08 March 2008

Flipping for Yotsuba&!

Sharp-eyed manga fans no doubt recognized that yesterday's page from Yotsuba&!, volume 4, was flopped, or laterally reversed. As laid out by writer-artist Kiyohiko Azuma in Japan, the panels and the balloons proceed from right to left, top to bottom (though the English translations of the words read from left to right). The original scan looked like this.

Which brings up the question of why some English translations of Japanese comics, or manga, are laid out to be read from right to left, and others have their images manipulated before publication so they can be read left to right like other English books.

Digital imaging now makes that sort of conversion easy and inexpensive; it took me about eight minutes to manipulate the page above. Even before that technology, however, a book production department could flop the film that stored book pages before inserting the English translation. And I'd think that attracting lots of English-language readers would be easier with books that didn't demand retraining in how to read.

I looked on the web for answers to this publishing question. The 2007 Maryland Library Association Conference included a session called "Why Are These Books Printed Backwards? An Introduction to Anime and Manga for Library Staff." In a manner more typical of the Modern Language Association, the presentation doesn't seem to have ever answered the question its title raises.

Manga4Kids patiently explains to parents:

If you pick up a manga and glance through it, you will notice a few stylistic peculiarities. First of all, the book may appear to be printed backwards, with the front cover on what appears to be the back of the book. This is how Japanese books are printed, and many manga publishers prefer to keep the original format, rather than making mirror images of the pages for the English-speaking market. The panels in a manga page should be read right to left and top to bottom.
But that doesn't answer the question, either. It just confirms the phenomenon.

The Salt Lake City Library's manga FAQ (which I suspect Anna at TangognaT had something to do with) states:
This practice is known as "flipping" and is often criticized by the readers and artists citing that it goes against the original intentions of the creator.
So would translating the Japanese words into English, though.

Some websites mention exactly what manga artists might object to about flipping:
  • Reversing images can make significant Japanese cultural details, such as how a kimono is tied, look wrong. (On the other hand, it would make automobiles look like those driven in America.)
  • Sound effects drawn into the art could not be read, or would appear backwards to anyone who could read them. (Of course, many folks who can read them wouldn't need an English translation of the speech balloons.)
  • Flopping any image can make flaws appear. Indeed, artists are often advised to look at their sketches in a mirror to catch such problems early.
But how often does an artist's perfectionism stop a publisher who sees a way to make more money? The fact that many manga publishers do flip indicates how little weight these arguments can hold. I think there must be a market-based explanation for this phenomenon.

My theory is that the first readers of manga in English translation were Americans with ties to Japan, already familiar with the characters and genres. Those readers would have been more bothered by mistaken cultural details and illegible sound effects than by the need to page from right to left.

Later, English readers began to enjoy those same manga because they told stories rarely found in left-to-right comics, and were thus worth the extra effort. For those secondary readers, learning to read from right to left then became a point of distinction and pride. Not being "flipped" became a sign of a book's authenticity, and thus an asset to the publishers. But that's just a guess.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your post, but I wanted to point out that none of the major manga publishers flip anymore; it's very much a practice of the past.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I should have written "the fact that many manga publishers did flip" showed that those arguments didn't carry much weight.

This article about TokyoPop's decision to reverse course on reversing points out that production is faster if the company doesn't flop the images, and that some superstar artists insist on no flipping.

Still, something had to happen in the underlying market to make it economically feasible to publish books that most Americans have trouble opening the first time, much less understanding. Calling the right-to-left experience more "authentic" is accurate, but it's also classic "bugs into features" marketing.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't have anything to do with the SLCPL's graphic novel & manga collection, although I visit it often as a patron :)

Did you see this article from Wired's Manga issue? It goes into a little more detail about the transition from flipped to the current format of manga:

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Actually when manga began wide publication in the USA in the 1980s, it was flipped to read left to right. The right to left--non-flipped--reading direction is of much more recent vintage, early 2000s. Maybe there was some in the late '90s, but I don't remember any.

Back in 1988 or so I was in the First Comics production department and the art director, Alex Wald, explained to me that for Lone Wolf and Cub they were required to cut each panel apart and re-lay out each page, pasting panels from the right in the original onto the left (and vice versa) for the US edition so that details like clothing remained authentic, yet the story flowed in the western reading direction.

I actually haven't looked at any of the current Dark Horse editions of Lone Wolf and Cub, so I don't know what they look like. All I know is that I see the size of those volumes--so tiny--and I don't have the heart to look inside. The art must be minuscule compared to the 1980s US versions.

J. L. Bell said...

I read a recent Lone Wolf and Cub volume in the small trim size. It did have the feel of watching Ran on an iPod. Some websites say Goseki Kojima preferred the smaller trim. It also paged from left to right, as I recall.

I wonder if there are business-school cases on the manga-import industry's choice to publish books in a format that would baffle most potential readers. It seems so counterintuitive.

As you say, the publishers tried it another way at first, then both ways. All the while, technology was making it easier to revamp layouts. The shift to right-to-left printing seems to coincide with an industry decision to focus on chain bookstores rather than comic shops as a way to reach readers. But that just makes the format question more baffling.

Anonymous said...

My impression, and it's just an impression, is that the right-to-left reading manga published for the North American market is the result of manga-readers desiring some sort of insular, club-like feeling, a chance to be in-the-know and shut out the rest of the world which was looked down on as out-of-touch. I think that as the popularity of manga has grown, this attitude has disappeared simply because the world of North American manga readers is obviously not insular any more--if it ever really was. And so the reason for right-to-left reading manga has disappeared, too. Likely it's no longer a positive aspect of the manga-reading experience and has become a liability to gaining new readers.

The one manga series I read regularly, however, is still published in the US as right-to-left.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

With the library now having such a good collection I've been reading a lot of manga lately. At first it hurt my brain to read right to left. I persisted because I think it's useful to train my brain for new activities. Now I'm used to it and I read them as easily as if they were meant to be read left to right.

I'm ... over 25 :) I suspect that the main manga audience, who, being younger, has less ingrained reading habits and therefore less problems changing them, just got attracted to the stories and didn't care about format.