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Translation, Tanabe, and terror: An interview with Zack Davisson

We talk with the translator extraordinaire about Gou Tanabe, H.P. Lovecraft, and more.

Zack Davisson has had quite the career as a translator. He’s done work for various companies including translations of classic titles like Devilman, Cutie Honey, Kitaro, and more. In addition to these, he translated Gou Tanabe’s H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness Vol. 1, out this Wednesday from Dark Horse Comics. AiPT! recently had the opportunity to chat with Davisson about the upcoming release, his translation career as a whole, and more.

AiPT!: How did you get into translation work? Did you ever imagine you’d end up working in that field when you were first learning Japanese?

Zack Davisson

Zack Davisson: When I started seriously studying Japanese (as opposed to my early dabbling in it in middle school), translation was the end goal. It takes an immense amount of effort to master Japanese up to a professional level, so you need some of aspiration to keep you motivated. At least I did.

That said, for me it was never about “translation” in general. Living in Japan I discovered these amazing artists who were unknown and unrepresented in the West. People like Shigeru Mizuki and Leiji Matsumoto were foundational figures in Japanese comics, as famous and important as Walt Disney and Jack Kirby. But none of their comics were in English. I made it my mission to bring some of these titans to English readers.

AiPT!: In addition to the upcoming Gou Tanabe’s H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, you previously translated Tanabe’s collection H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound and Other Stories for Dark Horse. Were you already a fan of Tanabe and/or Lovecraft’s works prior to translating them?

Davisson: I must admit I had never heard of Gou Tanabe before starting to translate his works. (Although I have since become an immense fan.) It was Lovecraft that drew me in. Since I was a young kid, I’ve been a Lovecraft devotee. I own about five editions of the Complete Lovecraft work in various fancy volumes. So, when Carl Horn announced this license for Dark Horse, I pounced on it like a tiger.

I wasn’t prepared for it to be so amazing. Tanabe captured Lovecraft better than almost any comic artist I have read. Lovecraft is immensely difficult to adapt. The vast majority of attempts are dismal failures. I had previously said that only Richard Corben pulled it off. But Tanabe manifested Lovecraft’s world and stories in a way that perfectly captures the voice of the original while adding something new and worthwhile.

AiPT!: Adaptations bring fresh pairs of eyes and approaches to their source material. So, too, can translations. Has working on adaptations like Tanabe’s posed any unique challenges?

Davisson: The biggest challenge was reconciling the differences between Lovecraft and Tanabe. I know the source material so well that it was easy to see what variations and choices Tanabe had made. Shifting The Temple from WWI to WWII, for example. Or moving text from narration to dialog in several stories.

Ultimately it was realizing that my job was to portray Tanabe’s vision of Lovecraft. When Tanabe makes text variations or subtle plot shifts, that’s the roadmap I follow.

AiPT!: On the flipside, what have been the most rewarding aspects of working on these projects?

Davisson: Bringing the best Lovecraft adaptations ever made into English is obviously rewarding. These comics are astounding, and I hope my same excitement and passion carries over to readers. But by far the best part has been Gou Tanabe himself. He remains the first–and only–manga artist to hit me up on Twitter.

Image credit: Dark Horse Comics

Manga is a strange world. Contact with artists is rare; to the point that some companies have it written into contracts that even if the artist reaches out, you aren’t allowed to respond. But fortunately, Dark Horse isn’t like that.

I’ve enjoyed talking to Tanabe. Comics is a collaborative medium and having that personal relationship improves my connection to the work. We were texting each other during the Eisner Awards last year, equally bummed that we didn’t win. Next time!

AiPT! How much leeway or control do you have with adjusting elements such as word bubble placement and sound effects while translating?

Davisson: That is totally out of my realm and the work of the letterers. Manga editors are by far the most unsung heroes of the medium. Often, they are entirely uncredited, which is a shame. As with any comic, a good letterer can make or break the work!

AiPT!: Tanabe has created several more Lovecraft adaptations that have yet to be translated into English. If possible, would you want to translate more of these works in the future?

Davisson: YES!!! ALL OF THEM!!!! I have fallen completely in love with Tanabe’s work and I would LOVE to see his complete Lovecraft works be translated into English (by me, of course!). It’s impressive to see how his confidence grows with the works, from relatively straight-forward adaptations like The Hound to more of a Tanabe/Lovecraft blend like you get in At the Mountains of Madness.

For Lovecraft fans, for horror fans, for fans of just good comics… Tanabe is someone that needs to be checked out. And hopefully beyond his Lovecraft series into his other works as well. He has done some traditional Japanese ghost stories that are phenomenal.

AiPT!: In addition to translating numerous manga, you’ve also written several books of your own. How does working closely with others’ works on a regular basis affect your own creative process?

Davisson: That’s a good question, but not one that I think I have a really great answer to. For me, writing and translating are intertwined. They are different flavors of the same thing. When I write and when I translate, I go into my own brain, but I am always pulling from outside influences.

I don’t think I would ever want to do just one or the other. Like my spiritual ancestor Lafcadio Hearn, I will always be a writer and translator.

AiPT!: Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about? Where can fans keep up with you online?

Davisson: I am always on Twitter (@zackdavisson) … probably too much! Or my website zackdavisson.com. Coming up next is a whole bunch of great stuff. I’ve collaborated on a bunch of work with museums this year, including exhibitions in the Museum of International Folklore in New Mexico and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia. I worked on an academic book about Leiji Matsumoto. Plus, more translations that I love, the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro and Space Battleship Yamato 2199. I always have a lot of things in the works!

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