Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The difficulties of translating manga SFX

Sound effects appear on virtually every page in Japanese manga, but is their translation into English (or other languages) essential for the reader to understand the story, or are they just “decoration”? I find that when reading manga, I tend to pretty much ignore the SFX completely and concentrate on the story. That may be just me…

However, most digital publishers of translated manga require most - if not all - SFX to be translated, and this can prove to be a difficult task for the potential translator. This is not only in terms of creating an accurate translation, but also in ensuring the text does not sound “naff”.

In fact, there is a variety of websites which list a whole range of Japanese SFX and their English translations. However, even using these sites does not guarantee a perfect translation, as the same SFX often have entirely different meanings.

If I can give one example from a recent manga translation:
In this particular part of the story, a giant samurai has burst onto the scene, apparently making his way to engage the main hero in battle, and the SFX “DON” is written underneath him in large letters.

The translator took this as the sound of the giant samurai’s feet stomping towards his enemy. The Japanese “DON” can be a loud noise as in a “THUD” in English, or “BAM”.

However, “DON” can also mean something less obvious - an SFX used to add dramatic effect - to show something astonishing has happened. Therefore, the correct translation would be something that signified the dramatic appearance of this giant samurai, bent on revenge. A “TA-DAH” might not exactly match the atmosphere of an Edo period samurai story.

This is where a translator’s skill is really put to the test: they have to find a word that fits the mood of the scene, while accurately reflecting the original Japanese.