Remember when I said I'd discuss the "Creator Doesn't Always Know Best" issue in another essay? This is that essay. And I'll start with the most blatant and obvious example that could ever be coined.
(Put gold stars up next to your names if you saw this coming.)
It's almost mandatory, in fandom, to rag on George Lucas for taking a dump on his own work. Not just for following up a paradigm-shifting piece of work with, decades later, movies that barely qualify as bad knockoffs of the original and don't have a third of their spirit or wit. A big part of that I blame on him not working with people who had the nerve to say No, George to him and get away with it. Brian De Palma had the nerve to tell George that the opening crawl to Star Wars was crap; it looked like it had been scrawled on someone's driveway with the camera on a trash barrel, and it read even worse. Plenty of other people in the original Star Wars team pushed back at George and forced him to play that much more over his head. When he was surrounded by nothing but yes men, the evolutionary pressures on Star Wars were relaxed, and the end result was dismal.
But the biggest thing that ticked people off wasn't just that he'd gone and made markedly inferior movies. It was the historical revisionism he'd practiced on his own work — not just changing things, but making it effectively impossible to see what the changes had been made from. I didn't mind the digital Jabba or Han Shot First so much as I minded the notion that the original version had to die an inglorious death to make room for George's Master Vision.
Most of the discussions I've had about Lucas tend to come down to this stance: Yes, it's his work and he can do what he likes with it — but I reserve the right to call him out on it and insist he's doing terrible damage to his own legacy.
The problem with using George Lucas as an example, though, is that (to borrow a phrase) he makes for bad case law. He's an extreme example — maybe the most extreme example of what, if anything, a creator owes to his audience. What about situations like translation or localization, where it might not always be clear if the person being translated is having proper justice done to them?
This is where things get touchier, and where I don't think you can do anything other than go case-by-case. I'll cite some examples I've used before.
- I didn't mind Blade of the Immortal (the manga) being reformatted as a left-to-right production. It didn't significantly affect the readability of the book — if anything, it enhanced it, since it made it that much more accessible to that many more people. And it wasn't a big political football for me, because the author himself was OK with it and had in fact asked for that specific formatting.
- I had major problems with the translation of Ōoku, which attempted to render genteel Japanese from the Edo period as quasi-Shakespearan gabble. I thought it was a profound mistake: the text didn't need to be rendered like this to be immersive, and maybe immersivity wasn't the most important thing here anyway.
- I was somewhat bothered by the original VIZ editions of Black Jack, which only ran for two volumes and used a "greatest hits" approach. From what I was able to discern, though, the selections in question mirrored the very same choices Osamu Tezuka had made for a similar compilation in Japan. I was still that much more grateful when Vertical started releasing the whole thing here, though.
- I felt the bluenosed meddling over Tenjo Tenge (all so it could run out of shrinkwrap) was a bad idea, and simply meant that the audience that would have bought it anyway now simply ended up with an expurgated version. I had no particular love for the series, but I was annoyed that it was being chopped up all so the publisher could save a buck or two in the hopes of wider distribution. (As far as I can tell, it wouldn't have made any difference.)
- I had some of the same feelings about Golgo 13, which debuted Stateside in a 13-volume best-of version. But the sheer size of the original comic, which spans literally a hundred-plus volumes, would have made issuing a full editions of the comic a practical impossibility. Better that we have a greatest-hits collection than an attempt at faithfulness that would have only petered out after about that many volumes anyway. (On the other hand, we have full-on runs of titles like Lone Wolf and Cub. YEAH!)
In all of these cases, the creator had a specific vision for how things were meant to be. And in the vast majority of them, there was consent on the part of the creator (or his representatives) as to what was to be done. In some cases the butchery meant the withdrawal of consent: viz., the way Nausicaa was hacked apart and stitched back together for its original U.S. release, which meant a whole library of films from one of Japan's most important animation houses was not seen in English for nearly a decade and a half. Or the English translation of Keiichi Sigsawa's Kino's Journey, which was reorganized against his wishes and resulted in the author pulling future installments of the series from being published here.
And that's what it really comes down to for me: informed consent. The other guy, to the best of everyone involved, has to know what's going to happen to his work. As long as he's making reasonably informed choices, and those choices are respected, it's not something readers can grouse too loudly about. It's the Sigsawas and the Ghiblis of the world we should be fighting harder to defend and have justice done to — provided we know that they have been screwed over in the first place.
Publishing manga in English — in fact, publishing at all — involves compromise. The history of manga publishing in the U.S. now has a whole library of examples for how to choose wisely or poorly. And given that those in charge of hustling the books out the door have to pick all the more carefully, let's hope they pay attention to what's worth it, what's not, and why.
I'll have some more to say about the "censorship" side of this issue in a future post.