For 15 years, Italian Simona Stanzani has been translating manga from Japanese into Italian and English. And not just any manga, but the big ones of the shoujo and shonen genres: Air Gear, Bleach, Steel Ball Run, Host Club or Nana! One quite special profession and I bet a lot of folks do envy her. How did she get there? PingMag visited Simona in Tokyo’s lovely Nakameguro neighbourhood where she currently stays…
Written by Verena
Manga translator Simona Pini with two of her faves: Bleach and Air Gear.
Simple question: How did you became what you are today – a manga translator?
It began like this: When I was little, they started showing Japanese anime on Italian TV, such as Heidi, the Swedish-Japanese co-production Barbapapa or Vicky the Viking. Only we didn’t know it was Japanese because we were so used to American comics or French animation. And the one that really freaked me out was Grendizer, a cousin of the Great Mazinger by Go Nagai, the genre creator and father of the giant 70s robots. So, I started drawing comics with the animation characters. At 14 my dream was to come to Japan and become a cartoonist. And by the age of 17 I started studying Japanese.
The thing is: I quit school so I didn’t have a high school diploma. But I knew that in Bologna they did a Japanese course. I went there to a university professor and told him that I really wanted to study Japanese. He was like “Ok!” So, I studied for just two years! Back then, there were a lot of kids into animation and Japanese comics which made us a little community: We all knew each other from different towns and there were different groups doing fanzines. Eventually, some of them decided to start a company in Bologna to publish manga with the support of a big publisher. They approached me and, as I had just finished my Japanese course, I started working with them in 1992. Also, I didn’t need to study manga. I’m a cartoonist myself, and though my profession is writing, a comic for me is a very natural way to express myself.
What was the name of that fanzine turned into a publishing group?
The editing group is called Kappa boys consisting of four writers that founded their own publishing company. They released a lot of new Lupin III comics in Italy, with the permission of the author Monkey Punch, written and drawn by Italian artists and occasionally Japanese ones like Shinichi Hiromoto. They are working freelance, mainly for big publishers like Star Comics, the biggest that does only manga in Italy next to PaniniComics and their Japanese section Planet Manga.
Again, you started translating manga in 1992?
Basically, I started working with these guys and never really stopped…
How did it all work – with just two years studying the language?
The two years were very intense. Toshiaki Takeshita, the professor at Bologna University, developed his own teaching system, and he crammed so much stuff in my head… The rest is all experience: It was the 80s and I found a Japanese magazine about the music I listened to at that time, like Duran Duran, Culture Club, etc. In the mag, there was a pen pal corner, so I wrote a letter saying: You could write to me in Japanese and in English – and I got 250 letters. All of a sudden I had 50 Japanese pen pals! Everyday I would get letters! I went on to even write my diary in Japanese. Also, because I had so many pen pals, they would send me manga and anime and songs. That’s why I can sing all the hits from 20 years ago!
That’s how you learnt Japanese? Wow!
Also, I lived in London till 2001, where I did my master in communication design at Saint Martins College, at the same time working as a web designer for a Japanese company. After that, I returned to Italy and worked for Ducati, because I like motorbikes. Moreover, I was working as a Japanese and English museum guide. That was really fun! After about four months I started working with Dynit which is the third biggest Italian manga company and market leader for Italian anime DVDs. There, I was a product manager for the DVD division, engaged with content planning and production supervision. I’ve been freelancing again for the past three years. I’m still translating Bleach and D.Gray-man, both published in the weekly Shonen Jump by Shueisha. And I translate Air Gear, released on the likewise weekly Shonen Magazine by Kodansha – with all three being the main comics for boys in Japan. Shueisha and Kodansha are the main competitors and quite huge. By the way, Air Gear’s author, Oh!great, is already famous because he also does Tenjho Tenge.
One of Simona’s daily tasks – translating Air Gear into Italian… © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.
… and the action manga Steel Ball Run! © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.
How come you did specialise in manga for teenagers?
The market is basically about shoujo and shonen manga. I do mainly the boys’ manga, because I feel more like a tomboy – I’d rather ride a skateboard than buy handbags, And in shonen manga there is more action and less talk. Since I started working for Planet Manga three years ago, I’m doing some shoujo as well.
Being in your 30s now, do you still like that?
Basically, I always end up falling in love with the characters – at heart I’m still a 14-year-old girl and kind of romantic and dreamy. But instead of dreaming about your neighbours’ cousin or something, you can think about the character from Bleach. That’s more fun because you can make them do what you want in your head…
What’s this DVD you have here – Nana?
Nana is a quite famous animation for which I did the translation for the first 25 episodes in Italy. You’d have to know that animation usually pays less and it’s a bit more work in a way: You translate the script, then watch the cartoon to check, then reread it twice so it takes longer than a manga. Normally I’m too busy with manga, but this story was really interesting! It’s about a punk girl, and if this manga had come out when I was 14, I would have probably been very happy… Also, it was a challenge because the manga was already published in Italy so I had to compete with the comic. The problem is, in an anime you can’t stop to explain something, so its much more of a challenge because you need to cram everything into one word to make things go with the actual content.
What about your other translation works for Steel Ball Run?
This is the 7th in a long series called JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Being a cult series in Japan, it’s very innovative both in fighting concepts and funky noises and the way people talk…
Which brings us to an important one: How to translate Japanese noises?
Basically, the noises in Italian come from the American translations. However, they didn’t ‘adapt’ the noises, which means they didn’t alter the graphics to translate the noises from English into Italian. So, people got used to Bong, Bang, Smack, etc. Otherwise, I try to find out, for example, what kind of noise an eye ball squashed against the wall could make. Then I kind of translate that into English… An exception would be my work for Air Gear: We don’t ‘adapt’ the noises but simply write the Italian translation beside the Japanese writing, as the author creates his noises as way of art. It’s street culture based, and his noises look like graffiti art. Besides that, Japanese is the only language in the world that has a noise for silence.
Where does that come from?
It’s a Japanese concept called kotodama, meaning the spirit of the word. It means basically that words have their own spirit like with Shinto, an animist thing: Every living being and also the words have a spirit. So, when you say something you are actually giving life to this word. Meaning everything has got life, so everything has a noise in consequence.
And how do you come up with a noise for something?
The only way to explain it is with a word in Japanese – tekito, meaning ‘adequately’ or also ‘Oh I just guessed.’ It’s like being a tarot reader – you just feel it and have the intuition and understanding without using your head. It’s like using your nose. Or, when you say something you wouldn’t say in Italian, you just say the closest thing. That’s the same concept.
Let’s get a bit practical: What would be a typical day for a manga translator?
Well, usually I wake up at 4 in the afternoon, turn on my computer, read my mail – and get lost on the internet. I read the Panini forum because I like to read what our readers think, and I do Mixi. Eventually I start working until the morning…
How big is a manga book you’d have to translate usually?
It goes from 189 to 220 pages according to the magazine they are originally published on.
That is one book with several episodes?
Depending on the magazine, every week or month one episode gets published. Shonen Jump and Shonen Magazine are container magazines with lots of different comics, meaning they publish one episode of different manga every issue. Usually they gather maybe ten episodes, with each 30 to 60 pages. Basically when they have enough, which, for Steel Ball Run, would be three episodes of 60 pages each, they publish one monographic book called tankobon. Bleach contains nine or ten episodes.
So, how long does it usually take for you to translate one whole book?
It depends on the quantity of the text and how difficult it is: Bleach is a classic Japanese action manga and it takes me three days to translate its 190 pages. Others can be quite time consuming: Air Gear is quoting all types of different manga, so you’d have to research a lot to know what the jokes are about. With Host Club, it takes twice as long because there’s much more text and it’s full of silly jokes. This manga is really popular with high school girls because of its silly sense of humour that makes girls giggle in Japan – but doesn’t quite work the same in Italy. A lot of the jokes aren’t funny in Japanese already, so if you want to make Italian people laugh at them you’d have to be clever, making them either more intelligent or even more stupid in a different way.
Once again, one book with 190 pages takes three days to translate…
Yes, three days to a week. And you should make four a month…
Wow, I guess you’d have to translate a lot to make a living… And you receive the whole manga as PDF file – or what?
Most of this stuff still isn’t scanned for publishing. So, we photocopy the books, write numbers in the bubbles with a red pen – and that’s how we translate them.
Really? Though you can work from anywhere in the world, you still have to make photocopies of it…?
Yes, but it’s probably going to change sometime soon.
Sooner or later. Interesting that though we can have manga on our mobiles, the delicate work of translating is still done the analogue way. Thank you, Simona for telling as a bit about your daily manga routine!