San Diego Comic-Con 2010
Manga: Lost in Translation

by Carlo Santos,

What was supposed to be a panel about translating manga ended up being a roundtable on the state of manga publishing in general. Involved in the discussion was a group of freelancers and editors including Mark Simmons, Jason Thompson, Jake Forbes, Jonathan Tarbox, Stephen Paul, Shaenon Garrity, and William Flanagan. The panel began immediately with audience questions, which started out on the relatively benign subject of the Gundam franchise (a specialty of Mark Simmons). On the subject of Gundam's future in America, Simmons's opinions were mixed; he felt that the acquisition of Gundam Unicorn was a sign of hope for the series' UC continuity but the possible success of any other Gundam properties is anyone's guess..

Another tangential question, directed at Forbes, was about the possibility of a Return to Labyrinth movie (a Tokyopop original series that Forbes authored). At this point there are no such plans.

On the business of translation itself, Flanagan discussed the qualifications one would need to succeed in the industry. These qualifications include a college degree, a portfolio of previous translation work (with actual published material being a major plus), and the ability to work with a deadline. Like in any industry, "flakes" are not tolerated in manga translation. Forbes added that internships provide a great springboard for translation jobs, while Flanagan also stressed the importance of maintaining contacts in the industry.

The real firestorm began when the question of "What happened to the manga market?" was brought up. Thompson attributed the recent turmoil to multiple factors: a change in reading habits (namely, digital content), which publishers in both Japan and the US have been slow to responed to; scanlations and piracy; and the overall state of the economy. In addition, a grown-up manga readership has not found mature titles to cater to them, and the decline of anime on television (plus the decline of television in general) has reduced the visibility of the artform.

Forbes noted, however, that the mature manga market has started to pick up in recent years and that publishers committed to "comics as an artform," as opposed to publishers cashing in on a fad, will succeed in the years to come.

Garrity and Paul pointed out that publishers in both Japan and the US are trying to find "the next big manga hit"—the anchor titles that will pull in large earnings for publishers. Well-known names such as Fruits Basket and Naruto are already out there and in many cases are ending or have already ended. This could be an issue in the future if the industry is not able to find a new blockbuster hit.

Ultimately, many of the panelists agreed that the ubiquity of free manga scans online did the most damage to the industry. Flanagan and Thompson agreed that an entire generation of young readers had been conditioned to believe that manga is free, and that the idea of paying for a physical book was either an inconvenience or simply unimaginable. Monetizing digital content also faces other roadblocks, like young readers who lack a way to purchase goods online, and simply "want to read lots of stuff." International audiences who have trouble accessing manga physically in their home country are also another issue on the board. Ultimately, the fact is that digital distribution will have a permanent impact on the industry and that the current model for manga publishing must—and will—change.

On a related note was a question about following a manga series through scanlations if the licensed series is cancelled. For the panelists, they felt that this came down to the reader's moral choice—as a best option, one could study the Japanese language and read the rest of the series in Japanese (which is what being a translator is all about anyway). However, taking such translations and then distributing them freely online is where ethical lines start to be crossed.

One possible solution to the digital distribution issue is to have a subscription model for individual chapters online, which Flanagan felt would be a good idea as long as payments flowed back to the companies and staff who worked on the title. Garrity pointed out that many Viz manga releases can already be read for free online, on a limited schedule. Tarbox added that, ultimately, companies will have to sell comics digitally someday and that print is on the way out. According to Thompson, the print medium would ultimately be reserved for premium collector's items—ironically a reversal from the origins of manga as a cheap, economical product.

With so much discussion of the digital distribution issue, little time was left for other subject matter. There was a brief mention of how risqué manga titles (such as those in the BL/yaoi genre) frequently escape the notice of morality watchdogs—and that only big-name titles with tamer material seem to cause media firestorms.

On the technical points of translation, Tarbox discussed the issue of word-for-word translation versus adaptation and Americanization. His feeling was that precise transliteration was always the worst option, resulting in lots of awkward phrasing. Flanagan went so far as to say that literal word-for-word translation cannot exist between Japanese and English due to differences in syntax: the end result would be nonsense. Just as bad, however, is going in the opposite direction where character names are changed and pop-culture references are Americanized; such an option is not desirable either. Ultimately, all forms of translation are a compromise, and the best kind of manga translation is the kind that provides a fun, natural reading experience.

Although this panel has focused on the art of manga translation in the past, it was clear that this year's edition was more about the state of the industry overall. One cannot become a manga translator, after all, if there is no manga to translate.

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