lovely cyborg, a shrine to #18 from dragon ball
Cyborg or Android?

(TL:DR #17 and #18 are cyborgs. I can prove it cause I can read the original Japanese material, dogg. Trust me on this. Or read on.)

#16

The old "Cyborg or Android" essay that used to be here was hell-bent on proving that the United States dub name, "Android 18", was a wrongful translation of the Japanese name, 人造人間18号, or jinzouningen juuhachi-gou, one that was misinformative of the fact that #17 and #18 are indeed, cyborgs.

There were two arguments that went towards disproving that Number 18 is an android: The first being that it is stated several times in the Dragon Ball canon, by #18 herself and others, that she and her twin #17 were previously regular humans. And as we all know, a cyborg is a modified human (we'll get into that in a minute). The second argument towards disproving the "android" claim was that the Japanese word "jinzouningen" is an umbrella term with a more nuanced and varied meaning than just "android", and that those nuances were lost in translation.

Fast forward four years or so and I've become fairly proficient in Japanese (JLPT2 level proficient, in fact), and wouldn't you know, I still have all the Daizenshuu (essentially Dragon Ball encyclopedias) and Japanese manga that I had back when I couldn't read Japanese... And do you know what I found out?

toriyama

The second argument doesn't hold up anymore because Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball's creator, doesn't really seem to know the difference between an android and a cyborg himself (cue comical wah-wah music here). I'll explain why in a minute, but despite his own mishaps, the fact still remains that our lovely protagonist is indeed a cyborg. To understand why, let's review some key concepts.

In the English-speaking science/speculative fiction (SF) world, a handful of terms exist that refer to technologically based "other" entities:

  1. Robot: "An automaton. Any mechanism or machine that moves automatically."

    Traditionally a machine has been thought of as something constructed with industrial or space-age materials, like various metals, circuitry and wires. However, modern science and technology are changing that definition to include laboratory-grown organic materials like tissues and nerves. At any rate, a robot needs someone to program it in order to move on its own (although it gets complicated once they have AI algorithms and whatnot).

    Real life robots include the Rhoomba vacuum, assembly line machines and various talking kids' toys like Furbies. Fictional robots include Luna-P (the floating cathead nanny) from Sailor Moon series and the tachikoma tanks from the Ghost in the Shell series

  2. .
  3. Android: "An automaton that resembles a human being."

    An android (and its female-gendered version, gynoid, not to mention its lab-grown brother, the bioroid) is pretty easy it seems; just a robot that looks like a human. One can conclude that an android is therefore always a robot, but a robot is not an android unless it resembles a person. Again, nowadays androids aren't always 100% electromechanical creations in the old-fashioned industrial and space-age sense, but include human-looking robots made of synthetic and organic tissues.

    Real life androids currently only seem to span the old-fashioned metal & wires kind, but include the famous Honda Asimo and all those slightly creepy, recently debuted gynoids. Fictional androids are numerous and include Data from Star Trek:TNG, T-800 from the Terminator series, the Replicants from Blade Runner, Naomi Armitage from Armitage III, most any fighting robot (thinking of Gundam here), and a million billion others that can be referenced on this excellent wiki page.

  4. Cyborg: "A human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by electromechanical devices."

    In this definition lies a crucial phrase that sets apart robots and androids from cyborgs, and that is "a human being." Like an android is always a robot, a cyborg is always a human being. And in following with the other two definitions of robot and android, modern day sci-fi has presented us with a wide range of cyborgs that are more complex than traditional considerations of the word, which typically only included implanted/integrated electronics and prosthetics such as metal arms.

    However, most real-life cyborgs are the kind with intricate prostheses, such as Sarah Reinersten, Amy Mullins, Claudia Mitchell, and really intense folks like Kevin Warwick and Amber Case. Fictional cyborgs often have much more complex systems at play (it's called sci-fi for a reason), and include the infamous Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell series, The Borg from Star Trek, Jet from Cowboy Bebop, Frankenstein, et cetera.

Now, in Japanese sci-fi these same terms exist, though as English loan words, and they are used in similar contexts across popular fiction: ロボット (robotto), アンドロイド (andoroido), and サイボーグ (saiboogu). Actually, there is a Japanese language equivalent of cyborg, which is 改造人間, or kaizouningen, but let's continue the argument at hand.

The term used in Dragon Ball is not an English loan word, but one of Japanese origin: 人造人間, or jinzouningen. Shonen Jump actually showcased this word in one of its issues:

kanji of the month

So 人造人間 breaks down into:

  • 人造 • jinzou: artificial; man-made; imitation; synthetic
  • 人間 • ningen: a human being; mankind; humankind

Putting the two together results in "artificial human". This term is commonly translated as one or the other of our English-language terms (robot, etc), and the old fan argument used to be that because "artificial human" was not a direct translation of neither "cyborg" nor "android", "jinzouningen" was a much more nuanced word that regretfully had to get the chop for ease of translation.

But this isn't necessarily the case.

When one looks up 人造人間 jinzouningen on the Japanese wikipedia, it says:

人造人間(じんぞうにんげん)とは、主に人によって製造された、人間を模した機械や人工生命体のことであり、人型のロボット、アンドロイド、ガイノイド、バイオロイドなどの総称である。架空の存在としてSF漫画、映画、小説作品などにも頻繁に登場し、人間の良きパートナーとして活躍することが多い。

The term jinzouningen refers to a man-made robot, either a machine that mimics a human or one having an artificial body, that is in the shape of a human. They frequently appears in modern day science fiction comics, films, and novels, as helpful partners to humans.
Interestingly, the article also gets more specific on how the term is not inclusive of cyborgs, stating:
また、身体の一部を機械化した人間は改造人間でありサイボーグ (cyborg)と呼ばれ、一から作られた人造人間のアンドロイドとは区別される。

Also, androids, being artificial humans made from scratch, are to be distinguished as separate from cyborgs, which are remodelled humans that have had some part of their body mechanized.

In the Dragon Ball canon, and in the encyclopedic Daizenshuu books, we are told time and again that #17 and #18 were humans, taken against their will and forcefully transformed by Dr. Gero.


In the Japanese version, the verb 改造された kaizousareta is used, implying 'forcefully converted'.

Here Bulma views Dr. Gero's blueprints of the twins, which informs of their largely non-mechanical nature.


And here is an excerpt from Daizenshuu 7:
「人造人間17号。ドクター・ゲロが作り出した人造人間。以前は人間だった。人間の少年を改造した人造人間。永久エネルギー炉を内蔵し、永久にバテることがない。好戦的だが闘いはあくまでゲームと考えている。神様と合体したピッコロと互角のパワーだが、18号と同様、作られた本来の目的は、セルが完全体になるための餌である。」
"Artificial human #17. An artificial human created by Dr. Gero. Previously a human, modified from a young human teen (boy). There is an infinite energy reactor internalized within his body; it does not run from any sort of battery. Although he is a quite belligerent, he thinks of fighting as a game. He is equal in power to the fused being that is Kamisama and Piccolo. And like #18, his true purpose was to be food/fuel towards Cell's perfect form."

「やたら美人で強くて歳をとらない、最強の奥様である。17号とは実は双子の兄弟。その349【特】人間をべーすに作られ、永久エネルギー炉を搭載した永久タイプ。全人造人間中で唯一の女性。短めのワンレンの金髪をかき上げる仕草がクセ。美少女だが、ダサイものがキライで、かなりきつい性格をしている。」
"As an unbelievable beauty, she is strong and doesn't age — the strongest of the women (wives). #17 is her twin brother, in actuality. They are infinite energy types, outfitted with infinite energy reactors. Of all the artificial humans she is the only female. She has a habit of always smoothing back her short blonde, one-length (all over) hairstyle. Though she is a beautiful young woman (implying sweetness), she hates things that are unsophisticated or out of fashion, and has a considerably severe/sharp/unyeilding personality."

However

Toriyama contradicts himself frequently! He references the twins as jinzouningen made from a human base, which is contradictory to the very nature of the word "jinzouningen", as proven in the wiki article. In fact, there are pages in one of the Daizenshuu that discuss the jinzouningen, one of which labels #8 and the twins as androids, in English, yet of a biomechanical type.


Even more baffling is that, in contradiction to the "android" label, this page summarizes that #18 is able to bear children, due to being of a human base... It also states the following about #17:

基本的には18号と同じで、人間のベースに、有機質だけで改造が施されている。わずかに使われている機械部品は緊急停止回路と自爆蔵置。
In actuality, being the same as #18, modification was performed from a human base, using only organic materials. Using very few mechanical parts, 'emergency stop' and 'self-destruct' mechanisms were placed inside.

So now what?

Well, let's review what we've learned so far:
  • A cyborg is a human being that integrates or enhances itself with external feedback systems, be they mechanical, chemical or otherwise.
  • A cyborg is not a robot, since it has a human base, and is therefore not an android.
  • #17 and #18 were previously humans before their forceful modification by Dr. Gero.
  • In fact, very few mechanical parts are inside them, as they were largely enhanced with bio-organic materials
  • However, the definition of "jinzouningen" explicitly excludes the "cyborg", otherwise called "kaizouningen" in Japanese.
  • To confound this, there are multiple examples across Dragon Ball canon which labels #17 and #18 as "jinzouningen", while they are simultaneously described to be otherwise, i.e. cyborgs.

What conclusion can we make from all this?

I'm just gonna go ahead and say that Toriyama-sensei either didn't care or didn't understand that there was a difference between a cyborg (改造人間 kaizouningen) and android, or artificial human (人造人間 jinzouningen).

technically cyborgs

In fact, it might even have been a case of trying to avoid cumbersome language. Even in English, marketing "The Android and Cyborg Saga" seems like a pain in the ass. After all, the large majority of Dr. Gero's creations are androids, so why bother getting specific? Enough clues are provided for fans as to the cyborg nature of the twins. And thankfully, the people at Shonen Jump, publishers of the serialized Dragon Ball comic, having more space to work with this translation issue, went ahead and pointed this out many times.

So what do we take away from all this mess?

#17 and #18 are cyborgs, dear reader. I know it may be hard to accept, but let's remember — even our hero, Son Goku, thought she was an android. That kind of thing is difficult for others to parse. In fact, it's probably difficult for #18 herself to parse.

Notes

In fact, the concept of the cyborg is an absolutely fascinating one that has far more depth and academic literature to it than can be covered here. If my humble essay has sparked your interest, however, please direct yourself to #50Cyborgs.

改造人間: The Japanese wiki article on kaizouningen is similar to the English article on cyborg, which summarizes that a cyborg a "cybernetic organism", which involves a fusion of the flesh and blood body with an automatic feedback system. It should be noted that current theorizing on cyborgs strongly emphasizes the feedback. Again, if you're interested, rifle through the #50Cyborgs blog.

The 人造人間 jinzouningen wiki article goes on to talk about how Ghost in the Shell and other series have contributed to explorations of where the remodelling of a human being blurs the boundary line between a completely mechanized, soulless existence, but like the changing concept of what a cyborg is, that's part of a larger argument to be read elsewhere.

The other pages are right here. In Japanese (sorry, no English yet!): Robot, Android: Mechanical Type, Cell.
The first page weirdly categorizes Cyborg Tao Pie Pie as a robot, despite saying that he was 改造した cyberized (although his cybernetics are largely just electromechanical prostheses, not the organic compounds that cyberized #17 and #18). It also definitively states that #20 is an android, unlike the twins, saying that although he resembles Dr. Gero, the evil doctor was not the base for #20. It goes on to say that half of him is a random human base, while the other is mechanical, like #19.

Bonus for Reading This Far!

android ABC
click to enlarge