An Interview with Kumar Sivasubramanian

Kumar Sivasubramanian is an Indian-born Canadian currently living in Melbourne, Australia. He has written for Dark Horse Presents and translated over eighty volumes of manga from Japanese to English, including such series as Blade of the Immortal, Summit of the Gods, and Knights of Sidonia. He is also an English Language Consultant for the anime production company Sunrise Inc. Kumar, with artist Mulele Jarvis, created Weird Crime Theatre, a “near-psychotic fever dream of comic book adventures of Granikos ‘Granny’ Kinkade and Melissa the Conqueror – two low-paid subcontractors working for the government to terminate all manner of entities with extreme prejudice.” Kumar also contributes to the Deconstructing Comics Podcast.

A 130-Page Giant Weird Crime Theatre is now on Kickstarter.

MATT EMERY: How did you get into translating Manga, and what were initial projects you worked on?

KUMAR SIVASUBRAMANIAN: Well, this is kind of a long story. In 1998, I moved from Canada to Japan to teach English and met an amateur artist named Mulele Jarvis. The following year, Mulele and I went to SDCC, and he managed to score 3 eight-page stories in Dark Horse Presents based on the strength of his art. He asked me to write those for him, and they ran in 2000. After that, we didn’t hear much of anything, but then about a year later, out of the blue, we got an email from Dark Horse saying essentially, “We’re about to lose our translator on this project, you guys live in Japan, we figure you must speak Japanese, so do you want to give it a shot?” That assumption was almost entirely incorrect (I’d only been there about two years), but we did try-outs anyway. Then Dark Horse sorted out whatever it was with their translator, so that assignment never happened. So another year or so passes. Then, in October 2002, I get an email asking if I’m available for translation work on 4 volumes: Osamu Tezuka’s “Early SF Trilogy” — Metropolis, Next World, and Lost World. I dove into it with extreme enthusiasm. Perhaps too much so in the case of Metropolis. I remember counting out the syllables and trying to match them in English, or looking at the sounds in Japanese and trying to find words that were near equivalent in English. It was pretty mental, but it was my first translation, and I wanted it to be perfect, whatever that means. I haven’t been able to bring myself to reread it since, so I really have no idea how it turned out. The other interesting thing about it is that it wasn’t till much later when my wife pointed it out that I realized what a distinction and rare honor it was to be able to work on Tezuka. At the time, I hadn’t really processed that fact. It hit me again very recently when someone at a show actually asked me to sign a copy of Metropolis! After the Tezuka books, I got more assignments from Dark Horse and started querying other companies for work – which is the way you’re actually supposed to get into manga translation in the first place! I did another Tezuka book (Swallowing the Earth) for DMP and Message to Adolf for Vertical because the SF Trilogy was on my CV. I also started doing some consulting for Sunrise Animation.

MATT EMERY: Do you have a specific background or education that qualified you for translation work?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: My Japanese is entirely self-taught. But I have a BA and MA in English Lit, and as implausible as it sounds, I do find myself casting my mind back to the things I learned in all those poetry classes every time I work on a translation. I think most companies are more interested in what you can actually produce, rather than official degrees or certifications. In fact, I took the NAATI exam for certification in Australia and failed it! That said, because I don’t have a formal education in Japanese, I’ve always assumed that I probably work significantly more slowly than the other manga translators out there.

EMERY: Has any particular project presented you with any specific challenges?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: The biggest challenges are often research-related. I recently did a book called Furari by Jiro Taniguchi, which is largely about Japanese measurement systems and astronomy and stuff back in the 1700s. There is no English equivalent for lots of this stuff, and Japan was cut off from the West at the time so they’re almost entirely independently developed systems. It’s not unusual to spend a couple of hours trying to find a good translation for a single word. Google has made this a lot easier than it must have been twenty years ago, but I still find myself having to visit the State Library or emailing experts about things from time to time. Another specific challenge was the re-translation of Message to Adolf. I had done one re-translation before — Crying Freeman – but when I started work on that project and reread the Viz translation, I found it lacking. In the case of Message to Adolf, the original translation had been done by a Japanese translator, so I really questioned what I would be able to bring to the table. Ultimately, I just had to force myself to be confident about it, and in the end I produced a translation that I’m very proud of and I feel better captures the personalities of the characters.

EMERY: Do you have a favourite work that you’ve translated?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: Eden: It’s an Endless World by Hiroki Endo. It’s a really mature, thoughtfully written, emotionally intense SF/action/apocalypse/crime series. I absolutely love it, and I love the job I’ve done on it. Sadly, it does not sell well, so its future is always hanging by a thread, but I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to sell an adult comic to adults in the West.

EMERY: You’ve translated several of Osamu Tezuka’s books. With multiple publishers currently releasing his work in English, are you aware of any untranslated Tezuka manga that you’d consider an essential work for an English release?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: Phoenix is an absolute masterpiece. It has been in print from Viz, some volumes as recently as 2008, but their availability is very sporadic. It’s essential Tezuka, and it should have a release with more permanence in its distribution and presentation. I’m also surprised that Jungle Emperor hasn’t been released in English at all. The TV show enjoyed some popularity in the West in the 60s, and there is some familiarity with it thanks to The Lion King, and it’s only three volumes – where is it? Of course, here too, part of the problem is that “classic” manga does not sell. The bulk of the manga-buying audience prefers material that is current. I can think of lots of other canonical works that are missing from the landscape of translations as well.

EMERY: What are have you been working on recently?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu Nihei (Vertical), and Blade of the Immortal by Hiroki Samura (Dark Horse). However, as I write this, I am mere days from finishing the script for the very last volume of that series.

EMERY: Has the industry changed much in the time you’ve been translating manga for American publishers?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: Certainly the health of the industry has changed. During the real boom years for manga in the West from about 2004 to 2007, there was enough work and the page rates were good enough for me to translate full time. In the early days, I got paid as much as $15 a page, and I’ve seen that drop to $4 on some projects (someone recently offered me $1.50, and naturally I said, “No.”) That $4 rate was actually a standard set by TokyoPop (although they were huge at the time) and is now followed by many smaller publishers. It’s not necessarily “good” if a page takes 30-60 minutes – you can do the math – but it’s not unexpected anymore either. I certainly have done a lot of “$4 Projects” for the love of it and was perfectly happy with the rate. That said, there was a period early last year when I thought I would never work again. In 2007, I had to go out and get a “real job,” but the translation work was still pretty steady. But after the recent Borders collapse and the TokyoPop shut down (I assumed the market would be flooded with translators), I thought I was done for. But then somehow, the work started streaming in and I was busier last year than I have been in ages. Ed Chavez at Vertical has described the market as “correcting itself”. That certainly reflects what my personal experience has been, despite my limited perspective on the industry overall.

EMERY: Do you ever pitch translation projects to publishers?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: No – I don’t even know if that’s possible. I have a lot of dream projects, but licensing is complicated with different publishers having dibs on different projects; politics, and sales expectations all pulling in different directions.

EMERY: When did you move to Australia, and what brought you here?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: I moved here in December 2004. I met my wife in Japan, and she’s Australian so this is just kind of how it ended up.

EMERY: Are you involved in any comics communities in Australia?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: No. (This is the saddest short answer of them all!) Though, I did speak at Manifest a couple of times.

EMERY: Are there any other collaborations in Weird Crime Theatre like three pages produced with Dave Sim?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: No. That was a very odd thing where I bizarrely thought, “Cerebus would be good in this scene!” So I emailed Dave to ask for permission, and he just up and offered to draw Cerebus himself!

EMERY: Have you received any feedback from any of the authors you have translated or their original publishers?

SIVASUBRAMANIAN: I get asked this question a lot! No, I haven’t, and in fact I’ve never heard of any of my editors having direct contact either. I would love to pick their brains, but mostly the licensing is done through agents. And this stuff is translated into many languages other than English too – I don’t think the artists have the inclination to field questions from every translator. Plus, have you seen what a manga creator’s schedule is like?! They wouldn’t have the time!

Bibliography of Manga translations by Kumar Sivasubramanian

  • Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka (Dark Horse)
  • Lost World by Osamu Tezuka (Dark Horse)
  • Next World Vol. 1-2 (complete) by Osamu Tezuka (Dark Horse)
  • Hipira-Kun (kids’ picture book) by Otomo Katsuhiro and Shinji Kimura (Dark Horse)
  • Akira Club (art book) by Otomo Katsuhiro (Dark Horse)
  • Japan by Buronson and Kentaro Miura (Dark Horse)
  • King of Wolves by Buronson and Kentaro Miura (Dark Horse)
  • Eden Vol. 1-13 (18 total released in Japan, intermittently still being released in the US) by Hiroki Endo (Dark Horse)
  • Space Pinchy by Tony Takezaki (Dark Horse)
  • Scary Book Vol. 1-3 (12? volumes in Japan, stopped in the US) by Kazuo Umezu (Dark Horse)
  • Octopus Girl Vol. 1-3 (4 volumes in Japan, stopped in the US) by Toru Yamazaki (Dark Horse)
  • Ohikkoshi by Hiroaki Samura (Dark Horse)
  • Crying Freeman Vol. 1-5 (complete) by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami (Dark Horse)
  • Old Boy Vol. 1-8 (complete) by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi (Dark Horse)
  • SS Magazine 1-3 (a how-to manga art magazine, stopped in US, ongoing in Japan) (Dark Horse)
  • Tanpenshu Vol. 1-2 (complete) by Hiroki Endo (Dark Horse)
  • MPD Psycho Vol. 1-11 (ongoing in Japan, intermittently still being released in the US) by Eiji Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima (Dark Horse)
  • Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma (Fanfare)
  • Swallowing the Earth by Osamu Tezuka (DMP)
  • Summit 1-4 (the final volume, 5, to be released) by Jiro Taniguchi (Fanfare)
  • A Distant Neighborhood Vol. 1-2 by Jiro Taniguchi  (Fanfare)
  • The Sky (art book) by Yoshitaka Amano (Dark Horse)
  • A Zoo In Winter by Jiro Taniguchi (Fanfare)
  • Blade of the Immortal 23-27 (the final volumes, 28-30, to be released) by Hiroki Samura (Dark Horse)
  • Stupid Guy Goes to India (volume 2 to be released, only available on the Indian subcontinent) by Yukichi Yamamatsu (Blaft)
  • Furari (coming soon) by Jiro Taniguchi (Fanfare)
  • Message to Adolf Vol. 1-2 (complete) by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)
  • Emerald by Hiroaki Samura (Dark Horse)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia [manga section] by Akira Himekawa (Dark Horse)
  • Knights of Sidonia Vol. 1-3 (ongoing) by Tsutomu Nihei (Vertical)

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Matt Emery is a cartoonist and comics historian specialising in New Zealand and Australian comics. In recent years, he has maintained an Australasian cartooning blog at Matt also manages Pikitia Press in its capacity as a micro-publisher. Current and forthcoming artists published by Pikitia Press include Peter Foster, James Davidson, Toby Morris, Sarah Laing, MVH, Bob McMahon, Barry Linton and Tim Bollinger, as well as distribution of works by Steve Ditko, Maude Farrugia and Brent Willis.

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