Manga Answerman - What Makes A Great English Translation?

by Deb Aoki,

This is more of a personal question, but what do you prefer: a “lyrical”, adaptive translation, or a no-frills one that goes for the very direct approach?

Hm. That's an interesting question. Let me preface my response with a few caveats:

• I'm Japanese-American, but I'm a native English speaker who can only read and speak very basic Japanese. I can get by when I go to Japan, but I'm far from fluent.

• My “day job” is largely in user experience design and content strategy, so I'm big on adjusting the voice and tone of content for different audiences, and writing clear and simple copy for software UI (user interfaces).

• I have several good friends who are professional J->E translators

• I'm now on my 7th year as a judge in the annual Manga Translation Battle contest, which is sponsored by the Digital Comics Association. (psst – the contest is on now, with the Battle of the Professionals contest happening now too)

I have opinions on manga translation, but mostly from an English reader's point of view, not as an expert in Japanese language and grammar.

Now that's out of the way – what do I consider to be “good” translation – literal or “lyrical”/adaptive translation? Overall, I think the best Japanese to English translations capture the spirit, mood, tone, and meaning of the original Japanese content. The goal is to give the English reader the same impressions and feelings when they read the translated comics stories as the Japanese reader would have reading that same comic story in its original language. It should be a seamless reading experience that doesn't use “Japlish” or have many awkward grammar gaffes, and the voice of the characters (e.g. how they speak) should sound natural and appropriate for their gender, age, and social context – modern day teen girls like Usagi in Sailor Moon should sound distinctly different than the space pirates in Captain Harlock.

Overly-literal translations sometimes sacrifice natural, conversational style writing and dialogue in favor of word-for-word interpretations. They may be technically correct, but they may end up sounding slightly (or VERY) off, leaving the reader feeling like something isn't quite right. At worst, a poorly-done translation confuses or misleads the reader about what's happening or what the characters are really saying. This discomfort takes readers out of the story, and makes for a disjointed, awkward reading experience.

An example that I often see oddly translated is “onii-san” or “aniki” (older brother) or “onee-san” / “nee-chan” (older sister). Sometimes, the manga character is referring to someone who isn't actually their sibling / blood relative, but referring to a person affectionately or with a degree of respectfulness. I've seen translators handle it either by 1) replacing “aniki” with “bro” or “nee-chan” with “sissy” or “sis,” 2) keeping the “nee-san” or “nii-san” in the English text, or 3) omitting the reference to brother / sister and replacing it with just the character's first name or nickname. I tend to think option 3 is more natural in English, since I personally *never* refer to my siblings as “bro” or “sis” in conversation, but instead call them by their first names. But maybe that's just me?

Another example I've seen is “nakama” – which can refer to a colleague, crew member or team-mate or close friend. Most translators will opt to translate it to its English equivalent, while maybe a few outliers will keep the “nakama” word in the English text, figuring that it means something unique in Japanese, kind of like how “sushi” is just “sushi” in English, not “rice with fish.”

Translating Japanese to English is not easy to do. Japanese has many cultural nuances that often aren't easy to convey in English, such as regional accents (e.g. Kansai-ben vs. Kyoto-ben or Tokyo-ben, which really don't have 1-to-1 equivalents in English. Should a newly-arrived red blood cell from a transfusion in Cells at Work! that speaks with a Osaka / Kansai accent sound like they're from Boston? Should an Edo-period shogun sound like a Shakespearean English aristocrat? Or is that just… weird?). There's also different levels of politeness to take into consideration too.

Japanese humor often relies on puns, homonyms and wordplay that can be extremely difficult to replicate in English. One memorable example is in the first volume of Yotsuba&! By Kiyohiko Azuma (Yen Press) when Yotsuba mistakenly tells her neighbor Fuuka that her dad (who is a translator, or honyakuka) is a “konnyakuka,” or a person who makes konnyaku (konnyaku is a kind of rubbery, translucent jelly cake / noodle used in Japanese dishes like sukiyaki or oden). Fuuka then assumes that Yotsuba's dad makes konnyaku, which later leads to humorous confusion that doesn't quite make sense in the English version, though not for lack of trying. The Yen Press edition of Yotsuba&? translates the “honyakuka / konnyakuka” mix-up as “translator' and “trash loader.” Yeaaah, I don't think that quite works either, but you see the tradeoff that the translator had to make here to try to retain the humor of the original Japanese version.

With so many factors like these to take into consideration, it's no surprise that Japanese text translated by machine translation (like Google Translate) can read like a Bizarro world English word salad.

Translating Japanese to English is often more of an art than an exact science. That's why you can have several people translate the same chapter of a manga and come up with slightly different results. (The Manga Translation Battle of Professionals contest is a good illustration of this, as you'll be able to compare side-by-side how two pro translators can interpret the same chapter in slightly different ways.) On top of that, they have to translate the dialogue and captions into English AND have it be short enough to fit in the existing, often tall/vertical word balloons from the original Japanese version.

Depending on the manga they're translating, some translators also have to do research on sometimes obscure or specialized terminology, history, and culture. For example, when translating and localizing food manga like What Did You Eat Yesterday? by Fumi Yoshinaga (Vertical Comics) or Food Wars! By Yūto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki (Viz Media), translators and editors need to know cooking and food terminology, plus the names of the ingredients and dishes in English and Japanese. A chili pepper is different than a bell pepper or a shishito pepper, for example, and sous vide cooking is not the same as poaching.

The best translators understand Japanese and English fluently, have a good ear for dialogue in both languages, AND are excellent prose writers. Ideally, the translated manga should read as smoothly and naturally as if it was originally written in English. That's easier said than done, for sure. But the TL;DR sum-up here is that I think adaptive translation that strives for natural-sounding, conversational adaptation is generally more enjoyable to read than a word-for-word literal translation.

What's your take on what makes for “good” Japanese-to-English translation, especially in manga? Chime in with your take on this topic in the forums!


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.


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