A Translator's Story:
Andrew Cunningham on Boogiepop
by Shannon Fay
The world of Boogiepop is a strange universe where high schoolers must deal with an otherworldly creature preying on the student body as well as normal teenage worries like exams and dating. Now that the first book in the Boogiepop series and volume one of the manga have been released by Seven Seas, readers can delve into the world of Boogiepop for themselves.
Translator Andrew Cunningham was kind enough to talk to Gomanga about translating and all things Boogiepop.
Thank-you for doing this interview. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a translator for Seven Seas?
AC: I'd been living in Japan for about five years, studying Japanese. I had been a screenwriting major, but I discovered that translation is all the parts of writing I enjoy without the agony of actually coming up with a good plot.
In the fall of 2005, I'd finally gotten to the level where I was able to start getting translation work -- Kino no Tabi being my first. Then rumors started popping up that someone had bought the rights to the Boogiepop series. I was a big fan of the series, so I posted on the Anime on DVD forums that I would give my first born son to be able to translate the series.
I never expected anything to come of it, which is partly why I used such an over the top phrase, but I got email a few hours later from Adam Arnold asking me for a sample. Two pages from the first chapter of Boogiepop.
Samples like this are pretty much the hardest thing to translate, and I sweated it -- I had to find the voice for the character, match the author's writing style, and do that in two pages. No time to find the style as you go along. And you also want to show off a little, prove what you can bring to the table. I turned it in, and a few days later I had the job and launched right into translating the first novel. Never looked back.
What made you decide to learn Japanese in the first place? Was it because you were an anime fan, or was it something else?
AC: I'm actually not much of an anime fan -- I watched a fair amount in college, but I watched equal amounts of Hong Kong action or chambara films, just looking for something new. Now I almost always prefer to read the original manga or novel instead of watching the anime.
Taking Japanese in the first place was an accident, really. I wanted to take Russian (for no particular reason) but it didn't fit my schedule two years in a row, and since I had to take a year of language I took Japanese in my sophomore year.
But in a way, it was anime that got me into translation -- Rurouni Kenshin and Berserk were anime my friends and I were watching that had a lot more story in the manga. So I got the later volumes of the manga and started trying to puzzle it out. Those translations were gibberish, but I was really having a good time, so I stuck with Japanese.
By my junior year, I had figured out that I wasn't going to get a job in film, so I studied abroad in Kyoto my senior year, and never came back.
What's your process for translating a novel or manga from Japanese to English?
AC: Since I'm already a fan of these books, I've already read them. This lets me launch right in.
I've read interviews with translators who make these frightening charts planning the speech patterns for each character, but I find the more ideas I have about style the worse the translation is. If I go in with preconceived notions of how this is going to sound, I end up having to rewrite the piece heavily.
So I read a few pages, get a feel for the novel's style, or the character's voice...and that's it. I just start writing. Once I can hear the character's voice in my mind, it's easy to write like them. Some characters are easier than others -- Boogiepop and Takeda were very hard, Kimura and Niitoki were really easy.
I tend to work very quickly, trying to get entire sections of the book translated in one sitting. Then I go back and revise that, tinker with the wording and making sure I caught the nuances. If I go line by line the first time I think the translation loses something -- working in sections like this means the writing naturally flows, and sounds like it was written together.
Especially with dialogue -- if you translate a conversation line by line it doesn't connect, it doesn't feel like the response matches the first character's statement. It doesn't matter if each sentence captures the original meaning perfectly if it doesn't read as naturally as the original.
Translating is 10% speaking Japanese and 90% being as good a writer stylistically as the original author.
Are there ever times when translating a book that you wish you could consult the original writer? Have you ever met Boogiepop author Kouhei Kadono?
AC: Occasionally. Some of those Kirima Seiichi quotes get a little tricky. But I've never found something I couldn't puzzle out eventually.
I'd like to meet Kouhei Kadono, if only because he seems like a fun guy from the after words. Maybe Seven Seas could bring him to a convention sometime.
I did try and write a letter to him when I got the job, but...I have really intelligent friends who can't write a coherent email in their native language, and me trying to write in Japanese is pretty much an embarrassment. I wrote a few drafts but never sent them. I was afraid he'd go "This idiot's Japanese is crap!" and try to get me thrown off the book.
But I hear he's a big fan of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, so he must be cool.
Who are your favorite Boogiepop characters, from both a reader and a translator's perspective?
AC: I'd say the bulk of my favorite characters are from the later novels in the series. As much as I like the original characters, the later novels are even more fun.
I'd say my all time favorite character is Fortissimo, the Towa Organization's most powerful agent. He won't show up till novel 8, though.
But one of the reasons the Boogiepop series is so satisfying is that all the characters are three-dimensional and interesting, even if they terrify you.
Boogiepop has a lot of psychology in it. Do you ever read up on mental illnesses when translating the series?
AC: I've checked a couple of wikipedia entries. Mostly it's a matter of just figuring out the right technical term and then translation his explanation literally. (I have to do a lot more research on Kino no Tabi, with all the loving descriptions of how Civil War era revolvers work.)
He's writing for an audience that probably knows less about psychology than I do, after all.
Is translating your full-time job?
AC: It is now. I had a day job teaching English when it started, but my schedule's picked up enough that I was able to leave Japan and translate full time.
Bizarrely, this means I have less time to read.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Are there any Japanese books you'd like to see translated into English?
AC: I'm woefully ignorant of English language authors at the moment, since I haven't read any for years. I have a list a mile long of Japanese authors I love -- Maijo Outaro, Ono Fuyumi, Nisi Oisin, Sakuraba Kazuki...
Why don't I just plug my website here? It isn't really ready to go public (no images at all yet) but maybe it will be when this interview is actually posted. If not, there's still a lot to read. A friend and I have started a wikizine called Eastern Standard, and I'm spending most of my time writing about novels (or manga) from Japan that haven't been translated yet: http://easternstandard.pbwiki.com/
The high school setting of Boogiepop (in the first few books at least) has a big effect on the atmosphere of the book. Are there ever times when you're reminded of your own high school days? How much would you say that Boogiepop is about being a high school student vs. being a Japanese high school student? While many people can relate to cliques and suspensions, many things in the books like cram schools and student discipline committees are linked to Japan. When you're translating the more everyday parts of the series, do you ever worry about your perception of what high school was like (back in America) creeping into the translation?
AC: Well, my high school was a really good one, and Shinyo Academy is a nightmarishly repressive and evil one, even by Japan's low standards. I mean, they aren't allowed to date? Even for Japanese schools, that's going too far.
But I think the fundamental issues that high school students struggle with are universal -- nothing to do with school, just a part of growing up. Alienation, trying to fit in, trying to figure out what you want to do with yourself in the future, depression, sex, cynicism, and so on. In some ways Japan's school system makes it even harder to deal with these things, but I don't think it's easy for anyone.
One of the reasons I like the Boogiepop novels so much is that they deal with all this stuff, all the stuff I wanted to read about when I was that age but couldn't find anything that dealt with it very well. The garbage I read in junior high, trying to find books with a darker outlook on the world and lots of action...
So basically I'm drawing less on my own high school experiences than on my own memories of being a teenager.
If you hadn't taken those Japanese classes in college, where do you think you would be right now instead of in Japan working as a translator?
AC: I left Japan a couple of months ago, actually.
I was a film major, screenwriting. I'd probably be doing something I hated and trying to write in the evenings, probably unsuccessfully.
I hate actually writing, but have lots of things I want to write. Someday I may be ready to write my own things, but that's still a ways off.
Why did you decide to leave Japan?
AC: Food! Nothing against Japanese food, but there's not nearly enough variety. I was horribly bored with the menus at every restaurant near me, and my one electric burner kitchen was not exactly making cooking easy.
Also, translating pays okay, but the cost of living in Japan is really high. I want to be putting a chunk of each paycheck into savings in case there's a dry spell coming, and here, I can probably manage to do that.
Is it harder to do translation work when you're no longer speaking and hearing Japanese everyday?
AC: I was a little worried that my Japanese would devolve, but since I still spend 12 hours a day translating and reading, it's held up pretty well. I will need to make some Japanese speaking friends at some point, though, if I don't want to develop an embarrassing stammer.
On the Gomanga website, Seven Seas has details on the first three books in the Boogiepop series. Do you know if Seven Seas is planning on releasing any more after that? What's your favorite book in the series?
AC: I'm just a freelancer, so I can't really speak for the company, but I know they're all big fans and would like to release the whole series. Hopefully they'll have something to announce soon. I'm certainly crossing my fingers, since my favorite book in the series is the fourth one! Boogiepop in the Mirror: Pandora is where Kouhei Kadono realized the Boogiepop stories can be whatever he wants them to be, and starts making each book radically different from the previous one.
Do you have any advice for aspiring translators, or for people interested in learning Japanese?
AC: For translators, spend as much time learning to write as you do studying Japanese. With manga and these light novels, you really need to be able to write natural sounding dialogue, and write in different voices depending on the characters. If you can't make it sound well-written in English, you aren't translating.
With Japanese...you need to be in Japan. It makes it so much easier to stay motivated. The most important thing to do is find a way to study that you actually enjoy. If you don't like newspapers, reading newspaper articles is not going to be an effective way to study. I usually alternated between studying kanji, grammar, and vocabulary, and reading a mountain of manga and novels, reinforcing what I studied. But that won't work for everyone. Find your own way, and good luck!
We'd love to hear from you!
Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator Part 1 ©1998 KOUHEI KADONO, Illustrations: KOUJI OGATA
Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator Part 2 ©1998 KOUHEI KADONO, Illustrations: KOUJI OGATA
Boogiepop Doesn't Laugh ©1999 KOUHEI KADONO, KOUJI OGATA