Back to Front

This article first appeared in NEO magazine #16, 2006.


Mr Ward was in a very bad mood with his class. He was angry that they were immediately flicking through their textbooks looking for the “fun” cartoon section, when they should be opening them at the first page.

“We don’t,” he said, with barely suppressed rage, “open our books back-to-front.”

In the front row, seven-year-old Jonathan Clements raised his hand.

“The Japanese do,” he said.

After which, all I remember is some screaming, detention, and the words “clever dick.” It’s probably why I have developed a lifelong aversion to right-to-left printing, that core value of modern manga that must be irritating Mr Ward every time he faces his class today.

Modern myth ascribes back-to-front printing to the 21st century, but it’s been in the English-speaking manga world for 15 years – the earliest example I can think of is Hideshi Hino’s Panorama of Hell from Blast Books in 1990. It didn’t really come to Britain, however, until 1995, when Bloomsbury Publishing’s Barry Cunningham decided to use it for Ironfist Chinmi. His reasoning was that it would save money in production, and that it would annoy parents. Kids, he argued, were resilient and adaptable, and reading a book “backwards” couldn’t be hard – after all, as any seven-year-old knows, the Japanese did it every day. Parents, however, would find the idea bizarre, and that would give the kids something on the adults. It would turn manga-reading into a secret club, like memorising the taxonomy of Pokémon or knowing the names of the Power Rangers.

So, no, there wasn’t anything mentioned about the artist’s “original intent”. There were none of the modern arguments about preserving manga in its original form – a position I have always found amusing, since a “100% original” would need to remain in Japanese as well. It was done because it saved a few quid by not flipping the pages, and because it would wind people up.

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10 thoughts on “Back to Front

  1. Ah yes, the simple truth that demolishes a thousand fan arguments by proving them utterly, utterly irrelevant. Hence why they ignore those who point out to them this small, but crucial piece of history.

    I am reminded of a debate chaired by Paul Cosgrove (who I hope is reading this post) at the very first Tomodachi con in Derry, on the eternal sub/dub issue, where one fan proudly snubbed the initial speakers saying he was a purist, watching it subtitled, to which Matt Greenfield asked “Do you watch as it airs on Japanese TV, with sponsors’ logos, ad breaks and no English subtitles?” The fan in question was forced to answer in the negative. He did try and defend his position further, saying that subtitling provided for more accurate translations, to which Matt replied “How do you know? Do you speak Japanese?” Again, the fan had to answer in the negative. Matt then explained the technical limitations of both forms of translation, pointing out their pros and cons. It really was a wonderfully educational debate, because for once there was someone participating who could speak with practical authority on the issues – like your good self.

  2. A nice story! I’ve always wondered why publishers went to the trouble of ‘flipping’ the pages at all – it costs time and money, the artwork’s changed and getting used to right-to-left frame layouts isn’t difficult. So I guess ‘preserving the author’s original intent’ is a more recent practice, which is the sensible option which didn’t even occur for the same reasons! Interesting.

    @Hugh: another great anecdote! The subbing issue is a whole multipack of cans of worms, although my dislike for dubs is more to do with the quality of the acting (which can apply to the performances in the original language dialogue too I suppose), or ad-libbing/dubtitles. There are exceptions but generally it feels more natural to hear things in their original language, whatever it may be. As for the accuracy thing, most of us have to take it on faith that what we’re reading is accurate and that we may not even notice if it isn’t. That applies to both DVD and fan-made subs, both of which can range from professional-level to unsynched, typo-riddled travesties. So yeah, it’s always good to read some informed commentary to cut through the fanboying and conjecture. And you have a blog too… *adds to feedreader*

  3. I always find amusing the congecture in some dub/sub debates that a group of students using, at best, rudimentary Japanese will translate more accurately than the hired professional translators that the licenced distributors use.

  4. Sadly, however, I have also seen licenced distributors using people who are little better than the hypothetical amateur committee. Pay peanuts, get monkeys, as Confucius almost said. And don’t get me started on dub versus sub…!

  5. It still surprises me I that as I fan I’m supposed to choose 100% between flipped and unflipped manga, and dubbed and subbed anime. I think really it depends on what’s being translated, and the best way of presenting that show to a non Japanese audience.
    I got some very odd looks from people when I told them I started watching Gilgamesh in German, because I thought it was atmospheric.

  6. It’s all about quality for me. I used to be in the subs only camp, but as I’ve matured I feel that dubbing can be just as effective as portraying the work as subtitles – as long as the actors are good. The same can be said for subtitles, I’ve watched some poorly translated subtitles before in the desperation for a show, to only be told by someone who speaks Japanese that it’s an awful translation.

    With the entire flipping of manga thing, I enjoy manga in either form as in reality it doesn’t have a huge affect on the meaning of the product. Granted respecting the author’s work is always great, but I would rather see flipped manga that’s localised brilliantly than unflipped manga that reads like Google Translator.

  7. I remember finding the Ironfist Chinmi books in the school library in Year 7 (this was in 2000) and it was always so frustrating that they had books 4-7 and nothing else! I hunted high and low for the other volumes but they never showed up. What a blast from the past. Who knew they were such a momentous occasion XD here they are again. Nostalgia!

    On a side note, just when Saiko Exciting was about to air I had a couple of emails with you Mr. Clements! (no, don’t worry about remembering – it’s too embarrassing) It’s nice to know you’ve got a book coming out, you’ve always been so knowledgeable! I’ll make sure I pick up a copy at the end of the month when it’s released. Good luck with the launch!!

  8. I’ve got a theory about the sales for Ironfist Chinmi that I keep on meaning to write about. Volumes three and four were called “Victory for the Spirit” and “Leap of Faith” and seemed to make it into many more bookstores. I’ve always thought that perhaps religious bookshops assumed it was something pious and worthy, and bought it on the basis of the title… then shrugged their shoulders when they realised their mistake and put it on sale anyway. To this day, I still seem to get more royalties from those volumes.

    Phillippa, I’ve got a sort of Chinmi FAQ up here:
    http://www.muramasaindustries.com/children/ironfistchinmi/ironfistchinmi.html

    Azure: I tried to get Kiseki to dub The Cockpit into German for realism’s sake, but in the end, they didn’t dub it at all. Cheapskates.

  9. Most artists of my acquaintance hate flipping. If it’s done by simply mirroring the pages they hate it with particular fervour because they think it shows up errors in their work. One way old-school, non-computer artists check for errors is by holding their work up to a mirror; it stands to reason that if they think that shows up all their little infelicities, they won’t want the work printing that way. Even if it’s done by re-pasting the panels, it still means their work is being seen in different format than the one they made it in. Interviewed for NEO 48, Akemi Takada didn’t like the idea of her work going onto handheld devices because the artist has no control over the way the reader sees the page.

    For most readers the only thing that matters is how well the story and art delivers, so I don’t mind which way a comic runs – but I still prefer to see it as the artist intended.

  10. I’m not a big purist, especially as dubbing has come a long way since the days of M*ng* video’s atrocious dubs, occasionally the Western dubs sound like better performances than the original, and the flow of dialogue works better than subtitles.

    However, even if someone does not speak Japanese, it’s a fairly logical assumption to make to assume that subtitles allow for a more literal and detialed interpretation.

    Dubbing has the additional problem of lip-synching to the character, so if the Japanese dialogue is lengthy in relation to the English translation, the dubbers are going to have to fill in the gaps and vice versa. The dub may have to cut out some translation to ‘keep up’ with the lip-synching – which would have made it into the subtitled version. But of course, literal translation is not necessarily more valid than a more ‘interpreted’ English dub.

    I sometimes watch the sub and dub simultaneously, and you notice how much the dub cuts out.

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