Interview with a Vampire Translator
Kevin Leahy shares his love for Vampire Hunter D with its English-speaking fanbase.
Ask any anime fan over the age of twenty-five what film first got him or her into Japanese animation, and you'll likely receive one of the following films as an answer: Ninja Scroll, Fist of the North Star, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Vampire Hunter D. As eye-opening as the first four movies in that list are, Vampire Hunter D has always had a special place in the hearts of many viewers.
With character designs by Yoshitaka Amano, the man behind the look of the finest games in the Final Fantasy series of video games, the animated feature was noteworthy for its enthralling retro-futuristic look at one potential fate of the human race. Even more impressive than the story's setting, however, was the iconic D. The son of a human woman and a vampiric father, D exhibits strengths from both of his progenitors and few apparent weaknesses.
While D's admirers were treated to a sequel to the original film not long ago (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), not much else from the Vampire Hunter D mythology has made its way stateside. At least, not until last summer, when American fans were treated to Kevin Leahy's translation of Hideyuki Kikuchi's first Vampire Hunter D novel. Our thanks as well go out to Digital Manga Publishing and Dark Horse for releasing the book. Since then, the sequel, Raiser of Gales has been released -- much to the delight of fans. Both were clearly handled with a large degree of respect and care, so we decided to send some questions to Mr. Leahy himself to get a sense of the man behind these excellent translations. As we suspected, he is indeed a fan of the series. In fact, as the person who helped to make it possible for all of us to finally read the novels in English, Kevin Leahy is quite possibly one of Hideyuki Kikuchi's most important fans -- not merely one of his most dedicated devotees.
Animefringe/Patrick King: After doing a little searching around on the Internet (in particular at The Vampire Hunter D Archives) , it seems as if you've been a fan of Vampire Hunter D for quite some time. To start, I'd like to learn how you were able to make the transition from fan of the series to the translator of the books into English.
Kevin Leahy: I think being a fan of the series has really been an asset in this case. I suppose Mr. Kikuchi rests a little easier knowing I'm doing this as a labor of love rather than out of some mercenary motivation, and Japanese fans have been telling me for years how relieved they'd be to have a fan handling the material. From what I've heard from other translators, Japanese to English fiction translations are often just this sort of pet project -- you do it on spec because you like a book, and you want to give it a wider exposure, and you can worry about getting paid later. As a fan, doing this project is a dream come true. Who wouldn't want an excuse to go through a favorite book word by word, exploring the nuances and occasionally picking the author's brain?
AF: How long have you been living in Japan?
KL: I've been in Japan for fifteen years now.
AF: Had you been a fan of science fiction/fantasy/horror/anime before you were introduced to Vampire Hunter D? When did you first encounter the story, and in what form? Did you read the book or see the film first?
KL: Even as a kid, I was a huge fan of speculative fiction and genre cinema -- not that I used those exact terms back in the day. I collected comics, watched Creature Double Feature, and read anything I could get my hands on about ghosts, werewolves and vampires -- the standard classical education!
I first encountered Vampire Hunter D in the animated form back in college, probably around 1987. I caught it at a screening that Anime Hasshin's Lorraine Savage was having back in basement of a bank down in Rhode Island. This was back in the days when anime was a quasi-religious sect, and people sat in a room, letting un-subbed/un-dubbed cartoons wash over them like a Mass in Latin. I'd taken Japanese in my sophomore year in college, and had a synopsis of Vampire Hunter D, so I wasn't completely lost. I was, however, blown away.
Now, I went to Japan to work in 1990, and I happened to notice the name "Vampire Hunter 'D'" on some books at a used bookstore one day shortly after I got there. I hadn't even known the anime was based on a novel, but I bought half a dozen books that day. It was painfully obvious that my one year of college Japanese wasn't going to cut it with these books, so I put them in the closet as an ultimate goal. Four years later, I was reading the daily paper in Japanese, so I decided to finally give the Vampire Hunter D novels a try. I was being very diligent, writing down every word I didn't know in a notebook. Well, in the first chapter, that was every second or third word, so it dawned on me that if I was going to write down every-other-word, I might was well write them all down so everyone could enjoy the same stories.
AF: What are some of your favorite books/series/films?
KL: Wow, you're really opening the gates here. For books, I love Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson, L. Sprague de Camp's "Novarian" series and Lawrence Watt-Evans' "Ethshar" books, Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Clive Barker -- just tons of stuff. That Hideyuki Kikuchi fellow pens some entertaining yarns, too. For manga and anime, I really like stories with an underlying message about sacrifice and the value of life --Galaxy Express 999, Black Jack, Fist of the North Star, Devilman, and so on. For films, I love George Romero's work, John Carpenter, Amando de Ossorio's "Blind Dead" series, the old Universal classics, any Hammer film that has vampires and lacks kung-fu, lots of films with Vincent Price -- [the list] could go on and on.
AF: How did you meet Hideyuki Kikuchi?
KL: Back in 1999, I started getting more involved with Vampire Hunter D fandom online, both in English and in Japanese. At the time, I was interested in finding out more about the anime film that was in production, and I thought it would be a good time to approach the author about getting his novels out in English. At that point, I had a finished translation of the first book and had done half of the second. In July, I went to a "talk live" event in the Kabukicho section of Shinjuku (a combat zone which is also the setting for Mr. Kikuchi's "Demon City" series). The event started at midnight, and after a few hours of watching digest versions of various horror films, there was a Q&A session around 4:00 AM, when I finally got to ask if they had any plans to release the books in English. Apparently, there was already something in the works, which left me crestfallen (to put it mildly). But I went back for another event in September, when we celebrated Mr. K's 50th birthday. I gave him some of the poetry anthologies that I'd translated, and that must've done the trick -- the next thing I knew, he was giving me his business card and asking me to send along my translations!
AF: Before you were hired to write these translations, what did you do for a living while living in Japan?
KL: To this day, I teach English as a guest lecturer at a private high school. There are a few reasons for this. First, for someone who likes to spend as much time as I do making sure the translation is as accurate as possible, there's not a lot of money to be made. To wit, I could make more at a part-time job at a convenience store than I make on these books, hour for hour. But that wouldn't get them into a form where more people could read them. The other reason I teach is because translating is a very isolating task -- it's just you and your books. I need to get outside and meet people, or my brain will just melt.
AF: While it sounds like you were eager to get Kikuchi's novels into English, did both of you approach Dark Horse, or did they come to you? Were other publishers interested in the books?
KL: Although details are still sketchy, I believe Digital Manga matched us up with Dark Horse. Dark Horse had specifically mentioned the Vampire Hunter D novels as something they wanted to publish during a convention somewhere. As I'd already had the first three novels done for about four years at that point, I tried in vain to contact Dark Horse on my own. At the same time, Digital Manga apparently approached Mr. K, and he was set on using my translations. So that's how it all fell into place. But in the years before that, there were other people who approached one or both of us -- small publishers, an artist who wanted to do a graphic novel, and DC Comics at one point talked about Yoshitaka Amano doing some kind of adaptation.
AF: Any idea on how successful the books have been in English? If they do well enough, is there any chance you're aware of that we'll see hardback editions of the novels?
KL: While I don't have exact sales figures on the Vampire Hunter D novel translations, I do know that the people I did this for -- Mr. Kikuchi, the fans, and myself -- have all been rather pleased, and that's good enough for me. Unfortunately, publishers are a bit harder to please, but I think Dark Horse must be happy with the way things are going as they signed on for books four through six. As far as hardcover editions go, Asahi Sonorama editor Susumu Ishii fielded a similar question from a Japanese fan at an event just two days ago. Apparently, Mr. Amano had them use some very high grade paper on their hardcover books when they were printed here around the tenth anniversary of the Vampire Hunter D series, but sales weren't great on them and they have no plans to do more. But before the deal with Dark Horse came to pass, I'd always dreamed of having someone like Arkham House put them out. Though their print runs are small, they always put out a quality product, and the Lovecraft connection would be too sweet.
AF: Do you enjoy translating these books?
KL: Yes, I enjoy translating the books. When I read them the first time, for my own personal enjoyment, there's still some fuzziness regarding what's going on -- I don't pull out a dictionary or anything, I just try to get the flow of the story. But when I got through it again, one sentence at a time, I experience the story on a whole new level. I intended to keep translating them for some time to come.
AF: Many thematic elements found within Vampire Hunter D remind me of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King and other classic fantasy/horror writers. How much of an influence did these foreign authors have on Kikuchi's writings? Is he a fan of any of them? How about you; are you into any of those writers yourself?
KL: From my own discussions with Mr. Kikuchi, I know he is a big Lovecraft fan. Many years ago, Mr. K went to Providence and visited Lovecraft's grave in the Swan Point Cemetery (something I'd recommend to any fans passing through the area). He's also familiar with Poe, and often mentions Ray Bradbury as one of his favorites. But the way he writes a dozen novels a year, I don't suppose he has a lot of time for reading these days. I enjoy Stephen King's short stories, especially, in addition to a lot of the old Weird Tales contributors.
AF: How many books in the series are slated for release in America? Is Dark Horse determined to release them all, or is that something that will be determined by the sales of the first few novels?
KL: Currently, we've got a contract through the sixth Vampire Hunter D novel. I'm working on translating the fifth now, and don't know when people will start thinking about whether we want to do more or not. Mr. K and I are both devoted to this project, and I suppose we could always find another publisher, should Dark Horse's interest wane. But Dark Horse has really done a great job getting the books out in front of a lot of people. I'm sure their decision to continue with the series or not will hinge on the sales of non-animated stories, like the fourth, fifth, and sixth novels.
AF: Seeing as you've translated the third book, upon which the third movie is based, are you in any way involved with the impending 2006 re-release of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust? As a bilingual fan, do you have a preference for one version (English or Japanese dialogue) over the other?
KL: I wasn't even aware there was going to be a re-release of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. I'm not involved with it, though I'd love to help out any way I could. When I saw Yoshiaki Kawajiri two days ago, I gave him my card and asked him to contact me if there was anything I could do for him. While the English version does have a few errors, I suppose that's the one I'm more comfortable with, since I saw it in the theater. In fact, I only saw the Japanese-dubbed version for the first time last Friday.
AF: If all goes well and you manage to release all of the novels in the series, would you be interested in translating other series, such as The Twelve Kingdoms, into English, given the chance?
KL: I'd definitely be interested in translating other books into English, although at the current rate it would take me a decade to catch up to Mr. Kikuchi on the Vampire Hunter D series. I'm particularly interested in doing a translation of Mr. K's "Wicked City," although the adult nature of the story might make finding a publisher a bit tricky. I also have a bunch of "Dagger of Kamui" books that I've never had time to read, but something like that might be fun, too.
AF: Are there any other comments/observations/random thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
KL: Well, there are so many people I'd like to thank for their support and inspiration over the years: author Hideyuki Kikuchi, for the confidence and kindness he's shown me; editor Susumu Ishii, for supplying me with text files as well as keeping me in the publishing loop; Cathy Krusberg and Lorraine Savage, for editorial expertise and advice and all around-support; Jodi Heard, for helping proof and edit the first three books; my wife, Akemi, for her interpretation of troublesome passages; the folks in the Yahoo egroup for Vampire Hunter D, for letting me know there were actually people who wanted to read these novels in English; the "talk live" regulars, for being part of my Japanese family; directors Toyo Ashida and Yoshiaki Kawajiri, for exposing D to more of the world and nudging me into my present situation; and everyone who's read the books, for being the whole reason Mr. K writes them and I translate them -- when you tell us you like them, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.