Lost in Translation

I’ll admit it, I’ve read manga off questionable websites and phone apps before.  In my early days of anime fandom I would use lawn mowing money to pay for manga that was out, but as the internet gained traction I began to discover manga that never made it to the west.  It was a revolution for those of us who were marginalized by Japan (especially in those countries that get absolutely no manga), and it was SUPER convenient to boot.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that fan translators paved the way for people like me to dive farther into anime/manga in the 2000’s.

My first manga, and still my favorite!

These days Japan is slowly but surely giving us what we’ve always asked for (at least in the US, sorry parts Europe).  Japanese production and publishing companies are either selling properties to western ones, or creating western satellite companies to distribute their intellectual properties in the west.  Due to this development I have gone legit in my viewing and reading of Japanese material, but after experiencing both I can’t help but think that a lot of the times the fan subs and translations are sometimes better.  This is something that has been in the back of my mind for a while, but a recent purchase brought it to the forefront of my thoughts.

During the recent madness in my country (Black Friday/Cyber Monday) I acquired all the available volumes of Monster Musume for a relatively cheap price.  This is a title that I read regularly on morally questionable websites, so I was already familiar with the story.  When they arrived on Tuesday, I was somewhat disappointed in the translation quality of the manga.  It seems to over use puns and humor based on western culture to cover up most the dialogue that was intrinsically Japanese.  It makes sense for the publishers to do this in order to market this to the largest possible western audience, but I can’t help but feel that something is lost in this kind of change.

She calls him “boss” instead of “husband” which I found a little odd.

In most fan translations of manga you are given brief glimpses into Japanese culture and language.  I’m not saying that you will become fluent in Japanese or a cultural savant by reading them, but it at least allows you to understand the author a bit more.  Little things like adding honorifics into the speech of the characters or keeping Japanese pop culture references go a long way for cross cultural understanding in manga.  If you truly want to make the media accessible to all westerners you have only to add asterisks to cultural references that lead to annotations on the page explaining the reference.  This is something that fan translation sites have been doing for years.

Cultural annotations are the best.

Not every Japanese promoted manga is changed to the extreme degrees that Monster Musume was though.  An excellent example of a manga that was adapted better in it’s official release than in fan translation was “Yotsuba&!”.  A few months ago I picked up this iconic manga through the Kindle app on my phone.  Instantly I was impressed by the translation quality, especially in the way that Yotsuba’s lines come out like a real little girls speech would sound.  There are also decent annotations of the on the references to Japanese pop culture throughout the series.  It’s probably the best official manga release to the west that I’ve ever seen.

Seriously, Yotsuba is the best.

Now this may just be a comfort zone issue in myself and a few other fans.  After all when you read something one way, and then you read it in another the new wording will feel wrong to you.  I have to believe that this is an issue that is affecting more than a bare handful of the community though.  There are too many fans of subbed anime, and authenticity in manga for this to be a problem with a minority of fans.  After watching anime and reading manga for so long you get used to subtleties in the speech of characters, and to have that rug pulled out for the subtleties of western speech is very jarring.  Those that haven’t been reading manga for years miss out on a wealth cultural humor that comes from these stories being told in the original way (or as close to the original as English can get).

I love how the sound effect gets a subtitle.

It is these small insights into Japanese culture have been very educational for me.  Growing up in the states the most Japanese culture we are introduced to is the horrors committed by and to the Japanese in World War 2.  Entertainment media helps us bridge cultural gaps slowly but surely.  I’m sure this is just as true for Japanese people watching western films or animation.  Were they to change the American cultural references in our entertainment media it would probably break the immersion for them as well.  I mean imagine a Japanese person watching or reading “Die Hard” and 20th Century Fox replaced the line “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” with “Jiyū banzai”.

I wouldn’t be opposed to an actual manga version of Die Hard.

Learning and understanding cultural differences is not only fascinating, but it helps us to understand one another in a world that is getting increasingly smaller as humanity expands.  Anime and manga are certainly not going to teach us all the intricacies of Japan’s culture, but it is in the small windows that they provide that curiosity is is formed.  If everything that comes to us is completely westernized it detracts from the potential of cultural curiosity, and honestly it sets a bad precedent to other companies about the average intelligence in western audiences.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility to think that small changes for western audiences could have a snowball effect, leading eventually to large scale storyline changes for western audiences.  Look at Sailor Moon, character names and relationships were completely different for the sake of western sensibilities.

Yeah they’re “cousins”, okay.

Changing media for the purpose of selling to a larger audience isn’t always the best idea.  Sure you might sell slightly more of your product, but in most cases it won’t garner the same amount of interest that a relatively untouched product will.  It’s not the biggest problem facing the anime/manga industry, but it’s one of the oldest problems in the industry in the west.  Some might argue that it would be easier for anime/manga companies to simply employ fan translators, but I won’t comment on that as I don’t know what the logistics of such a move would be.  It might end up being terribly expensive to employ those people, and on top of that you have to ask then to take down their pirated content.  Whether or not Japan addresses this problem for us is to be seen, so for now I suppose we should just be thankful that the media is available to us through legit channels.  Still it is most certainly an issue that we as fans should have in the back of our minds.


Arigatō my fellow BrOtaku!




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About the author


A gamer, otaku, and booze enthusiast. I pursue writing for the love of my interests, and the joy of sharing them with others. I am currently studying Journalism at my local community college.

Readers Comments (5)

  1. I may be wrong here (but probably not because I rule), but I think most of the people who read manga WANT the translations to include the Japanese word-play and puns with a brief explanation of it as a tidbit of Japanese culture they can learn about.

    • You’re not wrong, the vast majority of anime and manga fandom want their Japanese cultural references. I can understand wanting to market to the largest possible audience to include potential newcomers, but I think a simple disclaimer after the cover page would help clear up any misunderstandings. I mean if you’re new to manga you’re in for a shock your first time anyway with the reading format being right to left anyway.

  2. This used to be much worse, and I think that in the beginning it was just the result of ignorance. I remember when shows like One Piece, and Card Captor Sakura were basically ruined by the localization.

    I’m really surprised that this is still an issue in manga though, because I thought at this point companies realized that by doing this they are annoying and potentially completely driving away 99% of their market. I cant imagine you will find a single person who is into something like Monster Musume, that would want it “westernized”.

    But maybe I’m the one who’s confused, and the new generation of fan prefers the stuff butchered. :/

    • I think it’s less about them trying to retain the already captive audience and more about trying to appeal to a broader demographic. Thinking about it that way gives the strategy some credibility.*

      I also just thought of this as an aside: anime/manga creators already Westernize their work to some degree. They pick up on bits and pieces of Western culture and adapt them to their work. Just look at all the German names (I’m looking at you, every one of Rin Tohsaka’s spells), or all the big-boobed blondes (Kashiwazaki Sena), or even a whole show about girls from England living in Japan (Kiniro Mosaic).

      *I do not claim that it is a good idea, especially in cases of ecchi works or outright hentai.

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