Thoughts on the Translation of No Game No Life 5's Materialisation Tag

Having watched No Game No Life: Zero recently and the 2014 anime adaptation not-so-recently, I decided that it was about time to catch up on everything in between and further. Since the anime adapts volumes 1-3 and the movie adapts volume 6, this meant reading volumes 4, 5, then 7 onwards.

Unfortunately, my Japanese is not quite yet at the level where I can comfortably read a light novel without pausing to look up a word every fifth line. As such I decided to read Yen Press' English translations of volumes 4 and 5, knowing full well that the enjoyment factor would be slightly ruined for me due to things getting weird or lost in translation (such as Izuna saying "please" instead of です/desu).

In particular, volume 5 features a game of tag that incorporates wordplay, not unlike the Materialisation Shiritori seen in volume 2 (episode 6 in the anime). Nearly a hundred Flügel chase after a flying Sora and Shiro, with 46 of the Flügel each having a different Japanese kana transcribed somewhere on their body. Sora and Shiro can obtain the transcribed kana by touching them, and our protagonists are able to join kana together to form Words that materialise wherever they touch at the time.

Warning: Spoilers for No Game No Life volume 5 below.

Of course, translating such a game into English is no easy feat — the direct English equivalent would be for 26 of the Flügel to each have a single transcribed letter, but that flat out doesn't work for translating the story. The Yen Press translation gets around this by breaking the formed Words into syllables, which unsurprisingly loses the "every kana in the syllabary" sense of completeness. Since I've always found the nuance of translation interesting, I thought it'd be amusing to compare the English translation of the game with its Japanese original.

Here the Words formed in the game, both translated and untranslated:

  • Hollow / 穴 (あな, ana, "hole")
  • You shall not pass / 通さぬ (とおさぬ, toosanu, "You shall not pass" is an apt translation here)
  • Accelerate / 加速 (かそく, kasoku, "acceleration")
  • Rotate / 廻す (まわす, mawasu, "rotate")
  • Vapor / 湯気 (ゆげ, yuge, "steam" or "vapor")
  • Bare / 裸 (, ra, "naked" or "bare")
  • Adulthood feat / 胸揉め (むねもめ, munemome, "grope breasts")
  • Artillery / 野砲 (やほう, yahou, "field gun" or "field artillery")
  • Disconnect / 切断 (せつだん, setsudan, "disconnection")
  • Miniscule / ミニ (みに, mini, "mini")
  • Decamp / 経る (へる, heru, "pass through")
  • Gore / 血 (, chi, "blood")
  • Ray / 灯 (, hi, "light")
  • Epitomize this creature with our own restrictions / “縛りプレー”でこの世を生きろ (しばりぷれえでこのよをいきろ, shibari puree de kono yo wo ikiro, "Live in this world with handicaps")

Some initial things to note here:

  • Dakuten and handakuten are allowed, e.g. け/ke is used as げ/ge in ゆげ.
  • The elongated vowel sound (chouonpu) in プレー counts as the え/e character, since it's a continuation of れ/re. Note that プレイ/purei is another form of the same word with い/i instead of え/e, but i is already used in the same Word for ikiro.
  • Most of the English translations are such that the syllable count matches the number of kana used. The exceptions are "Rotate"/まわす, "Artillery"/やほう, "Disconnect"/せつだん and "Miniscule"/みに, which cancel out so that the English translation has 46 syllables total.
  • Just before using "Rotate"/まわす in the game, Shiro notes that 負け (まけ, make, "defeat") can be formed. In Japanese the ま and け would later become part of "Rotate"/まわす and "Vapor"/ゆげ, and in English the "de" and "feat" become part of "Decamp" and "Adulthood feat". This explains why the "Adulthood feat" translation in particular seems looser than the rest.

To show that our protagonists indeed complete the game with no kana to spare, here's how the 46 kana map:

あ / a い / i う / u え / e お / o
か / ka き / ki く / ku け / ke こ / ko
さ / sa し / shi す / su せ / se そ / so
た / ta ち / chi つ / tsu て / te と / to
な / na に / ni ぬ / nu ね / ne の / no
は / ha ひ / hi ふ / fu へ / he ほ / ho
ま / ma み / mi む / mu め / me も / mo
や / ya   ゆ / yu   よ / yo
ら / ra り / ri る / ru れ / re ろ / ro
わ / wa       を / wo
ん / n

Admittedly the colours are a bit hard to distinguish, but you get the point.

Seeing every kana used sure is satisfying, which is why it's unfortunate (yet necessary) that the English translation had to break up Words into syllables like so:

  • Hollow = hol + oh
  • You shall not pass = yoo + shal + not + pahs
  • Accelerate = ak + sel + er + reyt
  • Rotate = roh + teyt
  • Vapor = vey + por
  • Bare = bair
  • Adulthood feat = ah + duhlt + hood + feet
  • Artillery = ahr + til + luh + ree
  • Disconnect = dis + kuh + nekt
  • Miniscule = min + nuh + skyool
  • Decamp = dih + kamp
  • Gore = gohr
  • Ray = rey
  • Epitomize this creature with our own restrictions = ih + pit + uh + mayhz + this + kree + cher + with + ouhr + ohn + ri + strkc + shuns

Now that I've typed out the above, I realise that both "artillery" and "restrictions" have a "ri" sound covered by ree and ri, which seems a little too close for comfort. The syllables overall make sense when combined to form their final Words, but it's not as interesting trying to piece these made-up syllables to see what can be formed at the time. For comparison, when Shiro mentions that "Defeat"/まけ can be formed, the duo had ら・ゆ・す・ま・け・わ, which is more amusing to play around with in your head (though there aren't many useful options, as the narration points out).

Overall I think the English translation of the light novel did a good job trying to adapt the wordplay into English, given the restrictions it had (46 syllables total, plus the "de + feat" aside). The wordplay aspect is marred by the need to break Words into arbitrary syllables, but as expected this part of the novel is impossible to translate accurately.