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.

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