To tell the truth, I'd never heard of Rumiko Takahashi until Viz Comics
gave me the opportunity to do the rewriting on Lum * Urusei Yatsura.
I had quite an interest in Japanese culture, and had even learned
some Japanese, but I'd never paid much attention to manga or anime.
The few Japanese comics I'd glanced at had left on a vague impression
of interminable fight scenes and silent reaction shots. My first entry
intot he world of Urusei was a revelation- this dense, funny,
character-rich, pun-heavy tale of adolescent lust and stupidity was
unlike anything I'd ever seen anywhere. It was also a rewriter's nightmare.
This "rewriting" or "co-translating" consists of turning a too-literal
translation of the Japanese text into English that's supposed to be
clear, brisk and funny to American comic readers. That includes turning
mystifying sound effects like "bori bori" into sounds more evocative
to our ears, like "clomp clomp". It includes trying to convey the
nuances of Japanese regional dialects and myriad levels of verbal
formality into American equivalents. Worst of all, it includes making
up new jokes that accomplish the purpose of Takahashi's untranslatable
From the first issue of Urusei Yatsura, I was hammered by intercultural
brainbusters. Like the monk whose name is the English word "Cherry"
because the Japanese characters meaning "confused monk" can be mispronounced
to sould like the Japanese word for "cherry". Or the kid throwing
beans at the alien because the alien looks like a Japanese folkloric
demon, who can be kept out of one's house by the stewing of the beans.
I did the best I could- in my rewrite, the monk calls himself Cherry
in honor of his monastic life, which looks soft and sweet outside,
"but when you get into it, it's the pits"; the kid yells "Here, candy!"
to show that he's hoping the alien is just an overage trick-or-treater.
The manga purists don't seem to like such tricks. I guess they'd rather
read the literal translation and smile to themselves in the knowledge
that they're among the blessed few who know all the cultural references.
I took it as my job to make Takahashi's dazzling characters and stories
as accessible as possible to new readers. Her ferocious enegry and
acute comic eye were revelations to me. I wanted others to be able
to have the same revelation I did.
Once or twice I just had to throw up my hands and surrender. In Maris
the Chojo (formerly The Supergal), recently printed in
this magazine, the then-inexperienced Takahashi had her pompous characters
suddenly and inexplicably slip into the Kansai dialect of western
Japan as the story neared its climax. I thought of rewriting those
lines in a caricatured Deep South accent, since Kansai is sneered
at by up-country sophisticates as a sort of "hick-speak." But somehow
it just didn't... well, translate. Some cultural baggage, some
sense of the inherent humor in the juxtaposition of Kansai and Kanto
dialects, just didn't make it into an American context. I contented
myselfwith having them speak increasingly informally as their grand
schemes and melodramatic posturings fell apart. So the evil kidnapper
shifted from "I'll kill her so cruelly, the entire space patrol will
shudder" to "What am I supposed to do now that my hideout's all smashed."
Takahashi's absured switch might have tickled the clever Tokyo middle-school
students, but I could just see my American readers scratching their
heads over the sudden intrusion of "Whut am I s'posed to do now thet
muh hideout's all smay-ashed." I hope the mangaphiles can forgive.
Fortunately for me, as Takahashi's work has matured, she's depended
less and less on word games and more and more on what was always her
greatest strength- character. Cherry the monk became far funnier when
he dropped the triple-layer puns and just drove everyone crazy with
his pessimism, his startling entrances and his bottomless-pit appetite.
There's hardly a single pun in Ranma ½, the bizarre martial-arts
sex comedy of the mature Takahashi, which Viz is currently publishing.
There are only vivid characters, raging emotions, suspenseful plots
and hilarious twists.
It makes for better comics. And it makees for a much happier
rewriter. Now all I have to do is keep the characters talking like
themselves, keep the lines as pointed as I can... and figure out what
occidental sound effect could possibly capture all the nuanceds of
"zawa zawa zawa."
Animerica Vol 1. No. 2
Inu-Yasha Sengoku o-Togi Zoushi
and Rumic Trilogy.