How Persona 4 Golden’s “Sub-Buttle” Joke Works in Japanese

26 Comments

At one point in the English version of Persona 4 Golden, a bunch of characters make fun of a guy for mispronouncing “subtle” as “sub-buttle”. But how did this joke work in the original Japanese script? Let’s take a look!

“Sub-Buttle” in Action

First, let’s see how the whole “sub-buttle” thing begins:

Butz would enjoy this article I'm sureButz would enjoy this article I'm sure
Japanese Version (basic translation)English Version
Yosuke: How old are you, Marie-chan? Where do you live? Are you here on vacation?Yosuke: How old are you, Marie-chan? Where do you live? Are you here on vacation?
Marie: I… don’t really remember.Marie: I don’t… I don’t remember.
Chie: Whoa, hold on, Hanamura! You’re scaring her!Chie: Yosuke! You’re scaring the poor girl!
Kanji: Yeah, Senpai. You have no dekashirī.Kanji: Yeah, Senpai. Not very sub-buttle of you.

In the Japanese version, Kanji intends to use the word デリカシー (derikashī, "tact / subtlety / sensitivity / delicacy") but mistakenly swaps some syllables and says デカシリー (dekashirī) instead. Unfortunately, Kanji’s incorrect Japanese word sounds similar to dekashiri (“big butt / huge ass”).

If you ever study Japanese, chances are you’ll make syllable swapping mistakes like this at some point. A long time ago I was talking to my host dad about used video games but wound up swapping some syllables. He laughed so hard at me and immediately told the whole family about how excited I was to buy “used beetles”. So I feel Kanji’s pain here…

Japanese syllable mistakes rarely work in a straight translation, so the translators had to devise an equivalent joke that worked in English. In my experience, language jokes like this usually require chunks of dialogue to be rewritten from scratch to work in other languages.

In this case, however, the translators took advantage of the peculiar pronunciation of “subtle” to stay close to the original text and lead into a butt-related joke at the same time. This also allowed the rest of the translated dialogue to flow in parallel with the original script:

Don't take it so persona, KanjiDon't take it so persona, Kanji
Japanese Version (basic translation)English Version
Yosuke: You’re the one who brought it up! Wait… What did you just say?Yosuke: Hey, you brought it up! …Wait, what? What did you just say?
(Player is asked to confirm what Yosuke said)
Rise: Yeah, what in the world is dekashirī? The word is derikashī.Rise: Did you think the word “subtle” is pronounced “sub-buttle”?
Kuma: Kanji’s butt is a dekashirī.Teddie: Kanji’s got a sub-buttle.
Kanji: Q-quit being stupid! It’s not like you’ve ever seen my butt anyway!Kanji: Sh-shut up! Quit talking about my butt!
Rise: Gross… You made me think about it. Now you’re the one who has no derikashī.Rise: Oh, ugh… Why’d you make me think about your butt!? You’re the most un-subtle person ever.
Yukiko: A dekashirī with no derikashī… *chortle* Aha, ahaha, ahahahaha!Yukiko: The un-subtle sub-buttle… *snrk* Haha, hahaha, hahahahaha!

From all this extra dialogue, we can see that if the translators hadn’t kept a butt-related joke here, the scene would’ve needed some significant rewriting. Rewriting dialogue to make jokes work in translation is pretty standard, but given the use of “senpai” and Japanese honorifics here, I get the feeling the translators’ stance was to change the script as little as possible and only when needed.

Thoughts

One small downside of the “sub-buttle” choice is that swapping syllables in Japanese is a completely plausible thing, but I feel it’s a little less likely that someone would get “butt” out of “subtle” – it’s definitely a bit of a stretch. But when dealing with language jokes, there’s rarely a single, perfect translation. You just have to do the best with what you have in each unique situation.

Also, as a translator, I’m always worried that jokes I deal with won’t be funny in translation, or at least as funny as the original writers intended. So I bet the Persona 4 Golden translators were happy to hear reactions like this:

Anyway, hopefully this look at Persona’s sub-buttle translation challenges is the first of many. I’m not very familiar with the series, though, so let me know of any other interesting topics I should look at sometime.


Sure, this "sub-buttle" translation might be kind of corny, but here's what happens when a translator handles jokes all wrong!

26 Comments
  1. Thanks for featuring my question! 😀
    I wasn’t expecting an article so soon!

    I would be ecstatic to see more SMT/Persona related content; it’s one of my favorite JRPG series. The early games (pre-2002-ish) in particular were heavily altered for Western release. Persona 1 is a good game to start looking; tons of changes to character names (and appearances), plus a whole alternate plotline dummied out.

    Reply
    1. Yeah! You could fill a whole book just trying to catalog all the things that were changed in the original release of Persona 1. I mean, how many translations warrant an apology decades later by way of an official, total re-translation?

      It makes a hell of a contrast with the honorific-maintaining adherence to the original Japanese seen in Persona 3 through 5.

      Reply
  2. To be fair to you, used beetles are MUCH cheaper than new ones.

    Reply
  3. Ooh, ooh, I got a good addition to the topic, but it’s as a really lucky translation situation.

    There’s a scene in Persona 4 Golden where a character asks why steak is called steak. A possible answer by the protagonist is that it’s short for beef steak. The character then muses about other possibly abbreviations, and comes up with fsteak. This is both accurate to the original steak, which at best could be argued actually said fusteak and also counts as a nod to a fandom meme, since a fancomic in the past made a joke about another character being so obsessed with steak that when asked for a word that begins with ‘f’ she answers… Fsteak.

    Reply
    1. >This is both accurate to the original steak, which at best could be argued actually said fusteak

      Say what now

      Reply
      1. In Japanese phonetics beef = beefu

        Reply
  4. “used beetles”

    Why did you mention this without explaining the mistake?

    Reply
  5. The French translation of Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon adds in a joke where Shelmet mishears “evolution” as “boilling”.

    Reply
    1. “Boiling” from “evolution”? …Oh, I see. Was the word “ebullient” present?

      Reply
  6. I am all for watching you explore the localization of my favorite game series. Persona 3 and up are dependent on conveying a sense of Japanese daily life, which results in a lot of Japanese language and culture being maintained in their localization. I bet there are some choice localization stories to be had.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about is the reaction everyone in Persona 4 has to finding out that Inaba’s signature food is steak. Like, there’s got to be some kind of cultural context I’m missing that justifies the level of incredulity and apathy levelled at this revelation by the characters.

    Reply
    1. Reminds me of how Ness from Earthbound loves steak (by default). Since Ness is Ameri- uhh, EAGLELANDER, maybe steak is some super-exotic food from a Japanese perspective. In other words, it’s like a British guy whose favorite food is gyuudon.

      But I’m just speculating. I could very well be waaaay off.

      Reply
    2. I don’t recall many details about this game but I do remember some talk about how there’s no cow and chicken farmers in the region so there are some NPCs that actually doubted if they were even using beef iirc.

      Reply
  7. One small thing: Kanji isn’t just “a guy,” he’s one of your main party members (as is everyone else in the scene, except Marie)

    Reply
  8. That’s a great example of clever translation. The folks at Atlus are total pros at this witty stuff.

    Reply
    1. It’s really funny how the SMT games went from having some of the jankiest translations around in the 80s and 90s to having some of the best translations around once the 2000s rolled around.

      Reply
      1. From niche to RPG masterpieces, the SMT series has gone a long way indeed…

        Reply
      2. Well… Persona 5 has a really inconsistent translation. It seems like they outsourced it to several different translator/editor pairs to save time, and saved far too much time, because there’s a bunch of good scenes and then a bunch of total clunkers with wrong word choices and Japanese grammar showing through.

        But apparently a lot of players liked this even though they couldn’t understand the result, because it felt “authentic”.

        https://www.personaproblems.com

        Reply
        1. Care to elaborate? The localization did felt pretty much ok to me. No major hiccups to speak of.

          Reply
  9. It doesn’t entirely help that ‘buttle’ is itself a word; I’d have thought sub-buttle might be what an under-butler does.

    Reply
  10. Real talk though, how did that B ever get into that word anyway?

    Reply
    1. Latin ‘subtilis’ eventually became Old French ‘sotil’, which was borrowed into English as something like ‘suttle’. At some point during the Enlightenment period, they decided to make the spelling reflect the Latin a little more, even though the B had not been part of the word for centuries at that point.

      Reply
      1. See also: dett -> debt.

        Funny thing is, the same thing happened to French sotil -> subtil, except that it actually is pronounced /syptil/, as you’d expect from the spelling.

        Reply
  11. Persona series in general gets tons of these word plays I can imagine. Wanna tackle something from Persona 5 next? By the way, I do wonder what that AMV logo stands for in many Japanese gameplay videos…

    Reply
  12. “but I feel it’s a little less likely that someone would get “butt” out of “subtle” – it’s definitely a bit of a stretch.”

    In the translators defense, I actually got “subtle” messed up EXACTLY like Kanji did. I was a smart kid in terms of English, and in middle school, my voracious appetite for reading caused my written vocabulary to outpace my spoken vocabulary. I was very embarrassed when I was eventually told “subtle” was not pronounced “su-bt-ul”.

    Reply
    1. Oh, I’m sure I got “subtle” wrong myself as a kid in a similar way, as have many others I bet. I was more referring to getting the full word “butt” though… unless you’re saying you literally pronounced the “bt” as the full word “butt” and not just “bt”?

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *