Some Thoughts on Translating Manga

I’d like to extend upon a blog entry I did on manga translation way back in Nov of 2007.


What I’d like to expand upon is this:

What’s interesting about this is that I feel a very strong connection to the original text and to what I’ve written. I didn’t expect this. It feels sort of like I’m a part of the story creation process because much of how I feel about the story and the characters comes out in the words and the phrasing I choose to translate the words to and the way I describe the action in the pictures. I also feel that I have a greater understanding of the story because I’ve had to fully digest the Japanese words and the pictures in order to choose the proper words and phrasing.
Does it matter to me whether I accurately present the mangaka’s intent? That’s a tough question to answer. I really can’t say for certain what the author intended without talking to the author. Besides, when I read a manga, all that is present goes through my filter and that shapes how I perceive the story. Therefore, when translating and then scripting, what exits my filter is what goes on the screen. I think this is very powerful and double-edged. I endeavored to learn Japanese because I didn’t like the way the professional publishers localized manga for an American audience. I sought purity and from this pure base, I wanted to be able overlay my own interpretation. Being on the other side of it as a translator, I’m am not offering purity to those that read my blog. This leaves me to ask myself, who am I to offer up my interpretation of this manga to the world? Am I providing a service or satisfying myself? I think I am doing both. Besides I know not to take myself too seriously since anybody that reads what I’ve written, will apply their own filter on top of my filter.

I’ve had reason to think a lot about translation lately. And I think some people don’t understand the difference between translation and interpretation. If I translate the Japanese in manga directly into English, I don’t think it would make much sense. Japanese syntax is different and there are idioms, that if directly translated, make no sense. I also come back to the thought of a person’s filter. I see through the lens of my own experiences and knowledge, so that is where I interpret from. Every person is different, so naturally, no two people would ever come up with the exact same translation for a very long piece of work. But this is where interpretation comes in. Sure I can understand the Japanese, but getting the Japanese into English is something entirely different. Compared to English, Japanese is a very compressed language that has subtleties linked to culture. In essence, one Japanses word or phrase may unravel into a very long concept in English. And when I say “concept,” I mean the translation unravels into something that’s not concrete in English — in other words, there is no 1-to-1 translation in English. This is why I take issue with “100% translation,” because there is no such thing.

Going back a little, I think I understand now why I took Japanese. It was to understand all that stuff that couldn’t be expressed in English. For me, the actual Japanese of many manga is very beautiful and intensely descriptive in terms of the emotion and the relationship between characters. In many ways, I wish I could do a direct brain transfer so everyone could have the same joyful experience with the text as I do. As for a “truer translation,” I can do a translation in which I go between a Japanese-to-English dictionary, plugging words in. This, though, doesn’t get at the underlying meaning that is trying to be conveyed through the words because the context has not been taken into consideration. It is important how the sentence is constructed and what the relationship is between characters to understand the full meaning of what is said in Japanese. Context also comes from personal experience and knowledge of culture and life in general. This is what I strive for when I scanlate. I am not interested in a 100% perfect translation. Rather, what I’m interested in is conveying the story and the relationships between the characters as I’ve interpreted from the Japanese. Again, I can’t say whether this is the author’s intent. Nobody can say the author’s intent other than the author — hence, this is why we have discussions about texts.

Now, what to make of the different translations you may see of various anime and manga series? Well, I’ll say this: go with the interpretation you like best. As for my work on Ouran and ZHD, well, I admit to a mistake or two on the small things, but for the most part, I am quite confident that I’ve properly conveyed the stories as I’ve interpreted from the Japanese. As for the differences you may see, well, I’ve done comparisons with the different version and the raws … and I’m sticking with my translation and my interpretation. Like I said before, there’s no such thing as a 100% perfect translation and I know, for sure, that’s nobody’s perfect, nor am I arrogant enough to proclaim my translation is anywhere near perfect or better than anyone else’s. I do, though, want to say, in conclusion, I love the series I scanlate and love sharing my translations and interpretations with my blog readers.

One thought on “Some Thoughts on Translating Manga

  1. A Japanese friend of mine mentioned this quite a bit when we'd speak about manga. She always complained that the Japanese language was so much more descriptive than English. I've noted the same on my manga review blog, most recently in a review of Viz's RIN-NE, I think. I'm always amazed at how something is conceptualized by descriptors in English, yet exists as a single word in Japanese.

    Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree that the whole “true” translation argument's always fell a little flat for me. Even with Spanish (my second language), which is easily translated 1:1, there are nuances that can't be as easily translated into English.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.