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This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week on November 7, 2006 Sign up now!

by Johanna Draper Carlson, PW Comics Week -- Publishers Weekly, 11/7/2006

Kelly Sue DeConnick has achieved a following in an unexpected area: manga adaptation. Though she only began studying Japanese this year, she's worked with professional translators over the past four years to craft English dialogue for such series as Sensual Phrase, Fruits Basket and Sexy Voice and Robo, among many other titles.

PW Comics Week: How did you get started in this field?

Kelly Sue DeConnick: Almost accidentally, as odd as that sounds. I owe my manga career to the fact that [bestselling author and comics writer] Neil Gaiman listed me in the acknowledgements of his novel American Gods!

My first adaptation was Demon Diary for Tokyopop. Jake Forbes, the editor, wanted a Princess Mononoke feel, and he told [comics writer] Jamie S. Rich that they were looking for someone like Neil Gaiman (who wrote the English-language dialogue for the film). Jamie said something like, "I think my friend Kelly Sue knows Gaiman." That was enough to get me a test, and I did well enough on the test to land the job.

I hesitate to go back and re-read it now because I'd probably want to change things, but Demon Diary was a good first experience for me—as was working with Forbes, who held my hand through all seven volumes.

My next project with Forbes and Tokyopop was Fruits Basket. I wasn't a good fit on that title. I think I only lasted through the first three? That book has a tremendous following, and I was so new at that point, I was intimidated! I wanted to work a little more below the radar while figuring out my process, so I left to do Girl Got Game. I found my footing on that book and it was onwards and upwards from there.

Tokyopop would later ask me to adapt the Slayers prose novels, which was awesome. I essentially got paid to take the first baby steps toward writing a novel. What a luxury. Plot and character were already set, I just had to capture the right tone, sit down, and do the work—the nuts and bolts. I did the first three (through Slayers: The Ghost of Sairaag) and I'm proud of those books. They're a hoot!

PWCW: Did you have particular skills or experiences that have helped you?

KSD: At its core, what I do is script doctoring; it's analogous to what a punch-up writer does on a screenplay. I have a theater degree and I was previously a professional actor. That training gives me an ear for dialogue and a unique perspective on character. I always read my scripts aloud.

PWCW: What lessons have you learned from your adaptation work?

KSD: Work begets work. Meeting deadlines is paramount. Don't be afraid to get on the phone; communicate with your editors. Don't be afraid to ask for work or feedback.

I should also mention that I use a freelance proofreader, which has helped me establish a reputation for very clean scripts. Some people may be able to do it on their own, but I can't properly proof my own work. I know what the page is supposed to say and I end up seeing what I expect, instead of what's actually there.

I've learned to approach each script with the same respect I would hope for from someone translating my work into Japanese. My primary allegiance is to author's intent, which is subjective, I know, but I do my research. The literal translation of the dialogue is just one piece of the puzzle.And frankly, I'm of the belief that there is no such thing as a literal translation the way I sometimes see that term used on message boards—as if it meant "exact" translation.

PWCW: Will you elaborate on that?

KSD: Language is not math, there is no one-to-one relationship. There's context and artistry—context is especially important when we talk about the relationship of Japanese to English. It's not at all like going from a romance language to English, where you can do a translation that's almost one-to-one and it comes out sounding like a terribly formal English. Japanese is heavily invested in context. There are no plurals; they avoid pronouns. While English has 12 basic tenses and up to 36 variations on those, Japanese has two.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Try to do a one-to-one translation of Japanese and you get a sentence like "I subject marker Kelly Sue predicate placeholder," instead of "I am Kelly Sue" or "My name is Kelly Sue." Given character and context (and the size of the [word] balloon—which is always an issue, since you don't want to cover more art than is necessary) I might choose to go with something like, "I'm Kelly Sue." Or if the character is extending her hand and replying to someone else's introduction and I think the intent is clear, maybe just "Kelly Sue." Is one of those a more literal translation than the others? It's all about choices.

So when I see someone rant about wanting their manga 100% authentic, I can't help but think, well, to get that experience they really need to learn Japanese. And they might want to go live in Japan as well, and if they can, arrange to be born Japanese, because we can't help but bring our own cultural experience to the table when we read these books. We can imagine what it's like to go to cram school in Japan—that's the glory of fiction! But to demand an "authentic" Japanese experience, well, I think you need to be authentically Japanese.

That said, I love American otaku and I agree with them on a number of things. (I also fear their wrath!) "Localizing," for instance. For example, if a book made reference to a late night Japanese talk show, and the name of the show was changed to "The Tonight Show". The otaku hate it, and I tend to agree that something is lost in that practice. I prefer to footnote cultural references.

It boils down to this: if I'm doing my job well, my hand is invisible. I want the reader to be too caught up in the story to notice that they're reading the book in translation.To me, that is an "authentic" experience—providing a way for the reader to enjoy the ride unencumbered, the way the Japanese author intended. I'm proud of what I do, and I think I'm good at it.

PWCW: What other titles have you worked on?

KSD: My first title with Viz was Sensual Phrase. On that and Kare First Love, my work is done—I've finished adapting both series—but there are still volumes coming out. I did the MeruPuri books. Boy, I was smitten with the artwork; it's so cute! I did Doubt. There was also Blue Spring, which terrified me, because Taiyo Matsumoto is one of my favorite creators in any language. I keep begging Viz to put out his series Ping Pong; it's incredible!

Right now I'm working on a shonen title for Viz called Black Cat, and in January I get to start adapting my first horror title for them.

PWCW: Now that you have so much experience adapting the works of others, do you have plans to create your own comics?

KSD: I do. I'm still more comfortable telling stories in prose than I am building comics from the ground up, but I'm finding that the secret is choosing talented collaborators. I wrote a four-page piece in the 24seven Image anthology that was beautifully executed by Andy MacDonald, and I'm co-writing five issues of a 30 Days of Night series with Steve Niles called "Eben and Stella." Justin Randall's drawing that and it's mind-blowing. I've also got a graphic novel in development with Oni Press. That's my priority for the future. I love that book.



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