My friends over at Source Gaming are doing a special Zelda week (February 22nd through March 1st) to celebrate the upcoming release of Breath of the Wild on the Switch.
They have written various articles already, from interviews with known Zelda speedrunners to discussing what new Zelda characters could be added to Hyrule Warriors.
So, today I decided to take a look at a hotly debated topic: Sheik’s gender!
But! I am not looking at the debate as a whole. Rather, I am simply looking at two lines of dialogue that are often referred to that caused said debate.
I do not explain the debate in great detail or all the arguments, nor do I really take any sides on it. I am simply looking at two bits of dialogue that are often cited when talking about it.
Basically, fans were confused if Zelda’s disguise as Sheik involved a full change to male or not, based on what Ruto said in English and what Sheik said in Japanese.
So let’s look at those two lines.
First is Ruto’s line. The focus on this one is what she said in English. Gender is a little messy in Japanese, as vague pronouns exist which can make looking into things like this a little iffy.
“A young man named Sheik saved
me from under the ice…”
(Lit: “A young fellow named Sheik saved me…”)
The word in question is highlighted in green. The red is just from the dialogue emphasis itself in-game.
So the word here is “young man,” which in Japanese is clearly from 若者 (wakamono) which actually means “young person.” It can be used regardless of gender as a result. In my experience it is usually seen to refer to young people (as in pluralized), but you can see it used for both genders. It may be odd to refer to a young woman that way, in a sense, but if Ruto did not know their gender in the first place, it would be safe using this.
The translator probably wrote “man” as to just fill it with some reference, as saying “A young person named Sheik” would sound incredibly awkward to say, as you can see. It is possible that the scene was translated out of context, and possibly not fixed later on.
Oftentimes translations from game scripts (especially back for a game that released in 1998) were without the game alongside it –meaning the translator only sees text and translates, be it in or out of context. Sometimes text is in an illogical order too, so you can go from translating the scene where Link is with Malon in the Castle Town to the final battle right after the scene! (This is an extreme example, but emphasizes the point).
Someone who is tasked with editing the translator’s words too would not really feel the need (nor feel they have the authority) to correct a translation beyond making it flow more, so may have missed it on the second pass, too.
In translating the script, they would eventually learn that Zelda was disguised as Sheik, but considering this gender is referenced just once in this scene, it is possible they simply overlooked it.
Or, they felt it fit Ruto’s personality to mistake Sheik for a young man (or assume such, anyway).
Or, of course, it is also possible they kept it there purposefully –but it seems to be an error in the end, considering what Bill Trinen was quoted (by Polygon) to have said:
“The definitive answer is that Sheik is a woman — simply Zelda in a different outfit.”
In this case, it may really have just been an oversight (or Ruto being judgmental).
I’ll say it was likely an oversight, but I do like the idea that it shows Ruto just assumes one thing or another! It’s very human of her to do…even if she is a zora.
Second is Sheik’s line. This time the focus is what they say in Japanese, rather than English, as the pronoun reference is swapped.
Let’s take a look.
“I am Sheik.
Survivor of the Sheikahs…”
(Lit. The same as translated. Herein lies the issue!)
So above you can see that this is actually translated fine. However, English lacks gendered first-person pronouns. So what people point out is Sheik in Japanese uses the first person pronoun boku. It is usually reserved for males and would sound odd for a girl to say.
However, that does not mean that girls never use it –especially in entertainment. If you listen to a lot of Japanese music, or watch a lot of anime (in Japanese), you may come across some girls using boku to refer to themselves. Often it is associated with a masculine character trait (perhaps they are a tomboy), or shows a lack of class or education, or is just a strong emphasis in itself.
In songs, sometimes it is used simply to be referring to a male character in the song’s lyrics, but other times, at its simplest, is used to sound “cool.”
So, considering that a game is a form of media (like anime or music), boku is not as odd for a girl to say as you may think. In Sheik’s case, the creators may have wanted to present this “cool, ninja-esque” Sheikah to show the audience. It would be a first, too, considering that Zelda often had a lesser role in these stories before then. The translator would not have to worry about this part, as it would come out to “I am” regardless.
I have seen cases too where the same character with two “personas” uses two different pronouns for the audience to know “which” one is speaking. However, that would go into a debate as to whether Sheik is a different persona, or just the disguise, etc. That is not my place to discuss, so I will remain focused on the language.
Have you ever heard people say “never learn your Japanese from anime?” Well now you know why! Don’t go around using boku in Japan as a girl! But if you’re voicing an eccentric character, or a tomboy, go for it! It will emphasize your point.
Anyway, if Sheik was also pretending to be male to avoid traces of their identity from say, Ganon, it would make sense (especially to a Japanese reader) to use a pronoun that isn’t normally associated with her.
However, it is possible they translated this bit of dialogue first, and hence made Ruto say “young man” instead to reflect this. But that is just speculation, really, but another possibility.
On a side note, when I took a look at Zelda’s dialogue, she uses the gender-neutral/formal “watashi” to refer to herself otherwise. So it may just be part of the disguise too, or to provide great contrast between them –though not necessarily with a change in sex.
With Bill Trinen’s statement on the matter, I feel the “young man named Sheik” dialogue was simply an oversight –or they felt it felt Ruto simply saying such. It is rare for Nintendo to officially comment on anything, though, so that should add some weight to it.
This line still remains in Ocarina of Time 3D, too (a 3DS remaster of the game), but translations (and their errors) often remain in those sorts of remakes, especially if the rest of the script was fine.
The “boku” may have made the translator make Ruto refer to Sheik as a “young man,” or perhaps the translator/editor felt validated seeing Sheik use “boku” after they had already translated it that way. We may never know, and can only speculate. Error or not, it stayed in the remaster, and continues to be a point of debate –even after Bill Trinen’s statement.
And that’s a look at those two references of dialogue! It’s always fun looking at nuances and what a difference they make (and how they must be taken into consideration) during the translation/localization process!