Translating Japanese to English is an art. In the Anime and Manga scene, there are the Da Vincis and there are those who don’t even come close. Ken Akamatsu gained immense popularity on both coasts over his most well-known work, Love Hina, and not without reason. The story of a man managing a girl’s dorm sounds like a plot suited for Porky’s, but Akamatsu made it work beyond the obvious joke material and got into something much more sweet and fun.
Such is also true with his latest work, “Mahou Sensei Negima,” or just plain “Negima” in the states. The series tells the
story of ten-year-old Negi Springfield, a recent graduate of a magic school in Wales. Negi is told he must go to an all-girl
school in Japan and teach English to Junior High class 2-A (which becomes 3-A shortly after). The Headmaster sets him up in a room with two of Negi’s students, Konoka Konoe (the headmaster’s granddaughter) and Asuna Kagurazaka (an unassuming tomboy who hates kids). After the typical kid-teacher stories, the main plot kicks into gear, centering on the world of magic and Negi’s search for his father. Helping him along the way are his thirty students; some know about magic, some don’t. The dizzying array of supporting cast members is the high point of the series- some writers lose track of a cast of six or seven; Akamatsu works hard to individualize every last one of his thirty-plus characters by giving them a surprising amount of depth.
So Negima is really good… in Japanese. The English translation by Del Ray leaves something to be desired. It’s never
doubted that the translation team has the skill to take something originally written in Japanese and transform it into
English. But what they don’t have yet is the artistic grace the Love Hina team had. In Love hina, Akamatsu’s characters
became beloved, due in part to the fabulous job the translation team had done. They seamlessly wove together the original
context with an english flair for language, making the manga easy to understand. The Negima team tries to follow in the
success of Love Hina, but they fail to grasp how important the English dialogue is in the English translation.
So, a little constructive criticism is in order. The following mistakes discourage readers from wanting to continue to read
the series, whether or not they stick out like sore thumbs.
1) Common usage of the exclamations “DWEH?!” and “DWAH?!”
Say them out loud and try to remember anyone using these non-words, even in jest. Non-word exclamations themselves are no problem (see “Wha?!” and “geez!” which have roots in actual words), but these two in particular are nowhere near common, nor are likely to become common. That they appear so often when “Wha,” “Huh,” and “Eh” could easily replace them is a problem that needs correcting. For comical value, one or two “dwah”‘s or “dweh”‘s spread out over five or six volumes works better because the non-words are no longer commonplace. Furthermore, in a practical sense, the pronunciation of said non-words lends to a very specific area of speech. With the “w” inserted, the act of surprise the non-words are supposed to elicit is negated, because simple, instinctual exclamations like “wha,” “huh,” and “ow” are pronounced with minimal lip movement. To enter a “w” into the middle of the non-word changes its contextual value. To sum up, “dwah” and “dweh” are to only be used in extreme comical situations, and should not be commonplace throughout the manga.
2) Not finishing sentances.
Used sparingly, this technique allows for characters to interrupt each other. Human beings do it all the time, but should not
be done excessively in any writing unless the writer is sufficiently skilled in leading conversations where they need to go.
Ken Akamatsu is notorious for interruptions, usually to comical effect. Love Hina used it effectively by allowing the message
to get across before the words came out- and by the time the inevitible interruptions occurred, the actual words mattered
less. In Negima, Akamatsu uses the same style, but the translation team makes the mistake of cutting off the last few words
of dialogue in an attempt to add a touch of real-speak, as well as using the popularized method of trailing off the end of
sentances (“Well… I just… want to…”) to add dramatic flair. The problem is, the translation team does not do a great
job in subtle foreshadowing, which is an absolute necessity when using this method. Take [Eighty-Second Period: Mahorafest
begins… Again?!] or Vol. 10, Chapter 82 for example. Negi and Setsuna are searching for Chao in the middle of the school
festival. Negi can’t help but act like a kid for once, and he “searches” a laser tag adventure ride. After leaving, Negi says
to Setsuna: “Oh my gosh, that was- I-I mean, too bad we didn’t find…” These sentance fragments have many things wrong with
them, but the one that matters here is the trailing off at the end of both. When Negi says the first part, the audience is
lost on what he got out of his “search.” We are supposed to believe the last word is “fun,” but there are many other words he
could use to show depth. “Exhilarating,” “Awesome,” or “Scary” would all work in their own way to give Negi a more dynamic
personality. So the potentially remade sentance would look something like this: “Wow, that was awesome! …I mean, it’s too
bad we didn’t see Chao.” Even if interrupted, characters should still be able to complete their thoughts, and if that is not
possible the scene should be able to tell us what we need to know.
3) Common usage of stuttering.
This one is just good old-fashioned overdose. Stuttering indicates nervousness, as everyone knows: “I-I…” “W-what?”
“H-huh?” Going to the well too many times makes even the confident characters (see Setsuna, Asuna) look weak-willed and
spineless. Looking weak-willed is especially not good in a tale with so many young warriors with confidence (Asuna, Setsuna,
Kaede, Negi, Tatsumiya, etc.). Simply reducing stuttering to certain characters at certain times (See Nodoka and Aiska) would
improve the overall feeling of confidence in the characters.
4) Using the tired phrase “Heh-loh!,” and incorrectly, too.
The translation team’s grip on American slang is abysmal. “Heh-loh!” is supposed to be the phonetic representation of the
sarcastic “Hello!” which is used in driver’s seats across the nation. Other than that, the word in that context is associated
mainly with teenyboppers or airheads, and has no place in the tomboyish Asuna’s vernacular. The phonetic spelling is also
problematic, as when repeated aloud, the “heh” in “heh-loh” does not come off the same way as the “he” in “hello” and thus
5) Internet speak.
Except for the exceptionally geeky, rarely does anyone use the acronyms “OMG” and “WTF” outside of internet-land. They should be left there. Furthermore, the net-friendly “tho” should not appear in any other form of writing, even if the intent was to
show casualness. “Though” may be longer, but it is phonetically the same and readers identify it more quickly.
6) Unclear language.
While this includes the previous problems, it is a separate issue. Take this selection for example, in [Eighty-First Period:
Mahorafest Begins!] or vol. 10, chapter 81: “It’s become almost an industry in itself, the festival, over these past ten
years. In fact, one estimate… [word balloon ends, another begins on opposite side of page] …puts the money that’s changed
hands over the course of one day at 260,000,000 yen.” There is a much clearer way of saying what needs to be said. What this
passage (and many, many more passages like it over the course of eleven volumes) ignores is the flow of language. People
don’t speak like bad History papers. People aren’t drawn to choppiness, either. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to
reformat how the characters in Negima speak to each other, especially when in exposition mode. A more clear, concise version
of the above passage would look like this: “Over the past ten years, it’s become an industry itself. [next balloon] One
estimate claims that 260,000,000 yen changes hands every day.” Let’s examined what happened. First, “the festival” was not
needed, as it is obviously the topic of conversation and needs no reminder. Second, the word balloons expressed separate
thoughts, instead of breaking one in half like a kit-kat bar. Third, the complicated structure of the previous passage is
completely reworked into something every English speaker can follow. The most important part of the first balloon is placed
last (it’s become an industry itself), while the additional, less important information is placed first (over the past ten
years) as a way to set up the second balloon’s information (one estimate claims that 260,000,000 yen changes hands every
day), which substantiates the main point. flowing altogether, it’s easily followed: “over ten years -> the festival has
become an industry -> here’s the number to prove it.” That’s all that needs to be in the passage, anything else complicates
the sentances and throws the reader.
Several important details over the course of the series have changed. Negi’s sister has transformed into his cousin in later
volumes. Understandible, given the honorifics the Japanese use. While the first translation of “onesan” may have told
translators that Nekane was Negi’s actual sister, later translators may not have been so sure. The problem here, however, is
not what Nekane’s relation to Negi really is, but keeping with continuity. If Nekane started off as Negi’s sister, she should
stay his sister for the remainder of the series even if Akamatsu did not intend her to be. It may sound like sacrilige, but
there are many ways to fix the problem other than simply changing gears mid-stream. There is room for creative license;
simply adding a throwaway line or two about how Nekane is like a sister instead of actually being one, it does not make the
mistake look obvious and actually benefits the characters by adding to the story.
So, in conclusion, the main problems with the English translation of Negima are excessive usage of unnecessary linguistic
crutches, and a failed grasp of grammar. Hopefully the translation team will be able to catch their mistakes and improve,
because Negima is a story that deserves more attention than it gets.