Melissa Tanaka Talks About Translating Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin

As fans of the Gundam series, that Vertical has taken a chance in releasing Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin has tickled us pink. With the second book on the shelves, we figured we would do another article on the series to remind people it is out there.

We could have tried to interview Ed Chavez (as he is fairly eager to promote the title), but the Gundamn and Cockpit podcasts had already done that. Instead of going over similar ground in a new interview, we thought of someone with a different perspective: translator for the series Melissa Tanaka.

Translation is one of those jobs that you don’t often think about when it comes to manga unless something goes horribly wrong. Because of that fact though, we all know translation is vitally important to how the series is received by readers. The translator acts as a sort of tour guide for a series. A poor translator can’t completely diminish an outstanding work but a great translator can let non-native speakers take in a work as if they were able to read the original version.

Thankfully for Gundam fans, Melissa Tanaka has done just that for Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin.

Reverse Thieves: First, could you tell us about a little yourself and how you got into translation?

Melissa Tanaka: As one of those bookish kids who grew up in genre fiction, for a long time I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I was never that great at coming up with plots on my own. When I encountered anime and manga in high school, my focus shifted, because here was this whole other world of stories with a totally different presentation, an aesthetic presentation. And then I’d look at the subtitles or the translator’s notes and think, someone is doing this, people are working to bring these stories to us from another language.

From Spanish class, I already knew that I got a kick out of learning another language. So I studied Japanese all through college, did a year abroad in Kyoto, and never stopped loving it. I worked for a year at the NY office of a Japanese cosmetics company, but I really wanted to be involved in translating some form of fiction. I went back to school to get a Master’s in Japanese Literature, then became a freelance translator.

When I started, I was translating anything and everything, from erudite academic papers to lists of automobile malfunctions, but now I’m pretty much working exclusively on manga. I’m lucky enough to have the job I wanted for 15 years and still love it. Sometimes I scream at it, like any job, but I enjoy every page.

RT: Were you a fan of Mobile Suit Gundam before working on this project? How familiar were you with the material?

MT: I’ve spent most of my time in other genres, and my mecha experience was limited to partying like it was 1999—marathoning Eva fansubs on VHS and catching a few episodes of Gundam Wing on Toonami. I was familiar with the basic setup but not much detail. Going in with that sort of blank slate might have given me some disadvantages regarding the hard sci-fi elements, but I think getting to know the characters as they are in the reboot, without the set-in-stone ideas of decades of fandom, has allowed me to present them more transparently.

This is a story of war fought with technology, but the characters’ actions and interactions are paramount. It’s a very human drama—that’s what the best science fiction, or any kind of fiction, comes down to, and what made Mobile Suit Gundam so memorable. The manga brings that to the forefront. And I have to say, if I wasn’t a fan before, I am now. The Origin is just a brilliant work.

RT: Did you get a style sheet from Vertical, Gundam Ace, or Bandai? If so, how strict was it?

MT: No, that doesn’t really seem to be an industry standard for translators. Vertical might have received one for lettering and such, but I haven’t had a list of strict guidelines or anything. My translation might be altered in production, whether for stylistic reasons or logistical concerns like bubble sizes (Japanese characters have a much higher information density than the Roman alphabet, on top of a different orientation). But this is normal for the industry, and it happens in-house.

RT: How much research have you had to do for the series? What were the hardest things to translate? How did you deal with any technobabble?

MT: My research consists of watching the series and the movies, and frequently referencing resources like to check the details. The most challenging thing to translate, however, is not the technobabble but the military babble—sometimes it makes me wish I read more Tom Clancy than Anne McCaffrey. I spend as much time looking up real-life military and naval terminology as I do the vagaries of beam cannons.

Another complication is that in Japanese, the names of ranks are the same for all branches of the armed forces. Some of the lower ranks that appear in Gundam don’t even exist any more—it’s almost an old-fashioned naval warfare feel. So naming a person’s rank doesn’t immediately tell you what it should be in English. Various translations of the anime versions have used different rank conventions, and on top of that, Mr. Yasuhiko changed the ranks of some characters in The Origin. So rank has caused me a bit of angst.

I also speak to both American and Japanese fans of the original Gundam. In Japan, it has at least the cultural significance that something like the original Star Wars does here, so there are lines and scenes that remain near and dear to fans’ hearts. Which lines and scenes those are might be different on either side of the Pacific. So, to my mind, one of the most important and challenging things about this project is to genuinely and accurately convey what made those moments so memorable to the longtime Japanese fans, without alienating the English-speaking fans who may have grown up on different interpretations. I hope those moments come through to the newcomers, too, and draw them into the shared experience of the fandom.

The other challenges are common to all translation of fiction, such as getting the character voices just right. With Sayla, for instance, she comes from an elite background but she’s not a snob. When she shows disdain it’s for very specific reasons, like when she tells off Kai. I have to express her pride without making her into a stuck-up princess. Striking that sort of balance is the most difficult part of the craft and the most rewarding.

RT: Are you aware of any fan reaction to the translation?

MT: Translation by nature is invisible work. If it’s done well, most readers don’t really notice it; if not, they do and they say something. You only see a window if it’s dirty. So I realize that if there are reactions specifically mentioning the translation, a lot of them will be critical. I have to look without going too far down the rabbit hole, and try to find the things I can use constructively. I’m always trying to hone my craft, and I want to deliver the best translation I can to those who rightfully have high expectations for such a significant series.

In general, it’s not possible to produce a translation that everyone finds perfect, because the work does involve a lot of judgement calls. Individual fans will bring different priorities and experiences to any work, and come away with their own interpretations and feelings about it. That’s especially the case for the original Gundam saga, a classic with different versions and many translations of each, and a generation-spanning fandom. People were making and trading copies of fan-subs when I was a toddler shoving a peanut butter sandwich into the VCR. And The Origin is a reboot, not just a retelling—there are a myriad of small changes, in mecha design and specs, ranks, personalities, dialogue, and plot details. So I do all I can to get it right, but not every fan will agree with the results.

RT: Have you interacted with Mr. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko at all?

MT: Unfortunately, that doesn’t really happen any more. I can’t think of any manga translators besides Matt Thorn who have interacted with the authors of their projects.

RT: Has anything about this project surprised you?

MT: I guess I shouldn’t have been, since Vertical picked it up, but I was suprised at what a stunningly well-crafted manga this is. Mr. Yasuhiko draws every single panel himself, every dramatic expression and every mechanical detail, with a brush, no assistants, nothing. That alone would be amazing, but the character development is also fantastic. Like the critical essay in the back of Volume 1 pointed out, the characters really do have more depth and substance than in the anime. Maybe it has to do with the medium, how the still framing of manga can really focus on particular moments, because Mr. Yasuhiko definitely knows how to use that to its fullest potential. So I’m also surprised at how much I’ve come to care about the characters myself. . . . And that I’m fangirling for Bright more than Char.

This project is a genuine pleasure to work on, and I hope it’s at least as great a pleasure to read. And now the obligatory plug: as much as I’d like to tell you to support your local bookstore or comic shop, for this series, put in your Amazon preorder. I repeat: Preorder, preorder, preorder! Those numbers will help Vertical keep bringing it to you!


5 thoughts on “Melissa Tanaka Talks About Translating Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin

  1. Random Gundam Fan says:

    Things I get from this interview:
    -Sunrise apparently never gave her a list of approved translations for the ranks and a few other things.
    -All translators might benefit from an English Creative Writing degree or an editor that has one, just to make sure the translation is smooth in the English.
    -Sunrise definitely should’ve given her some official explanations of the technobabble instead of forcing her to use a poorly run wiki like GundamWiki.
    -Assuming the Japanese and English audiences are anything alike is not a good idea when translating a work.

  2. Loum Veteran says:

    I found this interview really insightful. I liked that Tanaka seems to put a lot of thought into this and that she’s talking to Japanese fans. I once talked to a Japanese Gundam fan who went on about how the English DVD translation butchered some iconic lines and Char’s voice. I hated the idea that I was missing things the Japanese fans got!

    All in all, this translation is way, way smoother than the movie subtitles and a lot of manga I read. (I did notice a couple of places where the speech bubbles seemed to make things difficult… the bubbles are pretty irregularly shaped in this one.)

    My opinion? The ranks and techno-babble are the editor’s job. You can’t expect someone who specializes in Japanese culture and literature (in which Tanaka has a master’s) to also be an expert on mecha trivia. Better than getting a translator who’s obsessed with those details but has poor Japanese skills (like some scanlators).

    I was also really impressed with 5 Centimeters Per Second, an earlier Vertical release that Tanaka translated.

  3. J D says:

    I’ve gone through the manga a few times now, and the o ly thing yhat unhinges me is the opening narration during tne explosion in the colony where it roughly goes “those living in space….. and passed away” instead “…and die.”

    The subtleness of the word passing away versus dying is an error when speaking of the harsh life in space, alluding to the terrors of war.

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