When Yen Press first announced that they picked up the manga license for Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma at New York Comic-Con earlier this year, the room literally erupted in cheers. The joy reverberated throughout the comics world as word got around that this popular all-ages, slice-of-life comedy would be returning in September 2009.
Why? Well, if you've ever read Yotsuba&! you already know. Yotsuba&! is an infectiously fun manga series about a little green-haired 5-year old girl who makes everyday things like air conditioners, swing sets, fireworks and cicadas an opportunity for discovery and hilarity.
With five volumes of Yotsuba&! previously published by ADV Manga, several questions arose: In addition to the long-in-limbo Volume 6, would Volumes 1 through 5 also be reprinted? Would Yen Press re-use ADV's version or use new translations? The answers from Yen Press? All six volumes, from Volume 1 through 6 would have new translations, and would be released all at once.
When I got my copies of Yotsuba&!, I pulled out my old ADV editions and compared them with the new Yen Press versions. I found some interesting differences between the two, so I decided to go straight to the source and ask JuYoun Lee, Senior Editor at Yen Press about Yotsuba&!, why "Danbo" isn't "Cardbo" and her pick for the funniest scene in the series. Here's what she had to say over e-mail:
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
Q: Why did Yen Press decide to use new translations for Yotsuba&! instead of licensing the translations from the ADV editions?
JuYoun Lee: At the end of the day, we felt that it was most important to apply our own editorial standards and tastes to Yotsuba&!, particularly since we are going to be handling new volumes in the series that have not yet been released in this market. In order to maintain consistency across the series, ultimately starting from scratch struck us as the most appropriate way to approach the project.
Q: What was the biggest challenge about putting out all six volumes of Yotsuba&! out at the same time?
JuYoun Lee: I'd have to say it was the workload. Working on all six volumes at once was definitely not easy. Many thanks to the translators and letterer, and also to all our in-house staff!
Q: So how long did it take to get these new editions translated / edited/ laid out / designed and printed, from start to finish? Was this done at an accelerated rate compared to other Yen Press releases?
JuYoun Lee: Oh my... how long did it take? I think we had less than three months to get all six books translated, lettered, edited and sent to print.
The printing process is something we don't have much control over. It was a greatly accelerated process, since we tend to work way ahead especially with the translation and lettering.
It's hard to say how long we allow for the process, since it depends a lot on whether the original book is published or not. We could have a book from next year already all translated and lettered, and sometimes things get dropped in, which is normally okay, but when it's six volumes at a time, it becomes tough.
Q: Did you offer any guiding principles to the translators when working on Yotsuba&!, such as things they should try to strive for, or things they should avoid?
JuYoun Lee: The biggest challenge we had with Yotsuba&! was that we knew how eager fans were to see the books back in the market -- in particular to get the sixth volume in the series, and that presented us with some fairly daunting deadlines. Bearing this in mind, we tried to find translators who could get the work done in time, and in a very accurate way without having to worry too much about the tone or other aspects of the book.
The translators did a great job in the little time we could provide them, and we asked them to provide fairly exact translations with the understanding that we would undertake a lot of the books' final polishing in-house.
DOMO ARIGATO MR. ROBOTO: "CARDBO" VS. "DANBO"
Q: One argument that translation purists make is that they'd prefer literal translations to colloquial/conversational/localized translations. But translation is often a fine balancing act between the two.
That said, I noticed some interesting differences between the ADV and Yen Press editions in two examples. First, giving the cardboard robot its original Japanese name, "Danbo" instead of "Cardbo" in Vol. 5 (Danbo being a pun on "danboru," the Japanese word for corrugated cardboard)
JuYoun Lee: For "Danbo," this was an Editorial decision based on the fact that it's a name, and as such we would be reluctant to change it. And well, personally, I think "Danbo" sounds cuter than "Cardbo." (laughs)
Q: Humor is probably one of the trickiest things to translate, especially in Japanese when a lot of jokes rely on puns. One particularly tricky joke to translate is Fuuka's mistaken impression that Yotsuba's dad makes konnyaku in Volumes 1 and 4. So for example:
Fuuka: He? Konnyakuya?
Note: Yotsuba's dad is a translator, or "honyakuya." Yotsuba mangles it by saying "konnyakuya," which means someone who makes konnyaku, a kind of chewy yam jelly / noodles used in Japanese cuisine.
Yotsuba: A tra... a train spotter!
Fuuka: A what?
(no explanation of the konnyaku pun in either Volumes 1 or 4)
YEN PRESS EDITION
Yotsuba: It's trash-loader!
Fuuka: Huh? A trash-loader?
(with explanation about the konnyaku pun at the bottom of the page)
What was behind the decision to translate this very Japanese joke this way?
JuYoun Lee: For the konnyakuya / trash-loader pun, this was also an Editorial decision. It was a tough call, but I wanted to make sure the reader smiled when they reached the joke, so we couldn't keep the Japanese.
How did we come up with "trash-loader?" Everyone on staff in the editorial department kept mouthing words that sounded like translator for a while, and I think it was Kurt (Hassler, Yen Press' Publishing Director) who came up with trash-loader, which we thought was the funniest.
KIDS STUFF: MAKING YOTSUBA SOUND LIKE A FIVE-YEAR OLD
Q: I also noticed slight differences in tone from the two editions -- for example, in the ADV edition, Yotsuba calls her father "Dad." In the Yen Press editions, she calls him "Daddy," which is a subtle, but noticeable change that makes Yotsuba sound a bit younger. What goes through your head when you make these kinds of choices about how the characters speak?
JuYoun Lee: It's hard to talk about specific incidents, since it's not like we have a strict set of rules on how we make these choices.
Just in general, for me, for this specific title, while I never read the ADV version, I have been a huge fan of the series for a long time and have read it many times before both in Japanese and Korean. So the characters were pretty much already established in my head, and based on that, I tried to imagine how the characters might speak in English and to make sure that was reflected in the dialogue.
On another note, for Yotsuba, one of the things that stands out in the Japanese is that her dialog does not include any kanji - Chinese characters - and is written entirely in hiragana, even without katakana.* This already gives it a very childish feel, which in English it is a bit harder to convey. So I did my best to make Yotsuba sound like a child. Kurt having a five-year-old son helps a lot as well.
[*A note about Japanese written language: Hiragana is the traditional phonetic alphabet of Japanese. Each character represents a single sound, like for example, "yo", "tsu" or "ba". It's largely comprised of rounded strokes and it's what Japanese children learn to write and read first.
Katakana is a more 'angular' version of the same alphabet that is traditionally used to indicate 'foreign' or words adapted from other languages.
Kanji is more complex, pictogram type characters, that originated from Chinese. Each character can have different pronunciations and meanings depending on its usage.]
BLEEDING PAGES, MARGIN NOTES AND MAYBE EVEN MORE YOTSUBA?
Q: I noticed that the translation notes are done in the margins of the pages rather than in the back. Was there a particular reason for opting to do things that way with this book?
JuYoun Lee: For a slice-of-life story like Yotsuba&!, I thought it was important not to interrupt the flow of reading. Also, the cultural differences are not that huge, so we could manage the number of notes. Add to that the layout of Yotsuba&! where you have many panels rather than a lot of splash pages, and we came to a consensus that it would be better for this particular book to handle the notes that way.
Q: Some of the cropping in the Yen Press edition seems to chop off some of the edges of the original artwork, particularly where the art bleeds to the edge of the page. (Note: For an example of this, compare the three "konnyakuya" / "trainspotter" and "trash-loader" panels from the Japanese and Yen Press editions -- the top of Fuuka's head represents the actual page edge from each edition. The ADV edition had a 1/2-inch white margin from the top of Fuuka's head to the edge of the page) Is this something you'll be trying to address in Volume 7 and beyond?
JuYoun Lee: Unfortunately, we did not have access to the original digital files for the books, which necessitated that we scan the original Japanese editions. This means that we necessarily loose some of the edges for our bleed.
Q: Does Yen Press have plans to publish other Yotsuba books /items, like the Yotsuba black & white animals book or the calendars, (which are so adorable)?
JuYoun Lee: I would love to, and we would certainly look into it, but we don't have any specific plans of yet. (And yes, the calendars are adorable, aren't they?!)
WHAT MAKES YOTSUBA SO UNIVERSALLY LOVEABLE?
Q: Speaking of adorable, from your point of view, what makes Yotsuba&! so universally appealing to so many readers all over the world?
JuYoun Lee: This is a tough one... I think the biggest appeal would be that it's a slice-of-life story that everyone can relate to. Everyone had a childhood, and the book wonderfully captures those nothing-yet-fascinating moments you experience when you were a kid, that you forget about after you grew up. Being reminded of these moments... that's just a wonderful experience.
Also, all the relationships within the book are not overdone, but still so warm and natural that it makes you think about the people around you. The other thing that to me is very nice is that while you can relate to Yotsuba and adore her, you also get to see her through an adult's eye. The book doesn't push you to understand her every action, but rather lets you simply follow her around from time to time.
For instance, in Volume 6 when she goes to Fuuka's school to deliver milk, while it's great to see all the scenery of the town and the adventure Yotsuba's having, it gave me almost a heart attack the first time I read it worrying about her safety. Those kinds of feelings gives it more of realistic touch if you are an adult reader, which I really think is unique.
Q: What is your favorite scene in Yotsuba&! and why?
JuYoun Lee: Tough one... I guess it's chapter 25 in Volume 4, on the last page, where Fuuka says "on my own two legs." And Yotsuba adds "Your two fat legs." It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it!
Yotsuba&! Volumes 1 through 6 are available now at your friendly neighborhood bookstore or comics shop. Yotsuba&! Volume 7 will follow in December 2009 and Volume 8 will be out in April 2010. Pick up the first volumes now and get ready to fall in love with Yotsuba too!
Image credits: Yotsuba&! © Kiyohiko Azuma / YOTUBA SUTAZIO; JuYoun Lee photo: © Deb Aoki