Manga Translation: Only Poets Need Apply (Part III)

By Yani Mentzas

In manga translation, the English rendition of the original Japanese has to fit back into a bubble, and the spatial constraints can be formidable given that one language reads top-down and the other left-right. Not only the bubble's size but its shape comes into play, favoring the use of shorter words at the end, for instance, if the width tapers down, lest there be excessive hyphenation, or worse, a letter poking out. These constraints demand from the translator, editor, and production staff of manga the finesse of master craftsmen if the end result is to appear natural and pleasant to the eye. The goal is, as usual, for the translation not to seem like a translation, a purpose that is sabotaged when the laid-out text bears painful testimony to these strictures. Any attempt to avoid such an impression marshals all of one's know-how for saying the same thing in a different way, to abide by what comes to feel like a self-effacing metrical scheme—marshals, in other words, the know-how of a poet or better a translator of poetry who chooses not to jettison the form tout court.

Unlike most verse, however, the bubbles in manga must sound resolutely colloquial since the intent is to convey speech, an unguarded use of language such as we encounter in everyday life. The tactics familiar to versification, for instance the inversion of word order, is unavailable for the manga translator whose ambition precisely is to efface the traces of strain in the transposition process. Manga translation requires a poet whose attachment is to the colloquial cadence—no less than, and I say this in earnest, a W. H. Auden fluent in Japanese. To my knowledge, he does not exist, but that does not mean that he is not the ideal.

The reader who has some experience in this endeavor will have noted that in any actual practice of this "intense" or uncompromising vision of manga translation, the text that is first laid out in the bubbles can only ever be the draft. It is imperative that a revision process then take place, whether at the hands of the translator or of the editor or of both in close communication, in conjunction with capable production staff (again, these are the artists who lay out the text). It is equally imperative that key production personnel be in-house, or the cost will spiral out of control—or rather, in avoidance of that terrible outcome, compromises will begin to be made. At Vertical, we do not go home until every text in every bubble sits comfortably, each word and punctuation's position carefully adjusted at the millimeter level. If you doubt me, call our production manager; I suspect he'd be glad to unload his feelings to you (hopefully out of my earshot) about the whole nights of sleep and weekends lost.

It remains to be said that none of this matters, or should be attempted or come under consideration, if the translator and editor have not perfected their English writing and Japanese comprehension skills—both formidable challenges. It would be cruel if my loquaciousness on these matters of polish were misconstrued as downplaying in any way the need to perfect one's facility with the source and target languages—as paramount a consideration for the manga translator as for any other kind. In fact, my point is that a thorough familiarity with the building blocks must underlie the uncompromising vision.

If I have devoted the bulk of my words to delineating the difficulties that arise inside the balloon, that is not because the challenges faced outside of it—rendering a plethora of Japanese onomatopoeia into "English"—are any lesser. It is just that, apart from their increased occurrence in a language that is already rife with them, the problem is not new or unique for any dabbler in translation, J-E and other. Suffice it to say that the challenge is not simply to transliterate but to offer a rendition that is native to the target language; in other words, it does need to be translated. This is easier said than done, and in this handling of sound, manga again calls upon the aptitudes of a poet.

It should be clear by now that when I suggested that manga translation requires a poet, I did not mean someone who is attached to the use of flowery phrases or who is very sensitive (certainly not sensitive to criticism à la Chatterton, I hope), but rather a verbal artisan, who has an unfailingly good ear, who carries a toolbox that is thrice heavier than the uninitiated surmises—a wordsmith, in short, who is at ease in the trade of words much like Tezuka was in the commerce of lines and circles.

In my next post, I'd like to share some thoughts on the man and his work.

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You can find other posts from Yani Mentzas in the same series over here:

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

Manga Translation: Only Poets Need Apply (Part I)

Manga Translation: Only Poets Need Apply (Part II)

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


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