May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 20
The greatest challenge you will face as a manga translator is the sound of silence. I mean that literally. When it comes to silence, Japanese has a specific sound effect for it. English doesn’t. When a Japanese character walks into a room and is encountered with “sheeeen,” readers know the room is deadly silent. When a Japanese comedian tells a joke and it falls flat, the comedian is confronted with the horrifying sound of “sheen”—the sound of silence. English has no equivalent. It is untranslatable.
And while the sound of silence may be your greatest challenge, every single page of a comic book presents an equal challenge. As a language, Japanese abounds in onomatopoeia. Rain does not just fall; it pours (“zaaaa”) or lightly trickles (“shito shito.”). A superhero can get a light smack (“dogo”) or an explosive punch (“dokan.”) None of these terms have English equivalents. And then there are spaceships… and gravity sabers… and Godzilla roars…
Translators—and companies—handle these in different ways. Some choose to replicate the original Japanese, which means you have bombs going “do-kan” instead of “ka-boom.” I’m not personally a fan of this approach, as I feel sound effects have as much emotive impact as the text. An English reader is simply not going to react to “gaji gaji” the same way he or she would react to “nom nom” or “crunch crunch.” To me, directly transcribing them from Japanese is the lazy way out—and as a translator, I always refuse to do that.
My first job as a manga translator was the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s epic Showa: A History of Japan, a nonfiction memoir of the artist’s experiences in WWII. I had to come up with a catalog of sounds to accentuate the text, so I assigned each type of weapon a specific sound effect. Some were easy: for instance, machine guns go “budda budda budda.” Some were more complicated, like battleship cannon fire: “don don don.” Fighter guns went “ba ba ba ba.” Each gun needed to be a signature, as there were many times that only the specific sound effect indicated what type of shelling was going on.
My follow-up to Showa, Shigeru Mizuki’s folklore yokai comic Kitaro, brought other challenges. What is the sound of an eyeball that slips out of a putrefying corpse? (“schlorp.”) Then for Satoshi Kon’s Opus, I needed the sound of reality itself being rent (“kraaakkk.”) When I translated Leiji Matsumoto’s epic space operas, each classic ship required its own signature sound. Readers needed to know if the Queen Emeraldas was passing by (“wirrrrr”) or the mighty Arcadia (“thrrooomm.”) And those are the big, dramatic sounds. For every page there are Foley effects, from the rapping of soldiers on parade (“tap tap tap”) to combat boots on the run (“tmp tmp tmp.”)
Nothing that you study in school really prepares you to handle these translations. They don’t show up on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I have a masters degree in Japanese, and we never studied the translation of a single sound effect. Fortunately, a lifetime as a comic reader has given me a vast head-catalog of comic book sound effects. I know what Spider-man’s webs sound like (“thwip”) and the unleashing of Wolverine’s claws (“snikt”). I do what research I can and have hunted YouTube for videos of what the sound of a fish smacking on a sushi counter sounds like (“shwap”) or a bullet impacting a brick wall (“peck peck.”)
And of course, every now and then a comic will give you a gift and you get to pull out a “boom-shakka-thooom.” That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Oh, and my own personal answer to the dreaded sound of silence? Three dots in a row “…”
Now, how would you translate the untranslatable?
Tomorrow: Chin Music Press Publisher Bruce Rutledge
Zack Davisson is an award-winning translator, writer, and folklorist. He is the author of Yurei: the Japanese Ghost, Kaibyo: the Supernatural Cats of Japan, and the forthcoming Yokai Stories. He is translator and curator of Mizuki Shigeru’s iconic Kitaro, among many other classic manga series. As a manga translator, Davisson was nominated for the 2014 Japanese-US Friendship Commission Translation Prize for his translation of the multiple Eisner Award winning Showa: A History of Japan.
David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.
And in case you missed it…
May 1: Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2: Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3: Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s compassionate imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese literature as world literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)
May 20: Selected Japanese picture books by Andrew Wong (Japan-in-Translation, No. 18)
May 21: Murakami translator Jay Rubin (Japan-in-Translation, No. 19)