Shogun’s Clever Approach to Japanese, English, and Portuguese Explained

Oh and did we mention that viewers never actually hear Portuguese? Blackthorne and Father Martin’s words are translated into English for the benefit of Shōgun‘s largely American audience. In fact, even though multiple languages are spoken throughout the series (including Dutch and maybe even Spanish), Shōgun watchers only ever hear English and Japanese. While that may sound confusing at first, Shōgun not only makes the language barriers work but also makes them sing.

Take, for instance, that aforementioned scene. Things get off to a choppy start with the Protestant Blackthorne expressing distrust that the Catholic will accurately translate his message. Father Martin puts those concerns to rest by giving Blackthorne the Japanese word for “enemy” so that he can point at Father Martin and declare him as such before Lord Toranaga.

“I may be your enemy, John Blackthorne of the Erasmus, but I am not your assassin,” Father Martin tells him.

As the scene continues, Father Martin’s translations slowly fade away in the audio feed and before viewers even realize it, Blackthorne and Toranaga are communicating directly with each other, having achieved the most important aspect of any linguistic exchange: trust.

Based on James Clavell’s classic 1975 novel (and its subsequent 1980 TV miniseries), this FX historical drama is a greatly ambitious undertaking. Clavell’s story is enormous, incorporating exhaustive research of feudal Japanese history into a spine-busting 1152 pages of narrative. Authenticity is the name of the game in any Shōgun adaptation. The folks behind FX’s Shōgun, led by showrunners Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks, have found a way to preserve that authenticity while still making the story accessible for Western TV audiences. And it all comes down to language.

In the first episode of FX’s official companion podcast for the series, Marks talks about the show’s shrewd use of languages and compared Blackthorne to his historical inspiration William Adams.


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