Sunday, 14 August 2016

[Thoughts] A Bizarre Large Serving of Nikuko-chan...or How I Gained New Found Respect for Translators

As some of you may or may not know, I’ve been studying Japanese for the best part of two and a half years now. Within that two years I have learned a staggering amount of new vocab and grammar. Sometimes it hurts my head just thinking about it, other times it leaves me feeling accomplished that I can actually remember most of what I’ve learned. Every Saturday for the last two and a half years, I’ve made the hour long trip from my home in the suburbs into the sprawling maze of unorganized streets that is Sydney and have studied under the tutelage of my sensei, Fumiko. During our most recent lesson, I was told a Japanese joke by one of my fellow students and the joke goes as such:


Why do people from Hawaii never have to visit the Dentist?

Didn’t find it funny? Don’t worry, I don’t blame you nor do I feel offended that you didn’t find it funny. For those interested as to why the punchline is “Hawaii”, I’ll give you a quick break down of the sentence

歯 (ha) means “tooth”
は (wa) is the subject marker
いい (ii) means “good”

Put the whole thing together and say it in Shinkansen speeds of Japanese and you get something that sounds close to “Hawaii.” So if you couldn’t tell, it’s a play on words and that’s what make its funny. However, when translated directly to English the punchline loses its punch. Therefore, say a translator were to read this joke in a Manga and then interpret it into English, what would they do? Probably re-write the joke all together since it’s kind of a dud joke in English, or find something that approximates it. Kind of interesting, isn’t it?

But why am I talking about a somewhat corny Japanese joke, you ask? Where is this all going? For the past year, I’ve undertaken a project of sorts. I decided to test my knowledge of the language and do something that can only be described as somewhat insane. I decided to read and translate a Japanese written manga and what do you know? I actually finished reading it!

The manga in question is titled Kaiki Oomori!! Nikuko-chan, which roughly translates to A Bizarre Large Serving!! Nikuko-chan. Written and drawn by a friend of mine, Miyako Cojima, the book is a collection of five short stories centered around a plump naive but kindhearted pre-teen girl named Nikuko.

The first two stories play as moral tales in which our plump heroine Nikuko is bullied by two girls whom are hiding demons in their closets. The third story starts off in the same mold as the first two stories, but takes a surprising left turn and reveals itself as a rather touching love story. The fourth story is a Norman Bates/Psycho type tale of a mother’s overbearing methods of nurture towards her daughter. While the final story is an amusing little caper detailing Nikuko’s first love.
The book largely deals with the theme of obsession. Be it the obsession of attaining an ideal body image, the obsession of gaining fame, the obsession of fitting in with one's fellow peers, or even just Nikuko’s strange obsession to eat anything and everything in-sight. The book plays as a wonderful mix of absurd comedy, drama, social commentary and horror all mixed into one delicious serving of Niku (meaty) goodness.

Nikuko’s demeanor is that of a sweet and kindhearted girl who just happens to have a huge appetite. As a child, she was bullied without mercy and grew up never having a single friend. In a never ending spree of violence and hate, her goal remains the same. She’s simply looking for someone to call a friend. But unfortunately for her, she is ridiculed and subjected to some pretty cruel and unusual torment.

But no matter how low her tormentors stoop, she endures on with her relentless upbeat take on life. There is one line of dialog from the book that best sums up Nikuko and it goes as so: “It’s pointless to hate someone, even if I desperately want a friend.” She’ll never stoop down to their level in return. Granted, the tormentors in question do get their comeuppance in the most unusual (and hilarious) of ways, but Nikuko remains the sweetheart of a girl who just so desperately wants a friend. That’s not to say Nikuko gets off lightly. In fact, writer Miyako makes it a point to slyly criticize Nikuko’s unhealthy lifestyle choices just as much as she criticizes the actions of Nikuko’s thoughtless peers. Particularly in the fourth story where Nikuko’s supposed dieting method is to eat a four course banquet to herself. It goes without saying that such a lifestyle is far from great as well.

There is a running gag throughout the book. Every time Nikuko is introduced to a new group of people they instantly mistake her name by using the wrong kanji. Which has become something of a nightmare to translate for reasons mentioned above. It should be an easy joke, right? A common mixup of understanding. Well, not quite so when you’re trying to keep the original names in-tact.

Which I guess leads me back to the intro of this blog post. This little translation project has been one of the hardest projects that I’ve ever had both the joy and misery of working on. Oh don’t get wrong, when I say misery, I mean misery in a good way (if there is even such a thing.) I guess pain and joy go hand in hand.

I have written well over 30 pages of basic translations, which now I have to go back to and double read, double check my translations, re-write certain segments, make sure I actually did get some of the trickier sentences down pat, make sure I didn’t misinterpret jokes or puns as literal translations, do a final pass on the script and then, finally, doctor in those translations to the original panels in Photoshop and actually make the thing into a book as a gift for myself and my friend.

But in the end, I can say without hesitation that it’s been entirely worth it. I’ve had a blast doing this little project and I had a blast reading this book. It’s a wonderful little slice of absurd horror, comedy and drama. The artwork is clearly influenced by the likes of the great Kazuo Umezu of The Drifting Classroom fame, but with it’s own feminine sensibility. I was endeared by Nikuko and was very impressed with the broad range of topics discussed in each story. It’s a smart, well written, well drawn and thoughtful little book that deserves more attention.  

So what have I learned from this little project of mine? I’ve learned to respect translators a hell of a lot more. It’s quite the undertaking and you really only begin to appreciate exactly what goes into it once you do it for yourself. I guess in my younger years I was always a bit naive and thought it was just a matter of switching out Japanese words with English words, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s a difficult job that requires a lot of thought, a lot of patience and a fair bit of rewriting. So here’s to you translators, you have my utmost respect for the hard work you do in helping to bring foreign text to our door steps (salute; or is that kanpai in this case?)

I can’t say my current translations are perfect. After hearing that joke in class, I grew a little fearful that maybe I did translate some things a little too literal for their own good. I feel somewhat confident with the first draft that I have so far...but as we all know, first drafts don’t mean much. Maybe it will take even greater shape with the second draft? I hope that one day more people have the ability to read this manga and enjoy it as I did. Who knows if anything will come of this translation project of mine. Maybe it will get seen by a wider audience, or maybe it will remain on my shelf (and Miyako’s) as a simple kind gesture. Who knows in this crazy world of ours?

Anyways, that was something different, until next time we meet.
-Daniel M.



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