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Manga Translation: Only Poets Need Apply (Part I)

By Yani Mentzas

In his second post for our blog series on graphic novels this month, Yani Mentzas talks about ensuring quality in manga—in images and in words—and about the very physical constraints of translating for manga.—Editors

A work of manga can be translated in a cavalier fashion with near impunity—that's to say, without a significant decline in sales potential. As flattering as it would be for me, an editor who continues to work closely with the text, to believe that consumers of manga in the U.S.—mostly teens—make their purchases thirsting to encounter accurate and smooth renditions in their bubbles, such a fantasy rests on logically uneasy ground. Those readers go for manga over other forms of printed matter for a reason, and the reason surely has to do with what makes manga unique—the pictures. The creative situations, plots, and characterizations matter too, but these can dust off all but the worst mistranslations. Most fans of manga don't decide against patronizing a property they've been looking forward to íjust becauseë the translation feels like it could be better. In fact, one would be naïve to suppose that the average teen-oriented manga is appreciated for the quality of its writing in the original language.

Yet, I prefer to believe that attempting to render the text in a sterling fashion isn't a waste of time. Here, perhaps, I'm a better editor than a publisher; I plead guilty to pushing back printer deadlines and taking on fewer titles than is commercially ideal for Vertical. Frankly, I fear that without the utmost commitment to standards of craftsmanship, a commitment commensurate to that of the manga authors so clearly on display on the same page, the imports will have a hard time breaking out of the current market of excitable teens and íunderstandingë adults (to whose openness and generosity it must be said that publishers are indebted) to become the glorious thing they are in Japan: a mainstream form of entertainment for all ages; a print Hollywood.

All manga translation—whether it's of a teen-oriented title or of a work comparable to graphic novels—faces certain common challenges. While I consider it non-negotiable that the translations of the best ígrown-up mangaë be of a standard palatable to the most discriminating readers of prose fiction, there is no reason—no editorial reason—not to wish the same for íteen manga,ë too.

The common challenges arise from two factors. One is that the translation of the text in a bubble has to fit back neatly into the same bubble. The other is the difficulty of translating onomatopoeia, abundant in Japanese and ubiquitous in the picture portions of manga. Let's start with the difficulties inside the balloon.

Because Japanese is usually written not left to right but top to bottom—that's certainly the custom for manga—the bubbles are often longer lengthwise. Inserting the translation into such a space can produce an unwieldy number of hyphenated words. But there is another simpler, and bigger, problem that occurs even when the shape of the bubble is amenable to the left-to-right flow of the English language: for the translation to fit back in, it cannot be longer than the original; nor can it be too much shorter, if there's not to be an ugly amount of blank space (the aesthetical unpleasantness is enhanced if there's a conspicuously vacant, oddly-shaped bulge in the bubble). Translations are sometimes longer, and sometimes shorter, than the original, but this means that with manga, just as with sonnets, conveying the meaning, including all the nuances, is not good enough.

In my next post, I'd like to enumerate some blanket solutions to this intractable issue—and discuss why Vertical eschews them.

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

Published Feb 6, 2009   Copyright 2009 Yani Mentzas

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