Toren Smith, one of the looming figures in the story of localizing manga and anime for English speakers, passed away on March 4th at age 52. Smith was an influential, outspoken and sometimes controversial translator who helped bring classics like Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell and Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira to North America, as well as set the stage for the manga boom of the 00s.
Attending Osaka's 1986 sci-fi convention, Daicon V, he made connections with the likes of Masamune Shirow, as well as Gainax founders Toshio Okada and Yasuhiro Takeda, whose studio would later name a prominent character after him in Gunbuster.
He went on to found manga import, translation and lettering company Studio Proteus, which helped define the template for how the material was handled in North America prior to the advent of $10, unflipped collections. The work was recognized with comic industry's prestigious Eisner Award's first nomination for a manga, with 1998's cat manga What's Michael? and first win with 2000's Blade of the Immortal.
Disagreeing with the direction of the industry, Studio Proteus' publication rights were sold to Dark Horse in 2004 and Smith retired.
Describing the role of his outfit, Studio Proteus, in Dark Horse interview:
We are a packager. What I do is I find comics in Japan that I like. Then I show them to publishers over here -- in the past that was Eclipse or Innovation, now Dark Horse and Fantagraphics. If they like them, then I make all the arrangements to get the rights and handle all of the work required to hand the publishers a camera-ready copy. Everything else is their bailiwick: promotion, advertising, solicitation, printing, distribution... all that fun stuff.
Smith brought a particularly demanding attention to quality to his studio's work, including flipping the images and making translation choices that readers didn't always agree with, but which were definitely considered.
On the shifts in the industry and its consumers, he stated:
One misunderstanding that has spread across the net is that I refused to have anything to do with unflopped, straight to TPB manga. This is partly true in that I, personally, don't really like it and didn't want to work on them myself. However, the popularity of them was undeniable, and so I put together a complete plan for Dark Horse to move into that arena. I had it developed into a three-stage approach, starting with more populist manga and gradually expanding to include better but more challenging material. I selected 30 titles and submitted the whole plan back in 2002. Dark Horse chose not to move ahead on it, I don't know why. (I find it interesting that since then, about 80% of the titles I proposed have been licensed by other companies.)
The fact that I didn’t want to work on these books seems to baffle many fans. It’s not that hard to understand, really. The pressures--time and financial--of producing several 200 page, $9.99 cover price books every month pretty much preclude sustained quality. That some of the people working at Viz and Tokyopop have managed to do a good job on some titles under these conditions is a testimony to their dedication and superhuman effort. However, most of the $10 books are very roughly done, to the detriment of the story. That the otaku will blow a gasket over drawing a towel on one panel of a naked 12 year-old-girl (in Shadow Star) but don’t seem to care about the lumpy, semi-translated dialog done on entire series is inexplicable. The story’s the thing, and what hurts the story in a comic book more than bad dialog? But I’ve come to the conclusion that they like that sort of raw translation. In fact, they aren't even shy about saying so, as I discovered in my futile discussions with them on the online forums. It was one of the reasons I dropped my work on the DH books I was still doing after the sale--I lost interested in putting so much effort into the translations when it was simply going to be criticized and disliked. I mean…why bother? I spent nearly a week doing the rewrite for the issue of Shadow Star (NaruTaru) where Shiina first goes to the Banda Academy, trying to bring alive this new world of young girls, voicing the new characters, trying to make it all sound fluid and natural and real...and what did I get? Complaints from fans who had read scanslations of that chapter that I'd gone too far from the original. (I especially enjoyed their assumption that the amateur translator of the scanslations had got it “right,” and we, therefore, must be wrong.)
I'm sorry, but letting a lumpy, semi-translated script get published just so the neo-otaku can pretend they read Japanese is NOT satisfactory to me. As I've ranted about on seemingly endless occasions, a translation should bring the story alive to the reader in their native language in the same way the original worked for the Japanese readers. THAT is a proper translation, to provide the new reader with a seamless storytelling experience that provokes the same emotions and responses. The best translations should be invisible. But what the neo-otaku want now is a slightly prettified transliteration, hence the popularity of scanslations. Okay, if that's what they want, fine. “The customer is always right.” So enjoy, folks...but why expect me to get involved? It reminds me of the fans who boggled at the fact I would not jump into the full-blown production of the $10 books. They could not grasp that it's not "all about the money" for everyone. I don't want to be Wal-Mart, I never wanted to be. If I can't produce work that meets my standards, then I'd rather quit. "But you'd sell more books! You'd make more money!" Yeah, but would I enjoy my job punching out McManga? No. So what's the point? I happily passed the ball on unflopped $10 manga to DH in 2002. (How the ball was handled after that has nothing to do with me.) And when asking why we didn't (for example) cancel SMB and transfer the contents to unflopped $10 books, keep in mind that I ceased to have any real influence on Dark Horse editorial decisions after January 1st, 2004, when the legal transition took place.