Kong: Skull Island – How A Professional Translator Brought The Novelization To Japan

Kong Skull Island Japanese Novelization - Translated by Maniwa Arisawa

Translators work hard to protect the cinematic vision of the director, and the Literary vision of the author, when bringing film-based novels to international audiences.

Like anyone who loves giant monkeys and scary dinosaurs peppered with humor and buttloads of action, I’m super excited about the upcoming Kong: Skull Island release tomorrow (March 10 2017.) In fact, I’ve been telling everyone I can that the last trailer released for this film (below) is possibly one of the best edited and sound designed trailers EVAR.

Of course, Kong is an established classic property, and thanks to those big long arms his reach extends beyond film and into loads of other media too. Not the least of which is the novelization of the film by Tim Lebbon [affiliate link] which of course was based on the screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly. Lebbon’s worked on the literary versions of properties like Star Wars, Alien v Predator, Cabin In The Woods, and many more.

And Kong’s popularity in book form extends to readers all around the world. Which means his book needs to be available in lots of languages.

And that calls for the uniquely creative talents of translators who can not only transcribe the author’s novelized story into another language, but understand and even enhance the uniquely cinematic nature of the Literature that is film-to-book so that it makes sense — “translates” — to another culture.

My friend Maniwa Arisawa is one of those unique talents. She’s worked on a number of translation projects related to film, from subtitles to novelizations like Lebbon’s.

nike kun maniwa arisawa
Maniwa Arisawa on the beach in Venice, Italy. This puppet has since retired, as he has a slipped disk. 🙂

And she was kind enough to share some insights with me about how this whole unique niche works.

Chip: What is your background in translation? What kinds of projects do you work on (besides awesome movie-to-novel adaptations)?

Maniwa: Originally I really wanted to be a subtitle translator, so I took a course for subtitle translation at the Babel University Professional School of Translation in Japan. After I finished the course, the teacher asked myself and other students to help with his workload. At that time he mainly translated books for publication, as well as materials for Japanese film distributors such as screenplays or production notes.

I helped him off and on for a number of years. Reading the screenplays was fun, though some screenplays were an easy read, some were harder. When I read “Fast & Furious 6” (or was it 7?) I could not imagine how they’d get the story to the screen because the action scenes seemed impossible! Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” was very dense! But of all the screenplays I translated for my former teacher, “Unbroken” was undoubtedly the best.

The distributor hesitated to import this controversial (for a Japanese audience) film to Japan.

It is interesting that a good screenplay does not always make a good movie, though… the screenplay was better than the resulting film. I like the way Angelina Jolie put it. It was very thoughtful and graceful, but I could not help but feeling something was missing.

Ironically, even though I originally started out wanting to do subtitles, “Fever Pitch” is my only subtitle work! I “pitched” this film to the Japanese distributor (I am a big Colin Firth fan.) You can listen to my commentary on the DVD along with two other guests! The film was remade by Jimmy Fallon BTW.

C: What is your background in film work, aside from translation?

M: Long ago, before CG invaded the industry, I was an animator working for Studio Hibari, a small animation studio in Japan.

More recently I worked on several films as a volunteer. I was an Art Department Assistant on the Charlie Hofheimer film “Blur” (which is in post-production hell), and was a special makeup assistant on “Tetsuo The Bullet Man”. [“Blur” is the film where Chip first met Maniwa; Chip was the Production Designer, and Maniwa was an indispensable member of the art department.]

I also attended The Venice Film Festival when “Tetsuo” was screened. Fun fact, Tetsuo director Shin’ya Tsukamoto was in Scorsese’s “Silence” as “Mokichi.” It was a surreal experience that I witnessed him crucified in the Del Mar Theater!

For my personal work, I have made a few short animations in both stop motion and CG. They’ve been screened in several film festivals, including the Santa Cruz International Film Festival, and even won an award.

“Bunny Bowling”


They are rather crude, but I enjoy making them and I like them!

C: Okay, those are super cute. I always wanted to do stop-motion, but never learned. How did you get started in literary translation?

M: Translation, like filmmaking, has a lot to do with “who you know.” In my case, an ex-coworker gave me my first job. We first met when we worked together at a movie magazine publisher called “Kinema Jumpo.” He moved on to another publisher, Take Shobo, where he was able to offer me the job of translating an article for “Starlog” magazine.

Over time, he began to let me translate books.

C: Have you worked on other literary translations?

M: I have! Here’s a list of my work on Amazon Japan… you’ll see Kong: Skull Island right at the top!

Kong Skull Island Japanese Novelization - Translated by Maniwa Arisawa
Kong Skull Island Novelization by Tim Lebbon – Japanese Translation by Maniwa Arisawa

Betrayal” became the Oscar Awarded film “Spotlight.” The content was so unpleasant that I felt literally ill during the translation.

Big Game” was another Samuel L. Jackson film! I liked the original novel & the film a lot. I’ve always thought it was a shame it wasn’t more of a hit.

Haatch & Little B” is the true story of a three legged dog and a boy with a rare disease in England.

Thanks to “One Direction: The Ultimate Photo Collection” I came to know everything you’d possibly want to know about this boy band!

The author of “Our Entitled Children” lives in Santa Cruz, where I currently live. A friend introduced me this job.

And I translated “Life Animated.” I met the author and the protagonist when they attended the San Francisco Film Festival last April.

C: Is it unusual for you to meet an author of the book you’re translating? Or anyone else involved in the film or novelization?

M: It was for the first time. However, I have met Colin Firth for an interview and wrote an article for Kinema Junpo when he came to Japan promoting “Bridget Jones’ Diary!”

C: Is Kong: Skull Island the first film-to-novel project you’ve translated?

M: No, it’s not! I’ve been lucky to work on the novelizations of some really great projects.

I translated the “Mummy” novelization.

I got to do the “Frozen” book too. The original novelization was thin, so the editor wanted me to add a lot of content. It was like writing and translating simultaneously. I had to create several scenes by myself, and it was not an easy task because, as a fantasy story, it was challenging geographically, with its timeline, and even emotionally… and on top of that, the characters sing!

X-files Season 10” turned out to be a “from scratch” project. I didn’t have an existing novelization to work from, or a screenplay. I had to write a novel from the dialogue script! I had to watch the drama and dissect each scene and the character’s performance… like Dr. Scully!

C: How does it feel to be a part of this epic relaunch of a classic cinematic property?

M: I am very glad and excited. The editor originally offered me a choice between “Kong” or “The Great Wall,” and although I liked that film, I am glad I chose “Kong.” I am a Ray Harryhausen fan, so I care for Kong, especially as he was originally created by Willis O’Brien, the Harryhausen master.

I especially enjoy that the buzz for the film and the publicity are getting intense, and the expectation is getting higher as opening day is approaching!

However, when the book hits the bookstore (Mar 10) or the film opens in Japan (Mar 25) I will be in the U.S.A. so it will feel remote. So I feel a little bit sad about it, to tell the truth.

C: What was your favorite part of the Kong: Skull Island story to work on? Characters, creatures, descriptions, dialog, particular scenes, themes, something else?

M: I liked the prologue and the epilogue in the book. They’re both told in the POV of the character “Marlow” [John C. Reilly in the film.] He seems like a clown on the trailer, but he’s actually a little more of a serious character in the novel. Every time I read the epilogue, I would get tearful. Tim Lebbon is a very talented writer.

But those scenes may not be in the action-packed movie… we’ll see.

There were many other descriptions and dialogue I liked including:

“‘Yeah, you walk away. Me, I have to live with it.’”  (Colonel Packard to Weaver on the War)

“[Weaver] felt a momentary kinship with Randa, brusque and single-minded though he was. They were both seeking something, committing themselves fully to their quests, and perhaps shutting out the rest of the world in doing so.”

“Marlow grabbed the sword handle and slowly, carefully, drew it from the shrine. It came out with a whisper like a forgotten voice.”

“The birds did not attack them. Instead they streamed skyward, spiralling up in patterns which Mills could only admit were beautiful. On the ground they might have been ugly, but once aloft they were graceful.”

C: Was there anything that you found especially hard about the translation of Kong: Skull Island?

M: Schedule-wise, it was hard. The publishing company in the U.S.A. sent a revised version after I finished the initial translation. Some chapters had been omitted or changed entirely, and we had a deadline, so I did not have the time to enjoy the Holiday season last year since I had to keep the due date. But the story and the character development did get better thanks to the revision; for instance, at first the character of the photojournalist was not convincing. The tight deadline made polishing that character tough even after the revision, but I think we pulled it off.

I had to learn about the Vietnam war and helicopters and guns. I read some books about the war in Japanese so that I could learn the proper terms in the destination language.

C: There’s so much more research than I imagined. That’s impressive dedication! Were there any other challenges?

M: On the personal side the timing wasn’t great. My husband and I moved to a new condo just before beginning the translation, and it turned out that we had to replace the cable for the internet access. That meant getting approval from the HOA and the owner, but it was a long and difficult process. (Compared with them, the sloth staff of the DMV in “Zootopia” were as fast as a cheetah.)

I didn’t get proper internet access until after finishing the translation work.

So just logistically, it was extremely inconvenient timing… but we got it done!

C: Sometimes technology is not our friend! So, aside from specific challenges with Kong, are there general challenges in translating a cinematic-based property? In other words, do you find that there are specific stylistic tools that address the unique visual, structural, or pacing aspects of film that the author uses in novelizing, as opposed to other kinds of literature that aren’t based on films?

M: Generally, I think the writing for a film novelization is more plain and concrete than usual books, so it is not very difficult to understand or translate.

As a rule you cannot watch the film itself before starting a translation (well, sometimes you can if the film opens much later in Japan) but you can watch related films as references such as the spin-off, prequels, or the director’s previous works.

C: I have to say that hadn’t really crossed my mind, the need for your translation to represent the artistic style of the director as well as the author. That’s fascinating. Since you couldn’t see “Kong: Skull Island” before doing your translation, what other resources did you refer to in your effort to get it “right?”

M: For “Kong” I watched the original and two remakes, and “The Kings of Summer,” another film directed by the same director (it was very good) as well as “Apocalypse Now” because it was obvious that “Kong” referred to the Coppola film.

I also read “Heart of Darkness” in Japanese. I believe Lebbon referred to that novel for the “Kong” novelization like the film itself referred to “Apocalypse Now.”

One thing I found in this particular novelization is that Lebbon avoided describing the characters’ physical appearances even for the main characters. I assume that when he began writing it, he did not know who would play the role. 🙂

C: Is that common in a film-to-book project, to reference the actors’ appearance if the actor is known?

M: Usually there is more description, but not specific based on the actor. It’s more general description like “tall and stout,” or “long hair.” In “Kong: Skull Island,” there was almost none of that kind of description. So the reviser complained that the reader would confuse who is who. There were a few exceptions… Rand (played by John Goodman) was described as heavy, and Weaver (Brie Larson) was “hot.” 🙂

C: What do you find to be the biggest challenge in translating a story? For instance: is it cultural references, or metaphor/analogy, story structure, or… ?

M: Indeed metaphor/analogy could be troublesome. For example, in “Kong,” I vaguely understand the meaning of the sentence “The world’s gone batshit crazy, and it’s drooling on our doorstep;” however, I had to make sure by checking in with my native friend. Sometimes a plain expression could be hard to translate, such as “We do what we know,” when it is used several times in different sentences.

Translators want to be as loyal to the original writing as they can. However, the structure of English and Japanese are very different, so sometimes I have to change it, like divide one sentence into two, or change the order of a compound sentence so that the sentence will be natural in Japanese. Likewise, I often have to omit the rhyme of the English writing. It is a shame.

Also Japanese does not have as many curse expressions as English. English is very versatile for this department!

C: Do you need to modify cultural references or metaphors that are, for instance, Western-specific, to be more recognizable or relevant for the Japanese audience, or do you stay true to the original and hope that it resonates with the Japanese reader?

M: It depends. Sometimes I do not change, sometimes I modify. Sometimes I insert a footnote. One drawback living in the U.S.A. for so many years is that I sometimes forget some expression I’ve grown accustomed to is different in Japan. For instance, in Japanese I have to remember that we do not say “plastic bag.” We say “vinyl bag.”

I usually change the unit like foot, mile, pound to metrics and grams. English people like to count bunches of things as dozens, but Japanese does it as tens. It is also interesting that the usage of a word varies between British English and American English. I have to refer to the dictionary more often for unfamiliar British writing than the U.S. writing.

The biggest challenge is the words like “sister” and “brother.” Japanese language has to be specific; whether older sister or younger sister. So I search for clues in the entire book. I had to ask the author by email when I translated “Haatch & Little B.” I do not like to do that.

C: Do you have future translations coming soon?

M: I have no idea. After “Kong,” I had a small amount of research work for my editor but that’s done now. The offer always comes out of the blue. Also they give me very short span for finishing it, and I cannot do anything else during a translation, so right now I just want to relax and enjoy some fun activities like binge watching the dramas (Have you watched “Westworld”!?)

C: I have! I think you’ll really appreciate the intricacies of the plot as it evolves. If you could translate any book or movie adaptation, what would you love to do?

M: I would like to translate the original novel of the Sci-Fi drama “The Expanse.” Only Volume One was translated in Japan. I read Volume Two in English, but as great as it was I may not read more than that unless I can translate it because they are thick as a telephone book!  🙂

I loved “Naptime with Theo & Beau” by Jessica Shyba, an author who lives here in Santa Cruz. It does not have many letters, though (and I loved that about it 🙂 ). I pitched this photo album book to the publisher, and they bought the rights several years ago. However, the publisher changed their mind because a similar book they published before “Theo & Beau” did not have great success. I was disappointed, but still have a hope there is a chance for it to be published in the future.

I also would like to introduce a novel called “The Tale of Shikanoko” by Lian Hearn to Japanese readers. I found the book at Book Shop Santa Cruz last year. I thought it was for young adults, but it was really more for adult readers. It is a fantasy set in a fictional ancient Japan. I think Japanese readers would enjoy this imaginative Japanese fairy tale.

C: Fun question: If you had to pick between Kong and Godzilla, who’d win? Why?

M: No brainer! It’s Samuel L. Jackson!  … I’m kidding. I think Kong will be annoyed by the 2014 version of Godzilla’s bad breath! I have not watched the latest Godzilla movie made in Japan, “Shin Godzilla,” yet. I hope the film will be screened in Santa Cruz.

Which do you pick?

C: We just had that conversation in my house last week. My son says Kong wouldn’t stand a chance against radioactive breath… I grew up more on Godzilla films myself (and Mothra, and Gamera) so as much as I have mad empathy for Kong as a tragic character, I tend to agree.

M: Mothra and Gamera! You and your son know about kaijyu better than me!

C: What would you like a writer or publisher to know before they approach you or another translator to work on their project? What are the top three challenges that you think they’ll need to address to have a great result?

M: Give the translators a longer schedule!

Please spoil the translators! They feel very lonely and insecure during the work, and you are the only window for the world! Don’t leave them alone and keep them posted.

Please take the side of the translator when a vicious reviser slaughters their writing!

C: That all seems totally reasonable, especially considering how hard you obviously work to protect their voice and vision! Thank you so much for sharing your insights and process. It’s really cool to see how much care and pride you take in understanding and protecting the artistic intentions of the filmmakers and authors you translate. If someone wants to contact you to talk about a translation project, how can they do that?

M: Please email me: Maniwa.Arisawa@gmail.com

I am looking forward to hearing from you soon!

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