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The Saga of Tanya the Evil Author Carlo Zen and English Translator Emily Balistrieri

by Kim Morrissy,

One of the amusing ironies about The Saga of Tanya the Evil being sold as a “light novel” is that it is not particularly light in any sense of the word. The books are large and heavy, the story is about weighty subjects like war and politics, and the writing is dense with references to real-world military strategy and historical events.

More than anything, The Saga of Tanya the Evil is the work of a hardcore geek. Even as it tells a seemingly standard tale about a man who is reincarnated as a young girl in a fantasy world, the story reflects Carlo Zen's personal interests in various areas of study. Through talking with Carlo Zen and the book's English translator Emily Balistrieri, it occurred to me that The Saga of Tanya the Evil is ultimately the kind of work that is made possible through the sheer passion of one's hobby.

However, instead of being posted on the popular Shōsetsuka ni Narō (“Let's become novelists”) or the Kadokawa-owned Kakuyomu (“Write-and-Read”), it was submitted to Arcadia, an older site for aspiring authors to post their work online.

“One of the biggest differences between Arcadia and Narō is that Arcadia doesn't have a ranking system,” Carlo Zen explained. “It encouraged readers to give detailed feedback to authors, which really helped me improve as a writer. I can't thank my readers at Arcadia enough for making The Saga of Tanya the Evil what it is today.”

In 2013, The Saga of Tanya the Evil became a book series published by Enterbrain. From there, it quickly became a hit, and by 2017 it had a television anime adaptation. This was the same year the English translation published by Yen Press first released, although Carlo Zen himself does not remember the specifics due to all the work he was involved with for the anime at the time.

“That whole time was like a blur. It's certainly a milestone to get published overseas because it opens up the work to a whole new audience. I remember thinking that when it came out in other Asian countries.” A Taiwanese publisher picked up the series in 2014, and a Korean version began in 2015.

In 2019, The Saga of Tanya the Evil anime got a film sequel, which opened in Japan in February and in the United States in May. The Saga of Tanya the Evil is also one of the four series featured in the crossover short anime Isekai Quartet, which debuted in April. It's amazing to think that a story which began as a hobby has spread this far in just eight years, but it's also not that surprising when you ask the English translator about it.

The Saga of Tanya the Evil sparked my interest in history.”

Emily Balistrieri didn't start out as a military geek. In fact, she confesses that translating The Saga of Tanya the Evil gave her a lot of trouble, especially in the beginning.

“I'll admit that I made some mistakes. For example, I didn't know about Shackleton's ad, so I didn't translate the reference properly. I found people complaining about that on the internet, so I made sure the manga version used the correct wording.”

Shackleton's ad refers to a famous advertisement that Ernest Shackleton allegedly ran in The Times to recruit members on his Endurance expedition, which reads: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” (Note that the original copy of the advertisement was never found, and the ad itself is likely a myth.) In The Saga of Tanya the Evil, Tanya uses similar wording to recruit members for her battalion.

“It's the little things like that that I find the most difficult,” Balistrieri admits. Yet it was through The Saga of Tanya the Evil that she came to learn more and appreciate history. “One of the reasons I agreed to translate it is because I wanted to learn more. While translating the early volumes I watched Dunkirk and Darkest Hour - both were very interesting. I also read All Quiet on the Western Front, and though it was very good, Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel was the most striking. War is terrifying, and that's why we should never forget it.”

One of the reasons why Carlo Zen originally wrote The Saga of Tanya the Evil is because World War I is not so well known in Japan, especially the European side of it. “I really wanted to show off what's so interesting about that war because it really was vitally important on the world stage. At the same time, World War II is more familiar to Japanese readers, so I put in some elements from that war as well as kind of a compromise. If anything, the inspiration for The Saga of Tanya the Evil is somewhere in-between those wars.”

“But you shouldn't use my books to learn the historical facts,” Carlo Zen hastened to add. “I've taken all sorts of liberties with it. It's a story, not a textbook.”

The author and translator's comments brought up an interesting question: How much history do you need to know to appreciate The Saga of Tanya the Evil? When I suggested that perhaps readers from western countries could be more receptive to the story due to its European setting, Carlo Zen was unsure. “Because I write the story for a Japanese audience, I give abridged explanations for things that they may not know about. But maybe overseas audiences don't need those explanations, or would prefer to have explanations for other things instead. Or maybe I made a mistake and never realized.”

“I think it could be the other way around,” Balistrieri suggested. “Westerners are more familiar with Europe, so they may not see the appeal of a Japanese story tackling a European setting.”

There is also the issue of people in different countries having different recollections of the World Wars, which affects how they perceive The Saga of Tanya the Evil in turn. Carlo Zen stressed that although The Saga of Tanya the Evil incorporates elements from World War II, he deliberately chose not to include references to Nazism.

“On a gut level, I hate Nazis. It wouldn't do to write a story that shows Nazis doing cool things. If Nazis were in the story, it would make the question of which side is pure evil much more straightforward, but a story about a genocidal war would have to be handled with sensitivity. The Empire in this story is based on a what-if scenario where the German empire unified under the Großdeutsche Lösung ("Greater German solution"), so that all German-speaking peoples came together under one state. If peace had managed to continue throughout the 1910s and war broke out later, during the years between World War I and World War II, how would things be different? In that scenario, there wouldn't be any room for a demagogue like Hitler to come into power. ”

It is for this reason that Carlo Zen does not like the term “loli nazi,” which he has seen the English-speaking audience use to describe Tanya. “When I see the term, I think, 'Hmm, that's strange. How come they think so?' She's certainly not a hero, but she's not that kind of evil. Ultimately, she's a pragmatist.”

“If you're an action fan, you'll definitely love the movie.”

The anime and novels are two very different ways of experiencing the same story. Balistrieri recommends the anime and manga adaptations for those who appreciate the action elements, while the novels are for people who want to delve a little deeper into the context of the story.

“Each version is fantastic in its own way. If you're an action fan, you'll definitely love the movie because it really pushes that aspect. I watched it in the theater on the day of release and loved it.”

Although the film is technically an anime-original sequel to the TV anime, the plot is a composite of various elements from the books, put together in a way that suits a film's narrative structure.

“If you were to ask me if it's a 'new work,' then yes I would say it's a new work, but it's not entirely original,” Carlo Zen explained. “If you've read the novels, you'll see some parts that are familiar and other parts that are a bit different.”

The film's story follows Tanya's misadventures in the Republic's desert colonies and in the icy wastelands of the Federation. Tanya is pitted against a revenge-driven young mage named Mary Sue, the daughter of a soldier whom Tanya killed in battle.

“Yes, I deliberately made Mary Sue's name a reference to the English-langauge fanfiction term for an overpowered character,” Carlo Zen admitted. “Mary Sue's involvement in the story represents a kind of divine intervention, which I think you'll understand when you watch the movie.”

The other Tanya anime to look forward to is Isekai Quartet, a quirky comedy which shows characters from The Saga of Tanya the Evil interacting with characters from Re:Zero, KONOSUBA, and Overlord. Carlo Zen admitted that trying to keep all the characterization consistent for the anime was quite a trial, so he was tempted to leave it to Re:Zero author Tappei Nagatsuki to supervise the Tanya parts instead of doing it himself. However, he still ended up doing his part properly.

The Saga of Tanya the Evil film screened in more than 500 U.S. theaters on May 16. Isekai Quartet premiered on April 6. Yen Press has so far released the first five volumes of the novel in English, as well as the first six volumes of the manga.

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