“Dōbutsu aigo”: A Problem of Translation

SHUNTŌ Ken'ichi(Postdoctoral Research Fellows)
April 14, 2023

Hello everyone, my name is Ken’ichi Shuntō. I research the modern and contemporary histories of social movements and legal and bureaucratic systems as these relate to care for animals. I spend my days thinking about what it means to care for animals and how the connections between humans and animals have changed over time. As a result, I often find myself reflecting on the meaning of dōbutsu aigo.

The Japanese expression dōbutsu aigo is not a translation; rather, it appears to have first appeared in Japan in 1906. There are straightforward Japanese translations for expressions like “prevention of cruelty to animals,” “humane treatment of animals,” “protection of animals,” “animal welfare,” “animal rights,” and “animal liberation.” But these are all expressions that convey, a way of thinking that is different from that implied by dōbutsu aigo. This is shown by the fact that none of these translated expressions incorporate the term dōbutsu aigo.

Consequently, the translation of dōbutsu aigo continues to cause me grief.

In Japan, there is a law known as “Dōbutsu aigo kanri hō,” for which the Justice Department’s official translation is “Act on Welfare and Management of Animals.” The legal principle ends up as “animal welfare,” which is distinct from dōbutsu aigo. It is, therefore, hardly a suitable translation.

When I write articles or give presentations, I sometimes have to translate dōbutsu aigo into English, and it always gives me trouble. A collection of essays was published in March 2023 as part of Inaga Shigemi’s research project “Avidya on a Spider’s Web”. I wrote an essay for the collection entitled 「蜘蛛は動物愛護の対象となり得るか」, or “Kumo wa dōbutsu aigo no taishō to nariuru ka?” The essay is in Japanese, but I was stuck when asked to provide an English version of the title. The essay is about the distinctive features of dōbutsu aigo, and its connection to spiders. The problem was that I could only make sense of my case by using the Japanese dōbutsu aigo.

The Japanese expression dōbutsu aigo implies a profound respect for the life of animals. It involves thinking of animals as living beings, and reflecting that in our treatment of animals. In short, it involves respecting the dignity of animal life. I translated the Japanese title of my essay into English as “Should We Respect The Spider's Life?” In other words, I went back to the special features behind dōbutsu aigo, and changed the meaning of my original Japanese title accordingly. I thought this was a better way to ensure I got my point across than by translating aigo as “protection” or “welfare”, for which Japanese terms—hogo and fukushi respectively—already exist.  

On this occasion the translation may have succeeded, but it is clear to me that I shall scream in frustration on the next occasion. When I am completely stuck, I use “Aigo Culture,” in order to show it involves something other than “animal welfare.”