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Meatballs Vs. Pigtails: Translating Anime & Manga For The US Market

Meatballs Vs. Pigtails: Translating Anime & Manga For The US Market

-Written by: Right Stuf Anime

Meatballs Vs. Pigtails: Translating anime & manga for the US market

By Matthew Galgani, TOKYOPOP, 2002

As the number of companies producing anime in the States continues to grow, many hard-core fans are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the English translations of their favorite Japanese shows. To address industry concerns on this topic, we've invited TOKYOPOP'S own Marketing Director, Matthew Galgani, to comment on the trials and tribulations of their translations for manga and anime...

When I first started living in Japan, an American fluent in Japanese told me that an accurate translation from Japanese to English was impossible. "The second I start translating the Japanese into English," he said, "the meaning is totally lost." "You must be a pretty lousy translator," I thought, but I just nodded and feigned understanding. A dozen years later and now fluent in Japanese myself, I can simultaneously agree and disagree with his statement. (Studying Japanese teaches one diplomacy, too…)

You're always going to lose something in translation. Just like going from a novel to a movie or from an original painting to a postcard, you just can't capture all the subtleties of the original. If you read a manga or watch an anime in the original Japanese, you are experiencing the work the way the creator made it. No filters, no interpretations by the translator. All the puns and cultural references are right there exactly as the creator intended. That's the joy of going directly to the original source.

But that doesn't mean that all translations are the work of evil imposters bent on world domination through linguistic revision. A good translation will capture both the meaning and feel of the original.

However, to do that, it may be necessary to do more interpretation and localizing, rather than just direct or literal translation. Is it better to have a literal translation of an anime or manga, even if it doesn't sound natural and is more full of obscure references than a Dennis Miller monologue? Or is it better to have a translation that is linguistically and culturally adapted, but doesn't retain all the "Japanese-ness" of the original?

There really is no right or wrong answer; it depends on what you're personally looking for. If you are looking to watch or read something that really feels Japanese, then you'll most likely prefer a literal translation. If you don't care if the story is from Japan, Jamaica, or Jakarta and just want a good story, you'll be looking for a more localized version.


The somewhat infamous TOKYOPOP translation of Sailor Moon's hairstyle provides an interesting look at this issue. At the very beginning of the Sailor Moon saga (Sailor Moon graphic novel, vol. 1, p. 12), Darien and Bunny have the following exchange (certain parts are cut out here):

Darien: "Thanks a lot, Cow-tails!"
Sailor Moon: "These are not 'cow-tails', they're called 'pig-tails' stupid!"

In the original Japanese, Darien uses the word "tankobu-atama". 'Tankobu' is literally translated as "lump" and can also indicate an "eyesore". 'Atama' means 'head'. To describe her unique hairstyle, Bunny uses the word "dango" which is often translated as "dumpling". Thus, a literal translation might be:

Darien: "Thanks a lot, lump-head!"
Sailor Moon: "These are not 'lumps', they're called 'dumplings' stupid!"

When Sailor Moon volume 1 came out, a number of people (all of whom shall remain nameless…) criticized our translation saying we should be more literal and others said we should have done the following:

Darien: "Thanks a lot, meatball-head!…"
Sailor Moon: "These are not 'meatballs', they're called 'pig-tails' [or 'pony-tails'] stupid!"

Again, which you prefer is up to your own tastes (no pun intended). Playing on 'pig' vs. 'cow' keeps (in our opinion, anyway…) the same humorous connection that the original displays by contrasting one blob (lump) with another (dumpling). The translation may be less linguistically literal, but it is closer to the 'feel' of the original pun.


Sometimes it's just plain impossible to do a literal translation that makes any sense or can fit into the space at hand because there is so much culture tied up into the word or phrase. Take the Japanese word, 'yoroshiku'. It's easy to understand, but difficult to translate. Depending on context, it can mean anything from "Be kind to me" to "I've made my request; now go do it" to "I'm counting on you".

Another deceptive term is "So desu ne", which literally means, "Yes, that's right" or "That is so". In a culture where harmony is praised and confrontation something to be avoided, you will often hear people saying "So desu ne" in response to things they completely disagree with (although tone and body language will often tell you just how much - how little - they are in agreement). Doing a literal translation of that could cause some confusion, to say the least!

At TOKYOPOP, to address this issue, we are beginning to experiment with adding footnotes to certain titles to explain cultural and linguistic references. We hope this will keep the story natural and understandable, but still maintain the subtleties of the original for those who are interested.

As we continue to translate anime and manga, and as we continue to make judgments about naming, cultural references and more, we are sure to please some and annoy others. So to all who give us their critique, I say: So desu ne!

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