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Japanese has different words for "younger sibling" and "older sibling". Then how are the English words "brother" and "sister" (or any other European equivalents for that matter) typically translated into Japanese (in books, TV, movies, etc.) without a clear context or clue as to how older or younger the sibling in question is (which is the case most of the time: Western authors don't bother to use "younger/older sibling", or give any clue, at all)? For example, how do Japanese translators deal with a vague phrase such as "Lucy's sister"? Do they just randomly use either 「ルーシーの姉」 or 「ルーシーの妹」? Also, what about the case of twin siblings?

Note: I'm not asking can you translate these words for me?, but how are these words typically translated? based on the most common practice used by translators; i.e. I'm asking for how translation works in these specific cases in general, not for specific translations in any given contexts. So I don't think the question is off-topic.

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    This is usually referred to as untranslatability, it is an interesting read: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Untranslatability Although for your question, from my personal experience brother usually gets translated to older brother and sister gets translated to younger sister, but don't quote me on that – Zukaberg Nov 24 '16 at 15:21
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    Twins aren't really a special case. One is older, one is younger. – snailboat Nov 24 '16 at 17:23
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+50

Think, what pronoun would you typically use for a person whose sex is completely unknown (in Japanese, genderless pronouns are more commonly used)? This is a very similar question.

The Japanese translator of Harry Potter series went to ask J.K. Rowling if a character is another one's older sister or younger sister. This is always by far the best practice than anything written below. (But unfortunately it's after the first volume was published, so in JP version someone's siblinghood is twisted in the middle of the series.)

In some occasions you could use 兄弟 or 姉妹. But these words never mean a singular sibling, always "brothers" and "sisters". They aren't made for describing interpersonal relationship between two people, but their common property.

彼女はルーシーの姉妹だ

It would likely to mean "she is one of Lucy's female siblings", or more practically, "she was born from the same parents with Lucy" or "she shares gene with Lucy" etc., that could be said during profiling or search of bone marrow donors. (Or they belong to a "sorority", or are mass production humanoids etc. etc.)

However, there's a workaround:

彼女とルーシーは姉妹だ

can successfully tell their relationship without raising much eyebrows. Of course, it's useless when someone is referred only by their relation, e.g. "My sister is..."

You can also avoid to mention relationship terms when it's possible, as one of common solutions translators take to cope with untranslatable words.

The ultimate option is to take a shot in the dark. Older or younger, fifty-fifty :) When you mention a fictional character and they are disposable in the plot, this works great, but not recommendable for a real person. I don't know how many minor characters in drama were hushed up like this.

  • It's been a long time but I'd like to add that Japanese has plenty of gender-neutral pronouns (like yatsu or aitsu for example), but there doesn't seem to be an age-neutral word for siblinghood. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Oct 12 '17 at 1:21
  • @Vun-HughVaw It's also been a long time but it's surprising to me that Vietnamese has a word for younger siblings which makes difference in age but not in gender. – broccoli forest 10 hours ago
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That's a little more vague since it can implies more than one sibling but I think the safest way is to translate sister as 姉妹{しまい} and brother as 兄弟{きょうだい}.

  • Don't those words refer to two or more people? – Vun-Hugh Vaw Nov 24 '16 at 15:20
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    And that's the typical way employed by translators? – Vun-Hugh Vaw Nov 24 '16 at 15:22
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    It seems there are no rules. Either you pick one (妹 or 姉) because you lack information, you read the full story and decide, or you go with 姉妹. What is interesting is that 姉妹 can include you in the count. 私は三人姉妹です=We are three sisters. – 永劫回帰 Nov 24 '16 at 15:32
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    Saying 彼には兄弟が一人います is perfectly fine if you don't know the male sibling is younger or older. If you don't even know the sex, you can still say 彼にはきょうだいが一人います (although it's common to hiragan-ize the word to make it look ambiguous in this case) – naruto Nov 24 '16 at 23:12
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    @Janus きょうだい on its own right means sibling, too, and I feel 兄弟姉妹が一人います is somehow redundant and unnatural. – naruto Nov 26 '16 at 14:39
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In Japanese, even in the case of twins there is always one child that is born first. That first born will be assigned the honorific form for the elder sibling. Typically translators will attempt to infer from the context of the subject matter being translated to assign the correct work. When no context can be determined, they will typically default to the elder or use 兄弟(きょうだい).

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I don't know about typical, but here's another approach you could take: ブラザー and シスター. Yes, “brother” and “sister” have been imported into the Japanese language and spelled in katakana.

Here's the link to ブラザー: https://ejje.weblio.jp/content/%E3%83%96%E3%83%A9%E3%82%B6%E3%83%BC

Here's the link to シスター: https://ejje.weblio.jp/content/シスター

I have come across one YouTube clip that has one character say ブラザー: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4U8fmkxxBno

That is a gameplay video of “Rage of the Dragons”, a fighting game that features Japanese voice-acting. The characters Billy and Jimmy are twin brothers who are also American. So it's likely that Billy called Jimmy ブラザー because it emphasizes the fact that they are American and not Japanese.

  • そのビデオのナレーション、日本語ちゃいますやん・・ – Chocolate Apr 25 '18 at 0:14
  • @Chocolate: Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I think you said, “That video narration is not Japanese!” Is that right? – Micheal Gignac Apr 25 '18 at 13:02
  • @Chocolate: By the way, are you from the Kansai Region by any chance? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but that looks like Kansai vocabulary to me. I've spent some time studying the Kansai Dialect on my time. Fascinating dialect, I must say! – Micheal Gignac Apr 25 '18 at 16:30
  • Yes, I'm from Kyoto, and you're right that I wrote the comment in Kansai dialect... I meant to say "The video narration is not Japanese, is it...?" – Chocolate Apr 26 '18 at 14:25
  • Ah, ha! I knew that was the Kansai dialect! And my translation wasn't too far off, except for the last part. Oh, well. Live and learn. So, when you say “video narration”, do you mean the voices? I thought the voices were Japanese actors speaking a number of English words. Funny enough, the Japanese Wikipedia says one of the actors is a Mr. 中西尚也 (Nakanishi Naoya). But a video game is probably not a good example to apply to real life situations, is it? – Micheal Gignac Apr 26 '18 at 19:31

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