A reader named Joe asked a question about Japanese text that actually tends to pop up on a regular basis:
Hello. I recently came across a screenshot of animal crossing, and I was confused about something. If you look in the attached picture, it shows regular Japanese text, but for some of the bunches of text, there is text above it in a smaller font. What is up with that?
And here’s the picture Joe attached:
As you can see, there seems to be small text above the regular text there… What the heck is this craziness?!
The quick answer is that the extra text above normal text is basically a pronunciation guide.
There is a little more to it than that, though.
Japanese Writing Systems
In super-simple terms, Japanese writing comes in two forms: kanji and kana.
Kanji originates from Chinese and generally looks a bit complicated, you know, stuff like 影響 and 爆弾 and 馬鹿. There are thousands of kanji characters and each one usually has multiple meanings and pronunciations that you gotta memorize.
Kana is a bit more like a “syllable alphabet” and generally looks simpler, with stuff like この and ハロー and そら. Because it’s based around syllables, kana is usually super-easy to read and pronounce. There aren’t many kana, so you can easily master it in a few days.
Anyway, standard Japanese writing uses a mix of both kanji and kana, as well as a dash of English. The problem is that because Japanese kanji can be read in so many ways, sometimes it’s not always clear which reading is intended. For example, just the basic kanji character 下 has like a dozen possible readings!
So, when a Japanese writer wants to make sure readers know how to pronounce a bunch of kanji, it’s common practice to put the pronunciation in kana above it. This type of kana that appears above kanji is known as furigana.
If we had furigana in English, I suppose it might look something like this:
Anyway, since it takes many years to master all the standard Japanese kanji, it’s normal to see furigana in stuff aimed at kids. That’s why it’s so common in games and manga and such.
But it’s not by any means a kids-only thing. Japanese names are usually written in kanji, and including the pronunciation on your business cards or form applications or whatever else is extremely common. In fact, Japanese names are so crazy that there are huge dictionaries and resources just for name pronunciations!
Basically, have you ever had someone read your name out loud but pronounce it wrong? That problem is much worse in Japanese, so furigana serves as a solution.
Furigana is also super-helpful when it comes to learning the language and when learning kanji. So furigana acts as a crutch sometimes, and as a helpful resource other times. It’s a really neat aspect of the Japanese language!
Furigana is seriously everywhere in Japanese! It’s in games, of course:
…Although due to memory and hardware limitations it’s not very common in older games.
Furigana is also very common in manga and such:
Furigana is common in books of various types, too:
Furigana is sometimes used on TV:
Furigana is very important when it comes to Japanese karaoke:
Most mainstream newspapers don’t use furigana in the main articles, but it’s still common to see furigana in other parts:
It’s common to see furigana on really important signs too, like train station signs. Many train stations in Japan also helpfully include the names written out in English for folks like us!
So if you ever see small text on top of normal-sized Japanese text, now you know what it is!
By some crazy coincidence, I received another e-mail on the same day by another reader named EmpoleMew that was also about furigana:
To make a long story short, with the extremely minuscule knowledge I have of Japanese, I know that furigana is meant to provide a sort of pronunciation guide to kanji (and foreign characters) that may be unfamiliar or hard to read because of small print. However, as an avid player of Yu-Gi-Oh, I’ve noticed that some Japanese card names have furigana that actually gives the card a name completely different from the kanji. The example that led me to asking the question is a new card, whose name is spoken in the anime and written in furigana on the actual card as “Rank-Up-Magic The Seventh One”, but whose kanji says the name of the card is “Rank-Up-Magic Swords of the Seven Emperors”! Knowing the context of the anime, the Seven Emperors name makes sense, referring to the characters using the card, but this name is never spoken by anyone, and the double name will be lost to localization like many other things in the game.
So the question (or questions I guess) here is, is this a common practice in Japanese media, and can you think of any possible reasons for doing it? Have you ever come across situations like this in any of your translation work, professional or personal? I eventually plan to get into localization work myself in the future, and I feel like this is something I need to be weary of.
So we’ve seen how furigana can tell readers now how to pronounce kanji. But on occasions a writer can use furigana to create a totally custom pronunciation or give extra information – which is actually extremely common in Japanese entertainment!
Just because I happen to have it handy, here’s an example from the Fairy Tail manga:
Here, he’s saying 妖精の尻尾, which would normally have the furigana of ようせい (yousei, "fairy") and しっぽ (shippo, "tail"). But the author decided to give it a custom pronunciation instead: フェアリーテイル (fearii teiru, "Fairy Tail"). From this, Japanese readers can tell how to pronounce the word and what the word actually means.
Here’s another example:
Here, the highlighted words 滅竜魔導士 and 魔水晶 both have this custom furigana. 滅竜魔導士 is meant to be read out loud as “Dragon Slayer” and 魔水晶 (masuishou) is meant to be read out loud as “lacrima”.
The writer could’ve easily just used “Dragon Slayer” and “lacrima” directly in the text. But with the custom furigana, readers can pronounce it the intended way AND know what these names actually mean. It’s a pretty nifty trick!
So, as a translator, how are you supposed to handle all this double-meaning, double-information stuff? The answer is that it’s pretty much a case-by-case basis, and no matter what you do something will get lost in the translation. I come across it a lot in my own work, so maybe I’ll try to document some cases for a future post. Usually it comes down to personal preference, or, if you’re super-duper lucky, you can ask the company or creator about it.
Anyway, whew! So that’s the quick look at the wacky world of Japanese double-text and the cool stuff it can be used for! Even if you don’t plan on learning Japanese, hopefully this gives you a little more insight on how other languages try to handle the “How the heck do you pronounce this word?!” problem.
To be honest, there’s actually a lot more to furigana than what we’ve seen here; it can often be used for jokes, word play, creating catchy phone numbers, memorable marketing slogans, and more. So who knows, maybe they’ll come up in future articles! But for now let’s let our brains rest a little 😛