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Matt Thorn is harsh.

Matt Thorn is harsh. published on 2 Comments on Matt Thorn is harsh.

To publishers of translated manga: You get what you pay for. I’ve heard industry people attribute declines in sales to any number of factors, but never to the quality of their own product. We’re both professionals, so let’s not mince words.

Your product sucks.


He is also accurate.

I re-read Del Rey’s translations of Mushishi and Sugar Sugar Rune recently. I remember being excited when Del Rey announced their manga line, because they’re an established Real Publisher, and I had the idea that the fact that they published prose books would make them a little more sensitive to, you know, prose style. Apparently not!

For the edification of the masses, I am going to assault a page from this scene in volume 3 of Sugar Sugar Rune: 1, 2, 3.

(It contains some spoilers, so don’t go any further if you’re keeping yourself pure.)

Pierre: This tree is called “a false acacia”…
Pierre: …Even though its true name is harienju.
Pierre: Isn’t it terrible that just because it looks like an acacia, it gets called a “false acacia?”
Pierre: The same thing has happened to us…
Pierre: The rulers of the magical world kicked us out of Le Royaume and called us Ogres.

Allowing that the comic format requires some indulgence of ellipses (…! (…?)), and fixing the location of that first quotation mark, if we reformat the page into ordinary prose, we get this:

“This tree is called a “false acacia,” even though its true name is harienju. Isn’t it terrible that just because it looks like an acacia, it gets called a “false acacia?””


“The same thing has happened to us. The rulers of the magical world kicked us out of Le Royaume and called us Ogres.”

I’m going to go through this line-by-line. I can do that because there’s something wrong with every line!

To begin with, there’s an “even though” in the very first sentence. The very first! And it doesn’t belong there. To understand why, you need to consider where the phrase “even though” tends to show up. Mainly, people use it when they get hold of the wrong end of a sentence and need something to prop it up. It’s good if you’re writing dialog for a kid, or an adult who’s worked up about something, or if you’re me and you’re talking about Second Life in a manner requiring some use of exclamation points.

So it would be fine for Vanilla to use it in this scene – she’s insecure, she’s usually scared, and right now she’s even more scared than usual. But Pierre’s already been established as being unusually self-possessed and articulate, and for this particular occasion (the occasion of scaring Vanilla), he’s even come with some remarks prepared. He shouldn’t be forming an “even though” sentence. What he should probably be doing is flipping the sentence around like so:

This tree’s true name is harienju, but we call it “the false acacia.”

(Incidentally, I don’t have the original text, but I’ll bet the problem with the translator’s and adapters’ version of the sentence was this: the Japanese-language sentence was actually structured in the order that the translator and adapters used – that is, the part with “false acacia” came first, and the half with “harienju” second. But because it was split across two speech balloons, they decided not to flip it, possibly out of some misguided idea of allegiance to the authenticity of the original text.

(If you sympathize with that, let me explain something to you: if your translation makes people think Moyoco Anno can’t write, your translation isn’t authentic.

Also, you are not invited to my birthday party.))

A thought on which I’m still see-sawing: If Wikipedia is to be trusted, the common English name for false acacia/nise-akashia is black locust.* Given the symmetry the scene draws between the plant and the ogres, I think it would have worked well to go ahead and call it a black locust. In any case, it’s originally a North American plant, so it’s not like “harienju” is one of those terms for which there’s no easy English translation. Rikaichan even knows it.

On the other hand, though, I’m pretty sure the Japanese name doesn’t sound as dark as “black locust” does. The “hari” in “harienju” (針槐) is the character for “needle,” which I guess is moderately dark, but “enju” is a kind of pretty ornamental tree. And in any case, the Wikipedia article makes it look like it’s usually written in katakana, so the needle’s presence in the name might not even be obvious to most Japanese people. (I’m just guessing here – I’ve never gotten into any, like, extensive botanical conversations in Japanese.) But it feels to me like putting words into Anno’s mouth, in the sense that a spooky name might give the sentence a feel that wasn’t there when she wrote it.

On the other other hand, even given the presence of possibly-unfamiliar botanical words, I doubt that the original scene was as linguistically jarring to Japanese readers as it is to the English-speaking audience. Given that there’s a lot of French in the series, and Anglophone readers have by this point gotten used to reading unfamiliar words through that lens, it knocks us out of the scene somewhat to see Pierre using a word like “harienju,” which is clearly Japanese.

The neatest compromise might actually be to take advantage of the readers’ acceptance of the manga’s use of French and call it “robinier,” which is an acceptable French name for the plant. Pierre’s statement would no longer be strictly truthful, because the black locust’s full “true name” in French is “robinier faux-acacia,” but in every adult’s life, there comes a point at which she’s got to throw the Francophone botanists under the bus.

So, let’s do it this way:

This tree’s true name is robinier, but we call it “the false acacia.”

Okay, uh, so there’s one sentence down. Sentence number 2:

Isn’t it terrible that just because it looks like an acacia, it gets called a “false acacia?”

“Just because” is another phrase like “even though” – it’s mainly used to glue together sentences that are falling apart. This sentence is, and I defy the world to deny it.

Above and beyond the more generalized brokenness, Pierre shouldn’t be saying “gets called,” because it’s not right for his own particular idiom. And it’s a little iffier, but I don’t think he should say “Isn’t it terrible?” either. (My reasoning: Try saying that phrase in your head, and see if you hear a male or a female voice.)

I would write it like this:

Isn’t that unfair? Why do we call the robinier false, simply for resembling something it isn’t?

I’m saying “unfair” because it sounds better to me than “terrible” or “awful” or “bad,” but this may not be justified by the Japanese text. If the text was “warui” or “ijiwaru,” I’m going to say it’s justified, because my students said “warui” and “ijiwaru” in all the same places I said “That’s not fair!” when I was a kid. On the other hand, if the word was “dame,” I’d switch to, “It’s not right, is it?” and if it was “hidoi,” to, “Isn’t that cruel?” (Note: These translations have not been evaluated by the FDA, JEES, or anyone who’s ever passed the JLPT 2.)

I’d stick “the robinier” in there because it puts some more stress the idea that the plant has its own name, which people are unkindly refusing to use. (I’d put it there regardless of whether it’s there in the Japanese, because Japanese sentences frequently decline to have a subject, and thus my insurance covers it.)

I have Pierre saying “We call it” rather than “It’s called” because his entire speech here is a call for Vanilla to acknowledge her alleged heritage as an Ogre. The message is that they both need to own up to what they are.

As for my big, apparently-gratuitous switch to “simply for resembling something it isn’t?” – I think there’s another problem here, one that’s harder to address. Though “false” sounds maybe a little bad in English, it’s been my impression that the Japanese word used in “false acacia”, “nise”, sounds worse. “False” is a pretty value-neutral word in most circumstances, while I would say, at least, (someone more fluent correct me if I’m wrong), that “nise” carries both an added implication of deliberate fabrication and one of inferiority to “the real thing” (nise-mono = an imitation (bad), hon-mono = the genuine article (good)). “Nise” would thus be significantly more insulting than “false.” So, the sentence lacks some feeling the original had.

If this were a josei or seinen manga, I’d say we want to throw French at our problems again and switch over to saying faux-acacia – I think most adult English speakers have the feeling that calling something “faux” means it’s bad. But I’m iffy about doing it for a manga aimed at kids.

Deprived of my French, I think my “Why do we call the robinier false, for resembling something it isn’t?” conveys the feeling acceptably. “Why do we call it false?” gets across Pierre’s point that “false” is an insult; removing the quotation marks makes it more immediate. (Though the impression English-speakers get from the idea of “calling someone false” is probably of a disloyal/loyal dichotomy rather than a fake/real dichotomy, so it’s not perfect.) “Simply for resembling something it isn’t,” conveys the impression that the unfavorable comparison to the acacia is unreasonable and cruel.

The line still reads kind of broken to me, so I’d prefer to look at the Japanese text before I set it in stone. But for now, there it is.

Because ellipses are a perfectly natural way for Vanilla to express herself, we’ll skip her line and move on to Pierre’s last two:

The same thing has happened to us. The rulers of the Magical World kicked us out of Le Royaume and called us Ogres.

I would rewrite it like this:

That’s what happened to us. They called us Ogres, and cast us out of Le Royaume.

Up to this point, Pierre’s been beating around the bush, coming out with a lot of long, gentle sentences about his friend the tree’s hurt feelings. They both know where he’s going, but he’s taking his time getting there.

Look at the page, and you’ll notice that all the speech balloons for the earlier text were clustered together way up at the top of the page, with Pierre looking vaguely at his tree. The panel color is very light. When he looks straight at Vanilla and the reader and starts talking about politics, though, it marks a transition to the darker panel at the bottom of the page.

So, to match the transition in visual tone, “The same thing has happened to us,” becomes the shorter and harsher-sounding, “That’s what happened to us.” For the last sentence, in the big black panel, the contrast needs to be even stronger. Previously Pierre was talking in very long, florid sentences, so to contrast, this sentence should be short. We take out “the rulers of the magical world,” because it’s both too long and unnecessary. (Who else is going to be exiling them? The florists of the Magical World?)

I acknowledge a vague temptation to remove “Le Royaume” as well, but the language of the politics of the Magical World carries some emotional power for Vanilla, so I can’t take all of it out. “Kick out,” though appropriately forceful, isn’t the kind of phrase you expect Pierre to use, so it becomes “cast out.” And “called us Ogres” needs to be in front of “cast us out” for consistency reasons – he’s continuing the thought “It’s what happened to us,” and the tree didn’t get cast out of the kingdom.

So, here’s my final version:

“This tree’s true name is robinier, but we call it “the false acacia.” Isn’t that unfair? Why do we call the robinier false, simply for resembling something it isn’t?”


“It’s what happened to us. They called us Ogres, and cast us out of Le Royaume.”

Here are both translations on the page:

Del Rey's version My version

I could finish the scene up, but I won’t because I would end up gesturing and there’s no one in the room with me to be entertained by it. It just seems rather wasteful. In any case, the entire series is like this, as is the Mushishi translation. (Which is shown up badly by some scanlations by someone calling him- or herself “Faust”, and at some point I need to post a side-by-side.)

This isn’t specific to Del Rey. It’s the normal state of things for professionally-done manga translations, and it’s part of what’s keeping mature titles from finding an audience. Sane adults, the kind who don’t have Stockholm syndrome from a decade of putting up with bad translations, pick up manga with this kind of dialog and put it down.

My mother and sister have been known to read manga, but they’re more likely to read fanfic, and in general? This is a valid decision! The manga takes work to read because it’s got so many incomprehensible, poorly-formed sentences. The fanfic’s by people who read books sometimes, so you don’t have to keep putting it down because you’re annoyed or tired. Netcomics has the licenses to some really good titles, but no one fucking reads them because they’re being translated by Netcomics, and it’s like realizing you’ve been conversing with a spambot. If you think this effect doesn’t touch the rest of the industry, you are sadly mistaken.

* My stupid Wikipedia trick: When you want the accepted Japanese translation/transliteration for a name, look up the English-language Wikipedia entry, then go down the languages column at the left and click the link to the Japanese-language Wikipedia entry.

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“Stockholm Syndrome”! Why didn’t I think of that? Great post, and excellent examples. Most of your readers may think you’re doing some serious hair-splitting, but that sort of hair-splitting is precisely what a self-respecting translator is supposed to do. Making sure speech flows naturally between balloons is extremely important, and sometimes quite difficult.

But the thing that surprised me most in your post is the fact that your mother reads fanfic. (Almost sounds like a playground insult: “Oh yeah? Well your mother reads fanfic!”) Are you are second-generation geek? How cool is that?

I’m really not that harsh once you get to know me.

Except about translation….

The multiple-balloon-sentence is my worst enemy. I have some sympathy for the people who give up and just cram everything into one balloon. (Though I wish they would make sure the empty balloons are actually edited out of the final version.)

(Mom is a Trekkie with a gigantic framed schematic of the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, replicas of all the different Starfleet communicators up to Deep Space 9, and a small collection of 70s fanzines. She sewed my sister and I Starfleet uniforms for Halloween when we were little.

So she’s not allowed to criticize all the manga.)