And the puns. Oh, the untranslatable puns.

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 7:35 PM

About a month back, the great manga translator/scholar Matt Thorn posted on his blog about the poor state of manga translation. How bad is it? “I can rarely get through more then ten pages of a translated manga,” writes Thorn, “before my blood pressure begins to rise and I put the book back on the shelf for the sake of my own health.”  It’s worth reading the original post and comments thread–which includes lengthy weigh-ins from former Tokyopop editor Jake Forbes and former Viz editor and current Del Rey translator William Flanagan, both of whom do top-notch translation/rewrite work themselves–as a snapshot of the manga industry as it currently stands.

Thorn would like manga translators to write better.  Which is problematic, because most manga fans would like them to write worse.  Or, to put it in less divisive terms, Thorn likes looser, more literate translations tooled to the rhythms and subtleties of English-language dialogue; fans prefer literal translations that deviate from the Japanese as little as possible.  To a lot of fans, stiff translations are “authentic.”  Nowadays, by the time a popular manga sees professional publication in the U.S., it already has fan translations online.  Hardcore fans often attack the official translation as “unfaithful” if it deviates from the familiar fan version.  Oh, the Light/Raito flamewars that broke out when Viz released its translation of Death Note

The thing is, you can’t have both.  When you’re translating manga, you have to choose between a literal translation and one that sounds good.  Japanese and English are radically different languages in their generalities (basic elements like sentence structure and tenses are entirely different), specifics (Japanese has no parallel to English articles, English has no parallel to Japanese honorifics), and cultural quirks of usage (conversational Japanese typically drops as many words as possible, leaving many a sentence incomprehensible out of context).  Every translation team has to decide what balance the translation will strike.

The trouble is, there’s no reward for striking that perfect balance.  Most readers seem just as happy with a poor translation as a good one–happier, judging from the countless online manga forums where fans proclaim the superiority of lifeless but unflaggingly literal scanlations.  As manga publishers cut corners to survive the publishing recession, hiring rewriters has become less and less common; either the editor or translator doubles as an uncredited rewriter, or the script goes unrevised.

This isn’t just an issue with fan-friendly manga aimed at the weeaboo contingent.  As grateful as I am to Vertical for its translations of classic work by Osamu Tezuka and Keiko Takemiya, I’ve been consistently underwhelmed by the dialogue.  (If you ever have a whole lot of free time and old manga on your hands, compare the new Vertical edition of Tezuka’s Black Jack with the truncated two-volume edition published by Viz in the 1980s.  The Viz translation is sometimes too cutely conversational, but at least it makes an effort give the characters distinctive, human voices.  On the other hand, the Vertical edition leaves in all of Tezuka’s original fart jokes, so points to Vertical.)  Thorn calls out Del Rey’s translation of Nodame Cantabile, a sensitively written manga that ought to appeal to serious graphic-novel readers, as an example of clumsy writing.  On the distaff side, CLAMP’s moe-riffic fanstravaganza Chobits has, by some strange twist of fate, been blessed with first-rate translations.  The original Tokyopop edition was engagingly translated by a team headed by editor Jake Forbes, and the upcoming omnibus edition from Dark Horse is handled by manga-industry legend Carl Gustav Horn, who once, when editing the Viz Ani-Manga adaptation of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, snuck a tape recorder into a screening of the movie so he could get exactly the same sound effects.

Manga translation is a trickier issue than the literal/literary divide suggests.  Each little translation choice presents a host of problems.  Take, for example, honorifics, a topic hotly debated in the comments to Thorn’s post.  In the original Japanese of any manga, every character’s name is appended with an honorific (-san, -chan, -sensei, etc.), just as it would be in conversation.  A lot of fans love honorifics and consider a translation suspect if it drops them.  Thorn argues that honorifics are distracting, calling attention to the characters’ Japanese-ness when the translation should stress their universal humanity.

I come down on  Thorn’s side of the argument.  I’m wary about including honorifics except in cases where the Japanese setting is a vital part of the story and already calls attention to itself–samurai manga, for instance.  And yet it can be dangerous to eschew honorifics, because they often contain information that can’t be expressed any other way.  As an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been bitten on the ass when it turns out, in volume 18 of some series, that one character’s habit of calling another character -kun or -sama has some deep significance that wasn’t suggested in the first seventeen volumes.  And then there’s the challenge of expressing the senpai/kohai (senior/junior) relationship, which is enormously important in Japanese culture, especially in schools and corporations, but has no analogue in Western culture.  Leave out the -senpai and -kohai honorifics, and it can be hard to explain why two classmates or coworkers are so close.  But even with the honorifics, will an American reader really understand that relationship in any but the most superficial way?

For now, manga readership is dominated by young otaku who enjoy the exotic flavor of manga and don’t mind clumsy dialogue as long as it feels “real.”  But as the manga audience ages and expands, publishers will need to pay more attention to producing quality translations.  Kudos to Thorn for engaging the issue.

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10 Responses to “And the puns. Oh, the untranslatable puns.”

  1. Let me cut to the chase: Otaku are dopes and literal translations suck the art out of the comic.

  2. […] at The Comics Journal, Shaenon K. Garrity weighs in on the state of manga translation and the question of authenticity versus readability: “The thing is, you can’t have both.” Let […]

  3. […] and check out the comments section, where a number of industry folks chime in. You should also read Shaenon Garrity's response over at TCJ too. But then, you should be reading just about everything Garrity […]

  4. […] translations suck the art out of the comic, or does it? quotes from And the puns. Oh, the untranslatable puns. The Comics Journal About a month back, the great manga translator/scholar Matt Thorn posted on his blog about the […]

  5. […] back, Matt Thorn complained about the poor quality of most manga translations. Shaenon Garrity responds at The Comics Journal, pointing out that the more literary choices may not please the readers. Over […]

  6. […] back, Matt Thorn complained about the poor quality of most manga translations. Shaenon Garrity responds at The Comics Journal, pointing out that the more literary choices may not please the readers. Over […]

  7. […] Garrity over at The Comics Journal weighs in on the translation issue.  She brings to focus the whole issue of literal vs literary, which is […]

  8. minikui says:

    “The thing is, you can’t have both. When you’re translating manga, you have to choose between a literal translation and one that sounds good.”

    I disagree … or rather, it depends what you mean by “literal”. Of course, if literal means literally word-by-word translations, then it will never sound good, because of the already mentioned structural differences between the languages. But I don’t think this is what you are talking about? and I suppose that even “otakus” don’t consider a google translation (which imho is a very literal one ^^ ) a good one.

    So, I don’t believe that a “good sounding” and “well written” translation requires “unfaithfulness” or at least not more than a literal one. A translation can faithfully and “authentically” convey the original’s content and be a nice read. On the other hand a very literal translation can also be unfaithful, if in the end the reader doesn’t understand it anymore XD

    “Hardcore fans often attack the official translation as “unfaithful” if it deviates from the familiar fan version.”

    This is quite true. But I don’t think it necessarily matters whether the fan translation is “stiff”, “literal” or not (after all there are some very well written fan translations and very stiff official ones). If there is any different between official and fan translation, those fans will just automatically assume that the fan translation is right in any case (even if the fan translation is just completely wrong and the official one is correct).

    And I dunno, from what I see on forums etc. fans rarely judge the faithfulness of a translation based on the writting style, apart from maybe accepting a weirdly written one because of the supposed “authenticity”.

    They only compare one translation with another one (fan vs official) and look for the things they (believe to) know (honorifics, name spellings etc). Of course, unless you do understand japanese, you cannot really do otherwise. At least that’s my impression and because of that I believe that the issue of “a good translation” is so rarely addressed in general and often limited to f.ex. “good translation = includes honorifics”.
    Too few people have the possibility / knowledge (and also “desire”) to compare a translation with the original japanese text, which is imho the only way to really know whether a translation is faithful or not.

    And that’s why honorifics get discussed over and over again and imho much more important things (like real translation mistakes) go unnoticed.

  9. […] Matt Thorn on bad manga translations Shaenon Garrity’s response […]

  10. […] Matt Thorn on bad manga translations Shaenon Garrity’s response […]