Sunday, February 06, 2011


(This post is part of a series I've tagged as "early manga days", chronicling rare/weird gems from the beginning of manga's now 30+ year history of publication in English)

A couple months later, I'm returning to "The Manga Story" essays, which were an introduction to the genre/style of "manga" published in the first few floppy issues of Viz's Mai the Psychic Girl. These were written in 1987 by the manga/Japan experts of the day- with the first essay written by Cartoon/Fantasy Organization co-founder and author Fred Patten, and the second essay by the insightful translator/author (and all around wonderful dude) Frederik Schodt.

This third and final "Manga Story" was written by James D. Hudnall, who offers a unique and practical overview of the job of "script polisher". James has a long career of writing in the comics world (including Espers, and Dark Realm which got adapated into a TV show) and then later churning out editorial comics for scumbag Andrew Breitbart's political blog, but back in 1987 he worked as the script polisher for Area 88 and Mai, the Psychic Girl. These were two of the original three flagship series that Viz/Eclipse released in May 1987, and This essay comes from early in 1988 (Issue 6? I've lost my notes since scanning it last Fall).

In this essay, James discusses working with the Japanese translator for the series, who provides more literal translations of the text. While less of an over-arching/historical discussion of the manga/comics publishing scene of the day, it was really interesting for me to see how much of the groundwork and process laid out back in the late 80s still applies to how manga is adapted for overseas readers even today. Enjoy!
(Click for larger versions)

If you're curious enough to read this page, in all likelihood you've read the credits on the inside front cover. You must have looked at the long list of names and said to yourself, "What do all those people do, anyway?"

Well, it's a good question, with an interesting answer. Do you really want to know what we people at VIZ and ECLIPSE are actually doing to these books?

Okay, I'll tell you...

It all begins with the original comics. They are, of course, in Japanese. This makes them difficult to read if you don't know the language, so we need a translator. For this task, VIZ has hired the excellent Satoru Fujii, an expatriate Nihon-jin (that's Japanese to you Gai-jin out there) who has settled down to live in the good old U.S. of A.

Satoru's task is to take a copy of the original and translate the Japanese into English literally. Now, this may sound really simple. After all, Satoru knows both languages very well. All he has to do is translate them, right?

In the case of some languages, it would be very simple. Unfortunately, Japanese is a very unique language - one the does not easily lend itself to translation. For one thing, Japanese is (generally) without plurals; they are implied by the context. This means one has to be very cafeful.

Furthermore, many of the lines of dialogue in a Japanese comic are utter gibberish when translated into English. They may be puns based on a play of words, or expressions that mean something other than what is actually said (like out expressions: "It's cool! It's hot! It's where it's at, baby!"). After all, dialogue can often be street slang, understood by its culture. Satoru has to make all of this understandable to the script polisher.

That particular job is handled by yours truly. I am script polisher for Area 88 and Mai, the Psychic Girl; The Legend of Kamui is handled by my old friend, the multi-talented Toren Smith.

What Toren and I do is take the literal translation and rewrite it so that it sounds natural to the American comics reader. Now you may say, "Why? What are you needed for, anyway? Why not give us the literal meaning so that we can be closer to the original?"

I'll answer that question with another question. Have you ever seen a Godzilla movie? Ever sat down to watch a Kung-Fu flick to Hong Kong? Much of the oriental language does not lend itself to literal translation. Their psychology is in some ways different from outs, as are the implications found in a line of their dialogue. Sometimes a simple sentence in Japanese can be a regular mouthful in English.

Here's a line from Mai, #4 as translated by Satoru: MADARAO: "This is the eight-direction-light battle formation of the Togakushi school named 'Attaching as an Empty Sky Wheel'!!" Now, that may have sounded utterly profound in Japanese, but in English, well...

So, what I do is take something like that and turn it into something like this: MADARAO: "This is eight-direction battle formation of the Togakushi school... THIS is the EMPTY SKY-WHEEL DOOM!"

Sounds a little more dramatic, don't you think?

Or how about: MADARAO: "I will show you an esoteric battle formation of the Togakushi school named 'Hawk Wing'! It's going to be your souvenir for the other world!"

My version: MADARAO: "Now I'm going to show you an esoteric battle formation called the HAWK WING. It'll be your ticket to HELL!!"

The idea is to remain as close to the original as possible without changing the meaning, while at the same time making it sound better to us English speaking folk.

Most of the time it's not as obvious as the above examples, but you get the idea. It try to make it sound as natural as can be, without altering the writer's original prose any more than I have to.

Next comes to editing. First, Abra at VIZ looks over my script in order to catch any typos or improper grammar. Then she and Satoru check to see if there are any places where I may have accidentally changed the meaning of the original. This does happen sometimes, because I may have misread the context of the translated sentence.

Once this process has been done, Satoru and I go over script in order to work out the best possible replacement lines for anything I may have goofed up. Sometimes we have to expand or contract the dialogue in order to fit the size of the word balloon.

After all of this, the script is sent to ECLIPSE, where the editor (Letitia Glozer for Mai and Fred Burke for The Legend of Kamui and Area 88) goes over it.

Perfection is everyone's goal, after all! Now comes the fun part.

Once the scripts are approved by VIZ and the editor at ECLIPSE, they are sent to the letterer along with copies of the original art. Since the original is designed to be read from right to left (as all Japanese books are), we have to make a reversed copy so that it can be read from left to right.

Next, the letterer has to examine the art for any sound effects. He has to erase the Japanese characters and replace them with the English sound effects found in the script. This often involves erasing bits of artwork, as the sound effects cover the backgrounds. As a result, the letter has to redraw the parts that were erased, lay down new ziptone in such places where it has been used, or match very fine stippling or shading.

Once all of that is done, the word balloons are relettered in English. Since Japanese balloons can be vertical (Japanese characters are sometimes read from top to bottom), the letterer must sometimes redraw the balloons. Needless to say, the letterer has the most strenuous job of all.

Now that the touch-up and lettering is complete, the pages are sent back to ECLIPSE again. The book is proofread for lettering errors, and the editor makes sure that all of the touch-up work looks great.

Finally, the completed page are sent to VIZ for their approval. If VIZ doesn't like the lettering style used for the sound effects of titles, they are sometimes sent back for changes. VIZ wants to make sure the finished product is as close to the Japanese version as possible. We are all interested in maintaining the creator's vision when bringing his work to America, and we hope that our long and complicated editorial and approval process helps.

Cover layouts are handled by Mr. Shinkji Horibuchi, who does an excellent job of providing a Japanese design sensibility to the American editions.

And the results are in your hands.

James D. Hudnall is the co-translator of Mai, the Psychic Girl and Area 88. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Espers series from Eclipse Comics. Rumor has it that he will be coming out with two new comic series in 1988.

Next up: Scans of the Go Nagai article and his early translated work "Oni" from Epic Illustrated #18 (June 1983).


chrismandesign said...

man, this is a loooooooot of work & requires a strong commitment, is like a filigree... now i can realize why the english versions of japanese mangas r so exp... this requires a lot of "handiwork" & the result is another artwork with an implicit different point of view, but with the utmost respect for the original intent... =O

hannbokhi said...

Wow, great blog. I love reading manga and watching anime.
Follow your blog!

Thuraya Lynn said...

Eh, my first comment didn't go through. Aww shucks.

I was saying that this is an interesting topic. Reminded me of the translated version of Haruki Murakami's novels, you get an extension of a different perspective, even sometimes something that seems far off a different story.

I am enjoying your blog very much.
Thank you for what you do!

Ryan S said...

@Chrismandesign: Thanks for reading!

@Thuraya: Thanks for reading, I really appreciate hearing from folks--- I think actually Murakami was the first writer who I read in both English and Japanese (?). I remember in college reading a few essays of his side-by-side and finding the experience both mysterious and mechanical. it's a strange art, I like Nabakov's essays on translation (though his standards are insanely unreachable)

@J: holy shit, you're right! It appears to be the same Hudnall who does comics for that scumbag Andrew Breitbart's site. jeez, that sucks.

DeBT said...

Ironic that you would return to the Manga essays shortly after I mentioned their absence on my site. Did you guys remember when I pointed out a letter from the penultimate Kamui letter?

Ryan S said...

@DeBT: Thanks for that link! I actually hadn't seen your post when I put up the Manga Stort #3-- i have a stack of like 15 half-written posts that I'm always trying to make time to return to :)

That letter is really interesting stuff--- gonna post a link to your post on the Tumblr now! Thanks for sharing the manga history goodness.

I'm finally putting up a post tomorrow morning that will provide some good additional info out there about Sanpei Shirato

DeBT said...

Thanks. I can always use a little more publicity. (Though the Tumblr doesn't seem to be working for me now)

Thought I should point out a slight misspelling in your essay reprint - in the 6th paragraph, where it talks about translating, it should read "one that does not..." rather than "one the does not..."

I'm looking forward to seeing more Sanpei Shirato!

Anonymous said...

Those examples he gives are terrible! 'DOOM' might sound more dramatic, but it sure is a hack turn of phrase! What's wrong with 'formation'?

Likewise 'hell'. Hell?! While you're at it, why don't you rename one of the restaurants "McDonald's"!