Cultural Honesty and the Fan Translation

Jenna Crawford

One of the most ignored forms of translation – but one of the most interesting – is the translation of Japanese comics. This is a process that I am relatively new to; as complicated as a fan translation can be, it’s an activity done out of passion. For me, my translating field involves older comics by the esteemed cartoonist Osamu Tezuka; he was extraordinarily prolific, but has been known mostly as the creator of Astro Boy. Currently, my ongoing project is Say Hello to Bookilla, known in its original language as Bukkira ni Yoroshiku.

crawfordj1The titular Bookilla is a yokai, or supernatural being, living in a TV station alongside a teenage actress. With the rise of Japanese mythology in English media, I leave “yokai” untranslated, as it’s such a specific creature. This is an obscure but short series of nine chapters, originally published throughout 1985. It’s easy nowadays to translate something like this so long as one has unedited, or “raw”, comic scans. This ease was definitely not the case in past decades.

In the 1980s, Japanese comics were translated mostly by hand. Comics from Japan are read and drawn right-to-left, so these pages were photocopied with a horizontal flip. From here, the original text would be covered with white paper, and the English translated text would be handwritten in. This translation format can be witnessed in the English version of Kazuya Kudo’s Mai the Psychic Girl.

This was a lengthy process for something considered a fad and a gamble. As a result, publishers were extremely selective of the titles they localized. From here, some readers would make up for the content they couldn’t yet get. The earliest and easiest form of fan translations were panel-by-panel dialogue translations. These were compiled in .txt files and released online, so others could read them along with a physical copy of the comic. This had limited accessibility, as a reader had to have reliable internet access, knowledge of the exact Usenets or IRC clients to use, and physical copies of books they couldn’t read.

In the modern era, homemade translations are far easier to produce. Scanners are now more affordable and accurate in quality, closing the gap between translated text and images. Translating a comic can be done with little more than computer access, a scanner, and image editing software. This is most often called a “scanlation,” a portmanteau of “scan” and “translation.”

Say Hello to Bookilla’s title was not my own translation; it was something that had floated around for over a decade before my translation. The original title, Bukkira ni Yoroshiku, literally means “Nice to Meet Bookilla”, which is too chunky in English. The series mostly takes place around a TV station, and as a result, a lot of Japanese TV culture is worked into it. The original title is written the same way a TV show host would introduce a guest, which had to be evoked with the adopted English title. Bookilla’s name is written in katakana, a letter case used for foreign words, and often a translator has to interpret katakana words if they don’t already exist. The main clue was on the cover of the second volume:


On this, we see the semi-obscured text “BOOKILLA DERBY”. Osamu Tezuka was bilingual at this point in time and had chosen this specific spelling. I followed it, of course, as this was how the series creator himself wanted it to be.


Image: (c) Jenna Crawford.

One of the most important aspects of translating is to not stray too far from the original text. The goal is to make as close a translation as possible, but with text that sounds natural in the language you’re translating it to. Very literal translations can be awkward and stilted, and very loose translations may change entire characterizations and stories. Bookilla has a very story-based narrative, and extensive detail must be paid when cultural or scientific details come up in the text. In hopes of leaving Japanese culture unaltered, I leave short but detailed footnotes between the panel borders.

This dedication to an honest translation makes it difficult when one has to handle a reference or idiom that just doesn’t work in English. One of the most difficult things to approach is a scene early on in chapter 1, where an angry TV studio employee begins yelling out a lengthy curse, which works into a pun that involves him yelling various vegetable names in Japanese. This was something I had to leave and let sit until I could make a proper substitute in English.


Image: Osamu Tezuka, Bukkira ni Yoroshiku. Tokyo: Tezuka Productions, 1985.


Image: (c) Jenna Crawford.

The idea of a winding curse that loses track of itself led me to the idea on the right. Tezuka’s intent in Japanese was for something oddball that flowed properly and made sense to its audience, and this was something I tried to duplicate.

Puns are incredibly difficult to handle in Japanese without completely changing the context. Puns are also very popular in Japanese humour, so one can expect to have to wrangle one. One such instance of this was also the only time I changed a character’s name. This was regarding a character called “Zazaputon,” an enchanted pillow. His name was a portmanteau of an ominous noise and an alteration of zabuto, the word for “cushion.” I changed it to “Kukushion,” combining “cushion” and the popular “kukuku” laugh present in many Japanese comics. It was still a pun, but brought into English as best as context could allow.

At this point, I have completed five out of the nine chapters, and it has been a pretty fair success so far. As it usually goes, a fan doesn’t translate comics for fame, they do it to make the comics more accessible. It’s an unpaid hobby done out of admiration for the work or its creator. As well, something like this works very well as an exercise in ability. While it might be far off, I hope something like this can bring me towards a true career as a translator.

Works Referenced

Kudo, Kazuya. Mai the Psychic Girl. Illus. Ryoichi Ikegami. 4 vols. San Fransisco: Viz Communications.

Tezuka, Osamu. Bukkira ni Yoroshiku. 2 vols. Tokyo: Tezuka Productions, 1985. Print.

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