subdee (sub_divided) wrote in manga_talk,

Death Note: Offical vs Fan Translations, FIGHT!

A couple days ago, telophase linked an article about ambiguities that were not present in the Japanese version of Fruits Basket, but were introduced or exaggerated in Tokyopop's official English translation. That article might've given you a sense of the usual difficulites associated with translation from Japanese, e.g., the general lack of subject pronouns.

But that's not what I want to talk about! I picked up Viz' English release of Death Note today. If you haven't heard of it, Death Note is a supernatural thriller about top-student Light Yagami, who finds a Shinigami's notebook called a "Death Note"[1] . You can write people's names in this notebook and, provided you know what they look like, they'll die. Light decides to use the Death Note to kill everyone he doesn't approve of and make the world a better place. He's shadowed by a shinigami named Ryuk -- the same shinigami who purposely dropped his Death Note where a human would find it (he thought it would be funny[2]). Light's greatest obstacle is the brilliant, mysterious detective known only as "L".

This is a depth discussion of differences between one fan translation of Death Note and the official Enlgish translation. Before I go into detail, a few points:

• I'll be working from Orange Tangerine (OT) scanslations, not the original Japanese. In comparison with other scanlation groups, OT is considered average, certainly not terrible.
• In the OT scanlations, "Light" is called "Raito". This is because the scanlations were done before the mangaka clarified that the official romanization of Light's katakana name -- "lai/rai to" -- was "Light."
• Viz' translators were working from the first Death Note volume release, while OT's were sometimes working from the chapters as they were originally published in Weekly Jump. For Japanese volume releases, it's common practice to fix text and art[3] mistakes and to include extras like short comics and series info. Publishers do this to convince people who have already seen the manga in magazines to buy the book.
• For the love all that's holy, please don't get on my case for comparing amateurs to professionals. Of course I don't think that translations done by fans, for fun and not profit, should be held up to the same standards as paid work. But if there can be a million posts about why XXX fan translation is SO MUCH BETTER than XXX translation by COMPANY A, I don't see why I can't make ONE post which mentions things the pros do better. What I am mainly trying to do here is say something about the ways small differences in translation effect understanding. I'm not pointing fingers.

Also, I'm linking to most images but there are still about 200 K's worth under the cut. All images should be read right-to-left.

krimi posts with the original Japanese in this comment.

Casual Speech VS Direct Translation

This is the number one complaint fans who have been following unofficial translations have with official translations. Translations for the American market will almost always include more (American) slang, more contractions, and in general less stiltedness/formality. Especially if it's a Jump U.S. title (Death Note is labeled Jump Advanced because of its 16-and-older themes).

IMAGE: Viz formality VS OT formality

Viz' translation sounds more natural to Americans. The difference is less marked here than it is in manga marketed to a younger audience, e.g. D.N. Angel or Naruto. In the end, it's a matter of personal taste -- the orginal Japanese did not "read" American, but neither did it read as stiffly as in the fan translation.

The single most notible speech difference is Ryuk's. He tends to use "gonna," "gotta," etc in the official translation. (Is this a reflection of especial informality in Japanese?! Plz comment if you know.)

(Colorary: Professional Speech VS Direct Translation)

From a scene where Interpol discusses the MASS DEATHS of criminals:
IMAGE: Viz diplomat-speak vs OT literalism

Viz' Interpol representatives sound more like diplomats. It's worth noting that on the privious page, there is an error in the Orange Tangerine translation exactly like the error on this page[4], where "G8 Summit" was written as "some developed country" .

Which segues neatly into:

Mistranslation and the meaning of *assurance*

(Viz) VS (Orange Tangerine)

I think I know what happened here. Whatever word is being translated, it's the English equivilant of "assurance" -- maybe it means confidence, and maybe it means guarentee. Ryuk is contemplating why it is that that Light can be so relaxed when the world's hottest detective is hot on his tail (bad pun, sorry). Either this is because Light is confident (OT), or it's because he has something up his sleeve (Viz).
From the context, IT'S BOTH. Reading the manga, Viz' translation is smoother and makes more sense out of Light and Ryuk's subsequent dialogue. It's probably right. I'm pointing this out because this word re-appears on pages 103, 116, and 117[6] -- in other words, it spans two chapters and is the centerpiece of one.

Why does this matter? Um. It changes the focus of chapter three. In Viz' scenario, where Light is planning something, the suspense comes from the audience wanting to know what he's planning. In OT's translation, the suspense comes the audience wanting to know more about this particular facet of Light's personality.

This is shonen manga. Can you see why narrative suspense might be preferable to emotional suspense? In every other chapter, narrative suspence >> (is infinitely greater than) emotional suspence. Characterization matters, but only so far as it is what causes the characters to advance the plot. So what we are talking about here, besides logic, is consistency.

...okay, back to things I can prove with scans.

Comparitive Ambiguity

With Death Note, at least in the first volume and at least on the pages I've scanned for you, what we have is the OPPOSITE situation from the article telophase linked. The official translation clarifies. Here're two (insufficient) examples.

A) On the Internet

"Only those who believe in his exisistence and return may enter this site"...I don't want to think about how many times people on death_note wondered about this line. Only those who return frequently to the website are allowed to enter it? What?[5]

B) Making the world a better place

You are probably thinking, what's the difference? These two pages are functionally identical. The difference is in the last panel on the page: "immoral people who do evil will slowly be killed by disease and accidents" versus "I'll gradually be killing off immoral people and people who harass others through illnesses and accients" (Light can chose the type of death). This may not seem significant to you -- obviously the people dying from disease are dying because of Light, so why should we need a pronoun to tell us that? -- but I've been in Death Note fandom for a while and I can tell you that not once during the (many) discussions of Light's morality did anyone mention that he plans to kill, not just criminials and anyone who threatens him, but also those whom he considers immoral. From the very beginning! And on the sly, as it were, while the whole world thinks Kira only does heart attacks. Everyone missed this point. I missed this point. It's a lot harder to miss this point in the Viz translation.

Do you prefer exhaustive clarity to brief sentences? Death Note is already a wordy manga, and the Viz translation adds more words. I do think it's clearer, though.

This brings us to:

Very subtly different. For example,


This is from Viz. In Oragne Tangerine he says, "HUmans are...interesting." This comes up again and again -- in the OT version Ryuk's greatest goal is not to be bored, while in the Viz version it's to be entertained. Preferably by something funny. And Ryuk thinks everything is funny.

---Light and Sayu:
Here is where I prove that this is a MANGA essay and not just text analysis.

(Orange Tangerine)



Light helping his younger sister Sayu do quadratic equations. This comes up on a few pages -- in Viz version he teases her, in OT version he puts her off. Which one (and how much is genuine versus how much is acted) becomes important for emotional reasons later. In any case, although the direct translation is probably the OT one, look at Light's expression. Obata is really, really good with expressions. He knows the difference between tired of helping your little sister and pretend-exasperated with your little sister's lack of progress. Which one does it look like to you?

---L and Watari:
This has less to do with L and Watari, and more to do with their relationship to Interpol.

(Orange Tangerine)
• Interpol agent, talking about L: "How can we even contact him?"
• Interpol agent, talking about L: "He's out last resort."
• Another Interpol agent, talking about Watari: "[Watari is our contact with L.] Even Watari doesn't know who L really is."
• L, addressing the agents: "I hope the force can be moved to Japan."

• Interpol agent, talking about L: "We have no way of contacting him."
• Interpol agent, talking about L: "He's our trumph card, an ace in the hole..."
• Another Interpol agent, talking about Watari: "[Watari is L's only contact with the outside world.] But nobody knows who Watari really is either."
• L, addressing the agents: "I therefore request the investigation by headquartered in Japan."

Do you see how much more in control L and Watari are in Viz? Interpol listens to them, not the other way around. This makes much more sense later.

The biggest difference in characterization, however, is Light's.


People the world can do without

These two things are different, right? In one Light uses general terms, and in the other he suggests that people who complain about their mothers and go to college parties deserve to die. I'm not sure which interpretation is the correct one, but in many places in this volume Viz's Light is more...obvious about his superiority complex.

We're on the home stretch!

Deliberate Changes

Considering the pains Viz goes through to make Light obviously less sympathetic, there is one very key thing they take out.

Light: And I...

This is in the Orage Tangerine translation. It's literal. Light pretty famously has a God-complex. It's inspired discussion, fanart, fanfic, icons... I made an icon from this line, here it is: get back on track, Viz removes all mentions of God. In the official release sitting on my desk, this line becomes, "And I...will reign over a new world." This isn't an isolated incident.

According to OT:
• Random student, on Kira's actions: "You'd have to be some sort of God." (EDIT: it seems the original Japanese compares Kira to Superman, not God.)
• Light, on himself: "I am the god placed here to save the weak and create a perfect world."


• Random student, on Kira's actions: "It's gotta be some sort of superhero brigade, like the X-men or something."
• Light, on himself: "I'm the hero who's liberating people from evil. I'm the saviour who's going to be like a god of this perfect new world!" (emphasis mine)

For whatever reason, Viz doesn't want to use the G-word. Light's a hero or a superhero or a saviour or like a god, eventually, but he is not a god. Fairly ridiculous, considering the godhood delusions form a significant part of Light's character (and are an important part of what makes Light with the Death Note different from Light without the Death Note -- with the Death Note, they find expression).

There's one other change I noticed which is definitely a change, and not a difference of opinion or mistake:

(Orange Tangerine)

In Viz, Sayu says "Isn't this kind of dirty? Oh, I know. Is this why you locked your door?"

Not a big thing, just a little bit of cleaning up. Sayu is, I believe, thriteen in this chapter and Viz probably thought it would inappropriate if she knew too much about dirty magazines/looked through them for pictures. I am wondering what they will do with her later scenes with Misa, which are... femslash suggestive if you're not a Japanese reader, probably closer to normal female behavior if you're a Japanese reader. Platonic interest in the bodies of other women is one of those cultural things that doesn't always translate well. (For that matter, schoolgirl crushes on other schoolgirls -- which no one remarks on or thinks are strange -- is another thing that doesn't translate well.)


This is the "panels I liked better in Orange Tangerine" section (besides the God bit, I mean). Non-Death Note fans, feel free to skip this section.

(Viz) VS (OT)
Besides being in color, I prefer OT because "old man" is more obscure than it needs to be considering we are talking about the King of the Shinigami, who becomes important later.

The OT says, "Murdered...two people...with my own hands," which I think makes a lot more sense considering Light is staring at his hands in the art. It's a crime to waste Obata's art.

Famous declaration of war between Light and L (Viz version)
Viz' translation has too many words to be dramatic. It's clunky. I actually prefer the OT, which is "I will hunt you down and destroy you! I am...Justice!!"

Now here's something neat. In one chapter, Light tries to mess with L's head by having dying criminals write out a nonsensical message to him. The message is encoded in an even more nonsensical suicide note. Viz and OT use two different notes and two different encoding schemes, although the message is the same. I think OT did a better job with this:

(Orange Tangerine)

So. Can you read the message?

Closing remarks

Lastly, I just want to note that while this is an essay about differences, as you have probably noticed the translation is in most cases FUNCTIONALLY IDENTICAL.

IMAGE: sample Viz page VS sample OT page

Notice that even some of the phrasing is the same. I've been really compulsive about what I think constitutes a difference in meaning -- BECAUSE I HAD TO BE. We're talking minor differences here, not major ones. If I've been sucessful here, you will already know that even minor differences make a difference.

Conclusion? Do I need a conclusion? Here is my conclustion:

Geeze, this turned out really long. Was I that bored? Do I have that much free time? No, but I just came from surgery this morning and I'm on three different kinds of pain medications, which is three kinds too many for schoolwork. Twarted productivity = long long entry on manga_talk, hahaha. Hope you guys were entertained at least. And to anyone who reads this who's been following Death Note through scanlations, I recommend you at least look at a copy from Viz.


[1]In Japan, "note" is slang for "notebook."

[2] "Ryuk" is one of (many) Japanese sound effects for laughter, kind of like Moe's "hyuk, hyuk, hyuk." Ryuk is ALWAYS laughing.

[3] Death Note is written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Obata Tagashi, who is best known for Hikaru no Go. Tsugumi and her editors are the ones fixing the text. Obata and his editors are the ones fixing the art. This has occasionally included major character re-designs, but is most often minor fixes, LIKE correcting the perspective on backgrounds or adding tone. For example:

The volume scan adds shadows beind the characters, not just in the panel but on the entire page (which I am not showing for Plot Reasons). This is to match the shadows in the previous chapter, which takes place in the same location. Obata or his assistants probably meant to add shading to the original Shonen Jump release as well, but ran into time constraints (read: Weekly Jump comes out at an INSANELY fast rate).

[4]It's also worth noting that Viz puts editor's notes on the same page, in the margin. This is really convenient, especially since most of these notes are necessary for understanding and who wants to flip to the back of the book for that? At the same time I wish the Shonen Jump titles had a editor's comments list in the back of the book for notes that are not essential to understanding, but do enhance it (e.g. footnotes [2]).

[5]The other cool thing about this page is that it shows Light uses Netscape navigator. XD. In another page, his father uses Excel. Both have PCs -- this is being conventional? In a page that has been sadly altered for Viz' release, we are no longer told explicitly that L uses a Powerbook G4 (a Mac), although you can still tell from the art. Strangly, the font he uses for his "L" symbol is Old English Text MT, a standard Microsoft Word font. This concludes today's Useless Death Note Trivia section.

[6]If you are wondering whether I mean the English or the Japanese page numbers, you're in luck! They are exactly identical.


I'll be linking this entry from death_eyes and my personal journal. I might eventually put it on my website; but won't be doing comparisons for Volumes 2, 3, etc. Once was enough!

If I've made any errors or gross assumptions, and you see them, please point them out. If you'd like compare the translations here with the original Japanese, leave a comment and I'll hook you up with the appropriate RAW scan in a screened reply. I, myself, cannot read Japanese. I just like to speculate.

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