Being Awkward (Or Singlish)


Despite the title, this is not an essay about psychology – but rather an essay about this thing called ‘awkward language’ or ‘awkward translation’. All my thoughts on this issue comes from ruminating on the whole Persona 5 localization/translation fallout and looking through the thoughts of both parties involved.

This is not an essay about choosing sides (although I fall in the ‘readable translations’ camp) but a larger rumination about the nature of language and its fluidity in general. One of the most interesting things that has popped up is this idea of the ‘fetishization of awkward English’. This is such an interesting concept to me – because it reminds me a lot of the debate over Singlish that has been happening for a long time in my country.

In the pro/anti Singlish debate, the pro-faction are those who view Singlish as a unique thing that brings ‘local colour’ to the country, while the anti-faction are those who view it as just another form of pidgin English that completely overturns the English grammar (rather than having its own ‘unique grammar’) and perpetuates a hermetic speaking style that closes off Singaporeans to the greater world around them. In a sense, you could also link the pro-faction with the Persona 5 fetishization camp, and the anti-faction with the good localization camp.

The difference here is that the fetishization camp seems to be defending awkwardness as an exoticism that supposedly ‘fits’ how the Japanese speak (although detractors view it as just racist Orientalism), while the pro-faction are defending awkwardness as a way to FIGHT against what they perceive as Western Racist intrusion on a unique culture. It feels so strange that defending Awkward/Grammatically Incorrect English (although Singlish can’t exactly be defined as Awkward English the same way that bad localization can be defined as it) can be both viewed as Racist & Not-Racist depending on where you stand.

One distinction between both debates, though, is that when people use Singlish – they use it with a clear understanding as to what is being communicated to other Singaporeans. On the other hand, awkward localization makes things harder to parse for a predominantly Western English audience. But I’ve had great fun thinking about how to turn those ‘awkward English’ Persona lines into their Singlish counterparts.

For example – there’s the “Suguru Kamoshida was a scum” line – which fails because it makes more sense in English if you put ‘scumbag’ instead of scum. But, a Singaporean could make it work with something along the lines of

“That mother Suguru Kamoshida was very a scum hor?”

And “Start by telling me what you all schemed…” sounds better when rewritten as “You’d better tell me what all of you were planning…” – but a Singaporean could make it work by saying

“Don’t purae purae y’all better start the telling of what y’all scheming lah!”

(Note: the Singaporean y’all is different from the Texan y’all. It sounds more like y’orr.)

Of course, if a Westerner wrote a book about Singaporeans and he wrote all the dialogue in Persona 5’s version of awkward English with the defense that it’s how Singaporeans speak, the literary community here would probably smack his ass for being a goddamn chou ang-moh mothachibai because the dialogue of Persona 5 lacks the true rhythm of how a pidgin English sounds like – but all this brings up a very interesting idea:

How do we ‘weaponize’ Awkward English?

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