The number one goal of any translation should be to convey with 100% accuracy the perfect, original meaning of a line. For this reason, “gomen nasai” should not be translated.
What does ‘gomen nasai’ mean?
Sometimes gomen nasai means “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it means “I am sorry.” And sometimes it means “I am really sorry.” Like most Japanese words, it’s incredibly deep due to the variety of meanings it can have, unlike other, filthy languages like English where words only have one set definition. (Fact: In English, “sorry” only means “sorry”.)
Why is it untranslateable?
It’s impossible to get across the intricacies of Japanese culture by using English words. “Gomen nasai” is imbued with the essence of the onsen, the takoyaki, and the kozatoi. You just don’t get that from “sorry” and you never will.
Why deprive people by forcing an inferior culture onto them? It just doesn’t make sense.
As I touched on before, “gomen nasai” has way too many deep meanings to be appropriately translated with just one word.
For example, if you accidentally elbow a friend and they wince in pain, you could say “gomen nasai” and it would make sense. I don’t know of any English word that could appropriately convey that exact scenario, but gomen nasai does.
Another scenario would be a salaryman apologizing to his boss for accidentally hiring a hooker with a company credit card and then killing and burying her on company property. A simple “I’m sorry.” wouldn’t suffice here, but “gomen nasai”? Yes, that would work.
Because the Japanese use polite language and there is no such thing in English, expressions of apology are better in their natural, polite form. You wouldn’t ask a hobo to design a building, would you? No, that’s the architect’s job. Similarly, you wouldn’t want apologies to be done in English because that’s the Japanese language’s job.
It’s all about providing a natural experience for the viewer, and this is simply the best way to do so.
Since it’s clear that gomen nasai is untranslatable, we fansubbers (and translators everywhere!) should endeavor to leave the phrase in its natural Japanese state — perfect and undisturbed.
For the gaijins who don’t speak Japanese yet, it might be useful to include a one-line TL Note that perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the word. This way the viewers can fully understand Japanese culture like we do.
For more information on this subject and others, please contact your local Japanese expert.