San Diego Comic-Con 2011
Manga: Lost in Translation

by Carlo Santos, Jul 22nd 2011

A group of veteran translators including Paul Starr (Spice and Wolf and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya light novels), William Flanagan (Tsubasa, xxxHOLiC, Sailor Moon), Jonathan Tarbox (head of translation house Arashi Productions), Mari Morimoto (Dragon Ball, Naruto, Ayako), and Stephen Paul (Air Gear, Yotsuba&!) came together to talk about the ins and outs of translating manga. The panel began with self-introductions from each panelist, after which Flanagan invited audience members to ask questions.

The first topic of discussion was about "colloquial" translations where the script drifts away from the literal meaning Morimoto explained that this choice of style usually falls on the translator, such as her work on Ayako where she adapted the country dialect of certain characters into a Southern drawl. Flanagan added that a related issue is where rewriters and translators conflict on how to adapt a script, with the change in tone between early Negima translations and the current volumes being a striking example. Paul also recalled when Tokyopop hired writer Keith Giffen for Battle Royale to "punch up" the story ... by making it significantly different from the original.

On the reader side, there also lies a conflict between manga purists and casual fans. Viz, for example, tries to make every adaptation as accessible as possible—which causes some readers to complain, while others prefer that style. Other publishers, meanwhile, prefer to keep honorifics and other unique vestiges of the Japanese language. The panelists agreed that, due to the wide range of reader expectations, it's ultimately impossible to please every single fan.

The discussion moved on to the level of education needed for translators to succeed. Some of the panelists were able to study Japanese as a college major, but still had to gain practical experience after that, while others had to self-study and then went through immersion—usually by living in Japan—and picking up enough of the language to be fluent and pass a qualification test. Ultimately each panelist had a unique career path into the world of translating manga.

An easier question followed, about which untranslated works each panelist would like to see in English. Tarbox prefaced this by stating that there is "an ocean of [Japanese manga] of which we only see a bucket." Starr's personal pick was Saint Young Men (the notorious comedy about Jesus and Buddha as roommates), Flanagan chose a couple of little-known seinen romances by artists like Hidenori Hara, Tarbox initially couldn't choose but eventually decided on the bizarre comedy Family Compo, Morimoto chose Dōbutsu no Oishasan (The Animal Doctor) and Tsukasa Hojo's Cat's Eye, and Paul singled out Taiyo Matsumoto's Takemitsu-Zamurai, which combines Matsumoto's modernist style with traditional samurai themes.

The panelists also spoke about the freedom to choose particular projects, which generally depends on one's experience and reputation in the business. In may cases, there were titles that the translators personally wanted to work on but had to deal with challenging circumstances to get those projects. Sometimes a translator is even asked to pick up a series in the middle of its run, which many do not enjoy, because the change of tone throws them off. Still, Flanagan admitted that "I don't say no," because too many refusals would tarnish one's reputation as a translator.

Another point of discussion was the level of communication between translators and the other staff at the publisher; Starr said that it was often like "sending [one's manuscript] into a black hole." However, some series like are carefully supervised with feedback—Naoko Takeuchi often checks over Flanagan's Sailor Moon translations, for example. Starr said that working on Newtype magazine was his favorite translation experience because of the collaborative effort between writers; getting feedback on one's translations is actually rare for the job.

The final question was about the differences in translating manga, anime and light novels. Starr said that novels were much more open to alteration; manga, on the other hand, has the artwork already fixed in place—the imagery doesn't change from English to Japanese. With light novels, however, every translator's choice in wording could affect the tone of the novel. Flanagan also said that other challenges emerge with spacing issues like anime subtitles (2 lines at 32 characters per line, in the old days) versus manga dialogue balloons (with skinny, vertical balloons being especially infuriating).


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