The Text in the Word Bubble

I’ve been thinking about word bubbles lately, specifically the conventions behind how words are organized in them across Japanese and English.

Basically, if you ever look at a word bubble from an English comic, be that a translated manga or something originally created in English, the words tend to follow the shape of bubble to an extent, such that the top and/or bottom lines of text are shortest and the middle bulges out. In contrast, if you look at manga in Japanese, the text is usually in the shape of a square block, though it might be more accurate to say that the text is “top-justified,” where the top of each line is flat (remember that Japanese text in bubbles is generally written from top to bottom and from right to left), and the length of the final line can vary from being the shortest to being the longest. They don’t necessarily have to be this way, as is evidenced when an English-language bubble in a Japanese manga ends up having the text un-centered, but these seem to be the “rules.” When we defy them, something looks “off.”

What I’m wondering is, how much of this is the result of the written languages themselves, and how much of it has to do with the conventions laid before us by decades of comics? Could it be that a stable top is more important in either case, but that the top line in an English text is always flat due to the horizontal nature of English writing, whereas Japanese has to make an effort at it? Is it simply efficiency, or the result of past limitations which have seeped into the very nature of how we perceive word bubbles? What about other languages, notably Hebrew or Arabic which are horizontal and written right to left? How do their translations/comics fare?

Maybe Scanlators Just Gotta Scanlate

Lately I’ve been following a most insightful user on Twitter called otaku dog. A Japanese person running an otaku goods import service, otaku_dog has made his presence known on the internet through his desire to engage with the English-speaking anime fandom. While I have not tried out his “Otaku Personal Import Agency,” I have had a chance to have a few discussions with him via Twitter.

It was in one conversation that he talked about how he is not only a fan of anime and manga, but also American comics, particularly Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. He spoke of his desire to read more of it, but that the translation never finished and that in general translation projects of American comics tend to die down and never revive.

“American comics translating projects often do not continues to last….(;- -)”

I do not know if he meant official translations or fan ones. Regardless, it made me think about the scanlation and fansubbing community, and how for all of the negatives in those communities, from the egotism to the translations wrought with errors to the personality clashes and drama and millions of other problems fan translators can have and often do, things still get translated. It might be the most popular series which get the most attention, but we see translation groups occasionally gravitate towards  fairly obscure series, even if the motive is to garner attention and praise. This is a huge contrast to otaku dog’s description of the reverse and in a way it’s quite impressive.

One possible factor for this wide disparity might be the fact that Japanese comics generally have significantly less text than their American counterparts, particularly with someone like Neil Gaiman penning the work. This is related to the differences in storytelling through panels that emerged between the two countries, and even those from the Golden Age that were produced purely for the enjoyment of children and not today’s older audience tended to be densely packed with text, making translating American comics possibly more time-consuming.

The difference in text density between Japanese and American comics also makes me think about that old stereotypical moment from throughout the decades, where a parent takes a child’s comic book away because it isn’t “really reading,” and that pictures in books are a sign that it’s juvenile. If only those parents knew about the brevity of dialogue in manga…

(By the way, I’m well aware that the title of this post can be a bit misleading.)

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?