The head of the Theory and Practice of Translation program for my MA was an elderly Chinese man who often made snide remarks about how translating manga wasn’t a “real” form of translation. A view I worry is often shared among professional translators.
When the topic of manga comes up many people think of kids people, and never consider the adults that enjoy reading and working with manga translation. They often don’t consider the culture behind each page, the hard work that goes into translating it, or the implications manga can have on society’s perspective of Japan. They don’t think about the soft power it inhabits.
Soft power, many of your may already know, is the ability to shape the preferences of other through appeal and attraction, often through popular culture. This is a concept that people may scoff at, but it is a very real power among us humans who are a very social race.
It is strongly evident in the spread of “Cool Japan” during the 2000s as Japanese popular culture became increasingly popular outside of Japan, so did people’s attention and attitudes towards Japan change. Japan transformed from being associated with Pearl Harbour and WWII to being associated with fashion, cuisine, film, J-pop, and of course anime and manga.
Manga (that has often been translated into English) is probably one of the first Japanese things that a young Western person is exposed to. Many young people fall in love with Japan through translated manga and it’s not just because of cute moe girls or giant robots, it’s because manga, even sci-fi and fantasy, carries so much Japanese culture within it.
The majority of manga in Japan is written for a Japanese audience. Manga is full of Japanese customs, food, world views, perspectives of gender roles, mannerisms, religion, history… Basically everything that will appear natural to a Japanese audience. Japanese culture is so very different from Western culture that when it is first introduced to a Western audience it’s something new and interesting.
In the early 90s it was popular to edit manga to suit a Western audience (such as flipping pages), which resulted in very unpopular sales. Fan works were more popular as they attempted to maintain the Japanese culture of the source material, and as it was something new, its popularity began to grow.
Manga translation is a very real and very relevant form of translation. A lot of work goes into researching the cultural context behind the story presented in the images and languages. There is a fine line between maintaining the original Japanese culture while making it understandable and enjoyable to a Western audience.
The soft power of manga has transformed how we view Japan and Japanese culture. As the culture transforms, so does its popular media, and our perspectives of Japan are then able to evolve though the translation.