Is That Really You, Father Virgil?


Scanlators have been working on a manga adaption of the Divine Comedy (I seem to recall that Lelouch was a fan). However! Rather than simply translating the dialogue they’ve decided to admix it with appropriate lines from existing translations — not translations of the manga, but of the Comedy itself:

[W]hat we are doing with this as of now is 1. translating the manga, 2. comparing to the original divine comedy/history (when the mangaka leaves the context of the Divine Comedy), 3. mixing it all together and 4. re-writing it in a decasyllabic meter to match with the Divine Comedy’s poetry style. We used mostly H.F. Cary’s translation of the original Divine Comedy as reference, but if the translation was to archaic to be applicable, we used Longfellow’s.

While there’s obviously a lot of potential for a mismatch of tastes here — one person’s archaism is another’s ornament, and not all of us enjoy Longfellow — I instinctively approve of this. A translation is a new text, and so it’s perfectly permissible (though not always advisable) for a translator to throw accuracy out of the window and try something creative.

Indeed, in certain circumstances, the addition of completely unrelated text can be an improvement. One example that comes to mine is (the ‘quite spectacularly not safe for work’) A Kentucky Barmaid in the Court of King Louis XIII, which is a bit like The Magic Roundabout, except with pornography instead of French children’s television. Of course, A Kentucky Barmaid and the other works of ‘newdog15’ are messing with originals that have no prestige: hentai manga, and hentai manga previously rewritten by others at that.

I wonder if the translators in this case felt more able to do this because the manga is already an adaption, and an adaption of a text (the Comedy) with much greater prestige? Of course, one thing that does separate them is that the alteration of this manga retains the purpose of the manga and of the Divine Comedy, while A Kentucky Barmaid alters its text’s expected response, from arousal to laughter. So is this creativity, or the assertion of the authority of one more prestigious original (the canonical late medieval epic) over another less prestigious one (the modern manga)?

Actually, how close to the prestigious original do we want to get? If my memory serves me rightly, the Comedy was predominantly hendecasyllabic — composed in lines of eleven syllables, usually with an unstressed eleventh syllable (what we used to call a feminine ending) — not decasyllabic. But for extended poetry in English I prefer decasyllabic lines. Or rather, I prefer a pentameter of disyllabic feet. (Presumably anapestic pentameter, for example, would be ‘pendecasyllabic’? There seem to be several competing and equally esoteric theories of rhythm in each language, and no unanimously-agreed terminology. Excuse me if this is wrong and/or incomprehensible.) So while I don’t know how closely this resembles the Comedy‘s ‘poetry style’, and I don’t even know how one would judge, I’m not that bothered.

And does the manga continue to stick to Dante’s plot, thereby remaining open to the insertion of translations of Dante’s original? This is, according to the scanlators, by Go Nagai, after all. I don’t know much about Nagai, but my impression from what I’ve picked up here and there is that he’s a bit of a loose cannon.

Pressing questions, but not necessarily questions for us. Leave them aside; try reading this, and pay attention to the movements of your eyes:


Ignore the punctuation in that first sentence, which is either going over or under my head, and look at the kind of extreme enjambment this creates! Our eyes don’t just have to cope with ‘my life was passed / Beneath fair Augustus,’ they also have to handle ‘in the time /[shift up and leftwards]/ Of false and fabled deities.’ The shoe-horning of English verse into the manga’s speech bubbles adds a counterintuitive (for those of us brought up with English) right-to-left jump to the shift between lines that enjambment normally creates. Presumably the writers of comic books actually think about this sort of effect, but I must admit I’d never considered it before.

It gets better: in the second panel in the image above, the same movement is repeated, with the added challenge of shifting from reading left-to-right (within a right-to-left page layout) to reading top-to-bottom. (The dialogue in that second panel isn’t from the Comedy; the first panel on the next page returns to it with a translation of Dante’s ‘Or se’ tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte / &c’.)

Such complexity doesn’t put me off. Quite the contrary: I find this easier to read than most scanlated manga, which is normally, for reasons outlined in the second half of this post, a bit of a struggle. Being asked to process a crazy mix of verse and images seems to slow me down and help me to pay attention to the art too. Recognising Father Virgil (or indeed Father Vergil) can be pretty hard, but the task’s difficulty has turned out to be rather valuable.

16 responses to “Is That Really You, Father Virgil?

  1. so let me get this straight, what they’re doing is checking the Japanese original text to see if it was taken from a verse in the Comedy, and if it was then borrowing from a scholarly English translation rather than doing their own from the Japanese? If that’s all they’re doing then I think it’s a good idea.

    But if they actually just randomly intersperse Divine Comedy stuff where the Japanese original didn’t have it, then I’m not up for it. Scanlators should be more faithful than that, I think.

    • I’m probably rather more radical than most, if not all, actual translators on this one, as I more-or-less side with lelangir’s essentially hedonistic criterion: if it makes it more entertaining, then the ‘translator’ can feel free to depart completely from the original text.

      Of course, most people are most entertained when they’re reading something that’s relatively faithful, so most of the time we want a faithful translation. I’m not particularly bothered about faithful translations: if I really cared I’d try to learn Japanese in the hope that after some years I wouldn’t have the problem. If I didn’t make an effort to learn Japanese, but continued to complain about creative translation, I’d be acting in bad faith.

      Since you actually do translate manga, your point of view is probably more practical.

      • ha! i can do layered comments too! (though I can’t remember what they’re actually called, not layered that’s for sure).

        Anyway, in theory I agree with you guys, but think about it, what are the friggin chances the scanlator is going to have better taste than the original creator?? Heck, if I could create cool stuff I wouldn’t be translating, right?
        In any case, creative translating should be very clearly noted for the reader to be aware of..

  2. This is quite interesting. I haven’t touched Dante since high school. This may just be the thing I want to read. Thanks.

  3. I highly approve of “creative interpretation/translation”.

    If the thing is entertainment, then why not make it moar entertaining? By extension, I approve of retaining cultural-specific honorifics (except in dubs? wut?) not because I see it as faithful (nontranslation is infinitely more “faithful” than any sort of translation, perhaps), but because increasing the cultural-specificity really stokes my weeaboo-fu.

    When ____-san is translated into Miss _____, that almost always rumples my panties a bit. Almost.

    • Honorifics interest me. Have you come across any subtitles that retain honorifics even though the characters aren’t Japanese or speaking in Japanese? There’s an infamous (well, infamous on /m/) set of subs for the Zeta Gundam movies which retains words like ‘kisama’ and ‘yatsu’, even though the characters are probably, in theory, not speaking Japanese.

  4. Hi, this is the editor of NSN, the scan group doing this project. First off, I’d just like to say that this kind of knowledgeable and in-depth response to “our” work is really, really appreciated. If we receive not one more comment after this for the whole of the project, I think we’d be satisfied. Much thanks for taking us seriously ;) (Note that I hesitate to say ‘”our” work’ because most of the credit for what we do really goes to Dante, Go, Cary, and Longfellow — at best, we could be given credit for mauling their work as little as possible.)

    Now, regarding the typesetting: it’s obvious, I think, that trying to put metered poetry into speech bubbles meant for a language written vertically is going to be awkward no matter what. But if anyone has any suggestions for making it easier to read, we’re certainly listening. I didn’t have any references to work off, so I made up a format and stuck with it. We’ve considered right-aligning the cut-off lines, but that might just make things worse.

    In response to a couple questions, just for the sake of clarifying our position (we’ll probably put this up on our blog, too, since it is important for fans (or detractors) to understand our motives):

    I wonder if the translators in this case felt more able to do this because the manga is already an adaption, and an adaption of a text (the Comedy) with much greater prestige?

    Yup. Basically, if we’re translating, we’re already not using the original (Japanese) text at all. We’d be using the general semantical structure of Japanese, but even that is a bit off since translation generally requires rewriting for flow/clarity in the first place. So we could use a literal translation of Go’s work, but that’s not really ideal. Let me explain why, with an example.

    From the page you posted above, this is what Go “actually” wrote (literally translated):

    Virgil: I was a human – My parents were Mantuan, people of Lombardia.
    My birth was during the period of emperor Julio; after that I lived in Rome
    under the supervision of the virtuous emperor Augustus.
    At that time, [there were] lies and falsehoods of [Gods]. In the false times,
    I became a poet. Illium castle was burned down. After he came forth from
    Troy and wandered about, I sung the poem of Aeneas, son of the great commander,

    Now, if we were going to do this literally, we would have made it flow better — like I said, J->E translation often requires grammatical shifts. But… is that really a good way to read the Divine Comedy? Most people reading it would have no idea where Mantua was, where Illium was, who Aeneas was, who Achises was, etc., and it would throw them off. Now, the same applies to any form of the Comedy, but when it’s written in poetic meter, at least they fit into the archaic context. That’s a bit sketchy for justification, but perhaps you see what I mean — if we use the original (translation of the) poem, the usage of names and places from antiquity matches the tone of the writing. In a prose translation based off of an adapation of a translation… they’re just sort of there. Sure, we’d footnote them, but I think the overall experience would be more jarring. At least, if the grammar is poetically metathesized, the reader is prepared to have to read a bit slower and appreciate what Dante wrote.

    (P.S. Is it just me, or does it seem like ancient epic poets were paid in terms of how many names they dropped? If so, Dante must’ve made a killing off of Inferno, Canto 4.)

    This is long, so I’ll just address the issue of faithfulness and then end:

    so let me get this straight, what they’re doing is checking the Japanese original text to see if it was taken from a verse in the Comedy, and if it was then borrowing from a scholarly English translation rather than doing their own from the Japanese? If that’s all they’re doing then I think it’s a good idea.

    But if they actually just randomly intersperse Divine Comedy stuff where the Japanese original didn’t have it, then I’m not up for it. Scanlators should be more faithful than that, I think.

    We’re as faithful as is possible. If Go says something that isn’t in the poem, we rewrite it (in decasyllabic meter) so as to not break stylistic consistency. Now, there are a few cases where Go said something slightly different from what the poem said, but to the same effect — in those cases, we often side with the poem. Our primary guideline is “Does this make sense when read in order?,” however, so we don’t just randomly throw in parts of the poem. If the poem doesn’t make sense in context, I sigh and then proceed to write bad poetry to fill in.

    There are also a couple cases where we put in a bit more than what Go said — for example, the inscription on the gates of Hell. It all had to go in, dammit! ;) So, in summary, we are pretty faithful to what Go wrote. In a general sense, anyway. I think the example I quoted above provides a pretty good comparison of the type of thing we generally replace.

    One last thing: We aren’t scholars, nor professionals, nor are we “experienced” scanlators. We aren’t English majors, or Classics majors (we’re all CS majors, actually). We’re just college students with too much free time (and not enough of a social life) who find Dante’s Divine Comedy a fascinating work and jumped at the chance to combine two of our favorite things. However, out of respect for Dante and Go, we do want to do the best job we possibly can on this project — so we appreciate any and all criticism and compliments. If you see any typographical errors or mistakes in the footnotes, please let us know on our blog so we can fix them for the volume release.


    P.S. We’ll fix the Vergil/Virgil thing in the volume release ^^

    • I can’t think of a ‘better’ way to arrange verse inside speech bubbles and, as I suggested at the end of my post, any difficulties that the current method causes are ultimately helping me to slow down and pay more attention.

      So it wasn’t a decision based purely on the texts’ relative prestige, but more motivated by (a) the fact that the usual rearrangement required to produce a good English prose translation already removes the text from its original (which I’d definitely agree with — this is why I feel translations are always new texts) and (b) the fact that all of Dante’s obscure names and allusions are actually more at home in a poetic register? Interesting stuff.

      (I think medieval writers like Dante liked to namedrop to prove that they were drawing on approved sources (even when they weren’t), because the general feeling was that it was better to synthesise or build on previous auctors, thus benefitting from their auctoritas than to be original. That said, Dante might also have been imitating the depth of allusion in classical epics and I’m not so familiar with the theories of authorship that underpinned them.)

      Anyway, I like what you’re doing and long may it continue! I suspect students of Classics or English lit might lack the practicality required to get started on something like this in the first place.

  5. @nilsinenefas

    Sounds like you’re doing just what I would do, which of course means IMO you’re doing it right! I don’t see how it could be done any better…

  6. I would argue that, honestly, none of the larger arguments for or against doing such a thing matter, as a scanlation is a labor of love – there is no monetary reward for the work, so one is perfectly free to do howsoever they please with it, so long as they make their audience aware of what exactly they are doing. The last part is, truly, only to avoid confusion on the part of the reader, who may be unable to detect the fact that the scanlator has decided to take a different tact with the project than ‘simple’ translation (‘simple’ since translation is never just translation, but a process of interpretation).

    • I think if nothing else these arguments can help us pick apart the processes involved in the business of translation itself. And I think we’re entitled to say how we’d like to have translation done, without necessarily expecting translators to agree or blaming them if they do something else.

      I’ve read quite a lot of translator’s prefaces and the best ones always give you an sense of the translator’s choices. In scholarly editing, which is a similarly interpretive process, I’ve heard it argued that the best editions not only overtly describe the editor’s choices, but also make an effort to still be useful to people who disagree with those choices. It’d be nice to see that done with a translation, but the only way I can imagine it being achieved would be with lots of notes . . . hmm. Maybe not.

      During my A-Levels, everyone in my Latin class collaborated on a ‘simple’ translation of the second book of the Aeneid: it was a column of English words and phrases, each corresponding to one Latin word, in the syntax of the original poetry; we called the resulting language ‘construese’ and, while it was a useful preparation for our exams, it was completely incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t know the original. And of course nothing survived of the poetry’s quality as poetry.

  7. I can say I’m decently versed in modern classic literature, but I’ve never been familiar with the ancient ones (and I’ll qualify DC as ‘ancient’). I’ve read the Aeneid, and while I appreciate the depth of its history, it never really grew on me.

    But I read it, nevertheless (as per your recommendation)! I do welcome adaptations of these classics, because they’re often most welcome: most of the time, they put a new spin to things.

  8. Hilarious and awesome. Hopefully it fares better than the manga Bible.

    • There was a manga Bible (Superbook comes to mind) ? If so, I can see it not doing that well!

      I think the crowning glory of this manga adaption is that it is not only adapting Dante, but that it’s Go Nagai, of all people.


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