INTERVIEW: Zack Davisson on Cosmic Horror and the Reality of Translating Manga

Davisson's translation of Gou Tanabe's latest H.P. Lovecraft manga adaptation is now available

At the Mountains of Madness


Dark Horse recently released Gou Tanabe's excellent H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness manga, which features translation work by Zack Davisson. We had the fortunate opportunity to fire some questions in Zack's direction, so read on for some insight into the world of manga translation, supernatural scares, and more!




With Gou Tanabe adaptations like this, you're working from an English source as viewed through a Japanese author's lens. How did this affect your approach to translating At the Mountains of Madness? 


Its been interesting. I work on the book with Lovecraft’s text right next to Tanabe’s. I use both an English and a Japanese version so I can see what specific phrases Tanabe intended to preserve, and what he changed. If he used Lovecraft’s language, I try to replicate that. If he wrote something entirely new, then I work to make it fit in and look seamless.


It’s a somewhat time-intensive method that I haven’t done for any other project, but I think it is worth it to get it right.


Were you already a fan of the source material? 


Oh, absolutely. Looking at my shelves right now I have five complete collections of Lovecraft’s stories. I have the Arkham House editions, the S.T. Joshi annotations, and then fancy shelf decoration leather-bound volumes by Easton Press, Folio Society, and Gollancz. 


I’ve been reading Lovecraft most of my life. I saw Michael Whelan’s amazing painted covers and convinced my mom to buy me the Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre paperback when I was probably far too young. Or maybe just the right age. 


The sense of dread in Lovecraft's work can be difficult to get across in adapted form. What do you think makes Gou Tanabe's take on the material so special? 


I think it is the fact that Tanabe takes the source material absolutely seriously. He approaches it with gravitas, free from modern “takes” or “spins.” In modern times Lovecraft often descends to parody or “Lovecraftian” where they do the August Derleth thing of taking his characters and writing new stories void of the original intent or nuances.


Tanabe is the visionary director who says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we stage Hamlet as Hamlet? Exactly as written? Not as a clever spin on corporate culture or boy bands or something like that? Just, as intended. Even in period costume?”


Tanabe also has a grasp of mood, which is essential to Lovecraft. And pacing. And his art is simply phenomenal. 


At the Mountains of Madness

Beyond Tanabe, do you have a favorite take on Lovecraft? Are there any films or other forms of media you think have come close to capturing the essence of his horror? 


Before Tanabe I would have said my favorite was Richard Corben’s comics. Although he very much made “Richard Corben comics,” his vision of Lovecraft was truly frightening on the page. No one does that grin of madness like Corben.


For films, I can’t think of a single one that does it right. I love radio plays, however, and the Dark Adventure Radio Theater does excellent adaptations. I buy everything they make.


Can you talk about your own encounters with the supernatural? How have they informed your work on titles like At the Mountains of Madness?


I hold that it is perfectly acceptable to believe in weird things so long as they are of no consequence.  I have had a Loch Ness Monster sighting and gone hunting for mysterious ghost spots in Japan… Including my own house. I lived in one of Japan’s notorious jiko bukken haunted apartments.


I like the idea of there being mysteries still in the world. I think it helps to believe in the supernatural at least a little bit in order to work in the genre effectively. When I am working on things like At the Mountains of Madness, I buy into them completely and allow myself to be amazed. 


What scares you more, ghosts or the notion of greater cosmic horrors?  


Definitely ghosts! I love Lovecraft, but I find cosmic horror to be too grand to be truly terrifying. Horror is personal. Sitting home alone in my own house, in the dark, working away and feeling that tingling feeling on the back of my neck that someone is standing behind me will always be more frightening than mythological scale frightmares.


You've worked on plenty of titles I think it's safe to say many would consider dream projects, from the works of Go Nagai to Shigeru Mizuki, Satoshi Kon, and beyond. Do you have any favorites, and are there any specific authors or series you're still dying to tackle in the future? 


It’s true. I’m fully aware I’ve been blessed in my career. I started out with a very specific agenda, of artists I wanted to work on and works I wanted to translate. When I finished Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato I realized that I had accomplished them all. I had a bit of a crisis of purpose because… what then? Do I just start translating stuff I have no passion for just to cash a paycheck? That didn’t seem very fun.


Fortunately, with artists like Gou Tanabe I was able to find new passions. I’d never seen Tanabe’s work before Dark Horse hired me for The Hound and Other Stories, but now I want to work on everything he does.  Discovering new favorites is the best feeling. And there are still piles of Shigeru Mizuki comics for me to tackle! 


The Hound

What is the most misunderstood aspect of translation? 


That we are technicians instead of artists. Translating is writing. Plain and simple. I translate, and I write my own books, and they come from the same part of my brain. 


Translation is like performing a cover song. My voice is never going to be the same as the original. There will be personal nuances and variations, turns of phrases that I will never be able to entirely mask. So, it’s a matter of making my cover version as good in its own right as I possibly can.


It seems it's only been in recent years that translators have been more thoroughly and visibly credited for their work. Do you think the manga industry in particular is in a good place now as far as this is concerned, or is there more to be done to convey just how much influence a translator has over the final product? 


Strangely enough, the opposite is true. If you look at the early days of manga the emphasis was on the translator. People like Rachel Thorn and Toren Smith were getting cover credit. My own idea on this is that manga was still strange, so companies wanted to put “English names” on the cover to dilute some of the “foreignness.” They also were having well-known comic writers like Lein Wen and Marv Wolfman doing adaptations.


Then, when manga took off and TokyoPop boomed, things flipped. Manga artists themselves became the superstars and translators were hidden to prevent any perceived barrier between reader and artist. Readers didn’t like the idea that they were reading a translator’s dialog, not the author’s.


I think things are settling into a better equilibrium now. Manga artists SHOULD be the superstars—they absolutely are; but readers should be aware of how much the individual translator affects the experience. There still is a way to go before we get there. One of my proudest accomplishments was getting translators listed on the Eisner Awards as part of the creative team.  


Now we need to get manga letterers credit.


At the Mountains of Madness


I won't ask you to break down your personal process—you did a fantastic job of that in your TCJ article a few years back—but has it changed at all since then? 


Thanks! And now, my process hasn’t changed much. Translation for me is intuitive. I absorb the original, process it emotionally, then think about how to portray those emotions in English. It's not a logical process.


Is there any advice on the industry or translation work you wish you could go back in time and tell your younger self? 


Hmmm…. Start earlier. I wish I had been brave enough to have been an exchange student in high school. Knowing my interests, some of my teachers encouraged that but I was too scared to step away from friends and family and everything I knew.  


It took until my 30s to say, “fuck it” and throw away everything I knew to jump on a plane to Japan. And then I didn’t get into translation until I was almost 40.


Working in comics was always a dream of mine, and it took me quite a while to find my niche. Things have worked out well, so I can’t complain too much.


Are there any manga out right now (besides your own) that you're particular excited about? 


Like many who work in creative industries I find I have less and less time to just be a reader. But I always try to keep up on a few things. Recently I finally tackled the mountain that is Lone Wolf and Cub, and I am hooked. One of the best things I have ever read. Classics like that are classics for a reason.


I also wait hungrily for any new volume of Delicious in Dungeon. 


Thanks for taking the time to do this, your work on At the Mountains of Madness is fantastic. Do you have any parting words for aspiring translators out there?


Thanks! My main advice is to move to Japan. I don’t think I could have the life and career now if I hadn’t taking that plunge. I spent seven years in Japan, and that gave me the skills I needed to translate professionally. Jump into the deep end! You never know what is waiting for you! 




If you want to see a sample of Gou Tanabe's work, check out our preview pages for a peek into At the Mountains of Madness. 



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