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「あくまでも妹です!」or “The little bits that go missing in translation”

Posted October 19th, 2010 by Enrico in Learning Japanese

I’ve been catching new shows in the Fall 2010 anime season and have actually found a few series that are at least moderately interesting. I will probably be writing about them for my blog soon. One of those is “The World God Only Knows” (神のみ知らずセカイ).

The premise is that a demon in Hell lures a young boy who dubs himself “The God of Conquest” into a contract to help her exorcise “loose souls”, souls which have come up from Hell to the surface world to continue doing ill deeds by hiding in the hearts of humans. Particularly, girls.

His job is to take the place of the loose soul in their hearts by making them fall in love with him, driving the soul out so that the demon can capture it. Conveniently, the girl forgets that it happened afterward, avoiding a lot of awkwardness. (You know, because dating sims never deal with all of that icky “relationship” junk.)

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the boy has really only mastered the art of winning the hearts of girls in dating sims and his claim to notoriety is that he has played through 10,000 dating sim endings. He spends most of his days either playing dating sims on his PFP (heh), or posting advice to others on forums and by e-mail as “The God of Conquest”. He has not even so much as held a real girl’s hand in his life!

But the contract between them has already been arranged and neither can back out now; a collar on each of their necks threatens to remove their heads if they do! So to make the best of a bad situation, the boy applies what he has learned from dating sims to real love, with a little help from his demon partner.

The demon is, of course, a really cute girl with a skull accessory in her hair, a rather odd straw broom that she carries everywhere, and a fluffy ribbon that floats around her and which affords her some special powers.

After the initial loose soul capture story (which honestly didn’t seem plausible even by dating sim standards), the demon decides on her own that she should become his little sister in order to be close by for future incidents. She arranges things so that she becomes a transfer student at his school and is placed in his class. In true anime fashion, his classmates completely ignore all of her weird characteristics and instead adore her cuteness. Somebody asks her if she’s really his little sister and she says:

「うん! あくまでも妹です!」

The subtitles that I have read “Yep! I’m one hell of a little sister!”

That was quite different than what I understood and when I was thinking about how the translators might have gotten to the phrase that they went with, I realized that there’s something subtle going on here.

This sentence has two meanings and both of them apply!

First, let’s introduce a Japanese turn of phrase: あくまでも. This can roughly be translated as “to the last; through and through”. So if we interpret it that way, what she’s saying is that she’s his little sister through and through. Well, that’s the story she’s sticking to anyway.

Next, let’s introduce a Japanese vocabulary word: 悪魔. This reads あくま and means “demon”. In fact, it’s the word that she uses to refer to herself. If we interpret it that way, でも becomes the basic Japanese conjunction meaning “even though; even so; nevertheless”. Under this new interpretation, she’s saying “Even though I’m a demon, I’m his little sister!” (In all cases, she’s the implicit topic of the sentence.)

I’m not sure whether the translators were randomly taking liberties or they noticed the same double meaning that I did. Either way I can’t imagine how this double meaning could be fluidly and accurately rendered in one or two English sentences.

If you love anime, you owe it to yourself to set out to learn Japanese, even if only to pick up fascinating bits like these that subtitles will never tell you about.

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