Neil Gaiman Had To Get Creative While Translating Princess Mononoke

Sub or dub? Ever since anime became an international phenomenon, it's a question that's divided fans. It really comes down to what you prefer. Subtitles will be closer to the original, but it's hard to deny that words carry a greater impact if you hear them in your own language. Furthering the debate is that the quality of anime dubs has improved since the 1990s, when the medium first broke out of a niche in the West.

One of the best dubs from this period is "Princess Mononoke." The historic environmental epic is Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus. Distributed in the United States by Miramax Pictures in 1999, the English dub cast includes Billy Crudup as hero Ashitaka, Claire Danes as wolf child San, and Minnie Driver as proto-industrialist Lady Eboshi. Their performances are helped by a strong script. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein (ugh) recruited author Neil Gaiman to write the dub script. Despite Gaiman's obvious capability as a writer, dub scripting presented him with his share of challenges.

Translating intent

Anime dubs are often to Western localization (see how 4Kids Entertainment infamously rendered rice balls, a Japanese treat, as jelly doughnuts in their dub of "Pokémon"). "Princess Mononoke" is clearly set in Japan, but even it wasn't immune from this. Neither the country itself nor its neighboring China are named in the dub like they are in the original. While Gaiman prevailed in his fight against turning "samurai" into "warriors," "sake" was made into wine while the Shishigami, the deerlike spirit of the forest, was renamed the "forest spirit."

Gaiman described a common challenge dubbers face: conveying implicit meaning. Certain words don't carry over between cultures. Take, for instance, a different but just as acclaimed 1997 anime, "The End of Evangelion." The final line of the film, "Kimochi warui," is a Japanese turn of phrase that describes a general bad feeling. There's no precise equivalent in English, so translators have had to settle for "How disgusting," or "I feel sick," phrases which both carry distinct meanings. As Gaiman told Cinefantastique, the challenge is especially apparent in translating humor:

"Sometimes you would want to 'elegant' the translation. I was trying to explain to somebody the other day: The jokes are really hard to translate, because they don't — not quite. Why something is funny doesn't necessarily translate. You have to go and find something that is the emotional equivalent.

However, the writer didn't let this deter him; he actually enjoyed the challenge:

"There was an enormous amount of creativity in the job. If it had just been a matter of taking the script and tidying up the language to make it sound more like dialogue, that would have been easy. The fun for me was that all of these people are different; they have different characters and different voices."

Gaiman's experience

While many of his famous works were yet to come in 1999, Neil Gaiman was already a respected author. He'd co-written "Good Omens" with Terry Pratchett and created "The Sandman," a comic respected by literary critics almost as much as "Maus" or "Watchmen" are. However, his involvement with the film wasn't widely promoted. The man himself explained why:

"Studio Ghibli asked for some of the Miramax execs to be removed from the poster and credits. The execs looked at all the names, determined that theirs would remain, and [realized] that mine was contractually expendable."

On the list of Weinstein's crimes, this snubbing ranks low, but still, dick move. Despite this, Gaiman does look back on the experience fondly, even if he isn't jumping at the chance to write another anime dub. Speaking to Cinefantastique, he said:

"I can't ever imagine doing it again. It was wonderful. If Miyazaki asked me to, I probably would, and if a movie came along that was even cooler ... but how many of them are there going to be? I've been asked a lot since, especially from Japan, where they say, "['Princess Mononoke'] was the greatest Japanese animated movie — we want the guy who did that.' So I get a lot of requests, but I have no real interest in doing it again."

Considering what a prolific writer Gaiman is, he almost certainly didn't go into "Princess Mononoke" intending to make a career out of dub screenwriting. Still, the film remains a watershed moment for anime's cultural influence in the West, and Gaiman's involvement, secretive as it was, is part of that.