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Animefringe Editorial:
You Say Tomato, I Say Succulent, Red, Vine-grown Fruit!
or an Editor's Defense of Editing.

By Jake Forbes


Manga fans are a notoriously picky bunch. They want every manga series to be available in English, but they want total assurance that they are getting exactly the same reading experience that a Japanese reader gets reading the original. Most of them don't read Japanese, and are paranoid that they might be missing something by not reading it in the original language. Some fans go so far as to learn Japanese just to read manga, and this has had a great effect on increasing awareness of translation issues. Unfortunately, there are just as many manga fans who don't read Japanese, but armed with a Japanese-English dictionary and a cynical opinion of American publishers, are quick to point out when translations are "wrong." (It seems like manga fans demand more from a translation than do fans of Nobel Prize winning novelists!) For those of you who don't read Japanese fluently, and like most of us, rely on American publishers to bring us readable manga, let me try and clear up the issues involved, and explain why saying a translation is "wrong" is a very difficult claim to justify.

An obvious point which I'm sure everyone knows, but few people think about, is that the translation process is almost never a one person job. First there's the actual translator. In a perfect world this person would speak and write fluently in English and Japanese, but if you can't get both, I think it's more important that the translator understands everything in Japanese perfectly, but is awkward at writing in English.

Once a translation is done, it is sometimes passed on to someone for an English Adaptation. This credit isn't always used, but when it is, it implies that someone has done fairly substantial rewriting of the raw translation. These changes can range from adding dialects to characters' dialogue, like having Duo in Gundam Wing use more slang, to changing a TV reference from a Japanese sitcom to Friends so that American readers will get the joke. Sometimes the rewriters and translators work together and form a translation team. This is especially helpful because it allows both parties to make sure that the original intent of the manga is coming across.

Next the translation moves on to the editorial staff. There is always an editor, and usually a team of assistant or associate editors, and sometimes interns, who each review the translation to check for grammar, spelling, consistency, and age-appropriateness (I'll get into "censorship" later). Ultimately, the editor has final say on the translation and has the power to change anything. The editorial team might reword awkward sounding sentences to make it read better. Many changes can happen here, and almost always, it's out of the hands of the original translator.

Rewriters and editors also have to ensure that English text fits properly in word bubbles. Japanese writing is vertical, not horizontal like English, so often the bubbles are very narrow. Editors will often rewrite text bubbles to use smaller words in order to avoid excessive hyphenations. Also, punctuation is very loose to nonexistent in Japanese writing, so where a sentence begins and ends is often very subjective.

In the case of magazine serialization, as with Super Manga Blast and Animerica Extra, you also have an Editor-in-Chief who is responsible for setting and maintaining standards for the magazine. Hopefully, they examine where a story is going before it is put in the magazine, but if a story should become too risqué for a magazine's established standards, the Editor-in-Chief could decide to pull or alter it.

Then there are the corporate and management officials, who hopefully don't abuse their power, but who are ultimately responsible for whether or not the manga makes money. These people might decide to change the names to match the English dub, to retouch the breasts that appear in one panel of an otherwise G rated comic, or in some cases, to skip entire chapters because of material that might offend American parents.

It's easy to see how a literal translation can change as it passes through anywhere from three to a dozen filters. Often times the translation is likely to be modified by people who don't read Japanese. Some cultural references are bound to get lost, especially considering that most of the people in this chain are working on a dozen projects at once. Ideally, the people in this chain are very good at what they do, so when they make changes, they are for the better. Here's a few examples from when I was at Mixx of how translations can get altered along the way:

1) In Sailor Moon, Sailor Pluto quotes a poem that is a translation of an English poem. The translator didn't realize this, so instead of using the actual English lines, he or she translated the translation. By the time the editor looks at it, it is not easily recognizable, and it is altered further to make it sound more poetic. The original poem is lost, and instead a poor rewording is left.

2) Also in Sailor Moon, each Senshi has a castle named after a moon of their planet. As Mercury and Venus don't have moons, their castles are named after the first satellite to visit the planet. Our translator and first editor didn't get the reference, so Mercury's castle Mariner was first translated as Marina. (When a reader pointed this out to me, I fixed it in the graphic novel- editors want to help!)

3) A big point of contention among Sailor Moon fans is the changing of names. Mixx used Rini instead of Chibi Usa, like the dub, and at one time planned to call ChibiChibi, RiRi. If you know the scene where ChibiChibi is introduced, the name is formed when Mrs. Tsukino is trying to remember Chibi Usa's name and repeats the first syllable. RiRi would be the logical dub name, but seeing fan response, I added a footnote to the manga so that when ChibiChibi is introduced, she keeps her original name and hopefully it isn't too awkward.

4) In Rayearth, Caldina has an Osaka accent that is kind of the equivalent of a valley girl accent. The translator noted this in several occasions, but usually just added "like"s. Believing myself to have a better grasp of the valley girl accent, in Rayearth book 6 (2:3) I modified her dialect to make it more consistent with CLAMP's intent (I hope!)

5) The Gundam Wing manga that Mixx is working from are incredibly confusing as a stand alone story. They fail to introduce supporting characters, assuming that the reader knows everything from watching the show. I couldn't let this stand when I took over for the Endless Waltz, Battlefield Pacifist, and G-Unit stories, so I would sometimes modify the dialogue to properly introduce new characters. I believe my changes make the manga a much clearer, and more enjoyable read than a literal translation would.

An example of fan contention from another publisher, Viz, brings up a completely different translation issue: censorship. Select panels of the Dragonball manga were edited (with the original author's consent and help!) to cover up some of Goku's nudity. As Dragonball Z is so phenomenally huge right now and is popular enough with little kids to become a kids meal toy at Burger King, it makes perfect sense that the people at Viz would want to sell the manga (which is mostly G rated) to kids. Unfortunately, in American society, any form of nudity is looked on as dirty and inappropriate for viewing by children. Viz had to make a few small changes or risk losing the widespread sales that manga needs in the US if it's ever going to gain acceptance. They went with making the changes to the art, which offended many manga fans and supporters of free speech.

Now that over 10,000 people have petitioned Viz to re-release Dragonball unedited, it looks like they might do so, but if they do, PLEASE honor your petition or it's not likely that anime petitions will continue their effectiveness. Whether or not Viz releases the unedited version, it's not a reasonable standard for manga fans to expect from all kids' manga in the future. If you take a kids title like Dragonball, then put MATURE READERS in big letters on the front, you're killing off potential sales to the intended audience: kids! If you just keep the warning small, Viz might face the problem that the made the changes to prevent: a parent buys the version with nudity and gets outraged, starts a boycott, and one of the big gains into mainstream acceptance of manga is lost.

Another issue Dragonball raised with the censorship debate was profanity. This is a very difficult issue in translation and editing, as much of profanity doesn't have a perfect translation. In translation a translator and editors must capture the spirit of profanity and not just the best matching word. Save the really dirty phrases for when the character really means it. Also, as with nudity, certain words can never appear in a comic that's targeted for kids. While there's no ratings system for comics, publishers have to be careful to watch themselves or risk legal battles or government monitoring. At Viz, the editors are given standards that they have to follow for certain titles to keep the content acceptable by community standards for the target audience. This is true at Mixx as well, and I'd expect at Dark Horse and any other publisher of comics.

Now that I've explained the issues very calmly and logically, please allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment. All you manga purists out there, DO YOU WANT TO SEE MANGA IN ENGLISH, OR DON'T YOU!? When you see inconsistencies in translation or don't like certain changes that have been made, take your complaints considerately to the publishers. For the most part, publishers want to help, as in most cases, you the Otaku are the majority of manga sales! Make your arguments clear and specific, and try to not get too emotionally involved, and I bet you'll find that publishers are more willing to listen.

But even while you argue for more literal, authentic manga, realize that the manga reading audience in America is VERY small- only a few percentage points of the entire comics market, which is in turn, a very tiny percentage of the reading public. A few sacrifices might have to happen along the way to allow manga to grow outside of its current otaku and trend-following audience. Would anime be as popular as it is if it weren't for Robotech? Would Akira and Vampire Hunter D have made it onto TV if they weren't dubbed? Make your complaints, celebrate your victories, and bemoan your losses, but realize that manga in America is still in its infant stages. Hopefully some day soon, "funny sounding" Japanese names and comic nudity will be accepted in the mass market, but until that day, be grateful for the ever more diverse library of manga that is available in English.

Thanks to Bill Flanagan for his help in defining the roles in the editorial process.

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