A Thorn in Their Sides

It’s all been very quiet for a while over at Matt Thorn’s blog. Despite its presence in the links section at right, I’d given up checking to see if he’d done anything new. Then I’ve been busy for the last few months on a new book project and I simply haven’t had the time. Which is why I am late to the party over at his site about this article, in which Thorn puts the boot repeatedly into what passes for translation in the manga field.

This is, of course, a subject close to my heart, and I agree with everything he says. Those lucky individuals who already own a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis will have already read the transcript of a lecture I gave on translation at the University of East Anglia, in which I approach many of the same issues, but with regard to the anime business. But I was speaking to an audience at the Department of Literary Translation, so I was able to ignore many of the basic issues. I was, in effect, already talking to professionals. Thorn’s frustration is born of the boggling number of *amateurs* in the manga field, who do not understand the basic principles of translation.

I’ll add no more to Thorn’s thoughts except to cut and paste an email I sent to him a couple of years ago, when we were bitching about this among ourselves:

“Last month I was offered a manga translation job for the first time in years. Apparently it required “special talents” (read: someone had to open a dictionary) and was expected to win awards and suchlike. I had apparently been on the slate for this one for three years, and now it was my Big Chance to earn what I estimated as $33 a day.

“The guy was very upfront. He showed me his sales projections and his budgets, and demonstrated that that was all he could afford to pay me. Yes, I said, but you are asking me to make your bad business decisions *my* problem. This is a one-month job, if I do it right. I will not rush it in a week just so that the money doesn’t feel like I am working at McDonalds.”

I find this topic interesting largely because it comes so fast on the heels of my comments about the continued success of Ironfist Chinmi. The money I was being offered for this project was roughly a third of what I was offered for Chinmi, and I am not sure there was any royalty element either. When I did Chinmi, I was 24-year-old graduate student and so, arguably, still young and stupid. But some modern entrants into the manga translation field are expected to accept fees that are only at 30% of 1995 rates. Are we surprised that even the good ones are over-worked, harassed and otherwise distracted?

Pay peanuts, get monkeys, as Confucius almost said.

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12 thoughts on “A Thorn in Their Sides

  1. Fascinating original piece from Thorn, and a useful reminder of the need to maintain professionalism and pride in the face of slave-drivers with tin ears and coked-out eyes. Would that those of us not able to read and speak Japanese could enjoy translated works in English well enough to appreciate their original worth – but as you say, we are forced to settle, and pay for it.

  2. Indeed. There’s one work available in English, which I shall not name, which both I and Toren Smith pushed like crazy to get translated. Quite independently of each other, we both offered to translate the first chapter for free so that our publishers could see how good it was (neither of us knew about this till years later). But it went to a different company, which absolutely pissed it away. In English, it does not have a fraction of the originality and intensity it had in Japanese. Does anyone notice…? Does anyone even care…?

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  4. Is there not a big risk that in translating and contextualising, the translator may impress their ideas into the work in progress and change the meaning?

    Say, anyone care to translate “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” into Japanese… I’ll get me coat ¬.¬

  5. Paul, professional translators are taught how to avoid just such pitfalls. It’s part of Thorn’s point. Many modern translators are being forced to “contextualise” by being made to behave as if the readership solely comprises 13-year-olds who want half the Japanese words left in to make themselves feel cool.

    A translator, on seeing your thrown gauntlet, would first note that you have misquoted my original phrase. You’ve added pronouns, which represent an element of what we call “semantic drift”.

    Since I flippantly suggested it might be a Confucian aphorism, a professional would (I hope) have noticed that I said it all in four words, which is the number of beats you would normally expect to see in a Chinese proverb, even when translated into Japanese.

    S/he would also consider avoiding all kana, and thereby render it in all kanji, as a four-character phrase designed to recall the way that Confucius looks in Japanese.

    Aha, but no regular modern Japanese word for “peanuts” fits into a single character. How about “nuts” on its own? Can we find a kanji that means get or receive in both Chinese and Japanese, and will hence be understandable to both the readers of your putative Japanese target market, but also to any Chinese who would otherwise call it a bad translation and whine about it on the interwebs…? Do we mind that both “nuts” and “monkeys” will be readable as singular, rather than plural nouns if we go for this option?

    Such conniptions, I hasten to add, about JUST FOUR WORDS. Likely to comprise, in the manga world, the contents of a single speech balloon. Pretty much all of this might be expected to fly over the head of the average reader, but it’s what translators DO, twenty times a page.

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  7. “There’s one work available in English, which I shall not name…” -Was its name ‘Schoolgirl Milky Crisis’ perchance? Or ‘Geek Gets Girls’?

  8. Sadly, fans have actually come to prefer the lumpen, half-translated fantrans work. I spoke to a translator last year who had been told by his new editor “not to polish it up so much.”
    The fans truly don’t realize how much they are missing in terms of getting the most out of the story, getting to experience things the way the author wanted the original audience to experience them. This sometimes (often) means the translation can vary (when compared on a word-by-word basis) to the original language used. But it’s hard for fans to grasp why this needs to be so and why it’s the right thing to do.
    When new translators ask me for advice I tell them: “Know the story; know the characters. The rest is details.” I can and will happily extend this answer, but they’d better grab a beer, sit down, and get comfortable.

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