Nothing Whatsoever All Out in the Open is a collection of short comics by Akino Kondoh. Set in contemporary Japan, the narratives revolve around various women in largely domestic settings with a focus on their internal world of thoughts, perceptions and emotions. The stories are elliptical, subtle and at times, surreal.
I enjoyed the title story in particular, which deftly grapples with the ambiguous, contradictory emotional landscape that accompanies death and loss, a shifting terrain that evades names, inquiries, certainties. Do not be fooled by Kondoh’s simplistic, graphic style. The story’s pacing, its shifting perspectives between characters, and its use of repetition in imagery and subjects all construct a dense and multilayered tale that begs for multiple readings.
The other reason I wanted to write about Nothing Whatsoever was the manner in which the publisher handled the translation of the manga. I’ve been thinking about issues in manga translation ever since I attended a presentation on the topic by translator, Jocelyne Allen, in which she discussed difficulties unique to her work. In addition to language based challenges such as the frequent omission of pronouns in the Japanese language (thereby leaving the gender of some characters unclear; something that would not be possible with English), she spoke about the textual-visual challenge in translating the extensive use of sound effects in manga, which can sometimes be found in almost every panel.
Some sound effects, she explained, could be analagous to our use of terms like “pow” or “whoosh.” However, other sound effects were more onomatopoeic and would be used like regular words, like “bang -> banging, banger, etc.” The latter is not common in English, so she found translating such effects challenging. In addition to this, in manga, sound effects are also a part of the graphic design of a page. So translated manga will use a variety of approaches from preserving the original image and leaving them untranslated or inserting translations beside to having an artist re-draw the image with an equivalent Roman font.
Nothing Whatsoever’s publisher, Retrofit/Big Planet, decided to stay with the extreme end of preservation. Almost all sound effects have been preserved in the original, graphic Japanese with little translations provided underneath. In addition, in order to maintain the original page layouts, the majority of the text is typed out sideways! Although I understand the desire to remain faithful to the original text, I found that these strategies made for a jarring reading experience.
In addition, I also found the translation itself a bit awkward and choppy, especially whenever the use of English idioms were employed. I’m guessing this was done to drop the diction or to impart a more conversational voice. Personally, when a translation favours a more literal take, I find the introduction English idioms can create a kind of dissonance. Take the following opening lines from The Kid in the Cabinet, another story in Nothing Whatsoever: “Have you ever taken medicine designed to keep you from getting carsick?” (This reads as a more literal translation; a more natural translation might have read, “Have you ever taken medicine that stops you from getting carsick?” or even, “Have you ever taken medicine that prevents nausea?”) This is followed by, “It works wonders and makes sure you don’t feel bad.” (Note the leap from a more literal translation to one that is very colloquial.)
Anyways, I should note here though that it’s not uncommon for me to find this kind of inconsistency in diction with Japanese translations, so this is hardly a unique issue to Nothing Whatsoever. All in all, I found the English translation of Nothing Whatsoever to provide a kind of shadow of the original Japanese text, or a suggestion of it. Perhaps if one was bilingual, one might even be able to accurately guess at the original words. There’s nothing wrong with trying to remain faithful to the original, but my personal preference with translated literature is to read something that is more edited. In any case, expecting to receive a faithful translation that reads easily, especially when the languages in question are from very different linguistic families and cultures, is not really possible. In my view, if you want to get to the original text, there are no short cuts; one must pick up another language and read the original itself.