Translated Fiction: Immensely Popular in the U.S.!

By Yani Mentzas

In his first post for our Graphic Novels blog line-up, Yani Mentzas, Editorial Director of Vertical, Inc., the publisher of—among other great work—Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack series, talks about contemporary Japanese literature, video games and one way to get U.S. readers to consume mass quantities of Japanese in translation.—Editors

At translation conferences and such, I often hear folks complain that Americans are too incurious about foreign stuff. Stats seem to bear out the sentiment; prose from overseas is a tiny sliver of the publishing pie (though the size of the wedge in many other nations would be considerably smaller if the U.S. exports were discounted, suggesting that the non-Americans' appetite is not so much for foreign literature but for American culture). While the foreign stuff that's "at least written in English" does well on occasion, anything that needs to be translated rarely seems to be commercially viable.

I'm the editorial director of a company that mostly publishes contemporary fiction from Japan and have to agree that the business of translation is tougher in the land of immigrants than one might be led to induce.

Yet, this picture changes rather drastically if one defines "translated fiction" to include narratives that have visual as well as verbal components. I am thinking about manga or Japanese comics, of course, and the emerging market for "light novels," but also (please don't laugh) video games.

In the case of the last, a fair share of hits—in particular ones that feature extensive plots and a lot of text—are of Japanese origin and require a substantial amount of what that industry prefers to term "localization." The playing experience is sufficiently affected by the quality of localization for the games' manufacturers to have commissioned, in recent years, new translations for some classic series.

The aforementioned "light novels" (raito noberu) are doing wonders in their country of origin to entice teens and young adults, much-berated lately for their attention deficits over there too, to avidly read for pleasure, and are now making their way to the States. These illustrated SF, fantasy, mystery, and romance stories, adapted to just as frequently as from manga, anime, and games, tend to feature wordplay, cross-referencing, meta-fictional asides, and other elements that make them more sophisticated as texts than, say, the Harry Potter series. But we're also talking about dear old prose, with dear old illustrations, capturing the attention of jaded youths—and even more miraculously, being translated en masse into English.

Last but not least, manga or Japanese comics are one of the few fields in American publishing in the twenty-first century that has actually grown. While the years of double-digit expansion seem to be behind us, the import has proven to be more than a fad. The U.S. market for manga has entered a mature phase of steady growth and diversification, with more and more publishers taking their chances on graphic novel-grade works that well withstand the scrutiny of discerning readers.

The upshot of all the above is that right now, in the Japanese-to-English field, it is possible for more than just a handful of translators to actually make a living translating fiction. I didn't say "literature," though I would grant that status to the best manga, because my point is that however you judge the quality of the narratives we're discussing, they are not computer manuals, shareholder reports, or government communiqués. In the terms of the industry, we are talking about "literary translation" as opposed to "technical translation." That there's so much demand for the former should be a surprise given what's routinely said about Americans' parochial tastes in fiction.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the demand for able J-to-E non-technical translation currently exceeds the supply. Manga can survive bad translations thanks to the visual component. Yet, doing justice to the original and good by the reader is, I believe, going to be crucial for the medium's further success in the U.S. In my next post, I'll go into the specific challenges of translating, editing, and publishing manga.

Yani Mentzas is the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical, Inc., publisher of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel masterpiece Black Jack



Hi John,


That’s funny. I guess I’m very unpopular, or too demanding, or both!



I’m delighted to hear that you find prose gigs more desirable. “As a translator,” too—I like that. Send us your resume by all means, and make me feel less unpopular.



As you half-suspect, more people ask for manga commissions. There’s an absolute level you have to be at to tackle prose fiction, and the results are catastrophic if you aren’t there. Less so with manga, since the pictures can carry the day. Even many whom I consider able translators find manga easier to do (i.e., better-paying, when you do the math). Our company publishes a lot more prose than manga, hence my grumblings.



But—and this is the topic of my next post—if you want to do a top-notch job, translating manga is just as challenging.



It requires the skills of a poet. And I’ll try to elaborate on that.
COMMENT: It is a double-edged sword, as the nice thing about translating prose is there are no restrictions. You literally have a blank page to work with. This is not true with manga, as translations must fit within very restricted spaces, coupled with the fact that 99.9% of the time the English sentence will use more characters than the Japanese one.



On the other hand, with prose, you don’t have the visual cues to endorse the translation. Subtle hints, clues, foreshadowing, etc. must be included into a good prose translation, and catching those can be harder than translating medical examinations or legal document.



Of course, those kinds of issues can and do come up in manga as well. Your own Black Jack is a great example where hints of Black Jack’s history are doled out carefully and sometimes not revealed for volumes.
COMMENT: Yes, the “very restricted spaces” is key, and the subject of my next couple of posts.
DATE: 02/06/2009 9:59:51 AM

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