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Background on how Chinese names are pronounced in Japanese

Consider the man who was the chancellor of the state of Shu under Liu Shan during the Three Kingdoms period. In Chinese, his name is written 诸葛亮. In English, his name is typically written Zhuge Liang (pinyin), which is a reasonably close approximation of how his name is pronounced in Mandarin.

Japanese, though, does something that may seem strange. The Japanese language has its own unique ways of pronouncing Chinese characters, and so even though this man's name is still written 诸葛亮 (same as in Chinese), it is pronounced "Shokatsu Ryō" - nothing at all like how it's pronounced in Mandarin! The reasons for this are complicated; basically, it has to do with how the Japanese language borrowed Chinese pronunciations for Chinese characters (so-called "on readings") from Middle Chinese mostly before 1000 CE, and how the Japanese and Chinese/Mandarin pronunciations have diverged in the ensuing millennium-plus.

The actual question

In some anime, the names of Chinese people are spoken. This sometimes happens with historical figures, e.g. Gakuto in Prison School and his obsession with Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It also happens with the joint Chinese-Japanese productions that've been springing up lately, where pretty much everybody's name is Chinese - for example, Hitori no Shita: The Outcast, Bloodivores, and Soul Buster from the past few cours.

The thing I find weird is that sometimes, Chinese names are localized using the Japanese spellings. This makes no sense to me - nobody outside Japan has any idea who "Shokatsu Ryō" is, whereas many people will have heard of "Zhuge Liang".

Some examples:

  • Crunchyroll's subtitles for Hitori no Shita (for example, the character "Baobao" is rendered in the subtitles as "Houhou")
  • Crunchyroll's subtitles for Soul Buster (the Han dynasty is subtitled as the "Kan" dynasty!)
  • the manga Reincarnation no Kaben, apparently
  • the Crunchyroll subtitles for Cheating Craft also do this (the main character is called "Shokatsu Mumei" in Japanese, but would be called "Zhuge Mu Ming" in Chinese), but since the show technically takes place in the fictitious "mainland" rather than real-world China, I'd let this one slide

I know I've seen this happen elsewhere; I'll update this list if I remember where I saw it happen.

Why would a subtitler or other localizer choose to render Chinese names into English using the Japanese pronunciations? This approach seems wrong on its face to me, so I'm hoping to hear from some involved party why this decision might be made.

  • FWIW with Hitori no Shita, I remember Crunchyroll "correctly" rendering "Zhang Chulan" instead of "Cho Shaku-rin", but I could be wrong. (Don't have access to the subs right now to check properly.) – Maroon Nov 20 '16 at 13:24
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    @Maroon Funny thing about that - I believe they did go with "Zhang Chulan" for at least episodes 1 and 2 at the time they were aired, but they must've gone back and "retconned" the subs, because it now uses "Chou" instead of "Zhang"; the title of episode 1 is now "The Chou Family's Secret?"; and the synopsis of episode 1 starts with the sentence "The grave of a man named Chou Shakurin has been disturbed in the Chinese countryside." – senshin Nov 20 '16 at 13:27
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    Most Japanese people don't know "pinyin" name of the prominent figures from the "Three Kingdoms," so it's natural they use the pronounciation that's most familiar to them. Furthermore, English translators of these anime are not expected to be familiar with the historical figures of Chinese history, as such literacy is rarely a prerequiste for the job. Language proficiency is. These translators often deal with short/abrupt deadlines and have little time to verify the accuracy. As much as we'd all like them to be held to a higher standard. Speed is valued more than accuracy in the industry. – кяαzєя Nov 20 '16 at 19:59
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    @кяαzєя Sorry, why is it relevant that Japanese people don't know the Mandarin names of Chinese people? I get that Japanese people are of course going to call Zhuge Liang "Shokatsu Ryō" when speaking Japanese. It's the English localization process that's weird here. (Incompetence may well be a valid-if-unsatisfying explanation here. Kinda hoping there's a meatier answer to be found somewhere.) – senshin Nov 20 '16 at 20:30
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    1. Translator's preference. 2. So that they subtitle match what is being said. The character speaks the name in Japanese. Thus, the subtitle follows – 絢瀬絵里 Nov 25 '16 at 5:47
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I can't yet cover all the reasons, but at least on Hitori no Shita and Cheating Craft, that's what they're using on their official sites.

Hitori no Shita - Characters (English)

Hitori no Shita - Characters (English)

Cheating Craft - Characters (English)

Cheating Craft - Characters (English)

Changing the names from the one stated on the official site may confuse viewers when they notice the inconsistency, especially coming from official licensees (e.g. Crunchyroll). This should also explain the retconned subs of the first 2 episodes of Hitori no Shita when they diverged from the official given names. The viewer's experience could certainly be improved by adding "translator's note" though.

I can't say for Reincarnation no Kaben, because apparently it hasn't been licensed in English yet. In this case, fansub/scanlation is a different thing because they're free to translate how they want to (add "lack of research" into the factor too).

  • Hm. That's interesting. Though that sort of does just push the question one step further back - instead of "why does the anime use Japanese spellings?", it's "why does the official site use Japanese spellings?". – senshin May 27 '17 at 7:33
  • @senshin now that's a lot harder question... I'd guess that since the production staffs were mostly consisted of Chinese and Japanese (and some Korean) staffs, and since the anime is considered as Japanese anime, they just decided to use their romanized name in Japanese. English editors in this case might only do copy editing, thus fixing vocabulary and grammar without changing the original intent (e.g. romanized Japanese → Pinyin reading). Again, this is just a guess. – Aki Tanaka May 27 '17 at 7:59

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