Reading manga in translation

My Japanese isn’t good enough, so I read manga in translation. I prefer reading in French, although French is only my third-best language. This has a lot to do with the French manga market, which offers more choice, great quality and decent prices. (Many French publishers are putting out editions that are essentially identical to the standard Japanese tankoban. Very good printing quality, dustjackets – and they’re slim, which means I can fit more in my shelf!

But I meant to talk about language. My Japanese may not be good, but I do know the basics. This means that when I read a translated manga and the text strikes me as odd, I automatically try to determine if it’s a translation mistake, by “retranslating” the text in my head.

“Mistake” may be too strong a word. Sometimes, things are just lost in translation, not because the translator screwed up, but because it may be impossible to preserve a double meaning, a pun or some subtle nuance. Not because the translator didn’t catch on to it, but because they couldn’t find a way to translate it, because there isn’t  a way.

Japanese has a lot of ideosyncracies that are difficult to convey in French, German or English, that have no real equivalent. Japanese is more precise in some aspects, more ambiguous in others. It is relatively easy to mix up who is speaking to whom, or get a character’s gender wrong.

Well, these ambiguities should actually be manageable most of the time. It should be possible to figure these things out by considering the context. Mistakes happen, I’m OK with this. But there have been manga translations where the translator got things amazingly wrong, and apparently no editor caught it, or bothered to correct the obvious, stupid mistake.

I mean really obvious things, like the French Yuyu Hakusho translation. It stubbornly claimed that Mukuro is male. How do you get that wrong? You even see Mukuro’s boobs! In the French manga, her backstory becomes a bizarre mess. It tries to pretend that this girl isn’t Mukuro but … someone else and Mukuro relates to her …. how? O_o Seriously, it was a mess. It made no sense, but if you know a little bit about Japanese, you can figure out what went wrong and reconstruct the actual plot. That sort of thing shouldn’t happen.

The German translation of 3×3 Eyes has several clunkers as well. I didn’t pick up on a lot of it back in the day, but now it’s painfully obvious. The translation often failed at transcribing character names properly. I mean, names that were written in katakana in the original, and who were actually named after gods from real-world mythologies. You could look this stuff up if you were unsure! And some of these names should be general knowledge! Pretty sure there’s no Egyptian god with the name Toto!!!!

I didn’t really mean this to become a rant about all the ways manga translators can screw up … That doesn’t seem fair. After all, translation is a thankless job. You’re more likely to notice it when a translation is bad than when it’s good. Good translations don’t draw attention to themselves or the language – I think? They just help you understand the story in front of you.

I had an interesting reaction when I was reading Osamu Tezuka’s Nanairo Inko in French. Chapter 28, “Medea”, takes place in Paris. The French edition used footnotes to inform me that specific phrases (characters going “oui” and “bonsoir”) had been in French in the original Japanese version, too! This … annoyed me.

It is common for stories with foreign settings to include some phrases in the local language. It’s meant to add exotic flavour, to create a sense of authenticity. It signals that even though the manga is written in Japanese, that’s not really the language that the characters are speaking. Now, if you translate such a manga into that local language, you end up with something more authentic than the original, if you will. What’s the purpose of footnotes? I am OK with footnotes when they explain important information that the reader needs to know in order to follow the story. “This French word was in the Japanese version, too!” isn’t vital information, it’s trivia. And curiously, it only serves to highlight the arteficial nature and secondary status of the translation.

I prefer translations that just flow naturally and never stop to remind me that they are just translations – especially when it’s the “real” language the characters would be speaking anyway.

Which brings me to Takashi Morita’s Arsène Lupin manga. The manga itself is mediocre, imho, but one thing about it is interesting: it adapts Maurice Leblanc’s original Lupin short stories – very faithfully. Scene-for-scene, and almost word-for-word. I compared the manga, translated into French, to the original stories, and was quite pleased to discover that the translator had done the smart thing and actually used the exact phrases. So in a way, the French manga is an even more faithful adaptation of the Lupin stories than the original Japanese one is. By adding the real French words “back”, it brings the story closer to what it’s meant to be. This is one manga where you don’t ever have to wonder if something might have been lost in translation. Which is really interesting.

(BTW: I think my annoyance with this Nanairo Inko chapter also has to do with the regrettable fact that this French edition (by Asuka Éditions, now defunct) just isn’t that good. The printing quality is pretty much abysmal, and there have been two or three instances where text was put in the wrong speech bubbles – once because a character’s white hair was mistaken for a speech bubble. =_= And this from a release whose foreword proudly declares that they didn’t make any unnecessary changes to Osamu Tezuka’s art ~out of respect. Yeah, sure.)

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