Note: I wrote this a long time ago and it's sat around. I was inspired by a handful of twitter discussions the awesome Deb Aoki kept curating about different adaptation choices. Since then, a few things have popped up here and there, the most thorough of which is probably Zack Davisson's piece for TCJ. Thanks to all of the busy folks who took time out of their schedules to answer all of my questions, and thanks to Alexander Lu for comments on an early draft of what follows. Thanks also to my seven lovely children, all of whom were born and moved out of the house in the time this sat on my hard drive. Just kidding. Seriously though.
Translation is a delicate process. Part of capturing the spirit of the original text involves a translator doing his or her best to find ways to deploy the idiosyncrasies of the original text in a new language. When translating manga from Japanese to English, this can involve toying with honorifics (“Tanagawa-sensei” will often be changed to “Mr. Tanagawa,” with other honorifics often being dropped altogether), changing rhyming dialogue so that it rhymes in English, and altering entire jokes that simply don’t make sense outside of a Japanese cultural context. When translating sound effects (SFX), the editorial team responsible for the English adaptation, on top of finding analogous onomatopoeias, is tasked with making sure the visual aesthetic is itself a reliable transfer of the original, since SFX translation involves the alteration of the original artwork. The task of Japanese-to-English SFX translation presents a somewhat unique convergence of traditional translation difficulties and aesthetic considerations.
Manga produced in English have their dialogue translated from Japanese into (gasp!) English, but publishers of English-language manga diverge on their approach to translating the Japanese SFX (the majority of what Viz puts out is fully translated, whereas Dark Horse is more of a mixed bag, for instance). If you pick up an issue of Viz Media’s Weekly Shonen Jump, you will see all of the new, simultaneously published chapters contain the original Japanese SFX captioned gingerly within the panel with the English onomatopoetic equivalent. Later, if you pick up a collected Viz graphic novel (or “tankobon”) edition of the same story, the Japanese SFX will be completely replaced by new English lettering. At Dark Horse, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service volumes maintain the integrity of the original Japanese SFX with no captions at all. They also include a glossary in the back matter with translations and a sizable chunk of cultural context.
Roughly speaking, then, there are three distinct approaches to presenting Japanese SFX to an English audience: captioning them with English equivalents, re-lettering them entirely into English, and leaving them alone with no addition. Each of these has slight variations (there are multiple ways to caption, for instance), but each more-or-less occupies a distinct spot on a continuum of artistic, narrative, and editorial decisions.
The main reason a publisher might leave the Japanese SFX un-translated (with captions or without) is that it preserves the mangaka’s original work as they intended it to be read. Some readers may find this unnecessary: if you’re changing what’s in the speech bubbles, why not go all the way and alter the SFX as well? But if you consider the SFX work done by a particularly expressive mangaka—say, Bleach’s Tite Kubo—it’s easy to see why his SFX might be worth keeping.
In this spread from Bleach 634, Bazz-B sends “Burning Full Fingers” flying at Haschwalth (not seen), and Kubo’s SFX appear to be flying along. “Sometimes the Japanese SFX are as dynamic as the art itself,” says Alexis Kirsch, current editor of Bleach’s English language releases, “and there is concern that something could be lost by replacing them. Bleach is one of those series.” You can see why Kirsch says this: Kubo’s choice of “ゴ” (sounds like “GO”) is not just an onomatopoetic choice: it’s an aesthetic one. Just look at how dramatically the symbol (the katakana character for “ko” and the quotation mark called a “dakuten” which changes the “k” sound to a “g” sound) reaches out across the page in tandem with Bazz-B’s attack.
Roman characters appear garish by comparison. No combination of English letters on this page, when it is ultimately re-lettered, will mesh quite as well with the art as Kubo’s original lettering choice. Some readers are likely to think that doing anything more than captioning Kubo’s art as is done here (notice the tiny “VWOOSH” below the original SFX) is thus altering the original material to an unacceptable level.
Carl Horn, manga editor at Dark Horse, thinks that what it means to be true to the original material is itself up for debate.
“Suppose a manga panel has a scene with roaring flames,” Horn asks us to imagine, “and the manga creator decides to put in an FX like ‘ゴオオオオオオ.’ Consider the perspective of the original Japanese reader: are they really seeing, as we are here, the ‘Japanese way to write’ a roar and hearing in their head the ‘Japanese sound of’ a roar?”
As Horn aptly puts it, “authenticity has many faces,” and the cognitive element of how we cannot help but experience foreign symbols as native English speakers is one that cannot be discounted when discussing our experience of a particular manga.
Returning to the Bleach example, though roman characters will seem garish to many when the page is re-lettered in comparison to the elegant kana character that is already there, that kana character (or any other) might very well appear garish to a native Japanese speaker. In that case, re-lettering into English actually preserves that part of the experience as Kubo intended, despite the loss of the particular artistic choice made specifically for a Japanese audience.
So why caption and then re-letter into English later, as Viz does? Simple: time.
“With the weekly schedule,” says Kirsch, “we just don’t have time to retouch pages for the digital magazine. With the graphic novels, we have the time to replace all the SFX with the English versions.”
Not all the considerations here are linguistic or aesthetic ones, as you can see. Even when the question arises as to why you might want to leave the original Japanese SFX intact, there can be pragmatic reasons to do so independent of the art. For instance, according to Horn, a condition of Dark Horse licensing Neon Genesis Evangelion in the late 90’s was that when published in English, it would read right-to-left, and that there would be no retouches to the SFX.
The mangaka who draws The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Housui Yamazaki, has a way of being almost pedantic with his SFX. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Just consider the above panels. A trip to Kurosagi’s SFX glossary informs us that the sound occurring in the lower-left panel is “ZABABABA” and that this noise represents Kuro pulling himself out of the water. In contrast to the dramatic SFX of the rushing water in the right hand panel, these SFX are pulling weird expositional double-duty.
It’s really not uncommon in manga for there to be SFX that, when abstracted and compared to how we treat SFX in the west, seem silly. Often you’ll see things like “TMP TMP TMP TMP” as characters run. In a western comic, there would be no SFX for such an action unless a particular context called for the noise of the running to be notable. It can thus be argued that increasing readability by fully translating the SFX in a work which deploys them this freely comes at the cost of acknowledging how foreign the deployment of these SFX actually is. In this way, Kurosagi’s SFX glossary can be seen as an acknowledgment of the pervasive use of SFX within the manga’s pages. Further, for the English-speaking reader, the glossary leverages the idiosyncrasies of Japanese SFX as a chance for commentary, while maintaining Yamazaki’s brisk and original aesthetic.
It’s important to recognize that leaving Japanese SFX as such (even without extensive commentary in the form of a glossary) is in itself an editorial decision, not the absence of one. Horn is pretty forward about this when he tells me “I wouldn’t use this option in the first place if I thought it had more negatives than positives.” This does not imply that other approaches to different works, such as fully translating the SFX into English, cannot themselves provide felicitous adaptations. However, readers shouldn't ignore the strengths of each different approach, and how those strengths constitute the best vehicle for adapting a particular work.
Of course, just because translating SFX into English can be felicitous doesn’t mean that just any translation and any re-lettering job will cut it. “It’s a big balancing game,” says Annaliese Christman, who letters titles like Viz Media’s World Trigger for both simulpub and graphic novel format, “and very much a team effort between the translator, the editor, and the letterer.” While letterers of native English comics are no strangers to designing SFX that are unobtrusive and that mesh with the art, letterers of English-adapted manga like Christman are further constrained by the original lettering decisions made by the mangaka.
The creator of World Trigger, mangaka Daisuke Ashihara, is noticeably expressive with his SFX, albeit in a different manner than Kubo. He’s not particularly dramatic, but Ashihara does like to frequently switch up the color and style of his SFX to indicate differences in the scope and type of sound that’s occurring, as seen above. Notice also Christman’s captions are in place in these panels, as they appeared in Weekly Shonen Jump. Here, the goal of her lettering, even moreso than usual, is to stay out of the way. Still, care must be taken by the letterer even with these captions. “Since you’re adding to the panel instead of replacing something that’s already there it can be a totally different challenge than redesigning the sound effect completely,” notes Christman.
She did emphasize, however, that this didn’t make captioning as difficult as totally redesigning the letters. I can see what she means.
Here is her re-lettered page, which appears in the World Trigger tankobon. There are a lot of things to notice here (especially if you’re as nitpicky as a letterer), but a few stand out to me.
First, notice how the final re-lettered SFX are exact matches for the English captions (down to the number of B’s and R’s). The simulpub captions aren’t exactly a dress rehearsal, but do demonstrate that these editorial teams always have their eye on the final graphic novel manuscripts.
Second, Christman keeps Ashihara’s SFX notably consistent: the “THUMS” are stretched out with the same frayed edges, the “WHIRRR” occurs in cleaner lettering to represent the steady precise manner in which the batteries prepare to fire, and the “B-B-BOOM” switches from hollow white to full black letters, bringing a heaviness (especially by contrast!) to the battery fire.
Third, the “H” in “THUM” straddles the large white energy sword just like Ashihara’s original kana, which also happened to have an H-like characteristic. So, “THUM” is not only a non-literal-but-accurate transliteration of the onomatopoeia on this page: it is also a lettering choice that allows Christman to preserve a very specific aesthetic feature of the original Japanese lettering. “It’s a big matching game as well,” Christman pointed out to me, noting that you don’t want to cover up too much with the new lettering, but you don’t want to uncover too much either. By preserving such specific artistic lettering choices made by Ashihara, Christman demonstrates what happens when you play this matching game at a high level of competence.
While it is common to heap praise on Kubo and Ashihara for their lettering choices, editors like Horn and Kirsch; and letterers like Christman are also deserving of praise for juggling original artistic decisions in the face of adapting foreign works to a new audience.