words between English and Chinese is also ‘fun’, especially when I’m trying to discuss less-known topics – I get a lot of reactions from native speakers who assume I was talking about something else or that it’s not a ‘real’ word in Chinese, and then I have to point to something written by native Chinese speakers (often Wikipedia) to prove that, nope, I did not make that word up.

    There’s also a great post here about disucssing sexual/romantic orientation in general, and asexuality specifically, in Japanese:


  1. […] Brown over at Experiments in Manga put together a look at a lecture on Queer Theory, Japanese Literature and Translation that is worth […]

  2. […] Gets Lost, and What is Gained, when U.S. Queer Theory is Translated into Japanese? and posted some random musings about queer theory, Japanese literature, and translation. Well, the video of the lecture was posted earlier this month and is freely available to view. The […]

  3. […] among other things. (The discussion reminded me quite a bit about my random musings on translation and queer theory.) Another fantastic post (well, series of four posts) is Revealing and Concealing Identities: […]

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