Interview with Clark Cheng
An ADR writer has a difficult job, ensuring that the dialogue in a dubbed anime fits the lip flaps while still sounding natural and being as accurate as possible. The ADR writer for a show like Rurouni Kenshin certainly would have his work cut out for him, and so it was with Clark Cheng, ADR writer for none other than Rurouni Kenshin. We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Mr. Cheng about his experience working on this show. Thanks to Mr. Cheng for his time!
Dub Review: How did you approach this project initially? As time went on, how did your approach change?
Clark Cheng: Well, first of all, let me say that I have two different perspectives when it comes to Rurouni Kenshin. I was a member of Media Blasters' production team for about two years before moving on to Bang Zoom! Entertainment. That particular transition occurred before the first volume was even released, though I was involved in some of its early production, as well as a bit of the preliminary decision-making. I specifically asked that my name be taken off the credits for the first volume since I was leaving and felt that Sean Molyneaux, my replacement, deserved "a chance to shine", as it were. (How very Okina of me!) So if my answers seem a little scattered, it's because I'm answering from two different viewpoints. I hope you'll bear with me.
That said, the project was intimidating when I first started. It was Media Blasters' biggest title to date, and as expected, there was some pressure because of that. I even got some friendly ribbing from John Sirabella, the company president, about not sticking around for the "fun." Anyway, because I was leaving the company, there really wasn't much time to begin approaching the project, much less change my approach! But I did try to cover some of the more problematic issues with Rika and Eric before I left. In the end, they just did their thing, and the production team gave their input wherever they could. Since Media Blasters had previously worked with Bang Zoom! on another big project, Magic Knight Rayearth, there was a lot of faith all around.
Moving on, I left Media Blasters about halfway through the production of the first RK volume in order to pursue my graduate degree. As I was attending school, I was working with Bang Zoom! on a part-time basis writing some ADR scripts for the second season of MKR (which happened on kind of a dare). Eric surprised me one day by asking if I could write episodes 6 and 7 of RK since he was short on time. I suppose I was an obvious choice as an ADR writer since I was a part of the initial production process and knew how Eric was handling the characters. He later asked me to do 8 as well, and I guess he must have never stopped asking me to write scripts because I didn't quit until the series was over!
But getting back to the topic at hand, my initial approach was to be as faithful to the original as possible. Since it is an adaptation, I never felt that this project was supposed to be an outlet for my own creativity. Especially since the series already had a strong script and powerful messages that the creator, writers, and directors wished to communicate. I have a great deal of respect for the series, so injecting my own writing style or brand of humor just wouldn't have sit right with me. I basically checked the right side of my brain at the door and let the characters speak the words that they were meant to speak, with as little interference from me as possible.
Over the course of the series, my approach really never changed. I kept trying to be as faithful to the original as possible. Kaeko likes to scribble down the Japanese lines on her copy of the script so she can refer to it as necessary. She's always said that my scripts are easy to work with because they stay so close to the original. If anything, the scripts are probably a little too faithful! But I hope that the authenticity is something that the viewers can appreciate.
Come to think of it though, some things did change a little as the series went on. I was still being very faithful to the original, but I have to admit that whatever I happened to be doing at the time did unconsciously affect the writing to a small degree. For instance, at the time I was writing the beginning of the Legend of Kyoto segments, I was taking some accounting courses. So in that particular volume, some accounting terms like assets and liabilities found their way into the script. It was totally appropriate given the content of those episodes, and I didn't actually realize that I had used accounting terms until I had seen the episodes myself. So if anyone felt that those particular episodes sounded like an accounting book, now you know why!
Some other little changes happened as well, but they were more technical than anything else. I learned everything I know about ADR writing from Eric, and he was still giving me tips and comments here and there throughout the series. He also passed along some helpful hints from Kaeko, as well as some style tips from Wendee Lee, so that helped me improve as an ADR writer. I won't bore you all with the details. If people feel that the scripts had improved as the series went on, then Eric, Kaeko, and Wendee deserve the credit.
DR: How long did the casting take for the show? Were there any roles that were particularly difficult, or particularly easy to cast?
Cheng: From a Media Blasters standpoint, once we received the audition tape at the office, it took only two or three days to reach a consensus. John Sirabella and Sam Liebowitz (RK's production manager for the first few volumes) were very democratic and allowed every single person in the office to view the tape and cast a vote. Picking Kaoru, Yahiko, and Sanosuke was a simple matter, and I believe that Dorothy, Elyse, and Lex all pretty much won by a landslide. Choosing a Kenshin was a different matter though.
If I recall, it was a very strange race for Kenshin. Sam was using a point-based system where people were allowed to vote for up to three actors. Practically everyone picked totally different actors, with only two choices really standing out by one or two votes. The first was Richard Hayworth, of course. The second was Mona Marshall. As some people may already know, the Japanese voice actor for Kenshin was a woman, Mayo Suzukaze. The voice Mona used was surprisingly close to the original actress' voice. Eric and I were the two people who actually had her as one of our top picks (no offense, Richard!), but in the end, when the two finalists were put to a vote, everyone favored a more masculine sounding Kenshin. Though Mona did get to play the young, young version of Kenshin, so all you fans can still get a chance to hear what it might have sounded like. I believe that particular episode just aired recently, too. All in all, I think everyone was satisfied by the end results (and I really couldn't imagine RK without Richard now).
As for the rest of the characters, I don't believe that Media Blasters was as involved with the casting process. Given the pace that we were recording the show, there really was no time. I believe Media Blasters actually released the entire series faster than it had aired in Japan. I got to be involved in casting the rest of the characters to a small degree. For every volume that came out, I would suggest 3 to 5 actors for each role and write a short character description, as well. It did turn out that most of the actors I suggested were indeed chosen for their respective roles. But who can say whether that was a case of great minds thinking alike or a result of the breakneck speed of production? Only the casting people know for sure, though I'd like to think it was the former reason, and not the latter!
DR: Kenshin has an unusual speech pattern, frequently employing the use of his trademark phrase "de gozaru," or his quirky "oro." How did you determine how to localize this part of his speech?
Cheng: Well, first of all, we had to determine whether these things were something we wanted to represent. Initially, Rika wanted to just represent Kenshin's "de gozaru" with formal speech. It probably would have been a fine way to represent that particular characteristic, but I had watched ahead in the series, and I knew that there were references to that specific phrase in future episodes. Those references were also a fairly significant part of the story and would probably be very tricky to write around since they were directly referred to in the dialogue. It also turned out to be a rather significant way to differentiate the Battousai Kenshin from the wanderer Kenshin, at least in the first few episodes. I asked Rika to take a look at a few of the problematic segments, and we agreed that it ought to be represented in some way, though we didn't come up with a solution at that time.
A few days later, we received her translation at the office and it had these that-I-do's and that-I-am's in it. I thought it was quite ingenious because it worked well with the later episodes, both in terms of intent and in terms of lip-flap. But when I originally looked at those problematic segments, I was looking pretty far into the series. I had totally missed the fact that it came up earlier in the series, specifically in the 7th episode with Kaoru's mimicking of Kenshin's speech patterns (For those of you who have seen it, you know what I'm talking about. For those of you who haven't, watch the episode!). You'd better believe that when I ended up writing that episode, I was very thankful that Rika had come up with this solution. In my opinion, it worked quite well in that episode, as well as in the future episodes, too. I especially liked how the part with Iori, the little baby in the Chou the Swordhunter episodes, worked out.
We did see quite a few complaints from some of the fans because of this translation choice, at least in the beginning. I had my fair share of ribbing from fellow employees in the office, too. John even asked me to downplay the speech pattern in the very beginning. I did my best to do so in the first few volumes, but I think that it started to gain some grudging acceptance early on. I didn't notice as many people complaining at least, especially after they had seen the 7th episode. In the end, I think that most people realized why we had to do it, and started to find it a reasonable solution, maybe even a little endearing. For those who still don't like it, I hope you'll give it a second chance given the reasons above. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, just keep enjoying the show!
As for the "oro", I felt it was important to have since it was Kenshin's signature exclamation. Rika and I had decided to leave it untranslated in the subtitled version of RK for various reasons. As for the dubbed version, I asked Eric to keep it in when he wrote the first scripts, and we agreed that it couldn't be left as is since it would be pretty strange to American ears. If I recall, "oro" was supposed to be a made-up derivation of "ara", which is easy enough to figure out if you're Japanese, I guess. We wanted to maintain the Japanese feel of the show, but we felt this particular idiosyncrasy needed to be changed if it were to make sense. Plus, the terms that we left in Japanese were all proper names or Japanese objects, and we already had set a precedence of translating made-up words like "rurouni." Also, it was referred to directly in the dialogue in future episodes, so representing it would be a good thing if we wanted to avoid sketchy rewrites. To make an already long story shorter, Eric told me he'd just do a funny sound to represent it. The rest is history. From the second volume on, it was just written in the script as "trademark 'huah' react."
DR: Originally, Sony developed a dub of the TV series entitled "Samurai X," which was heavily edited and never released in the United States. Did this dub have any influence on Bang Zoom's dub, and if so, what?
Cheng: The Samurai X dub didn't have any influence at all on our version since no one working at Bang Zoom! ever got a chance to see it. Well, that isn't entirely true. I did watch the second episode, but I saw it when I was still at Media Blasters. And because the Samurai X dub was recorded in LA, there is some crossover in talent. In fact, I believe the ADR writer for the Samurai X TV series did once jokingly offer to share some of his scripts with Eric, but Eric politely refused since a new translation was already commissioned.
And while I did watch one episode of the Samurai X TV dub, Eric made it a point not to watch any of it in order to not be influenced by them. I can't say that I was influenced by that one episode I watched either, since I didn't write our version of it. As I worked on the series, I took Eric's example and didn't even watch ADV's release of the OVA series and the movie, so as not to be influenced by them. Though now that work on the series is over, I admit I am curious to see how those particular shows turned out!
DR: Recent Bang Zoom dubs, most notably Ai Yori Aoshi, do not translate the names of items which have no English equivalent, such as "obi", "kimono", "taiyaki", etc. Yet in Rurouni Kenshin, "sakabato" is translated as "reverse-blade sword" throughout the series despite the difficulties this would seem to present in preserving accurate lip flap. What was the rationale behind this decision, and how did it affect lip-flap?
Cheng: This is more of a question for Rika, but I do have some insight into the matter. The rationales were simple. While the examples you gave do not have a direct English equivalent, that is not the case with "sakabato" which does directly translate into reverse-blade sword. Secondly, both terms also have four syllables, so there usually isn't any problem with lip-flap. Lastly, Rika knew that people would be watching this series both sequentially and randomly. Because the term is used so frequently, it made more sense to translate it. That way, people wouldn't have to go scrambling for Japanese-English dictionaries or the liner notes if they didn't remember the term or if they started watching from the middle of the series. In retrospect, it was probably a good idea that we did translate it. After all, the show is on Cartoon Network now and being seen by a lot of different people who may or may not have watched it from the very beginning. They might probably wonder what the heck a "sakabato" is, and why it doesn't cut or kill anyone who gets hit by it when it's obviously a sword.
DR: How much influence did the Japanese licensors have over the dub?
Cheng: The licensors had to approve the release of the volumes as a whole, but honestly, as with most other releases, they didn't directly influence the English adaptation. If I'm not mistaken, this probably also has a lot to do with the fact that they had already produced one of their own.
DR: Some found it surprising that the names of attacks were not translated. What was the rationale behind this decision?
Cheng: I think this was mostly Rika's call, but I do remember discussing this with her and Eric very briefly. We all agreed that translating the attacks might make them sound, to be blunt, kind of lame. Not to mention the headaches we would have handling the dubbing of Kenshin's final attack, which would probably have been pretty problematic to say the least. In the end, the show is very Japanese in nature, and keeping the attacks in the original Japanese maintained that flavor. It also added some mystique and authenticity to the series, as well. And of course, keeping them in Japanese made it easier to dub the show since the lip-flap would match most of the time. The pronunciation of the attacks was a different story though, but Kaeko knew how to whip those actors' tongues into shape. Wait, that sounded bad, but you get the idea.
DR: Although an action-heavy series, Rurouni Kenshin is also very Japanese in nature. The North American release of this show was one of the first to make heavy use of "liner notes". When and why was the decision made to use liner notes for this release? Were you concerned that many viewers would be confused??
Cheng: Again, this was mostly Rika's call as the translator. We did talk about it for a few seconds, but it didn't take long to realize that liner notes were a necessary evil. Considering that RK is a very Japanese show, it doesn't make much sense to hide that fact. And with all the Japanese places, objects, people, food, and holidays, there was no way to explain all those things in the limited confines of an ADR script or in the limited space of subtitles. At the time, we weren't very concerned about viewers being confused because it was a direct to video release and the liner notes were always included.
In hindsight, it probably is a minor concern now considering the show is airing on Cartoon Network, and the viewers don't have access to liner notes on their cable boxes. But I've been watching the show on a regular basis, and there haven't been very many cases of Japanese terms showing up that the audience couldn't figure out just by watching the episode. The only instances I've seen so far have been the sumo terms in that one episode, and the various kendo terms like "kote" and "men" scattered throughout the series.
In the end, it seems that there have been many positive comments about the extensive liner notes. The fans seem to really like them a lot, and they add more value to the product. It's a win-win situation in terms of the direct video release. The show would have been hard to dub without them too, as we wouldn't have known what all the terms and idioms were! So for all those who like the liner notes, make sure to write in and thank Rika for all her hard work and research!
DR: How did you handle the translation of jokes and puns?
Cheng: Not very well, if we're to believe the opinions of a certain member of dubreview.com who shall remain nameless (he knows who he is). But seriously, the translation of jokes and puns were usually pretty easy. Well, except the specific one that the nameless one loves to complain about!
Rika usually scribbles a lot of notes into her scripts, and she'll often make suggestions for a lot of the jokes and puns (as well as include a few observations and funny, little emoticons). It was pretty easy since she often made her own suggestions as to what to do in the dub. We just tried to stay true to the original intent and did the best we could. Of course, not every single one may have worked out, but I think the majority did. There were only one or two times when we couldn't think of something due to time constraints. Jokes usually matched the original, and we just tried to find equivalent English puns and idioms to match the Japanese ones.
DR: You were not the first writer for the show, but took over some time after the first few volumes. What challenges were presented in taking over the scripting duties after it had already been partially written?
Cheng: Truthfully, there was no challenge at all. I was already a part of the writing process in the sense that I was involved in some of the preliminary decisions. And part of my job when I was at Media Blasters was to approve Eric's first few scripts. When I took over the scripting duties, we just swapped roles. I became the writer and Eric was the one approving my scripts. We made a good team since we got along well and offered each other constructive criticism freely. In fact, a lot of the best lines in the series were the ones that were collaborative. Eric made quite a lot of changes to my scripts in order to make the dialogue smoother. And I changed a lot of his in the beginning to make the meaning closer to the original. It was a good balance.
We did have our differences, but they were fairly minor. Eric had initially written Sanosuke a little "smarter" than I would have liked in the first few episodes, and I tried to slowly "dumb" him down a bit as the series progressed. But in retrospect, that probably happened in the Japanese version as well, considering Sano's dialogue sounded very intelligent in the first few episodes. I also wasn't totally happy with Tae's accent in the beginning, but Kaeko and Eric felt that a "southern belle" accent was appropriate for her character. I admit that they made the right decision in the end though, as the whole "southern hospitality" thing was more appropriate to her character than any other accent would have been. Anyway, I guess those could be considered challenges, albeit very minor ones.
If anything, I would think that our two "pinch" writers had the greatest challenges. Both Kirk Thornton and Rebecca Olkowski were asked to write 2 or 3 scripts each during the Legend of Kyoto arc when I couldn't keep up with the workload. That means they probably had 50 or so episodes of continuity that they weren't aware of but had to try to write around. Not to mention the fact that the episodes they wrote were key episodes of the Kyoto arc. I had a difficult time writing the 2nd Cardcaptor Sakura movie for similar reasons, so I know how hard it must have been for them. Anyway, credit where credit is due. They're both better ADR writers than I'll ever be, and they did a heck of a job considering the time constraints that they had!
Speaking of good ADR writers, I suppose there were some more minor challenges in the beginning since I was still learning the tricks of the trade. But both Eric and Kaeko are fantastic directors, and they did a lot to fix any problems with my scripts. The actors and dialogue editors (mostly Pat Rodman) also did their fair share of minor script fixes. In the end, I'm grateful that they were all there to cover my back!
DR: What is your favorite scene or memory from this project?
Cheng: You know, there really are too many to list. Given the fact that it takes a full day or two to adapt one episode, I had a lot of time to learn to appreciate each one on its own merits. I even enjoyed a lot of the "filler" episodes throughout the series. I know that a lot of fans out there seem to consider the Kyoto arc the best of the series, but in my personal opinion, each episode has something unique to offer. They may not all have been high-action and high-drama like the Kyoto arc, but their themes are still just as valid. John and I used to joke every now and then that even a "bad" episode of RK was pretty good compared to some of the other stuff that's out there.
But if I had to choose a particular scene, I suppose it would have to be the firefly scene right at the beginning of the Kyoto arc. The imagery and dialogue there were just unbelievable, and I think it's hard for anyone not to get a little misty-eyed watching that scene! The original creator, Nobuhiro Watsuki, and the Japanese director, Kazuhiro Furuhashi, really did a phenomenal job in conceiving that scene and bringing it to life, respectively. I only hope that our adaptation did it justice! I certainly would like to think so.
Hm, but now that I think about it, I don't think I can choose just one favorite scene out of 95 episodes. So I'll just leave you with a few more scenes that were memorable to me. I think my favorite scenes usually revolve around the dialogue. Not so surprising since that's what my job was all about. But those scenes that really got stuck in my head were the ones with a certain sense of parallelism to them, the ones that had an almost lyrical flavor.
The first one was Jinei Udoh's words to Kenshin, "A manslayer is a manslayer till the day he dies." This line comes up a few times during the course of the series, and it never failed to evoke the imagery that there was nothing Kenshin could do to escape his past. It was also one of the closing lines in that montage of voice-overs right before Kenshin makes his fateful decision in episode 31. This, of course, leads into that touching firefly scene and those poetic last words of the season. In fact, that whole episode had a lot of great, flowing dialogue. Everyone should watch it again!
The second scene or group of scenes had to do with Sojiro and the words that Shishio taught him. "If you're strong, you live. If you're weak, you die." So simple and yet so powerful. I always looked forward to hearing those words pour out of Sojiro's mouth like some mantra. Especially in that great episode about Sojiro's origin. I'm referring to that scene where Shishio and young Sojiro begin saying that line together, but only Sojiro finishes it. It was quite the dramatic device in that particular scene.
Outside the Kyoto arc, I loved Sano and Megumi's talk outside Kanryu's estate, Magdalia telling Sano her real name in the Shimabara arc, Katsu Kaishu and Kenshin's discussion across that pond on the "Dreams of Youth" DVD, Yutaro's dedication to being a doctor in that "Black Knight" story arc, and the theme of nature that was prevalent in the last few episodes of the series. Whew! There are just way too many great moments in this series. Anyway, I've gone on long enough.
As for a favorite memory, I'd have to say that this interview will doubtless become my favorite memory. After all, I had a chance to walk down memory lane and hopefully give everyone some interesting insights into the production of the English version of Rurouni Kenshin. Thanks for the opportunity!
Thanks to Clark Cheng for his time and insight!