Confessions of a Manga Translator

The Rule of Rubin

I have a secret to tell you. If you’re ever been particularly moved by a line of dialog in a manga I translated; if something pithy spoke to you in some way, or had some meaning to you; if you thought something was cool or inspiring, or even if you laughed at a joke—that was probably me, not the original cartoonist. It’s disappointing, I know. But I submit for you the Rule of Rubin. It comes from Jay Rubin, translator of the best-selling novels of Haruki Murakami and one of the most notable modern Japanese-to-English translators. Rubin said in an interview: “When you read Murakami (in English), you’re reading me, at least 95% of the time.” When I saw that, I nodded knowingly in agreement. And shuddered a little. Someone had finally said it.

That’s the secret. The Rule of Rubin. When you read the words in a comic—the actual words, mind you—you’re reading me, at least 95% of the time.

Nobody likes to hear that. When I tell people about the Rule of Rubin, they feel betrayed. And I get that. People want a connection. They want to believe it is the actual artist’s words that they react to. Making people cognizant of the translator sets up a barrier between reader and artist. Translators are supposed to be invisible. We are enablers, the babel fish in the ear with no personality or presence of our own. Readers want to think all the translator does is swap words into a different language, substituting “あ” for “a.” But that’s not how translation works. Especially not literary translation. Especially not Japanese to English translation. And especially not manga translation.

Japanese in Translation

Direct translation—translating words as-is—produces unreadable gobbledygook. Even reordering those words into proper English grammar results in uninspired nonsense. Here’s an example: The following joke is HI-larious in Japanese! A total knee-slapper!

Husband: Let’s have ginger pork for dinner!

Wife: Alas, we have no ginger.

Did I get an LOL from you? No? Nothing? That’s strange … I can drop that joke on my wife anytime and it always gets a chuckle. How about this one?

Husband: I want to eat salmon roe!

Wife: But how much will it cost … ?

Trust, me, that is SUPER funny in Japanese. “Salmon roe” and “how much?” are homophones, both pronounced “ikura.” The wife’s answer (in Japanese; ikura kana …) sets up an ambiguity in which you are not sure if she is worried about the cost or just not in the mood for salmon roe. It’s also an old joke that everyone knows, so it’s told with a wink and nod and has the relaxed feel of something familiar. Putting the joke into English as written—swapping one word for another—means it’s dead in the water. A successful translation requires something more. And that’s where the artistry of the translator comes in.

Any form of literary translation is a collaboration between artist and translator. Not a direct collaboration; As much as I would like to, I rarely work on comics where I chat with the original artist. Sometimes they are even long dead. But we are always working together. As invisible as I try to be, both voices are in the mix. Think of it like a band doing a cover song. No matter how good a mimic, every singer adds their own voice and style to a performance. The finished song is neither wholly the work of one nor the other. That may be a clumsy metaphor, but the point is this—a different translator produces a different comic.

Part of that is the nature of the language. Japanese is not translation-friendly. It is a high context language, as opposed to a low context language like English. This means that Japanese can use fewer words, and relies more heavily on cultural context to communicate what is going on in the scene. It is sometimes said of Japanese literature that for every word on the page there are three unwritten. Readers are expected to fill in the blanks.

On top of that, Japanese utilizes four writing systems; kanji, katakana, hiragana, and romaji. Each can slightly twist meanings or add further context to what is going on in a sentence. A person speaking in katakana probably has a foreign accent. Or single words can change writing systems for emphasis, like how English use italics or bold. You can even write a word in kanji, like “teacher,” and then superscript it with hiragana to say “warlord” for additional meaning. On top of that, Japanese makes heavy use of set phrases and repetition. Navigating the complex world of Japanese politeness levels can be dangerous even for those born and raised in the culture. They often take the path of least resistance and use and reuse socially appropriate phraseology, relying on cultural context to give the true meaning.

English is comparatively straight forward—most of the time people say what they mean. Japanese is “Shaka; when the walls fell.”

Role of a Translator

I’ve found out on Twitter than not many people know what a manga translator does. (Twitter was actually the genesis of this article. I thought a little education was in order.) People get caught up in industry terms like “translation” and “localization,” which are different in theory, but less so in practice. Many assume the editor does the heavy lifting, and all the translator does is provide a rough breakdown of vocabulary. But that’s not my experience. The main role of the editor is to chose the translator, manage the project, and then tidy up the finished comic. Never underestimate the importance of that first part. It’s probably the single most important decision that will be made once a comic is licensed.

When they chose the translator, editors are choosing what kind of comic will eventually be made. Many readers don’t realize the amount of influence translators have over the finished comic. It’s true that some companies hire adapters to assist in the dialog. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Kelly Sue Deconnick got her start as a manga adaptor. But I don’t think it’s a common practice. I’ve only personally used an adaptor once, and most translators I know deliver a finished script that goes straight onto the page.

My job as a translator is to take all that context and language and reshape it into something that reads as if it was originally written in English. The Japanese script is my raw material. Along with translating the words on the page, I add context and create bridge sentences that might not have been in the original. I fill in gaps that would have been apparent to Japanese readers. And sometimes I rewrite things entirely. That’s the Rule of Rubin in action.

How I Do What I Do

To be honest, I don’t know how other manga translators get to their finished script. I only know what I do. What I am going to tell you about how I do things might be completely opposite of how someone else does it. Or it might be the same. It will be interesting to find out. To tell the truth, I am a little nervous to hear what people like Matt Smith, Fred Schodt, and Matt Alt will say about this article. Or Jay Rubin himself; will he nod his head knowingly? Or scoff? We’ll see.

I didn’t go to school to do this, or take any training, so if my process is a little wonky that’s entirely my fault. Like any artist I worked out my own method through practice and experience—and make no mistake, manga translation is an art form, as much as writing, drawing, coloring, lettering, or any of the other myriad jobs that add up to a published comic. There’s a reason why computer aided translation (CAT) is useless in manga. We’re not technicians.

I’m not entirely self-taught; I have my Master’s degree in Japanese, and did literary translation as part of my coursework. But that’s different from manga. I learned through practice. I took an already translated series (Dr. Slump, in my case), and translated it book-by-book, comparing my translation to the published version. I figured the closer I got to the published version, the better I was doing. That also taught me what choices were made, where the differences were—and why those decisions were made.

My process is simple. I prop the comic next to my computer and start to read—and write. And feel. That’s important, because that’s what I am trying to replicate, a feeling. I never read the comic ahead of time. I want to capture the exact moment of when I read a page, and then use English to make readers experience that same emotion. I get deeply involved in the comics while I am working on them. I laugh out loud. Cry. Of course, I will go back later and adjust, but if I read the whole comic first I miss the immediacy.

Seraphim Cover

Each character gets their own voice. I know how Kitaro sounds, how Emeraldas speaks. I can talk like Nezumi Otoko or Yakob the Country Killer. As I read, I listen to those voices in my head. I try to let them tell me how they would say something. And yes, there are times when I do the voices aloud, just to make sure it sounds right. Fortunately I usually work alone in a room. Only my pets look at me funny.

Capturing the mood is important too. When I first switched from Shigeru Mizuki to Leiji Matsumoto, it took me awhile to sink into the formalized heaviness of Matsumoto’s dialog as opposed to Mizuki’s light earthiness. Matsumoto’s characters were sounding too much like Mizuki’s, and it wasn’t right. I started playing Wagner in the background when translating Queen Emeraldas, which was the perfect solution. It helped me focus all that melodrama and operatic language into something equally powerful in English.Queen_Emeraldas_Page_2

Then there was Mamoru Oshii’s dialog. That was the most difficult by far. Oshii goes out of his way to use obtuse phrasing and difficult kanji. I figured the best way to capture that was to plunder the thesaurus and pull out the most obscure English I could find. I’m awfully proud of the way Seraphim: 266613336 Wings turned out. It was a hell of a job. And don’t even get me started on Panty and Stockings with Garterbelt. Translating sex puns is not an easy task …

All 4 Showa

That’s not to say I don’t stumble over individual words. Showa: A History of Japan had me diving to the dictionary for military and historical terms. I used my grandfather’s WWII Japanese/English phrasebook as a bridge to the past. And I knew I had to get every battleship name correct. There was no room for error. Matsumoto Leiji’s technobabble was tough to figure out as well. Queen Emeraldas’s juryoku seba, could have been a number of things, but I ultimately went with “gravitysaber.” I figure if “lightsaber” was cool, then gravitysaber wouldn’t be too bad. That’s also the name they use in English in Japan, which can be helpful. But it doesn’t always work; just ask Führer Deslock from Space Battleship Yamato, or Leader Deslock as he was renamed for the official translation. And nothing helps me with the planet Heavy Metal. There is no way that is sounding anything than pure 1970s cheesy Japan. Oh well.

Once you name something, you have to figure out what it sounds like. Sounds effects are one of the greatest challenges you will face as a manga translator. Japanese uses repetitive sound effects. Don don don. Bup bup bup. Sha sha sha. And they have a LOT more of them. Rain that falls zaaa is different from rain that falls shito shito. I wanted Emeraldas’s gravitysaber to have a unique sound effect, so it goes zwark. Each gun—from machine gun to battleship cannons—in Showa: A History of Japan makes a different noise. Space ships are fun too. I am particularly fond of the ships in Queen Emeraldas. I researched 1950s science fiction comics to see the sound effects used for spaceships and borrowed a few of those. I think it adds a nice nostalgic feel to the ships, which is a hallmark of Matsumoto’s impossible flying pirate ships.


And then there is the dreaded sheeen. That’s the Japanese sound effect for silence that has no equivalent in English. Everyone has to solve that particular problem in their own way. But I wince every time I see it.

Fortunately, I have a living dictionary anytime I need one. My wife Miyuki is my assistant on particularly tricky passages, or when that context and culture gets too dense to penetrate. She was a huge help on Showa: A History of Japan and penetrating Oshii’s dialog for Seraphim. There are times being married to a native Japanese speaker comes in handy for this particular profession.

Words on the Page

There is also the space issue. Manga translation presents an additional challenges not faced in other mediums. The nature of comics is a dance of words and pictures. With manga, the pictures are there. The word balloons are there. They aren’t going anywhere, and you can’t change them. All you can do is make sure the words match the picture. And fit in the balloons—that part is important. Due to the nature of the Japanese language, you can fit a hell of a lot more into the available space than you can with English. When I am writing out a translation I always have to be conscious of the real estate available to me on the page, and how the words are going to fit into that balloon. Not to mention vertical balloons …


I saw a fellow translator say on Twitter that what we really do is write new English scripts to match the existing artwork. I agree with that to some extent. I imagine it’s similar to the old “Marvel Method” of making comics, in which the artist draws based on a plot and then the writer goes back in and re-writes the dialog to make sure it matches what the artist drew. That’s the final step in my process. I print off the English script, and read it along with the comic in real time. I always make changes. There are things that worked well in my head, but don’t flow as well as I thought. Or words I repeated too often on one page. Or phrases that don’t fit the faces speaking them. Or any number of small details.

I was once brought in as a consultant by a major publisher looking to expand into manga. They successfully published translated novels, and thought it would be a small jump to also offer a manga line. I laid out my process exactly as described above, and showed them what it took. After my presentation, they decided not to get into manga—it was more work then they could handle.

Knowing Japanese isn’t enough to make you a good translator. You have to be a good writer. You need creativity and imagination. It’s not too much work to master enough Japanese to read a comic, and any words you don’t know you can always look up. But to put that into English takes something more. In fact, I would say the balance of the job is something like 40% Japanese ability / 60% English writing. I have friends whose Japanese far surpasses mine, but they aren’t better translators.

It’s also important to love comics. Really love them. I scoff at the term “fan translators” because all professional manga translators are fans—if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be doing this. If there is one thing all manga translators have in common it’s that we love manga. We want to make comics that we want to read. I have my list of dream comics that I shove in front of every editor that will listen to me. I assume everyone does. Sometimes, like with Shigeru Mizuki, Satoshi Kon, and Matsumoto Leiji, I get to work on those dream comics. Some others, like Miyuki Saga and Daijiro Morohoshi, are still waiting for their chance. (Fingers crossed! Anyone reading this want to take a shot?) But no matter what I am working on, I love it. I have to. I put too much of myself into every story not to care.

I once saw someone complain that a listing for Showa: A History of Japan had it “By Shigeru Mizuki and Zack Davisson.” They complained that Davisson (me) was only the translator, and so the series wasn’t “by” him. But I think that is an accurate listing. I am also a writer, and to me the translations I do are as much “mine” as the books I write. They are “my comics.”

Next time you read a manga you love, take a peek at who the translator is. Maybe check to see if you have any other comics by that translator. As an experiment, compare two works by the same original artist, but translated by different people (for example, my Satoshi Kon translations for Dark Horse and the ones by Vertical). See if the voice changes. See how different they are. And remember that what you are reading is always a collaboration. No matter what your favorite manga is, or who originally wrote it—translators are a part of your experience.

44 Responses to Confessions of a Manga Translator

  1. Andrew Cunningham says:

    This is absolutely true. And you never stop getting better at it. I’ve been translating for ten years and most of what I’ve done is embarrassing to look back on now; I thought it was great at the time and editors were happy with it but I could do so much more now.

  2. Dave says:

    Really, really looking forward to Queen Emeraldas.

  3. Michelle says:

    Thank you. Truly. I am at the end phase of a novel translation that I chose to take on and it’s been a struggle, because fortunately AND unfortunately, I am in direct contact with my non-English speaking author who could really use this article. They don’t seem to understand that a good translation of their novel isn’t a one-to-one rendering of their writing using whatever J-E dictionary they have. As a result, I get a lot of emails about my grammar choices and my word choices because they are more complex than the author’s level of English….*sighs*

    Keep spilling your secrets, if you’ve got anymore! This budding translator could use all the help she can get!

  4. Kat says:

    Funny that “fuhrer” had to be changed, since it was left in Fullmetal Alchemist with no problems that I’m aware of. (The anime at least, not sure about the manga.)

  5. Thanks for the positive response! You may not see it, but I was SUPER NERVOUS about this article. A bit like standing in my underwear. Seeing Jay Rubin’s interview really gave me the courage.

    Andrew> Absolutely! I am a bit ashamed of some of my earlier stuff. I was too precious about the individual words, which meant for a clunky translation. I have more confidence now in ability. And I have serious trimmed the “Weeaboo Factor.” I want comics that have universal accessibility, instead of appealing only to a “learned elite.”

    Kat> The 80s was a different time, and Star Blazers was positioned for a mass audience. “Fuhrer” wouldn’t have made it past TV standards, although it could possibly work now.

  6. Ján says:

    I guess this is part of this ongoing debate on localization that seemed to have flared up again recently, as it happens every now and then. I’m not following this most recent bout, which I assume to be regurgitating the same old arguments as always, so I apologize for any redundancy in my own comment. I will try to maybe get some fresh-ish points up.

    I’m a translator of literary works myself, albeit not J>E (not even >E), and while I do agree, fully so, on the technical aspects of translating literary works resulting in necessary adjustments rooted in cold hard facts of linguistics, I rarely see translators express a degree of humility and critical self-reflection in their contributions to the debate these days.

    Maybe that’s part of jazzing translation up as an art form rather than treating it as a craft (who’d want to be a craftsman when they can be an artist?), though admittedly this view is a personal preference of mine.

    Maybe, and I feel this is more likely, it’s a comprehensible if slightly boring and ultimately somewhat pointless attempt to bolster the defenses of our guild against what’s considered to be unfair criticism. Comprehensible because the debate has the potential to shake the foundations of our livelihoods, especially if you’re deeply invested in self-identifying as a translator; but boring because it’s mostly predictable and unbalanced, and ultimately pointless because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table or advance the discourse.

    This call to rally round the flag in Camp Localization is yet another entry in the long list of broad-stroke discussions of translation principles rather than, for once, discussing the quality of certain localization choices. But there’s no right way to translate anything. Picking a side in the localization/transliteration discussion that’s as arbitrary as it is dumb is not a sufficient replacement for actual criticism.

    If translation really is an art, then there’s a deafening silence from professional translators on the work of our fellow colleagues in the business, leaving the criticism to uninformed consumers. Is really, _really_ everything alright with Matt Alt’s localization choices for Doraemon? Where do we draw the line?

    It’s us who need to give good and well-argued answers to these questions, answers that recognize the limits of our craft and how quality is more important than standing on the right side of the debate. If we consider the criticism we receive unfair, why don’t we offer fair and honest criticism ourselves? Why is the extent of our engagement with the debate repeated (retweeted) assurances of solidarity? What are we even afraid of?

    If it’s the unspoken mutual agreement to not stab each other in the back in the middle of a heated argument, then we need to accept that our arguments can only go so far, since we chose to wholesale mask out essential aspects of the issue.

    To come back to your article and offer an argument to the contrary, which I hope you’ll prefer over ritualized slaps on the shoulder: I’m comfortable with accepting that no one is paying money to read _my_ idea of how any given story I translate should read and sound like. To me, this is a vital corrective to my work. I derive a certain sense of responsibility from this, which helps me keep myself in check. I feel that excessive navelgazing of my own role and over-confidence in my abilities are detrimental to the quality of the product.

    I apologize for any misunderstandings; I’m not a native speaker of English.

  7. Kimiko says:

    Interesting that you bring up this ‘weeaboo factor’. How do y’all handle translating for an audience who know enough Japanese to pick up on differences between original and translation (but not enough not to need a translation)?

  8. Jenny says:

    Speaking just as a manga reader who’s never tried to translate anything, I’m wondering about the problem with translating the sound effect for “silence”. Why can’t you just write “*silence*” or “*could have heard a pin drop*”?

  9. Random Passer-by says:

    Oh, “sheeeen” is easy once you actually figure it out. It refers to tinnitus: that annoying buzz that goes on inside your ear when there’s complete silence. “Tinnnnnnnnn” is what I put, personally.

  10. Jack says:

    This was a really interesting and informative article. I know I’ll be taking proper notice of the people who translate the manga I read in the future! It’s a shame that the translator/adapter credit tends to get such little prominence compared to the original writer/artist credits.

  11. Blong Lumpkins says:

    interesting. I actually do find that Ginger pork joke very funny. as a foreigner part of the fun of consuming any thing from another culture is enjoying the screwed up, awkward, and simply impossible translations. I’m a big fan of 80s Hong Kong cinema and I still laugh whenever I think about the subtitled line “ah why you grape my penny?” from the movie Aloha little vampire story(the line occurs when one child accidentally grabs another child’s crotch when they are lost on a dark forest) I would never ever want to watch version of that with that line corrected. however I remember when reading the Tezuka DORORO books form vertical, whoever translated that constantly had the characters saying “Bro”. somehow just reading that made me feel mortified. it totally took me out of the story, and I immediately began to regret that this would probably never be re-translated in english anytime soon. I just could not accept adding a super contemporary term to a spooky samurai comic that was drawn several decades ago. plus also felt like maybe I had been robbed of some kind of more strange and awkward phrasing that perhaps doesn’t make sense but I would have found more humorous.

  12. Deb says:

    This is very interesting. It reminds me of the sort of work a few of my on-line friends (hopefully, I am not being presumptuous calling them that) do translating European Comics.

  13. Oren says:

    I’m not a professional translator by any means, but I did my share of J-E translations and I agree with the vast majority of what you say. I have two small gripes, however –
    1. I really wish your examples for “literal translation is bad” weren’t puns. Puns are the one case where almost everyone agrees a change is necessary. A much better example would be a simple, dry line of dialogue that sounds terrible in English after literally translating the words and shuffling them for correct grammar.
    2. One thing you don’t touch much, but which is very much in the center of some current controversies on Twitter, isn’t about literal or un-literal translations but about changing the nature of the work itself: inserting jokes when the original text was dry, modifying the plot in significant ways, etc. I’d like to hear your opinion on these matters.

  14. TorgoForever says:

    “My job as a translator is to take all that context and language and reshape it into something that reads as if it was originally written in English.”

    This is the number one thing memesubbers never get. Don’t put memes where there weren’t any, and don’t put in references that feel out of place with the context.

  15. Great article! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  16. Federica Lippi says:

    I’ve been translating manga since almost 10 years, not JAP-ENG but JAP-ITA, and I’m so grateful for this article! I agree with every single word and, if you don’t mind, I will quote you in an article I’ll write soon for an Italian online magazine (about the same topic).
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and GANBARE!!

  17. RegulinePear says:

    As someone studying to be a translator and hoping to do JA-EN someday, this was a very interesting and educational read. Thanks a lot for mustering the courage to put out this article. As a side note, two days before reading this, my dad gave me the first Showa: a history of Japan book. Pure coincidence. I haven’t gotten around to reading it, but I am looking forward to it, especially now that I’ve read this.

  18. Diana Schutz says:

    Zack, thanks for saying what so many of us who work on translated comics already know. I think it’s difficult for people who don’t speak, read, or understand another language to really get how creative—and personal—a job translation has to be. People are lulled by Google Translate and such into thinking translation is purely technical work, never really understanding that, yes, what they’re reading there is no more than gobbledygook, or at best an occasional (actually infrequent) lucky hit.

    A different translator does indeed produce a different comic, and every editor publishing comics in translation should realize this! Working with the late, great Kim Thompson on the Manara translations taught me a great deal. Every editor should be so fortunate.

    That said, there are at least a few comics editors of my acquaintance who do extensive rewrites of translations. In fact, before I left Dark Horse, I was one, too… but only on translations whose source language I understand (French, Spanish, Italian). There’s a wonderful double-entendre at the end of Manara’s African Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman that Casterman missed in their original French translation, that Catalan missed when they first translated it for the U.S. market, and that even Kim missed, that I was happy to include in the Dark Horse edition.

    Of course, now that I’m the freelance translator, I can only hope that my unilingual editors won’t mess with my translations, because inasmuch as I hear what you’re saying, I still believe there’s a certain authenticity to maintain with the original author’s intent (at least). Otherwise, any writer could just fill in the balloons and ignore the source language altogether.

  19. Leo says:

    There are multiple approaches to translation, of varying degrees of validity. Yes, manga is a medium with more limitations and constraints on the translator than others, but the translator should NEVER inject his or her self into the story being told. As translators, we have a duty to respect the intent of the original author and provide as accurate a translation as we are able.

    Yes, we need to be good writers to do this–but these skills should be used to better adhere to the original script than to create a new one. Yes, some things cannot be translated (Japanese puns being the most obvious example pertinent to this discussion)… but such instances are where explanation is needed… they are not springboards for making up your own random dialog or exposition that vaguely fits.

    Translators who fail to fully respect the source material are, in my opinion, extremely unprofessional. Ego has no place in translation. Sometimes, yes, major changes do need to be made, sometimes there is no alternative… but these cases should always be the exception and never the rule.

  20. Diana Schutz! Auntie Dydie!!! I may have to take a moment for a quick chorus of “Wind beneath my wings” before responding! You know, Matt Wagner and the Pander Bros run on Grendel was one of my earliest introductions to yokai and was a huge influence on me.

    Building up trust with an editor is vital. I’ve worked with Tracy Hurren at Drawn and Quarterly for several years on several comics has been a wonderful experience. We had some exchanges in the beginning–battles over a few terms and sections that I was adamant on–which I think really helped strengthen that trust. Same with working at Dark Horse. I believe I’ve been fortunate enough to build up enough of a reputation that editors are willing to trust my choices, which is a nice luxury.

    And I ABSOLUTELY respect the author’s intent. By no means do I do any sort of wholesale rewriting of characters or plotlines. But I do my best to respect the meaning the author wanted to get across, less than the specific words they used. It’s a balance that must be maintained, and the artist’s vision has to be respected.

    I also have the luxury of working on somewhat “art” comics. My sympathies to people who work on series like Yokai Watch that need to be wholly re-written to appeal to Western children. I understand the need, and it is what it is … but I am glad I don’t have to be the one to do it!

    Those Manara books are phenomenal, by the way. Absolute treasures. Indian Summer blew me away. Great job on those.

  21. Ryan Holmberg says:

    This article seems to me a fair description of how manga translation happens at a process level.

    But this:

    “When you read the words in a comic—the actual words, mind you—you’re reading me, at least 95% of the time.”

    And this:

    “I am also a writer, and to me the translations I do are as much “mine” as the books I write. They are “my comics.””

    …strike me as gross overstatements. I wonder how you tell a manga author (or their legal representatives) in socially acceptable Japanese, without coming across as an arrogant foreigner, that after you are done with translating their book only 5% or less of the original remains. There is a reason in Japan, and especially in manga/translated comics publishing, that translators and editors rarely get anything but a credit in the colophon.

    I totally agree that translation is an immersive, creative, and collaborative exercise, and how things turn out depends heavily on the personality of the translator as much as his or her linguistic skills. But in the half dozen manga I have translated, in addition to the many translated citations in the essays I write, I have never once felt that any more than a small fraction of the creative or intellectual credit should transfer to me. Likewise, if I felt that the essays I write were only equally “mine” as the translations I do, I would worry about my originality and integrity as a writer, researcher, and thinker.

  22. The Murakami comment is ridiculous. I’ve read Murakami in three different languages (neither of which is Japanese), and Murakami remains (pretty much) Murakami, no matter who translates him.

    There’s a weird self-aggrandising thing going on with (some) English language translators. I think it may be because so little is translated into English that every English language translator feel that they’re doing something quite special. Only 3% of books published in the US are translated works, while in European countries it’s between 20-60%. And you probably won’t see a Swedish translator claiming that you’re reading 95% him or her when reading Murakami.

    Translation is a craft, and translating jokes is really hard, but c’mon.

  23. Kimiko says:

    @Lars Ingebrigtsen – Part of that may be explained by translating between two European languages being much easier than between Japanese and a European language. Similar words for similar concepts, similar sentence structures; you can basically substitute each word with its cognate in the other language, fudge the word order a bit and you’re almost done. Creativity is rarely necessary. It’s for this reason that automated translation is so successful for European languages. Japanese not only has completely unrelated morphemes, but also quite often slightly different ways of looking at the same concepts, plus a habit of leaving out nearly everything that can be guessed from context. The latter in particular is the reason why translation takes a lot more creativity there, or at least interpretation. It’s also why automated translation from Japanese has been such a failure so far.

    I agree that that “95%” thing may be a bit too strong a statement, but it’s not so much of an exaggeration if you qualify it as “95% of the _words_” (which I think Zack Davisson did), not “95% of the writing&ideas”.

  24. Diana Schutz says:

    Zack, thanks very much for your kind words! And yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t respect the author’s original vision. Sorry if my original post read that way.

    If you have time, I hope you’ll respond to Oren’s two points above. I’m curious about the first, and I’d love to know what you think about the second. I struggle with both every time I’m translating.

  25. Thanks for clarifying Kimiko! And that’s exactly what I meant–the words themselves. Not the story, not the ideas, and not the meaning behind the words. Just the individual words themselves.

    So if Mizuki says something profound, and I don’t translate that well enough, then the emotion and impact can be lost. They just come out as dry words on a page. If I do my job well, if I write with words that convey the same emotion, and draw people into his story and convey his ideas in the same manner that he intended … that’s what I mean by “It was me.” Not that I created the story, but that I served my role in making that story accessible.

    Ryan> I hear you, and that is maybe just a difference of feeling. I look at the books on my shelf, ones I wrote and ones I translated, and they both represent a significant portion of my lifespan. Each book of Showa is 2 months of my life sitting on the shelf, and that is very personal to me. All the time and love and excitement I put into them, as well as the great honor and responsibility of bringing Mizuki to an English audience … that’s what makes me feel that they are “mine.” Not mine alone, mind you, as they are and always will be Mizuki’s comics. But these particular editions are also mine. They are my work.

  26. Definitely! I missed Oren’s questions! Here’s my thoughts:

    1. I really wish your examples for “literal translation is bad” weren’t puns. Puns are the one case where almost everyone agrees a change is necessary. A much better example would be a simple, dry line of dialogue that sounds terrible in English after literally translating the words and shuffling them for correct grammar.

    I fully admit using puns was the low hanging fruit, done for expediency to get my point across. I could (and probably should have) used a more nuanced example. I actually do panels at conventions on this topic where I go into further detail, as well as giving the audience a chance to try their hand at creating their own translations. But that is more than I can do in an article!

    Off the top of my head, I often think of the translation for the video game House of the Dead, which uses correct but overly literal translations. Like a scene when a zombie is attacking a girl, and she shouts “Don’t come! Don’t come!” which is a perfectly reasonable translation of “来ないで!来ないで”!except that it removes all emotional impact of what you would feel if a zombie were attacking you. Not only because “Don’t come!” is not exactly a strong term in English, but also because repetition of words for impact is more acceptable in Japanese than in English, where it just sounds odd.

    So I would probably translate that as “No!!! Stay away!!!” or something like that, emphasizing the emotions rather than the actual spoken words.

    2. One thing you don’t touch much, but which is very much in the center of some current controversies on Twitter, isn’t about literal or un-literal translations but about changing the nature of the work itself: inserting jokes when the original text was dry, modifying the plot in significant ways, etc. I’d like to hear your opinion on these matters.

    That’s a tough question, and not one I have an easy answer to. I am not in favor of that in general, but I understand why it is done, and I (usually) don’t fault the people who do it.

    I mentioned in one comment that I have the luxury of working on fairly personal projects. I translate artists, not commercial products, and I think that makes a huge difference. On anything I work on, I would NEVER alter the plot or personality or tone or … anything … of the original, at least not if I could help it. I wouldn’t change jokes to drama, or vice versa. I don’t try to “spice things up” or improve on the original work in any way. I respect the artists I translate far too much for that.

    I didn’t mention it, but I also try not to add modern slang into my translations, because I think that dates them and makes them read “weird.” I don’t want someone to pick up a comic I translated a few years from now and find “He’s a hip cat, Daddy-O!” -type of slang in there. I go for universal understanding whenever I can.

    But that said, I also don’t have the pressure of a multimillion dollar product launch behind me. I understand why changes are made, to suit the culture/morals of the country a product is being localized for. I get it. I lived in Japan. I live in the US. They are different. Some things are OK here, and not there. Somethings are OK there, and not here. Sex, romance, and women’s issues in particular are cultural danger zones, and treated very differently in both cultures. There are certain things freely published in Japan that would be illegal to posses in the US. People have been arrested at customs trying to take home souvenirs. Denying that these differences exist does no one any good …

    Japan modifies US products all the time to suit their market. Did you know that Julia Roberts films are all part of a “Pretty” series? So you get Pretty Woman, Pretty Bride, Pretty Etc … that is done to make them more accessible and appealing to the Japanese market, even though they are wholly unrelated films. They famously edit out nudity. They change all sorts of things to make the films more appealing. Because it is a business.

    So with things like Yokai Watch, for example. They changed the main characters name to Nathan Adams, which I think boarders on racism. As if you can’t have an American named Keita Amano. If I had been hired to translate that series, I would have fought against that change. And I probably would have lost … but ultimately I would have understood. Because that is how corporations work. They have to hedge their bets, they have to serve the greatest common denominator.

    It’s murky, right? And I don’t think there is a right answer. But it is a good conversation to keep going.

    2. One thing you don’t touch much, but which is very much in the center of some current controversies on Twitter, isn’t about literal or un-literal translations but about changing the nature of the work itself: inserting jokes when the original text was dry, modifying the plot in significant ways, etc. I’d like to hear your opinion on these matters.

  27. Joe McCulloch says:

    Near the end of first Yo-Kai Watch video game there’s a part you’re running around town activating magical nodes (or something), and when the magic fires up it causes cherry blossoms to appear everywhere… I thought the symbolism was sort of arbitrary, until I realized the town is called “Sakura” in Japanese. In switching the locale to an all-American “Springdale”, the localization rendered this little moment nonsensical… but I’m sure the many corporate interests at work are bullish about maximizing revenues, and willing to sacrifice bits of quiet storytelling in exchange for making the setting as cozy as possible for foreign audiences!

  28. Not surprising that there’d be some push-back against this — a translator saying this obviously looks self-aggrandizing. But, as someone with no skin in the game — i.e. as a reader — I’d agree that the translator is responsible for a lot more of the verbal content than they get credit for. I think this is widely accepted in literature, where a new translation of e.g. the Iliad is considered a Big Deal. Or e.g. people who read Nietzsche care about the difference between Walter Kaufman and other translators; Moncrieff and other translators of Proust, etc. etc.

  29. French translator says:

    I agree with most of the article but as a JP>FR manga translator, I am very surprised that you don’t read the volume before translating it. I find it extremely important to read the whole series (or at least, all the volumes that have been published) as well as related material (for example, publishers send me anime DVDs, if any) before setting out to translate the first volume because if you are not aware of the whole plot, hidden agendas, real identity of the characters (to give a few examples), you may well mistranslate some bits. Since volumes don’t usually get published all at once, you really don’t want to find out in volume 5 that you made a mistake in vol 1 that could have been avoided if you had read the whole series beforehand.

  30. Ryan Holmberg says:

    “Just the individual words”: in that case, you might as well claim 100% of the credit, since the original is entirely in Japanese and the translation is entirely in your English. But more than that, I think it disingenuous to call what you do “literary translation” – which implies that the meaning of the text and its aesthetic values are also imbedded at the level of syntax and overall style, and that it is the translator’s duty to reproduce that, to reproduce the other’s “voice” – and then make a distinction between words (which are “yours”) and content (which remain the author’s). No one doubts that you put your time and heart into the translations, and that you should be credited and that you should derive pride from the work you have done. But I took your article to be arguing something greater about the relationship between translation and authorship.

    It’s ironic to me that Mizuki Shigeru should be one of the central figures in this article. Because 1) most of the Mizuki I have read are super remedial in terms of Japanese language – so the comparison to translating (what some people consider to be) Nobel-caliber novels, or one commentator’s citation of The Iliad and Nietzsche, seems quite silly. I have translated remedial manga myself (Mysterious Underground Men and Last of Mohicans), and I know it’s not a feat. Maybe in the time it takes (and you have done far more and far longer manga than I have), but not in the skill it takes.

    2) There are major questions about Mizuki’s authorship even in the Japanese originals. I am not just talking about the origins of Kitaro, but the fact that by the late 60s it is a little unclear how much Mizuki himself contributed to individual works. Apparently in the 80s, the situation was so extreme that he hired fairly famous (but struggling) artists to produce entire stories for him from scratch, from concept to finished artwork. So, whether or not there is 95% Zack in those D&Q translation, it is quite possible that there is less than 5% Mura Shigeru.

    One last question for you, sorry this is so long. All the comments are responding to your process and theory, but no one is bothering to look at your actual examples. Since you have raised questions about other people’s specific translations in the comments section, I think it fair to ask about yours. In that one comparative example where the old soldier asks for everyone to sacrifice their lives for him (is that what “I want all your lives” means?), you have translated the sound effect as “slap.” But I would think a man beating his chest with a closed fist – in Japanese DON like a drum or cannon – would go “thump” or some variant of the Japanese like “domp.”

    Is that petty? No one in serious literary translation would say so, and I know artists and editors in Japan who have gotten upset at less than this. I am sure I have made worse mistakes than this, and my point is not to nitpick. My point is that no one, none of the readers of this article including the aspiring translators and no one at D&Q, picked up on what to me is a glaring and elementary mistake. Manga translation, at least for smaller publishers, without Japanese linguistic facilities of their own, is all on a trust basis. It’s a free-for-all, largely checked only by the translator’s own skill and integrity. And that makes manga translation, at least for smaller publishers, quite a lesser ballgame than serious literary, academic, or business translation. So I think the hierarchy you set up at the beginning (“especially not literary translation and especially not manga translation”) is quite misrepresentative of the actual responsibilities and supervision that happen on the ground. I imagine Murakami and his agent both read every single word Rubin has translated (multiple times) before it goes to print. There’s a Murakami blurb on the new Sasaki Maki book from Breakdown – and that was the first time I had to submit any translation to a Japan-side agent for proofing before going to print. Granted, most of the artists I work with don’t even have email.

  31. Nadia A says:

    This was a very good read, although I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m a translator and a big manga and comic fan.

    After years of translating for software and marketing, I am currently working on my first literary translation project and it is a lot more challenging! I have the luxury of the author being my friend and having access to him at any point, but this is also making me nervous regarding his approval of my choices, as he speaks both languages, but I am infinitely more familiar with the target market culture. I have always wanted to translate comics and reading your article has reignited the flame and my motivation to get into that.

  32. a random reader says:

    Just here to say, loved your work on Mysterious Underground Men, Mr. Holmberg, and am positively surprised and very much liking to read your replies here. Finding myself in pure agreement with you. Keep up the good work, and more importantly, this attitude towards said work.

  33. Thanks again Ryan! All really good points and good criticism. I was actually terrified when I wrote this article, because I didn’t know what the reaction would be from the rest of the translation community. As I said, I figured this all out on my own, and these are my feelings, and I had no idea what any others would think. Fortunately I seem to have struck a cord, and I the article has resonated with many other translators of different languages and specialties. But I know that is not universal.

    I respect all the work you do and articles you write, so hearing this from you has been really great! Thanks for the dialog!

    So, some points:

    1. “95%” – That number comes from Jay Rubin, and admittedly I used it as a somewhat sensationalist “hook” to pull readers into the rest of the article. It’s not really an exact mathematical number, at least I didn’t think of it like that. When I read what Jay wrote in his interview, it was eye opening and confirmed what I had been feeling about my own work. I thought that made a good launching point.

    2. “Literary Translation” – I was using this thinking not in terms of “literature” per se, but in my mind differentiation from things like technical, medical, legal, and patent translation where any deviation or creativity is not allowed. I suppose I could have put “fiction translation,” but in my day job (where I won’t go into here) we work with all sorts of different types of translation, and “literary translation” is just the term we use for any book regardless of merit. Kind of using the bucket of “Can we get sued for getting it wrong?” If it is erotica or political diatribes, or cheesy light novels, we still call that “literary translation.” So that may just be a confusion in terminology.

    That said, I think you need to take a look at the Mizuki books I have translated for D&Q. Showa is anything but “remedial Japanese.” It was a complex, heavy epic with difficult language. I am working on Kitaro now, and sure … that is a breeze. It is fun. I call it my “reward” for having tackled Showa. But Mizuki is a many-layered artist, who can jump back and forth from complex and deep to simple and earthy, often in the same work. I have several of his non-fiction books, where he writes commentary on world artwork and philosophy, and many are often surprised at the depth of his writing. It’s not all yokai and poop jokes.

    And maintaining that voice and tone is still important, no matter who I am translating. When I took over translating Yoshihiro Tatsumi for “A Drifting Life II,” I was aware that not only did he have his own style and syntax but that people had been primed on what to expect by the previous translator. So I tried to keep that continuity and capture his voice as best I could. I believe I was successful, but that’s for readers to decide.

    2) Yep, I am well aware of that. The stuff we are doing is all 60s Kitaro that (I believe) Mizuki worked on himself, or his personal projects like Showa. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about that topic as you are (I have learned MUCH from reading your articles), but I am fairly confident that we are getting the real deal.

    (As an aside, that can be an interesting discussion point, and I think a different way of thinking between Japan and the West. When I was translating The Art of Satoshi Kon I was surprised at how many credits listed different artists. Apparently, like Warhol it was the “idea” that was important, not the actual hand that drew the picture. Many of them were just Kon’s ideas that he passed onto other artists to create … )

    3) “thump” – Totally agree. Not petty at all. That is a mistake, and thump would have been better than slap. no arguments there. As I said, I think sound effects are some of the trickiest parts of translation. I do my best, but that will always be an area of improvement. I did that panel years ago, and probably would have done it differently now.

    Thanks again for taking the time to add your thoughts!

  34. “(As an aside, that can be an interesting discussion point, and I think a different way of thinking between Japan and the West. When I was translating The Art of Satoshi Kon I was surprised at how many credits listed different artists. Apparently, like Warhol it was the “idea” that was important, not the actual hand that drew the picture. Many of them were just Kon’s ideas that he passed onto other artists to create … )”

    This is how a lot of contemporary gets made in the West — e.g. Damien Hirst. And comic strips have long used uncredited ghosts

  35. Hi Zack
    I’m not going to get involved with discussing the art of translation here, just a quick question, please: you mention in your reply above: ‘When I took over translating Yoshihiro Tatsumi for “A Drifting Life II…”

    Is this now finished and gearing up for publication? The only thing I’ve seen so far come out in English from this part 2 (although I suppose it’s part 3, in a way, since the English volume collects part 1 and 2 of the Japanese editions into one big book) is the 20 page excerpt from ‘Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels’

    Oh, and in case you have not noticed it yet, a related publication: our ‘Cigarette Girl’ book by Tatsumi’s pal Masahiko Matsumoto is coming out in May.

    Thanks, Sean

  36. Hey Sean!

    Sadly, that 20 page preview is as far as we got. I don’t know how much more was completed before his death, or if that will ever be made available.

    And no, I hadn’t heard of that! Thanks! I will check it out.

  37. Bulent says:

    Great article! I’ve long been curious about the first Western translation of Akira, published by Marvel’s Epic imprint and translated by (I think) Jo Duffy, and whether it was superior to the translations in the current editions published by Dark Horse. Don’t suppose you’d know anything about it?

  38. Andy says:

    Jo Duffy is one of the credited translators on Dark Horse’s editions of Akira, actually. Not sure if that means it’s the same as the Epic one, if it was used as the basis or if she was hired by Dark Horse too.

  39. From what I know Jo Duffy was the adapter, not the translator. I don’t believe she speaks Japanese. Looking it up, Yoko Umezawa and Linda M. York are credited as the translators.

    And honestly … I have no opinion. I have never read any of the English adaptations of Akira. Just the Japanese ones!

  40. Andy says:

    Dark Horse credits her as a translator, so I guess they just lump the two positions together.

  41. Rubby Wainright says:

    re: French translator’s comment:

    I get what you’re saying but the problem with this is that not every author/artist has all of these things planned out ahead of time. Sometimes people write things without knowing what will come next. So reading the whole thing will not necessarily inform you of what the author thought the reader should feel when they originally wrote it. If you’re trying to convey those feelings, the method that Zack uses seems to be the best one.

  42. Zeriel says:

    Wow this article is BS, it’s obvious a lot of things can’t be translated directly, but the job of the translator is to convey the message as close as possible and with little interference as possible. Of course a translator wants to take credit and say it’s 95% his words but that complete BS and an outright lie. Some jokes can’t be translated, that’s true, but does that mean you can just write whatever you want? No, it’s your job to do the most with the tools that your chosen language gives you, sometimes it will require to re-write a joke, but it does not mean you can just do whatever you want 95% of the time.

    Aspiring translators don’t listen to this article, you’re not writers you’re TRANSLATORS, have some pride in it.
    Oh and some of the pages translated here are very poorly done.

  43. Frances says:

    In reply to Zeriel and the other angry people.

    First, I’d just like to say that I am speaking as a native bilingual speaker of jp and en. (I went to primary school in both countries)
    I’ve never done any translating myself, but that is mainly because I spent most of my youth in what seemed like a perpetual state of wrath at translaters in jeneral – having two siblings who speak only jp and one who speaks only en will put you in the crossrodes of a lot of translations and subtitles – and I refused to go anywhere near the proffetion unless I was 110% positive that I could do better.
    I remember many occations where I would be sitting watching My Nabour Totoro or whatever and trying in vain to ignore the words running over the bottom of the screen and annoying my family by interrupting (often) and saying “That’s not what they meant!!”

    Anyway, my point is this.
    I totally get what you’re saying, it is unforgivable for a translator to mess with the original. I even agree with the whole slap thing. I did a mental flinch when I saw it, but I’m so used to retranslating translations in my head that I just automatically read “thump” and then didn’t notise until someone else brougt it up in the comments. So, I hear what you’re saying.
    But I also think that you need to go back and reread the artical to hear what Zack is saying. I think you kind of just heard “95% is mine MuAhHaHaa”. And then didn’t take in the context in which it was said. I personally completely agree with that number. As much as it greats on me, whenever I find a really good Japanese book/manga that I want to share with my en speaking friends or vise versa, I never think that I am sharing the exact same book with them when I’m giving them a translation.
    When you pick up a book, you enter the authors world. However, with a translation you enevitably are looking through a lens of the traslators creation. There is no way around that and to say otherwise is to stick your fingers in your ears and go Lalalalala.
    95% is a fairly accurate nomber as far as words go. If the traslater is a good traslator that 95% will reflect like a clear mirror the original story given by the author. But they will be the translators words.

    I respect good translators that have a knack for doing that. Infact the traslators whom I hate being forsed to read the most are those who try to keep the persentage as close to 0% as possible. That is when the mirror gets warped the most. Trust me. In time like those I find myself retranslating the words back into the orginal language in my head so that I can try to make sense of what the author was saying.

    Ok, I think I’ve rembled on enough. I just wanted to say, don’t dis what Zack’s saying. It’s important to realise just how much of an impact translators have. And read thier with that in mind. It’s something I’ve wished more people would realise many times before.

  44. Frances says:

    Oh yes, I forgot the original thing I wanted to ask before I started reading everybody else’s comments.

    Zack, now that I’m 23 and capable of being objective about things, I’ve been thinking about doing some jp to en translations, but I have no idea how to go about finding the work for it. Could you give me some tips?

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