Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!
And There Are Benefits: The Value of Good Translation
Travis Hedge Coke
In the shadow of Toren Smith’s death, I thought I’d ruminate a bit on translation, imports, and why professional translation that takes its time is a good thing, even in the light of the benefits of fast and dirty for the love of it pirates and scanlations or just churning it out halfassed.
There are benefits in scanlations. They’re quickly released, they happen for niche comics as much as the big stuff, and the big stuff is way faster than the legit releases. Little injokes or cultural refs are frequently caught and elaborated on. There’s little touch up to the artwork for those who like things pure. And, of course, they are usually free. But, once you’re past that, you have to look at the detriments, and I won’t lie, I like free and I like DiY and sharing as much as the next guy; the detriments are heavy, especially the longer you stay with a comic.
The big one, for me, is that the more legit your release is, the more likely it is you can contact the source publisher, the source talent, to query about tricky wording or allusions to future plot points. This used to come up too frequently in the pro world, too, back when no one spoke to one another and the world ran on fax machines and carrier pigeons. The original release of the television show, Neon Genesis Evangelion had some embarrassing translation bugs in part because they were a fledgling company just becoming pro, and because there was insufficient communication with the show’s producer, Gainax. ADV didn’t even hold onto the voice actors for recurring characters because who knew they’d be recurring?
Similarly, in the comics world, DC picked up several series for an attempt at a manga imprint and found themselves with an unwieldy mix of youth-friendly and family-unfriendly series and proceeding to make edits to pare everything down to fit a middle-ground marketing slot.
Tokyo Pop found a way around the intensity of thorough translations, such as adjusting jokes so puns stay puns but different homophones, or translating sound effects to be readable in English, by claiming veracity in keeping fx Japanese and half-translating dialogue in tone deaf direct translation. Reader’s were told they were being respected by simple concepts such as “older sister” or “idiot” being transliterated into phonetic Japanese instead of simply translated. Insular code was encouraged. In Tokyo Pop’s release of Fake, a New York cop uses “new child” in place of “new kid” or “FNG” because broken English is authentic Japanese something. Or, so is the story they sold us to be cheap. Make no mistake, all it was, is that, it’s patting the audience on the head and telling them they’re purer and special, because they accept less work from the publisher.
Nobody loved a comic for Tokyo Pop’s rendition, you just loved Tokyo Pop for releasing it. At best.
Toren Smith, Matt Thorn, these guys may not be the best translators on the face of the planet, but they worked. You could see the work. Dana Lewis. Trish Ledoux. Gerard Jones. Tom Orzechowski.
If you don’t think what Orzechowski did was translation, we have very different ideas of what that term entails. Orzechowski brought signs, prose, and dialogue to life. He resurrected it from the dramatic but otherwise contentless forms if you can’t read the Japanese, into living and vital English. (Here is another collaboration-helps story: Masamune Shirow, having done much of Ghost in the Shell 2 digitally, was able to pull the sound effects layer out of the comic as sent to Orzechowski, to make adding English effects easier. That has to beat leaving the old ones in, with a glossary in the back, or the old white out or eraser-feature technique.)
Similarly, someone doing dialogue, but not the nuts and bolts translation, they’re hopefully enlivening the material, bringing to us, the English-language reader, what the original dialogue or captions brought to the original audience. Just having the basic words transfigured to English equivalents, translated jokes by describing why they’re funny, not giving us something that makes us laugh or ever will, that’s weak. It’s sad. I don’t want to have to read a note that says “this is a joke” or “this is a kind of veiled threat; if you’d grown up on this 70s Japanese sitcom you’d understand” when I’m reading a pop story about a kid actor whose mother has a squirrel trying to set up house in her hair. These kinds of notes are not designed to carry you along in the story or to enhance and immerse, but incidentally pull you out and accidentally remind you that the translators did not try as hard as they might have.
And that, I think, is where the rise of the free scanlator, the pirate translator came in like a force. Assisted by advances in filesharing and image-manipulating technologies, the state of professional translation of foreign comics had got so comically sad that not paying for something equally awkward or slightly more competent and faster on the release likely seemed like a dream to anyone who didn’t mind it was theft. There’s back and forth negotiation with local publishers, to avoid translating for free series that are being commercially handled, and there are pros who don’t mind their work being translated by unofficial outfits, whose work may never otherwise be translated into English. It’s not a cut and dry issue, certainly, and again, it was often better or equal in quality to some of the pro work.
But I’ve never seen a scanlation as good as the good pro work. Not as solid, accurate, sensible, or with as much personality. It seems giving talented, knowledgeable people money and some lead time can result in a superior product. And all sides show there is an audience, as well. If that audience is as annoyed as I am, or even near to, by the lapses in quality, especially on rereads, who would be interested in paying for a better product, maybe the translation market, the manga market, the foreign market could be brought back solid in English-language comics. I’d like to think so.