Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Translation Comparison of Try! Try! Try! - The Difference of 20 years


I've always been interested by the process of translation, especially Japanese-to-English translation. The two languages are so grammatically different, even if there was a 1-1 match for each word in both languages (there isn't), just the differences in grammar alone would make a word-to-word translation incomprehensible. At best, you might get a somewhat-readable sentence that sounds like something Yoda would say, if you're lucky.

That's why there's always a degree of creativity that comes with every translation. Even something as banal as a legal or medical document demands at least the slightest bit of creative thought to accurately translate even a simple sentence. For example, in Japanese, the subject of a sentence is often dropped if it's considered obvious for the listener to know who or what is being referred to; in English, such a thing would be ungrammatical. You can't just say "Went to school." as a sentence by itself, but you more or less can in Japanese if it's considered already obvious who exactly is going to school. As such, even the most simple sentences can require a creative choice made on the part of the translation, such as if you write the name of who went to school, or if you instead decide to use a pronoun. These creative choices require both an understanding of the original speaker's intention with their sentence, but also a cultural and linguistical understanding of how an equivalent sentence may be said in the same context in the target language. Complicating things, as is in the case of a manga, the translator would (ideally) be aiming to produce writing that is of the same caliber of that seen in a comic written by a native English speaker, and would elicit a similar reading experience.

Because of the creative decisions involved in even the most simple sentences, a translation is ultimately the combined effort of a translator's ability to interpret the source language, and their ability to write a context-appropriate equivalent sentence in the target language. (In fact, there are some cases in which these two tasks are split among two different people. Older video game and anime translations often had a native Japanese speaker do a more literal translation into English, with plenty of notes explaining cultural differences and whatnot, and then a native English speaker would rewrite each sentence to fit what would be expected of English-equivalent writing.)

As such, you can give the same content to two different translators, and end up with completely different translations. And the best part is, assuming that the source-language interpretation part is done correctly (which is not always the case), then neither of them are necessarily wrong! The differences will stem from the creative target-language writing decisions performed by each translator, and what they choose to write will differ on taste, personal experience, the cultural of the specific place they live, the technology and knowledge they have access to, etc.

And this brings us to our topic today: the two different translations of Try! Try! Try!: mine, and a 20-year-old one by "chrismear"!

From the readme included in the original, 20-year-old .zip file. Neat!

For almost 20 years, there was only one translation available for the prototype Yotsuba&! comic: Try! Try! Try!. In a way, this translation is somewhat historically significant, as it was produced during the beginning years of manga scanlation, when scanners became more affordable and photo-editing software more prevalent. Of course, with its age, the quality left a lot to be desired, but for 20 years this translation was the only thing we had.

The resolution is a bit low, but is about what you would expect for web images for the time. The font choice is also good, thankfully they did not use comic sans...

For its age, this scanlation is not bad at all. You can tell that the translator is a native English speaker (which you cannot say about Wallaby's first translation...), the fonts used are not bad, and the resolution is actually quite good for 2003. But it has a few problems:

  • The black levels have not been set properly! This makes the entire scan look very washed out. Setting the black level is very simple in Photoshop, and doing so would've made this look a lot better...
  • There are some translation mistakes, where the translator has outright misinterpreted the original Japanese!
  • Some of the writing is a bit awkward, I feel as if the translator was a bit rushed, or did not have much prior creative writing experience.
  • Some of the typesetting is a bit awkward and could be improved.
  • Certain pages (such as the cover) are excluded for seemingly no reason.

With this list I'm not meaning to imply that the first translator was unskilled or bad. For somebody working by themselves in 2003, before even Yotsuba&! itself got its own official English translation, this is still impressive work. It's just that, 20 years later, somebody working by themselves has access to a lot more resources; they can access better Japanese-to-English dictionaries, heck they can even check a whole library's worth of officially-published English manga in physical books to check and see how the professionals do it!

Which brings us to today. I've always wanted to get involved in Japanese-to-English translation, and after seeing this lower-quality 20-year-old scanlation get posted everywhere, I thought it was about time it received an update. Thankfully the collection it's included in, Azumanga 2, was not too expensive to import, and you don't even have to debind it to scan, so I went ahead and scanlated the entire thing by scratch.

Not to toot my own horn, but in all honesty, 20 years really does make a difference. So, today, I thought I would take some time and compare the two translations, both explaining issues with the original in more detail, along with an explanation of my own translation choices. Let's dive right in!

Pottymouth Ena-chan

The first major difference comes on the first page! Here's the panel in the original:

Note her first line: "Shimatta-", something you can say when something bad happens to you.

Now, let's see how the original translation handled it:

Wow, Ena, watch your language! It's already the first page and we can see an issue with the original translation: none of the characters seem to have a particular "voice". Ideally, when writing character dialog, you want each one to have a unique speaking pattern based on their age, gender, social relationships, etc. This is done in both Japanese and English writing, however it seems that the translator did not take care to do this!

My guess is that in whatever dictionary the translator used all those years ago, if you put in "しまったー", you would get "Damn" as a definition. In some cases, say, if an adult says it, this is not a bad translation choice—however, it's a bit strange given Ena is supposed to be in elementary school!

For my translation, I went with something that seems a bit more age appropriate:

Train Day

Later on, Ena finds Yotsuba at a train crossing. Here's the original Japanese:

What should be noted is that they're talking in a very casual, somewhat childish way. From the writing you can tell Yotsuba is more rambunctious than Ena.

Now here's the original translation:

There's a couple things to note here. First, the translator chose to write in the margins what the onomatopoeia is, though they just describe what the sound is, which I find a bit of a waste given that it's kind of obvious what the sound is supposed to be—even if you can't read out the noise yourself. But I will have to give them credit for trying to translate everything, even if they didn't have the methods to recreate the styling of the text in English themselves.

The second thing of note is just the slightly awkward writing. I think this translator is at least a native English speaker, but it seems that they didn't really have the creative writing ability to transpose the childish ways the two children speak into English effectively.

The third thing to note... it seems that they've somehow completely misinterpreted the second speech bubble! Not only does it have nothing to do with moving away from the tracks, but Ena's not even the one who's speaking! My guess is that the translator could simply not parse the original sentence, so they essentially came up with something from scratch on the spot. This is a big no-no in professional translations—always make sure you fully understand what the original says!!!—but for an older scanlation, I have to give them credit for at least trying to produce something that makes sense and flows naturally from one panel to the other in the target language. This is not something you always get when the translator is an ESL speaker, such as the older translation of Wallaby. 

If you want a good laugh, check out the "duwang" translation of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. This was done by translator who's native language is Chinese, and has some quite incredible translation choices:


Anyway, this is how I translated the same two panels. I tried to make it more accurate to the original Japanese, both in literal content but also with the speaking patterns of the characters. I hope their social standings and age come across in my writing. I also used "fancy" Photoshop text techniques to add English versions of the onomatopoeia:

Yup, I'm so Glad!!

Later on, Yotsuba grabs on to a crossing marker and flies into the air, scaring Ena! Here's after she comes back down:

Yostuba says "tadaima"—a stock phrase you say to your family when you get back home.

To quickly summarize it, Yostuba says she's back, Ena says "good...", Yostuba misinterprets it into her thinking that her flying was "good", and Ena takes the opportunity to lecture her on what she shouldn't play around with, before being interrupted by Yostuba's sudden disappearance.

Let's see how the original translator handled this:

Somewhat awkward writing aside, we have another translation error! The translator seems to have understood the word for "play", and understood that this was a sentence that ended in the negative, but not much else. As such the English again mostly seems to be a guess. What's more, in the original Japanese, the last two panels are actually the same sentence, Ena just gets cut off. The translator seems to have missed this, and interpreted the negative ending by itself to just mean "not here". In Japanese, you can say something is not here or that you don't have it by saying "nai" (which can also be added to the end of verbs to make them negative, as it was in the original bubble), but this only really applies to inanimate objects anyway...

Here's how I translated this group of panels:


The Can Entry

This one's a good example of how creative English writing can push a translation to be better. Here's the original:

The humor here comes from how Yotsuba childishly repeats the words for "can" and "enter" multiple times. It's not very complicated wordplay, though it's not really possible to 1-1 match it in English, mostly because we don't call them "can-enters" or anything like that. Here's how the original translator did it:

What is a "can entry"? I've never heard of any of those! I also have to appreciate the translator essentially giving up and writing that she is, in fact, doing some wordplay...

I've always felt that these translation notes are a bit intrusive and should be avoided whenever possible. There are some cases in which it is absolutely necessary, however there are many others that can be avoided simply through a bit of creativity.

Here's how I translated it:

The biggest creative change I made here was making it so that Yotsuba says that she herself put the can into the bin, rather than just saying it just "went in" without specifying who did it, since it sounded more natural in English this way. I figured this was fine because 1. she was the one who kicked it in, and 2. this leads into what Fuuka says. In the original Japanese, she's praising Yotsuba the way you would when a child does something good... like putting a loose can into a recycling bin. This works with the whole joke of the scene: Fuuka just thinks Yotsuba is being environmentally conscious; she didn't see her miraculously kick it in!

It's Daddy's Virtue!

This is my favorite translation mistake on the part of the original translator. (Sorry!)


Ah, back when Fuuka was briefly a tsundere...

Here's how the original translator did it:

...Daddy's virtue??? What's going on here???

Well, as a matter of fact, I know myself; when translating that specific bubble myself, I ran into a similar problem: when you put いっとくinto a dictionary, you get the word "virtue"! 

Proof I'm not crazy.


...Huh!?!? What does that have to do with anything? Clearly a similar thing happened to the original translator. But out of options, they had to assume that Yotsuba said "virtue" for whatever reason, and translate it literally, even if it made no sense. If I was in this position, I would've just assumed there was some sort of error and written something from scratch. I mean, there's no way she said "virtue", that's a random word that doesn't make any sense here!

Luckily for me, when I did my translation, I had the power of Google at my fingertips! And through it's use, I found something quite interesting: what's she's actually saying is basically a slangy contraction you get when you say the phrase 言っておくreally fast. This phrase then means "[I'll] go tell in advance". Great, something that makes sense! I can work with this!

Thus, my translation prevails; not just because of my awesome skills, but also because of my access to modern-day Google.

Also I tried to match the scribbly handwriting-style font Yotsuba uses when she shouts. Tee-hee!

I think this is a good place to wrap up. I could spend hours explaining every single little different, justifying my translation choices, etc. Heck I would love to someday compare the difference between ADV Manga and Yen Press's translation of Yotsuba&!, if such a thing didn't take up so much time from my own translation work. In the meantime, I'm planning on releasing the first part of my next translation project soon, so be on the lookout for that!

Until next time!


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