How Manga Was Translated for America.

I have to apologize up front, because those of you who aren’t subscribers won’t be able to read Gabriel Gianordoli and Robert Ito’s NY Times article in the interactive way it’s meant to be read, seeing the original Japanese pages morph into the translated ones and selected areas highlighted; the archived version has only the text. But that text is interesting enough I figure it’s worth passing along:

Open a Japanese comic in a bookstore — say, the latest edition of “Dragon Ball Super” — and you’re likely to find a note saying, “Stop! You’re reading the wrong way.” That’s because manga begins where all Japanese books do: on what, to Western readers, would be the last page. The text then moves right to left. Try reading manga in the Western way and you’re likely to spoil a great ending.

Since manga was first introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s, American companies have wrestled with how to adapt the genre for their readers. It requires taking into account not only art and visual concepts that are unique to Japanese, but also an entirely different system of reading.

Today manga is enormously popular in the U.S. and is published in something close to its original form: in black and white, on inexpensive paper stock, to be read in the Japanese style. But this wasn’t always the case.

The history of manga translation in the U.S. has been one of fits and starts, as publishers grappled with questions about how to present it to fans outside of Japan. When should they cater to American audiences? And when should they be more concerned about being faithful to the Japanese originals?

Striking the right balance is tricky, said Frederik L. Schodt, one of the early translators of manga and the author of “Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics,” a groundbreaking work in the field of manga studies. “Readers in English should be able to enjoy the story without thinking about it being a translation,” he said. “But at the same time, it should be as faithful to the original as possible.” […]

Printing manga in their original Japanese form made production faster and cheaper. Other U.S. publishers soon followed suit, riding a huge wave of manga titles inspired by the anime boom of the late 1990s. To help newcomers navigate their way through the stories, companies continue to place warnings at what American readers would see as the front of their books. […]

Onomatopoeia is another big challenge. The abundance of sound effects in manga are a reflection of the Japanese love for onomatopoeia. The Japanese language has hundreds of onomatopoetic words, even thousands, depending on the dictionary — vastly more than English. Unlike American superhero comics, where sound effects are often limited to explosions (ka-pow) and fistfights (pow), manga series are filled with nearly every possible sound … […]

Onomatopoeia can often be hard to translate, particularly when it refers to sounds that exist as words in Japanese but not English. Like the sound of cream going into coffee or the sound of a guy fanning coals as he cooks eels he fished out of a sewer. There’s even a Japanese sound effect for, of all things, silence: shiin. The type of silence indicated in the story — the hush of a forest, say, or an uncomfortable lapse in conversation — often dictates how shiin is translated. […]

Sometimes, a translation might not be added to the page at all. In a recent deluxe edition of “Akira,” for example, presumably created for the manga superfan, the publisher chose to keep the original sound effects without translation or explanation. Instead, translations were added at the back of the book — a clear choice in favor of authenticity. […]

The ongoing move toward greater authenticity has extended even to the names of the artists. Historically, names of Japanese people have been flipped in Western media — including The New York Times — so that the family name is last. Americans grew up loving Hayao Miyazaki — not Miyazaki Hayao, as he’s known in Japan. For decades, manga publishers in the U.S. followed this tradition.

This fall, Drawn & Quarterly will release “Nejishiki,” their latest collection of works by the celebrated artist Yoshiharu Tsuge. The publisher will follow the traditional Japanese name order for the artist.

That gives you an idea of the issues involved; lots more details, of course, at the link. (My grandsons have been reading manga since they learned to read, so it’s old hat to them, but much of it was new to me.) I wonder how other markets handle such things?



    On january 1st [2020] a minor lexical revolution rolled through Japan. A new decree ordained that official documents should reverse the order of Japanese people’s names when they are rendered in the Latin alphabet. Hitherto in, say, English documents, Japanese names have been written with the given name first, using the Western practice. Henceforth the family name will come first and, to banish any ambiguity, may be entirely capitalised. One backer of the change is the prime minister. From now on The Economist will refer to him as Abe Shinzo rather than Shinzo Abe.

  2. Re name order: Surname is already first when citing Chinese and Korean names. Makes sense that we do it for Japanese names as well.

    I wonder how the Hungarians are feeling about all this?

  3. The German mangas I’ve seen also had a warning not to start at the wrong end and instructions on the customary order to read the panels. Of the two I have read in German, one is by a German author, written in German, so not a translation. But it still seems to adhere to manga conventions wrt sound effects. I just flicked through it and it has flüster “whisper”, wuuusch for the sound a dress makes when brushing the floor, and even Stille “silence”, corresponding to shiin mentioned in the article quoted by LH. It was published in 2006. The other one, published in 2007, is a translation from Japanese; its sound effects are a mixture of German sound effects (again, Stille, but also würg “gag”) and English sound effects (bish, tadaaa, whoosh); I guess a sufficient number of German manga fans were even back then used to reading manga in England that such English sound effects had become a convention. Both mangas take place in Western settings, so the names aren’t Japanese, but the names of the artists and authors cited in the translation from Japanese are in the Western order.
    So the way German mangas handle these issues looks the same how English language mangas handle them; no big surprise, as I guess that the German publishers just followed their example.
    My daughter bought both mangas in a used book sale ca. 2010, before she switched to reading mostly in English, so I don’t have any later German mangas I could compare on how conventions evolved.

  4. John Cowan says

    Instead, translations were added at the back of the book — a clear choice in favor of authenticity.

    I would rather say: lack of authenticity. Is it authentic to translate Japanese headlines
    t l
    h i
    i k
    s e

    Surely not. By the same token, failing to translate is not “authentic translation”.

    I wonder how the Hungarians are feeling about all this?

    First of all, Hungarian names of foreign origin are often given in “Western order” (surname-last), even in Hungarian. Second, Hungarians are used to reordering their names in a non-Hungarian matrix like German or English.

    ObHungarian (not to be confused with Ob-Ugric): the surname Tót is etymologically ‘German’ (Teuton), but is more likely to indicate either a Slovak or a Croatian origin.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    The first translated-into-English comics I ever read as a boy were the adventures of Asterix and his fellow Gauls, which I probably first encountered while living in Tokyo back in the Seventies. If memory serves (which is a non-trivial “if”), the “dialogue” had all been translated but the onomatopoeic sound effects had generally been left intact in their French spellings – presumably because they were often located at any of many random locations within the frame whereas the dialogue was in a limited number of boxes/bubbles that were more technically easy to just white-out and overwrite with English. Obviously French ideas about what things sounded like were less weird/distracting to an Anglophone audience than sound effects written out in kana might be.

  6. Second, Hungarians are used to reordering their names in a non-Hungarian matrix like German or English.

    So are Japanese; I’m not sure how that’s relevant. The point is that they’d presumably prefer not to have to do so.

  7. I am not a particular fan of manga (or of anime, or Korean manhwa), but it was inevitable that I picked up a lot of information about it when I was at MIT in the 1990s. (My daughter suggested I knew hardly anything about East Asian comics, but I assured her that I could rattle off fifty manga titles without even having to pause and think. She didn’t believe I could. She was wrong.) The only manga I have made a point to follow is Delicious in Dungeon. It’s one of many manga about characters in a JRPG (Japanese[-style] role-playing game) environment, but it is much more about the logistics of dungeoneering than the combat. The characters start off broke, so they have to subsist on food they find in the dungeon, This leads to some interesting discussions of dungeon ecology and reinterpretations of monsters. Animated armors are actually the shells of mollusks.* Mimics are giant hermit crabs living in chests. You can harvest fire traps for cooking oil. A magical shield makes an extremely durable cooking pan. What the characters cook is, as fits the genre, an eclectic mixture of Eastern and Western dishes, and the American translations provide explanations of the foods, weird sound effects, and other cultural references in an appendix to each issue.

    @Hans: I’m afraid bish is not actually an English sound effect. in fact, tadaaa isn’t really either; it’s something you say when revealing something.

    * In the 1980s, Dragon ran a series of “The Ecology of the…” articles about iconic Dungeons & Dragons monsters. They were a mixed bag, written by various freelance contributors; one posited that the catoblepas was a giant kangaroo with poisonous breath. However, the very first one which opened the series was a masterpiece. “The Ecology of the Piercer” discussed monsters that resemble stalactites and drop down to impale unwary adventurers passing through caverns. The article made the claim, obviously correct in retrospect, that they were actually massive terrestrial limpets.

  8. “fifty titles”

    That’s serious. Usually when i’m a particular fan of a genre I still can’t name fifty.

  9. Yeah, I’m afraid “not a particular fan of manga” is a piece of self-deception on a par with “I hardly ever touch the stuff.”

  10. Stu Clayton says

    Funes el memorioso could rattle off lists of things without being the least interested in them. Perhaps he would have been happier if he had acquired interests, so that he could ignore what didn’t interest him. And/or, as Borges suggests, if he had learned to think.

    Había aprendido sin esfuerzo el inglés, el francés, el portugués, el latín. Sospecho,
    sin embargo, que no era muy capaz de pensar. Pensar es olvidar diferencias, es
    generalizar, abstraer. En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no había sino detalles, casi


    Generalizations are hot stuff. They allow you to dismiss anything by saying “oh, that’s just an instance of X”. Or tout anything by saying “wow, that’s an instance of Y!”

    “Let the earth tremble”, as a character in a comic once said.

  11. No, the vast majority of them are just names of things I have never read. I have a rough idea of what Dragonball, Akira, or Appleseed is about and have seen images from the manga and associated anime. But Snow White with the Red Hair, My Hero Academia:, Death Note, Chrono Crusade? They are just names I have seen on TV Tropes or Stack Exchange. Apart from the names, they (and several dozen others) are complete unknowns.

  12. David Marjanović says

    American superhero comics, where sound effects are often limited to explosions (ka-pow) and fistfights (pow)

    Thunderstorms with a visible Batsignal make KRAKOOM.

    würg “gag”

    This, a verb root used as a sound effect, is known as the Erikativ after Dr. Erika Fuchs, the overrated translator of Barks’s Disney comics.

    the onomatopoeic sound effects had generally been left intact in their French spellings

    They all got translated into German (and printed instead of handwritten). But in the works of the late great Ibáñez the Greatest, they were left alone, except that the ¡ was usually painted over – in the ones that were actually in Spanish; many were in English or French and didn’t have one to begin with.

    This could have been a deliberate decision rather than just laziness. For example, a draisine that urgently needs to be oiled makes ÑIGO ÑIGO ÑIGO ÑIGO. This is perfect. It doesn’t work without the ñ or the g, and there goes German. Or… someone walking up to you, beating you to a pulp in five seconds and leaving makes PAF BOM TUNDA TUNDA CRAFT. You can’t use Kraft as a sound effect in German, because it’s an ordinary word meaning “force ~ power”. Resorting to Krach would suggest just any loud noise, or at best the sound of breaking wood, so that wouldn’t work either.

  13. This, a verb root used as a sound effect, is known as the Erikativ after Dr. Erika Fuchs

    Is that unusual for German?

    I already mentioned this class of words in Russian (and called them “cartoon captions”, but that was my term).

  14. You really want cartoon sound effects? Really? Really? Really really?

    (Spladap is my favorite.)

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    I think you skeptics need to grade Brett on a curve. He’s telling you that he was not-into-manga compared to relevant comparators in his (totally weird by any objective metric) then-relevant peer group, and I think you should take that claim at face value absent contrary evidence.

    Me, I actually lived in Japan as a kid and used to watch stuff like contemporaneously on tv. So when I tell you I don’t personally/subjectively care about manga/anime/blah-blah-blah, you should believe me!

  16. John Cowan says

    Japanese names are only reordered after being transliterated: Hungarian names don’t need transliteration. Hungarian is head-last (adjective-noun), and all native surnames are adjectives.

  17. I “Really really” presume and hope GASHKLITZ is /gəˈʃklɪts/ rather than /ˈgæʃˌklɪts/

  18. Certainly it is /gəˈʃklɪts/. That is, plainly, the exact sound made by squirting boutonnières.

    Anyway, /ʃklɪts/ is. The velar prologue (see also Kaboom, Kapow, Kerplunk) is necessary, though poorly understood. Many dissertations will be written about it.

  19. ktschwarz says

    John Cowan: Hungarian is head-last (adjective-noun), and all native surnames are adjectives.

    No. Some of the most common Hungarian family names are occupations, such as Kovács (smith), Szabó (tailor), Takács (weaver). I’m still a beginner at the language, but I’ve seen absolutely no indication that Hungarians consider their family names to act as adjectives. This is culture, not grammar; I’ll bet there are examples of languages with any preferred word order for any preferred name order.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    If you go far back enough into history, surnames in English and I suppose many other European cultures were modifiers, even if not “adjectival” in a syntactic sense. You had multiple blokes named “William” in the village, so you disambiguated them as “William the Smith” or “William, who’s John’s son” etc. But time moves on and culture shifts, so as between “Johnson” being the answer to “which William?” and “William” being the answer to “which Johnson?” I’m not sure which is now the more dominant conceptualization in Anglophone societies. And it might be different in different contexts, of course.

  21. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Ekenames are, almost by their nature, rarely inherited. In most European cultures, only the nobility had names that recalled their descent from a feoffed ancestor (or a from a petty king in his own right, I suppose). Hoi polloi made do with ekenames and patronymics which were rarely stable between generations. (But Lars Smed might not be a smith himself, sometimes the smith was his grandfather if Lars hadn’t fucked any ladies’ navels or otherwise made a name for himself).

    So were those surnames in the modern sense, invented by bureaucrats in the 18th? I’m taking issue with the “surnames were” part, I’d argue that before that, surnames were not a thing at all for the majority. (And that dynastic names from an ancestor’s shield charge only marginally count). Or at least the word didn’t mean the same thing.

  22. David Marjanović says

    In Classical Viennese, surnames were prefixes! This even worked the other way around when der Ostbahn-Kurti styled himself Dr. Kurt Ostbahn.

    …and then Dr. a. D. Kurt Ostbahn, because titles are taken so seriously in Austria he figured he couldn’t claim one for even his character. a. D. = außer Dienst, literally “out of service”, factually “(ret.)”. Things out of service are außer Betrieb.

    Is that unusual for German?

    Not anymore! But apparently Fuchs invented it.

    You really want cartoon sound effects? Really? Really? Really really?

    Oh – yeah, those were left alone in what seems to be the German translation, too. (Never read it; only saw ads for it in Ibáñez comics.)

  23. John Cowan says

    Some of the most common Hungarian family names are occupations.

    Sure. My sources were Hungarians but not grammarians. One pointed out that Peter Smith (or equivalent) in most European languages is historically Peter the smith (or equivalent), but the definite article is a comparative novelty in Hungarian (its form did not stabilize until the 20C), and it was more natural to say Kovács Péter ‘smith Peter’, just as with actual adjectives. What is more, Hungarian dates and addresses are big-endian as well.

  24. Adding to what DM said about Viennese, Surname Firstname is the traditional order in Bavarian.
    I’m afraid bish is not actually an English sound effect. in fact, tadaaa isn’t really either; it’s something you say when revealing something.
    Well, in any case “bish” is not a German sound effect either, so maybe it’s the rendering of something Japanese?
    As for “tadaa”, I always thought it was the imitation of a fanfare / flourish, which I would count under sound effect.

  25. Last-First is the formal order when addressing subordinates in the Israeli military, I believe (maybe someone with personal experience would correct me.) Is this true for other militaries or other such rigid bureaucratic institutions?

  26. John Cowan says

    Only if disambiguation is needed, otherwise it’s just Surname. There’s a Russian anecdote somewhere around here about two brothers or cousins, one of whose name/patronymic initials are R. Yu., which he interprets as “Are you?” I can’t find it, of course.

  27. Last-First is also the usual order on lists, so during counts you get things like “Müller, Paul?” – “Hier!”, “Müller, Peter?” – “Hier!”, etc.

  28. “Müllerin, Schöne?” – “Ich weiss nicht, wie mir wurde!”

  29. As Hans said (in school).

    And in various forms:

    Иванов Иван Валериевич
    date of birth

    FIO is familija imja otchestvo, surname name patronimic

  30. J.W. Brewer : I get where Brett is coming from — I’m not into anime compared to other people I know. I’ve watched the classics like Akira (on VHS), Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Serial Experiments Lain (downloaded painstakingly by FTP); but, for example Fullmetal Alchemist I only know the name of — no idea what it’s about, just a name of a franchise.

  31. I think the protagonist of Fullmetal Alchemist is named Edward Elric, because I saw that name somewhere and was interested enough to check what work it was from. And that’s the end of my knowledge.

  32. /gəˈʃklɪts/ […] The velar prologue (see also Kaboom, Kapow, Kerplunk)

    as the transcribed example makes clear, it’s just the yiddish past-participle marker – with some devoicing for some reason that i leave to better phonologists to explain, and the occasional intrusive R. the only mystery is the absence of the usual /-t/ ending that accompanies /gə-/. a sort of Erikativ approach to onomatopeia, if you will.

  33. Ker- starts too early to be due to Yiddish.

    Don Martin could well have Yiddish gǝ- in mind, though. He wasn’t Jewish, I think, but Yiddish was then pretty much thee language of humor, especially at Mad.

  34. John Cowan says

    There’s no real evidence, but his vanity license plate did read “SHTOINK”.

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