Are there certain things such as Japanese colloquialisms, which do not translate well when working on English language scripts?
Japanese takes longer to learn than many “standard” languages, and it has many complexities. So yes, translating Japanese is not easy, but it’s not impossible. The problem is whether people are prepared to pay for it. Quite often, the guy who hires a translator is entirely ignorant of the quality of what he is asking to be translated. He has no clue whether his translator is up to the task. All he cares about is how quickly it can be turned around, and how cheaply.
The modern obstacles are actually beyond the language itself, within audience and distributor expectations. Many distributors simply don’t want to pay a living wage for anime or manga translation. Prices have dropped, as far as I can see, about 65% in real terms in the last decade. There’s a lot of short-term people in the business who don’t see why they should pay professional rates, who don’t realise how much an interesting original is being dumbed down and ruined in its translated form. So they simply refuse to pay professional rates and good material is ruined.
There’s also a powerful lobby within fandom that doesn’t understand that translations are about making the language barrier invisible. They want to keep as much Japanese in the “translations” as possible, with the spurious assertion that certain concepts are untranslatable. So we find ourselves in this embarrassing situation today when some reps from distributors are unable to even pronounce the title of the shows they are supposed to be selling, and nobody knows what they actually mean. I think that betrays the aims of translation, but as Confucius once nearly said: peanuts pay, monkeys get.
What would you say is the most bizarre anime concept out there?
Take your pick. A series about the competitive world of bread-making? The tribulations of a blind soccer team? A group of transforming robots hidden inside cigarette lighters? Five orphan ninja who dress in bird costumes for no apparent reason? A drama-documentary about the world of superconductors? A guide to obtaining a divorce without legal hassles? I could go on, but I can see you already think I am just making it up. Schoolgirl Milky Crisis!
If Schoolgirl Milky Crisis was an actual anime show, what would the storyline be about?
Steve Kyte, who’s drawn the Schoolgirl Milky Crisis artwork throughout the book, did say that he had tried to work out what the plot might have been by working through the numerous references in the articles and stitching them together. He appears to have come up with something about the vanguard of an alien invasion, accidentally landing on a dairy farm run by two Welsh girls called Bronwen and Gwyneth. But I think Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is a lot more fun when nobody knows what the story is and everyone has their own idea.
I think your right about the American distributors only caring about speed and price when it comes translation services. As a long time anime and manga fan who has some experience with the native language I don’t know how many times I’ve had to do a double take after reading some subtitle or listening to some dub lines from a anime and wonder why the translator didn’t spent an extra ten minutes making the line more understandable, or making it sound like those words would be spoken by real American teens.
But, now to the the issue of fan expectations, I think that in the past fans felt burnt when certain North American anime and manga distributors changed certain things within the story not for the purposes of making a story clearer or more understandable in English but because they felt uncomfortable about the content.
In a normal business situation if consumers don’t like the product they just don’t buy it, and the company either changes or goes out business, or the fans suck it up and buy the product anyways because of the love of the product. But the revolution in digital media changed everything, fans can now for almost no cost translate and distribute their vision of the product faster then the American distributors every can, quality is another story.
One thing that I’ve found over the years is that what many anime fans like about anime and manga is that it’s different, it’s a look inside a different culture, albeit a skewed fantasy version of another culture, and if you try and make it too “American” it loses it’s charm.