Manga Translator Zack Davisson on Maintaining the Spirit of Mizuki’s Kitaro

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Manga Translator Zack Davisson on Maintaining the Spirit of Mizuki’s Kitaro


Indie comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has been doggedly working its way through translations of the many and varied works of Shigeru Mizuki, the most recent of which is an introductory volume of his Kitaro stories. Less than half the size of D&Q’s last Kitaro collection, The Birth of Kitaro is more accessible, the kind of book that fits easily in one hand and can be left around for children looking to make the leap to manga. Kitaro himself is a sort of yokai (supernatural Japanese monster) boy detective, the product of a union between two other yokai who often helps humans with their otherworldly problems.


Aimed at kids, Shigeru’s first strip lies somewhere between Drew Weing’s current webcomic The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo and EC’s classic Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror series, both spooky and funny in equal parts with plenty of goofy absurdism. Its deep background in Japanese mythology and folklore can make it slightly less accessible to western audiences, until you start to read it and get sucked in by Mizuki’s ability to spin a yarn. Zack Davisson, who translated the new book and has worked on some of D+Q’s other Mizuki publications, chatted with us over email, discussing how he approaches translating, what some of the hardest parts of the process are, the other comics he likes to read and the amount of time he spent on YouTube looking up sound effects.

Paste: I see from your biography that you have a pretty strong background in Japanese ghost folklore (and literature), but what brought you to comics?

Zack Davisson: I’ve always been into comics. I mean really into comics, as in I owned a comic shop back in the ‘90s, and I’ve got an X-Men #1 signed by Stan Lee. So not a casual fan. To me comics and literature are not mutually exclusive—Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has had as much of an influence on my love of folklore as Lafcadio Hearn and Charles Perrault. Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men had a lot to do with my being interested in Japan in the first place. My shelves are equally overflowing with comics and books. And as a reader, writer and translator, I like being able to move back and forth. I write books, I write comics, I translate books, I translate comics… I wouldn’t want to focus on just one.

Paste: What’s different between translating comics versus other kinds of literature?

Davisson: Ohh…this is easy. The speech balloon. That’s the biggest difference right there. With doing literary translation, you can always add extra pages as required, but with comics your words have to fit into the physical space that was predetermined by the artist. By the nature of the written language, Japanese can fit a lot more meaning into a tinier space. You can write novels on Twitter! But when putting that into English, you have to make determinations based on the size of that damned balloon. And sometimes they go vertical, just to make things worse! I’ve done this long enough that I can generally eyeball a speech balloon and get a good idea of how much text will fit in there. But it is rarely smooth. And there is often compromise. That and comic translation is almost all dialogue. Doing natural-sounding dialogue takes practice, and is something I am always striving to be better at.

Paste: What did you have to keep in mind with this project that you didn’t with previous comics-translation efforts that were geared to adults?

Davisson: Not too much, actually. Mizuki adapted his own language well enough for Kitaro as opposed to something like Hitler or Showa: A History of Japan that I didn’t have to take that too much into consideration. I followed some of the basic guidelines for grade-appropriate writing, but I wasn’t scared to throw a big word or two in there. I think kids like comics that challenge them a little, and Birth of Kitaro will do that, in a good way. Really, although we are targeting this series to be “kid-friendly,” that was mostly in the size and price. We wanted something small enough to be tossed into a backpack, instead of those doorstops that we were releasing for Mizuki’s other works. I’m extraordinarily pleased with how they turned out.

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The Birth of Kitaro Interior Art by Shigeru Mizuki

Paste: What’s your general approach to translation: more spirit or more letter? There’s a panel fairly early on in The Birth of Kitaro that includes a “gluten-free” joke, for instance. That can’t be in the original. Did you try to contemporize the dialogue?

Davisson: The spirit, absolutely. My translation is what I would call emotional-based; I read the comic and allow myself to feel the work, and then try to get readers to feel the same thing using English. I don’t think being too precious about the individual words makes for a good translation. I read an article about that recently, about two Tolstoy translators. One was very dry and “accurate,” while one was more inventive and flowing. Most agreed that the “accurate” translate was the lesser. It captured the words of Tolstoy, but none of the emotion of reading his books in Russian.

That gluten-free joke… You’re actually the first person to mention that! I agonized over it quite awhile. I generally don’t contemporize dialogue. I think that time-stamps books as soon as you start making Tumblr jokes and things like that. I don’t like to see that when I read translations; it takes me out of the experience. But that line in particular referenced koshin, an old folk religion that followed the practice of “bigu,” meaning abstention from eating the “five grains” as a path to immortality. When you hit something like that, there are a couple ways to handle it. One is to keep the Japanese, and then provide translator’s notes explaining exactly what it is. The other is to just cut your losses and go for an approximation.

Neither way is correct—it’s just a preference. There is a certain segment of readers who love Translator’s Notes, and feel they are learning more by reading them. And I get that, buuuuttt…as soon as you go that route, you are going against the original intent of the author. Mizuki didn’t mean for readers to stop on that line, grinding the story to a halt while they studied up on old religious practices. He meant it to be a throwaway gag poking fun at people’s weird food beliefs in the name of health. I thought the “gluten free” line got the intent better…but only after a fierce internal battle!

Paste: I think your approach—minimizing notes—is the right one, especially here, on a book that’s aimed at younger audiences.

Davisson: Thanks! I love doing supplemental features, though. I’m working on another comic now, Black Museum: The Ghost and the Lady for Kodansha, and I’ve pitched them on a few back-up articles. I’d rather do something like that—something you can read if you want to for greater depth, but isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.

Paste: Is there a page or a panel you’d point to in The Birth of Kitaro that was the single most difficult to translate?

Davisson: I had to look over the whole book just now to see if anything stuck out! There was definitely a few panels where I had rare back-and-forths with editor Tracy Hurren, when the villagers were summoning the guardian spirit to help battle the giant cow monster called the gyuki.

We were digging into some Shinto religious terminology, and while I was happy with most of the choices—like using “guardian spirit” for “kami”—there was a scene where they needed to all pray together to summon the spirit. I had originally translated that as “combined faith,” which I wasn’t happy with because I had just used “combined power,” and I try to never use the same word twice on a single page if I can help it (one of my secret rules). We fired back a few terms, like “unified faith” and some other ones, but eventually went with “collective energy.” I liked the compromise, and it reads well in the finished volume.

The Birth of Kitaro Interior Art by Shigeru Mizuki

Paste: How do you translate sound effects?

Davisson: Those are tough! That’s where a lifetime of being an American comics reader comes in handy. I know my thwip from my snikt. I have a pretty big head catalog of sound effects I can pull from. But even then, a lot of the time I just have to make something up. I’m careful about sound effects. For Showa: A History of Japan, I created an equivalent specific sound effect for every type of gun, so that you could tell what was being fired just by the sound effect. YouTube is great too. For the third volume of Kitaro I needed to do a sound effect of a catfish roar. I went to YouTube and… Sure enough! I had several videos to choose from! So I listened to catfish roars until I could approximate it. The things I do for readers!

Paste: Do you think you approached translating Mizuki’s work differently from his previous translators? How?

Davisson: Honestly, this hasn’t been too much of an issue because Mizuki hasn’t had many translators. There were the Kodansha bilingual editions intended for a Japanese audience, then the two or three books Drawn & Quarterly put out before I came on board. And I haven’t really studied those to see how they did things. I didn’t want it to influence me. If there is a big difference, I would say it is in how much I love Mizuki. Working on his books is more than just a job for me—it’s a holy mission. I’m his apostle as much as his translator, trying to spread the good word of this incredible genius. And after working on so many of his books, I feel like I have been in his head and have his voice down. It is easy for me to slip into Mizuki’s world, and it’s a place I love to be.

The Birth of Kitaro Interior Art by Shigeru Mizuki

Paste: If you’re an apostle for his work, what’s the one you give people first, to convert them?

Davisson: It really depends on the person. For a casual reader, maybe Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths. That is a self-contained story with strong emotional impact. If they are dedicated comics readers, I would do the first Showa: A History of Japan. That’s a mind-blowing work, that combines all of Mizuki’s genius into a single series. The only thing comparable is Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and even that is a weak comparison. Showa is on a completely different scale. For someone looking for fun… Birth of Kitaro. That’s bizarre, rambunctious, silly, addictive Mizuki.

One of the things about Mizuki as an artist is that he is so multi-faceted. He can be this great, towering genius and also the goofy guy telling fart jokes. Most often he is both.

Paste: When did you first read Mizuki?

Davisson: Hmmmm… When was it? I can’t remember exactly, but it was my then-girlfriend/now-wife Miyuki that gave me my first comic. She knew I was interested in yokai, and picked it up for me, saying something like, “If you think yokai are cool, you need to check out THIS!” And she was right… It took me awhile to get my reading level up to where I could just pick them up and read them, but I was hooked.

Paste: Have you translated English-language comics into Japanese? And, if so, is that easier?

Davisson: I couldn’t. One of the rules of thumb is that you translate into your native language, never into your second language. Anything I wrote in Japanese would sound goofy—I would need a native speaker to sweep over it and turn it into something readable.

Translation is really like 60 percent writing ability, 40 percent language. I know Japanese, but it is my skill as an English writer than makes me a good translator. There are definitely people who have much stronger Japanese ability than I do—I still look a lot of words up—but they aren’t better translators. Because they don’t have that ability to internalize the language, process it emotionally and transform it into something else.

I once heard reading works in translation as being compared to playing a piece of music on an oboe that was composed for piano. That’s pretty accurate. And the translator’s job is to transpose that music so that it sounds like it was originally written for oboe. In order to do that, it is more important that you know how an oboe sounds than your ability to pound away on a piano keyboard.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths Cover Art by Shigeru Mizuki

Paste: What are the last few comics you read for leisure, as opposed to work?

Davisson: So many comics! I’ve recently been reading through Carla Speed McNeil’s stunningly brilliant Finder series. I got the Finder Library set from Dark Horse and they are amazing. Also from Dark Horse, I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa is brilliant—that breaks every rule I know about pacing, and does it perfectly. I just finished Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, which was great fun. Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County and Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City are both comics I look forward to every month. And I did an event with Brooke Allen and G. Willow Wilson recently and we traded comics, so I have been reading Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvel which are both outstanding. Oh! And I just started Attack on Titan! Late to the party on those, but hey…

The one thing about my comics reading is I tend to be behind the times. I’m rarely caught up on the cool new hotness, but that’s OK. The best comics are not beholden to a particular era, any more than the best films, books or songs are. A comic from 50 years ago can be as powerful as one from last week. I have a bookshelf full of “to be read” comics that span multiple decades and countries. Someday I will get to them all! For now, I’m going to pull…Gail Simone’s Secret Six: Money for Murder off the shelf. That should get me through the train ride home. Looking forward to it.

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