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MANGA: Translation vs. Adaptation

The other day there was a terrific article posted on the Comics Journal’s blog entitled Confessions of a Manga Translator. It was written by Zack Davisson, who is a true scholar of Japanese literature (including manga) , and who has translated some really great—and really challenging—manga (including a four-volume History of Japan during the reign of the Showa emperor). In the article, Zack talks at length about the process, challenges, and subtleties of translating ANY piece of literary work . . . but especially so when the languages involved are Japanese and English.

As most people reading this blog know, over the past decade I’ve done a fair amount of work for Viz Media on a bunch of their manga titles. A lot of folks, though, are under the mistaken belief that I’m doing what Zack does—translation. But the truth is that I only do the SECOND half of what he describes in his article—I do “adaptation” or “rewriting.” That is, I take a script that has been translated literally and I massage, craft, rework, and sometimes entirely replace that text to form a finished script in English.

Now, to be fair, the translators I work with do more that JUST literally translate word for word. They start the adaptation process, often replacing idioms (or at least putting in explanatory text so that I know what the intended meaning is), give characters individualized verbal quirks, and put dialog into colloquial phrases. But in the end, the skill I have that makes it worthwhile for Viz to bring me into the process is that I’m a writer. There’s more to good story is more than just accurate vocabulary . . . there’s pace, emotion, verbal cues and foreshadowing, and personality. THOSE are the kinds of things I bring to the books I work on.

In many cases, that has a lot to do with breaking up the order that information is revealed on a page. Because of the grammatical structure of Japanese, all sense of mystery and drama is often sapped from literally translated dialog. Sentences lead with the conclusive information and then fill in the fine details. For example, in the final scene of a murder mystery, the detective might yell out, “Mr. Aoki . . . that is who the murder is, I assure you!” This feels very anticlimactic in English, where we’d more naturally say something like, “I know who the murder is, it’s . . . Mr. Aoki!”

This process is made more complicated by the fact that the number and size of the word balloons are fixed based on the Japanese dialog. So even once the text has been rewritten, it has to be tweaked and adjusted so that it has a good rhythm and right emotion when broken up and distributed into the word balloons.

It really is a challenging task sometimes . . . but it’s also a fun word puzzle. And I take a lot of pride in (hopefully) helping to craft an engaging and entertaining story for English-reading audiences. When I see someone laugh at a particular gag, or fumble anxiously to turn the page during a tense scene, I know I’ve done my job . . . to take the story that the original creators crafted and help to make it SPEAK to a new audience.

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