Bad Writing vs Bad Translation

The Eureka Seven manga was released by Bandai Entertainment alongside their anime release. For those of you who haven’t read the manga but have seen the anime, it’s a different take on things with I think less solid storytelling but still has its good points. However, the dialogue in the English language version was often very awkward-sounding. It didn’t sound like people actually talking. Lines which were supposed to be “cool” or “dramatic” ended up landing with wet thuds. I had read a bit of the manga in Japanese prior, but as I finished it up with the English release, the flow of language in it continued to bother me. I had to wonder then, was it the translation, or was the original writing simply that stilted and it was my lack of complete Japanese fluency that didn’t notice it originally?

Whenever I read a translated manga where the dialogue seems off or unusually poor, I have to wonder where the blame lies, seeing as how there are so many people and factors involved. You have the original writer, writing in their native language, coming from their own culture, and then you have the translator, adapting to their own native language, keeping their own culture and readership in mind for just how much they change or allow to remain “as is.”

Is it that the translation is bad? Or is it that the writing wasn’t so great in the first place? And if the writing is bad, do you massage it until it becomes fine and readable English prose? It sort of goes beyond the literal accuracy vs spiritual accuracy argument when you have to factor in a source which may not be regarded as the pinnacle of literary talent. And it’s something that without proper research can be difficult to detect, aside from a few obvious examples where you can just tell the translator was struggling with a very Japanese-sounding sentence. “The burning passionately me now challenges you to a duel!” That sort of thing.

And then you throw money into the mix.

Let’s say that you’re a translator (and who knows, maybe you are!), and you’re giving the script to some work with achingly bad dialogue, like say, Government Crime Investigation Agent Zaizen Jotaro, and as much as you think there are definitely better works out there, you’ve been handed this and your company’s supposed to make a profit off of it. Do you try your best to salvage the bad writing and make it presentable? Or do you show it for what it is? And if so, are you prepared for idiots like me to accuse you of doing a poor translation?

5 thoughts on “Bad Writing vs Bad Translation

  1. Oh yes, the prose translation question. Always a crap-shoot…

    I run into this more with novels, since I’m one of those guys who has to force himself to stop and pay attention to comics — I read them very quickly otherwise. Most firms don’t seem to bother hiring great writers to translate, which seems like a silly decision to me, but I guess they work with what they’ve got?

    One of the things I have realized is that a lot of the novels occupy the same space SF did back in the early 20th century: hacked out at speed to satisfy the publishing industry (some authors don’t write more than fifty books in their lives, but there are 50+ Slayers novels?!).

    On the other hand, the first Twelve Kingdoms novel was a joy to read, even as it hurt me nigh-physically. So, really, often it’s every factor in the process. Woo.

    And the “spirit of translation” is different over time. Some people believe Baudelaire’s translations of Poe were better than the originals (not being a fluent French-speaker, I wouldn’t know). He certainly never lost popularity there in the way he did here.


  2. I feel like my favorite Andrew Cunningham (translator of Boogiepop novels and Kino’s Jounrey novel among others) quote has some stuff in response to this.

    “This seems to defeat a lot of internet reviewers. Quite a lot of them fall into the trap of complaining about the editing (if there are typos or grammar errors when I turn in a manuscript, this is because I’m an idiot; if they’re still there when the book is published, that’s editing.)
    Personally, I think if you’re talking about the writing style, you’re talking about the translation. A translator can elevate or destroy a writing style at their whim – once the book has been translated, you have no idea what the author’s style was, and you’re entirely talking about the translator’s writing abilities. The original author’s contribution is reduced to plot and characters, which stay largely the same even if the translator is a hack and the book is horrifically written.
    My advice would be to break it down that way.
    Plot, pacing, structure, twists, characters? The author.
    Typos, grammar, gibberish? Editing.
    Sparkling dialogue, compelling descriptions, general flow of the writing? Probably the result of a good translator.”


  3. What saddens me is the staggering amount of fans who are under the impression that a near word for word literal translation (no matter how awkward and rigid it may sound) is ideal and the only “pure” experience. These people clearly have no idea what they talk are talking about and are clueless as to how that would read in English. That doesn’t stop them from complaining loudly on the internet about it.


  4. I think it was just badly adapted, because I’m pretty sure Dominic says “might’nt” at one point, and that’s just poor writing on Trish Ledoux’s part. The way a lot of sentences were cut off for no reason at all was annoying too, but I don’t know if that’s the way it was in the Japanese or not.


  5. No matter how bad the original manga is, if I were an in-house translator and my paycheck was riding on it, I’d stick to the general plot and spice up the dialogue 200% to make it actually readable. More money for my company is more money for me, non?


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