Swoom! One of Simona's translations: Shonen manga Air Gear features loads of roller blading action with noises depicted as graffiti art. © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.

Dream Job: Manga Translator

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.

Swirl – Swirl – Swirl: The onomatopoetic sounds of the roller blading heroes of Air Gear are represented in graffiti letters, a speciality of author Ito Ōgure, a.k.a. “Oh!great.” As you just can’t transform these art parts, the translations are simply added next to it. © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.

At 17??

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.

Another few pages from Air Gear by Oh!great: As you see on the left, these sound effects drawn in awesome hiragana can’t be translated, only explained by adding an English counterpart to it – Gasp! © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.

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.

Air Gear: The guy has just been raped! What noise could depict this horrible silence? It’s katakana, the English adaption would be Zash, next to it. © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.

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!

A pumped action sequence of a gang fight in Air Gear: Energetic movements are depicted in graffiti styles in the Japanese original (and adapted to “Sproing”, lower left page). The dialogue was translated into Italian by Simona. © 2003 Oh!great. All rights reserved.

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.

As with Air Gear, action-laden manga Steel Ball Run by Hirohiko Araki requires translating all the dramatic sound effects… It’s title hints to the content – a continental horse race across the States. © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.

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.

Loads of interesting battle sequences – translated into English! Steel Ball Run by Hirohiko Araki. © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.

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.

Steel Ball Run: more action adapted to an Italian audience by Simona. © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.

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.

Steel Ball Run with a story around two mysterious metal balls whose magical fighting powers the family of the main character has mastered generation by generation. © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.

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.

Mystical elements and supernatural fighting – Steel Ball Run. © 2004 by LUCKY LAND COMMUNICATIONS. All rights reserved.

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.

Two more of Simona’s daily tasks: translating shonen manga Bleach and episodes of shoujo Nana.

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!

  • T.Kaishu

    Most of the time, i don’t enjoy translation manga version. It loses the soul or the core of the manga!
    Also, I hate translation or voice over speaking in movies.

  • wow

    awesome constructive criticism there, kaishu! go internets!

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  • Hebi-kai

    I’ve done some non-professional translations. It’s not fun at all. Reading manga is great, but when I had to translate it then it became a job to read manga, and it wasn’t as fun.

  • Mrs.Robinson

    Go Kaishu!
    It’s true doing translation is a pain in the arse.

  • pricca

    great story :) Inspiring!

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  • kimkei

    i like air gear and srb as well .
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  • Kyon

    Anyway… her name is Simona Stanzani… not Pini ^_^;; I know that because I’m italian so I’m really sure of it ^^

  • http://www.simona.com Simona Stanzani Pini

    erm… sorry my fault :D DDD
    I generally use my mother’s surname [Stanzani] for work while Pini is my father’s surname, therefore the one which is on documents. When I am in Japan I generally use both together to avoid confusion, this time it somehow slipped, somewhere along the way :D DD
    I apologise to Pingmag and the readers for the confusion.

    Simona Stanzani Pini

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  • Stephanie

    I’m studying in Italy right now, and I’ve gotten totally hooked on Nana (the anime, I’ve yet to get my hands on the manga itself)… so it’s pretty cool reading about the person who actually translated the dialogue :-D Grazie mille Simona!

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  • yuki

    ooooh so cool !!
    i’m japanese & i wanna be translater like him (((((^o^)/

  • samantha

    oh he could draw so cool!!!(airgear)
    I wish i managed that,too.
    and that´s really a good more than good job.WHERE DID YOU GET THESE PICTURES FROM AIR GEAR!!??

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  • Kazzier

    Most impressive. Im looking into doing similar jobs myself and this was a excellent insight. Thank you.

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  • Lee

    5 years ago… did you end up doing translation? =)