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Manga Translation: Only Poets Need Apply (Part II)

By Yani Mentzas

The Japanese language employs a mixture of phonetic scripts and ideograms. These latter, the Chinese or kanji characters, invariably take up more space than the original single glyph when rendered into English. There are other facets of the Japanese language that contribute to the tendency for the average translation to be longer than the original: for instance, the lack of articles; simply having to add an "a" or "the" plus a space for nouns elongates the text, as with translations from Latin. While the bloating-up may not seem significant and indeed isn't in most contexts, in the case of manga, where the text has to fit into bubbles, this tendency can cause headaches.

The fact that the English takes up more space, however, owes more perhaps to the following than to any other factor: it is easier to secure the sense if you allow yourself two words (or lines) where the original makes do with one. Think of prose translations of Dante where the English is as much an attempt at an explication as a rendition in the true sense—or, alternatively, of a piece of writing of your own that you manage to tighten dramatically without any loss of meaning. Coming up with a concise and accurate formulation is, as with all writing, a matter of hard work first and foremost.

There are some ways to work your way around such an unpleasant conclusion that would be obvious to a cunning editor:

1. Use a smaller font.

2. Enlarge the bubbles.

3. Accept adequacy as the standard, as with movie subtitles.

Vertical's goal has been to resort to these measures only when absolutely inevitable—in a typical 300-page volume of Black Jack, only a few instances, at most, of each; as rare as a feminine rhyme.

The first option of using a smallish font is quite enticing but alters the author's chosen balance of word and image on a page. When the text seems scrunched in or miniaturized, it exudes an unintended degree of involution, of smallness that is at odds with the spirit of manga, properly an expansive and speed-readable thing (a quality which is frequently held against it by fans who exclusively prefer American comics). The pages can even come to look and feel different from the original, a hardly desirable side effect for a semi-visual medium.

Avoiding the use of a small font, however, demands an unflagging vigilance against wordiness; moreover, it exacerbates the hyphenation issue, namely that a perfectly accurate, concise, and colloquial translation reads awkwardly if every other line ends with a hyphen. The larger the font, the more difficult it is to avoid breaking up longer words; care must be taken that they don't occur at the very end of a line, and not at all, preferably, in narrow, vertically shaped bubbles. In such cases, rephrasing becomes necessary.

If you feel that the strictures these standards place on translators, editors, and production staff (who lay out the text) are necessarily limiting, then you probably haven't ever enjoyed composing structured verse. Those who've had that pleasure know: far from dampening creativity, formal exigencies actively aid and abet it, spurring the fashioner on to better fashions. To heed these standards is to be able to mine the truism that there is rarely a single correct translation.

Not much needs to be said about the undesirability of the second and third measures enumerated above. Especially with an author like Osamu Tezuka, enlarging the bubble and hence covering up a part of the picture that his divine pen produced constitutes a betrayal—not only of him, but of his American readers. The oft-praised economy of Tezuka's art is also a quality of his writing—deftly adding a stroke of characterization while furthering the plot, for instance—and should not be compromised by renditions that have "no time" for its artless bounty.

With my next post I'll conclude the current train of thought.

Published Feb 13, 2009   Copyright 2009 Yani Mentzas

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