Debora Aoki

Manga Translation Battle 2018

Light novels: also lost in translation?

Debora Aoki

As anime has gotten more popular overseas, more and more fans have been wanting to read and enjoy the original source content for their favorite shows. Once upon a time, that was primarily manga. But nowadays, many popular animated shows are drawn from light novels, and this has opened up new opportunities and challenges for publishers and translators.

This year’s Manga Translation Battle offered a new twist to entrants: the option to translate a chapter of a light novel, not just manga. While translating a light novel means that the translator is free from the usual constraints of manga translation, like trying to keep the translated English text as concise as possible to fit in often narrow word balloons, dealing in mostly prose without pictures in panels means that greater responsibility is placed on the translator to convey the mood of the story’s various settings, the pacing of the action, and the different voices of the characters, while retaining some sense of the writing style of the original Japanese author. And, it has to be enjoyable to read in English too!

Needless to say, translating a light novel is not an easy task. But being able to compare the three finalists’ work on Holmes of Kyoto made for an interesting look at different approaches to capturing the style of the original author.

As with manga, a key moment in the reading experience is the first page of a story. In this case, Holmes of Kyoto starts off by introducing the two main characters, Kiyotaka Yagashira or “Holmes” and Aoi Mashiro, a high school girl who starts work at the Yagashira family’s antique store, Kura. 

Here are three ways Kiyotaka, or Holmes is described:

Nicknamed “Holmes,” he has an incredibly sharp mind despite his gentle demeanor.

Nicknamed “Holmes”. He has a gentle manner but is almost frighteningly perceptive.

Alias: Holmes. Despite his demure appearance, he’s frighteningly clever.

While all three say essentially the same thing, it’s the first sentence that strings together the ideas in one smooth, conversational sentence. It also takes into account that “demure” has a more feminine tone, and that describing the smart and perceptive Kiyotaka by the slightly more complimentary “he has an incredibly sharp mind” vs. the slightly off-putting and threatening “frighteningly clever” or “frighteningly perceptive” sets the tone for the reader that Kiyotaka is someone they’ll admire and like for his intellect, not someone creepy or scary.

The other challenge in translating Holmes of Kyoto is trying to convey the distinctly different voices of the high school girl narrator, Aoi, the polite and precise way that Kyoto-ite Holmes speaks, and the working class / casual slang of some of the store’s visitors, as in this example when a visitor with Osaka roots comes to the store brings in a scroll to be appraised:

“Nah,” Mr. Ueda says with a wave of his hand. “I’ll take it to some other bloke that ain’t as clever as you.” And with that he begins to wrap the hanging scroll back in its cloth.

“Nah, thanks. Gonna take it somewhere they can’t tell the difference,” Mr Ueda said nonchalantly, wrapping the hanging scroll up in its cloth once more.

“Nah, I’ll take it to a more gullible shop,” Mr. Ueda answered without hesitating. He then proceeded to wrap the hanging scroll back in the cloth.

Again, the same content, but the question that a translator must ask themselves when they translate these types of stories are, does this sound natural and true to the character when I read this aloud? Does it convey the mood and tone of the character’s conversation? Different choices of words in the character’s dialogue and describing how they react can convey the subtleties of the interaction that normally manga would be able to show with facial expressions or body language, so they should be chosen with care.

Or another example, when heartbroken school girl Aoi explains why she wants to sell a scroll so she can get trainfare go back to her former hometown in Saitama.

“It’s...” As soon as I began to speak, the tears suddenly spilled out. “L-Last month, my boyfriend, he... said he wanted to break up with me.” Hearing me force out those words, Ms Mieko’s and Mr Ueda’s expressions changed, becoming sober as they listened respectfully. “...A-At the time I just thought, ‘well, it can’t be helped’, you know? I mean, it was really hard to meet because of the distance. If his feelings had faded, then it couldn’t be helped... I told myself that, but still, it just hurt so much...”

I hung my head and bit my lip at his concerned question. After a bit, I tried to speak up, and I suddenly started crying. “L-Last month, my boyfriend said he wanted to break up,” I spoke as though spitting out the words. Mieko and Mr. Ueda had meek expressions on their faces. “A-At first, I accepted it. We couldn’t see each other much because we were so far apart, so it was only natural that our feelings would become distanced... even though it was unbearable for me...”

I hang my head and bite my lower lip. It takes a few beats of silence before I manage to wring the words out. “Well”—and the moment I open my mouth the tears come pouring out of my eyes like rivers—“Last month my boyfriend broke up with me.” Mr. Ueda and Ms. Mieko look back at me, all mirth from their eyes gone. “When it happened, I— I thought there was no helping it. It was really hurt, but we couldn’t meet up anymore because of the distance, so it was only natural we’d grow apart…”

When you read aloud “feelings had faded” versus “feelings would become distanced,” versus “It was only natural we’d grow apart” ask yourself, which would sound more natural coming from a distraught high school girl? Or “their expressions changed, becoming more sober as they listened respectfully” vs. they “had meek expressions on their faces” vs. “all mirth from their eyes gone.” Also, is the paragraph conveying the emotional distress and stuttering of a crying girl?

With only prose as their primary way to convey the story, the light novel translator has to be an excellent prose writer in English as well as have a solid working knowledge of Japanese language, slang and dialects, and all kinds of Japanese culture too. Chances are, they are also likely translating a greater volume of text than their manga translator counterparts too. So props to the translators who took on this year's light novel translation challenge -- it wasn't easy, I'm sure!

As the demand for light novels grows overseas, I hope there’ll be greater appreciation for the hard work that these translators put into their work, and hopefully, their hard work will pay off as readers come to read them widely and enjoy them just as much as Japanese readers.