Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives

Reimagining Manga:

A Social Semiotic Multimodal Analysis of Malay Translations of Japanese Cultural References

By Yean Fun Chow (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia)


Manga, or Japanese comic books, are an aspect of Japanese popular culture that has received global attention; thus, this genre plays an ambassadorial role in promoting international understanding of Japanese culture. Moreover, its international popularity has attracted scholarly attention. In translation studies, manga have been analysed through different lenses—giongo/gitaigo (onomatopoeia), loanwords, format, typeface and layout—with different approaches or perspectives, including foreignisation, domestication, multimodality and social semiotic multimodality. However, the translation of Japanese cultural references remains underexplored. Adopting a social semiotic multimodal perspective, this study conducts a qualitative content analysis to explore how translators translate, reinforce or undermine Japanese cultural references in Malay translations published in Malaysia between the 1990s and 2021. This pilot study’s findings demonstrate that the translations from the 1990s and 2000s substitute references to Japanese culture with target cultural elements and other elements. Translations from the 2000s and 2010s substitute cultural references with the Japanese transliteration or particular components of cultural references. Meanwhile, in the analysed translations published in 2021, the layout is expanded creatively to overcome spatial constraints and render Japanese cultural references more closely. These findings may indicate a change in the attitudes towards and knowledge of Japanese culture in Malaysia, and manga translations published since 2021 thus play a greater role in facilitating an understanding of Japanese culture.

Keywords: comics translation, manga translation, cultural references, social semiotic multimodal approach

©inTRAlinea & Yean Fun Chow (2023).
"Reimagining Manga: A Social Semiotic Multimodal Analysis of Malay Translations of Japanese Cultural References"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2630

1. Introduction

Manga, or Japanese comic books, are an internationally acknowledged Japanese cultural product. Reading manga is a way through which readers can learn about Japanese culture. The global spread of manga is influenced by international licencing for translations in several languages and the expansion of distribution networks, enabling the export of manga (Wong 2010: 345). Under the Look East Policy in the 1980s, numerous manga series were translated and published in Malaysia, where they became well known (Ye 2010: 87). Manga is a popular reading genre in Malaysia, particularly among young readers. When a manga is imported into foreign countries, various factors and cultural issues can influence decisions to publish and translate it. However, it is unclear which aspects of Japanese culture are regarded as easy to understand and thus can be translated directly without additional information, and which aspects of Japanese culture are considered culturally unintelligible, and which mode or semiotic resources are used in the target texts at different times. This study aims to discuss how translators translate, reinforce or undermine Japanese cultural references in Malay translations published in Malaysia between the 1990s and 2021 from a social semiotic multimodal perspective. In the following sections, I discuss manga and comic translation studies and multimodality, the social semiotic multimodal approach, the analysed manga and the analytical method used in this study. Then, I discuss the translations of Japanese cultural references in four Malay translations published between the 1990s and 2021.

2. Manga/comic translation and multimodality

As a product of Japanese popular culture, manga has prompted researchers to adopt cultural and linguistic perspectives to examine manga translation. Valerio Rota (2008) noted that studying the translations of manga or comics from a cultural point of view can provide new impetus to the development of translation research regarding manga or comics. Adopting the perspective of foreignisation and domestication, Rota analysed four types of comic formats; namely, the American ‘comic’ book, the Franco-Belgian ‘album’, the Italian ‘bonelliano’ and the Japanese ‘tankōbon’ (tankōbon refers to manga published in a volume format). Rota’s analysis revealed three main possibilities regarding the format: (1) adaptation to local formats, (2) retention of the original format and (3) the use of a different format from the original and the local format, in which case the comic book is heavily manipulated (Rota 2008: 84). Citing several examples of post-war manga translations, Heike Jüngst (2008) provided an overview of the development of manga translation in Germany, which began in a lacklustre manner after the conclusion of the Second World War until it first gained success in 2001. In addition, Jüngst (2008: 61-74) discussed the translation of six aspects commonly present in manga: (1) attractive loanwords, (2) onomatopoeia, (3) Japanese alphabets, (4) explanation of Japanese words, (5) pictorial content and (6) material appearance (format). Verbal element translation procedures include footnotes and transcriptions, among other methods. Jüngst’s findings show that readers prefer formal equivalence in manga translation, namely, translations that look similar to Japanese texts in terms of visual appearance, but not in terms of translation because the readers cannot evaluate formal equivalence in verbal text.

Klaus Kaindl (1999) is the author of a pioneering study that examined translations of comics and manga by considering signs other than language, even though he only discussed one example of manga. Kaindl applied the concepts of ‘field’ and ‘habitus’ from Bourdieu’s theory by focusing on ‘field-specific factors’ to examine translations of comics and manga as social practices that should be studied in a social context. He adopted the rhetorical approach used by Delabastita (1989) in film analysis to analyse translation procedures. Notably, he proposed a translation-relevant anatomy of comics and a typology of translation procedures for the analysis of linguistic elements, but also of typographic and pictorial elements. Kaindl (1999: 273) explained that comics are a form of narrative that involves a series of verbal and nonverbal elements that can be divided into three groups of signs—linguistic, typographical and visual. Linguistic signs consist of titles, dialogue texts, narration, inscriptions and onomatopoeia; typographical signs consist of graphemes, font, size, directionality of the letters, rhythm and spacing and visual signs include panels, colours, speed lines, perspectives and formats (Kaindl 1999: 273-4). The translation procedures consist of ‘repetitio’ (repetition), ‘deletio’ (deletion), ‘detractio’ (detraction), ‘adiectio’ (addition), ‘transmutatio’ (transmutation) and ‘substitutio’ (substitution). The translation procedures and anatomy of comics introduced by Kaindl have provided insight into the translation of comic books and manga. In addition, they have led to the awareness that translation should not be restricted to verbal elements. This study uses Kaindl’s typology to discuss the procedures used in the translation of Japanese cultural references.

Scholars have also been attracted to the study of manga and comic translations because of their multimodal nature. In a further study, Kaindl (2004) pioneered a multimodal perspective to study the translation of comics and proposed a framework to study the translation of humour in comics as a multimodal practice that encompasses verbal and nonverbal aspects. Inspired by Kaindl’s study, Michał Borodo (2015) adopted a multimodal perspective to study the interactions between verbal and visual elements in meaning production, demonstrating these interactions in the two Polish translations of the French-Belgian comic book series Thorgal published in 1989 and 2008. Borodo (2015) suggested that the interplay between verbal and visual modes can be used to condense messages, overcome space constraints, eliminate incongruence and produce free and creative translations.

In terms of manga, Cheng-Wen Huang and Arlene Archer (2014) studied the relationship between typography and translation and the influence of different layouts on meaning in the official translations of the Naruto manga and ‘scanlation’ (a portmanteau of ‘scan’ and ‘translation’, fan-produced translation) versions. Notably, Huang and Archer found that mode affordance in manga is not strictly controlled by the logic of space and time but rather by the decision of the sign user (in this case, the author and translator) who determines the most effective mode to attract the reader’s attention and the most appropriate mode to convey certain characteristics of meaning. In addition, they suggest that mode ambiguity and logic, and other types of visual resources, such as reading paths, typography, letter systems and layouts, should be considered when examining a translation of a multimodal text. According to Huang and Archer, translation can be explained by social semiotic multimodal theory because modes and the uses of modes are studied in social contexts. Hence, the translation of manga is not only about the translation of images and writing but also includes the semiotic system embedded in changing social practices (Huang and Archer 2014: 483). William Armour and Yuki Takeyama (2015) adopted a social semiotic multimodal approach to examine whether the typeface used fulfils its role by transferring meaning from the source to the target text. They conducted a systematic analysis using a typographic analysis kit known as ‘typographic grammar’ by Stöckl (2005) as a framework to study the use of various Japanese typefaces used in the Bleach manga and its English translations produced by VIZ Media. The framework consists of four domains: (1) micro-typography, (2) meso-typography, (3) macro-typography and (4) para-typography (Armour and Takeyama 2015: 27-8). Furthermore, Armour and Takeyama (2015: 28) adapted the ‘inventory of typographic features’ presented by Serafini and Clausen (2012) into an inventory comprising (1) weight, (2) size, (3) framing, (4) formality, (5) distinctiveness of design and (6) combinations and used this inventory in the first domain analysis. Their analysis shows that the choice of typeface used in the source and target text can convey messages, although the typefaces are different. Further, Armour and Takeyama state that using typefaces in the target text that differ from those in the source text cannot effectively provide a reader the same experience as when reading the source text. Thus, it is challenging to translate moods through typefaces at the interlingual level. Hence, Armour and Takeyama argue that choosing an appropriate typeface to present the work is an important aspect of the translation of Japanese manga into English. As indicated by Huang and Archer (2014) and Armour and Takeyama (2015), a social semiotic multimodal approach can explore how modes and semiotic resources are used in meaning-making while considering social disparities and the sign maker’s interests. However, despite a growing number of studies on translations of comics and manga and multimodality, the translation of Japanese cultural references continues to be substantially underrepresented in the literature.

Cultural references are references to items linked to the culture, history or geography of a community; they can be difficult to translate (Alfaify and Ramos Pinto 2021; Díaz-Cintas and Remael 2021). ‘Culturally specific references’ (Ranzato 2016), ‘culture-bound terms’ (Nedergaard-Larsen 1993; Gottlieb 2009), ‘realia’ (Leppihalme 2001), ‘culture bumps’ (Leppihalme 1997) and ‘culture-specific items’ (Aixelá 1996) have been used to describe cultural references. Matteo Fabbretti’s (2016) study was the first attempt to focus on culture-specific items in manga. Fabbretti focused on the use of translation notes to address the problem of translating specific elements of verbal and visual culture in manga. According to Fabbretti (2016: 101), readers prefer additional notes because these notes satisfy their curiosity about the Japanese culture and language. The use of additional notes highlights the presence of the ‘scanlator’ as a mediator between the cultures of the source and target text. Unlike scanlation-oriented studies, this study discusses the official translation of Japanese cultural references into Malay using Irene Ranzato’s (2016) concept of source cultural references. Ranzato (2016: 66) explained that source cultural references are terms that are exclusive to the source culture. Despite being widely used by the target culture, the audience lacks a direct, measurable and objective connection to these terms. Further, they go beyond the connections and associations that some members of the target audience can draw based on their knowledge of the source culture. Using this concept, this study includes cultural references from the source language that have been assimilated as loanwords, exploring translations of Japanese cultural references from a social semiotic multimodal perspective.

3. Social semiotic multimodality

In the social semiotic theory of communication, systems of meaning are seen as flexible, contingent upon and changing in response to context, history and culture (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 67). Multimodality refers to different sets of resources (for example, gaze, speech and gesture) that form multimodal wholes for meaning-making (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 158). A set of key principles and concepts are proposed under the social semiotic approach to multimodality. These concepts include sign maker, interest, motivated sign, mode, semiotic resource, modal affordance, transduction and transformation. ‘Sign maker’ refers to the producer and the interpreter of a sign (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 67). Sign makers are influenced by their social, cultural, political and technological environments. An essential component of the social semiotic approach is acknowledging the agency and (implicit or explicit) intentions of the sign maker. ‘Motivated sign’ refers to the appropriateness of the relationship between the requirements of what is meant (the signified) and the form (the signifier). The sign maker’s interests determine whether the sign is appropriate. In social semiotics, the concept of ‘interest’ is used to describe the momentary condensation of all the (relevant) social experiences that have shaped the subjectivity of the sign maker. This condensation occurs due to the need to respond to a prompt arising out of the social context in which the new sign is created. The sign maker’s interest, awareness of and attention to power configurations in the social context at the time of sign-making are reflected in the sign. The notion of interest links a person’s preference for one resource over another with the social environment of sign production (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 67-8).

Social semiotic analysis aims to identify and characterise the modes and semiotic resources that are present in a given context, demonstrating how individuals use them, the decisions they make and their motivations, as well as how their decisions are influenced by (and realise) power (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 71). The means by which a community creates meaning is referred to as ‘semiotic resources’. These resources are realised in and through modes and include immaterial conceptual resources and material resources. A mode is a socially based arrangement of semiotic resources for meaning-making. Anything that is acknowledged by the community as having a collection of resources and organising principles qualifies as a mode. Images, writing, layout and speech are examples of modes (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 71). For instance, grammar, syntax and lexis are semiotic resources for speech and writing modes. The writing mode, moreover, has graphic resources such as typeface, font size and other semiotic resources (Bezemer and Kress 2016: 23). The concept of modal affordance expresses the idea that different modes provide different potentials for meaning-making. The social work that a mode has been used for in a particular setting is tied to the material and social history of the mode. Hence, it influences the sign maker’s mode selection. Social semiotics uses the term ‘transduction’ to describe the process of moving ‘meaning material’ from one mode to another to reshape meaning. For instance, a written document may be transformed into a diagram. Transformation is the reshaping of meaning by adjustments made to the mode (Jewitt, Bezemer and O’Halloran 2016: 71-2). A social semiotic historical account produces evidence of social change by tracking changes in the ways in which meaning is made. Given the presumption that the social exists first and that social change results in changes in semiotic (and technological) needs, one can reverse the insight obtained to make assumptions about society’s characteristics based on the semiotic change resources (Bezemer and Kress 2016: 105).

This study examines the use of modes and semiotic resources in the construction of meanings of Japanese cultural references in translations of manga published between the 1990s and 2021 by adopting a social semiotic multimodal viewpoint. In addition, it speculates about the social change that may have had an impact on how Japanese culture was translated into Malay through the identified semiotic changes.

4. Data and methodology

The data selection method of this study involved a purposive sampling of four official Malay translations published in Malaysia in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. The source texts are 大長編ドラえもん9のび太の日本誕生 (Fujiko, F. Fujio 1989), 恋月夜のひめ (Taamo 2008) and 式の前日 (Hozumi 2012) published by Shogakukan Inc., and あやかし、あまやかし (Kurousagi Momoka 2020) published by Hakusensha Inc. The target text Cerita Panjang Doraemon: Kelahiran Negeri Jepun was published by Penerbit Tora Aman in 1997; Rahsia Cinta Malam Purnama was published by Art Square Creation Sdn. Bhd. in 2009; Raikan Cinta was published by Kadokawa Gempak Starz Sdn. Bhd. in 2016 and Ah, Manjanya Kau! was published by Kadokawa Gempak Starz Sdn. Bhd. in 2021. Each volume contains Japanese cultural references. This study adopted qualitative content analysis to identify Japanese cultural references based on Ranzato’s (2016) definition of a source culture reference. The identified cultural references were then analysed to determine the nature of the translation procedures used. Based on a social semiotic multimodal perspective, this study discusses the meaning-making of source texts, how translators use modes and semiotic resources in meaning-making, the transformation or transduction of meanings and their interest and social change. This is a pilot study based on selected examples; it would need to be corroborated with more data.

5. Data analysis and discussion


Source Text (ST)

ST back translation

Target Text (TT)

TT back translation


このカツそろそろいいかな。(p. 49)

I wonder if the katsudon is ready to eat

Mi segera ini hampir siap!

This instant noodle is almost ready!


おれはカツをちゅうもんしたはずだぞ!(p. 52)

I have ordered a katsudon

Saya nak makan mi segera!

I want to eat instant noodles!

Table 1: Japanese cultural references in 大長編ドラえもん9のび太の日本誕生 and Cerita Panjang Doraemon: Kelahiran Negeri Jepun

The Japanese cultural references in Tables 1–3 were identified in manga 大長編ドラえもん9のび太の日本誕生 and Cerita Panjang Doraemon: Kelahiran Negeri Jepun published in 1997. Doraemon is a robot cat created in the 22nd century and sent back in time by his owner to assist his great-great-grandfather, Nobita, in achieving prosperity and a promising future. The story in the analysed manga is about how Nobita and his friends run away from home, travelling using Doraemon’s time travel machine to an ancient era and create a shelter in a cave. They encounter disturbed tribes of primitive people and help them. After arriving, they begin to prepare a shelter and grow their own food. The contextual information concerning Example 1 in Table 1 is as follows: ‘このカツ丼そろそろいいかな’ [Kono katsudon sorosoro ī ka na; I wonder if the katsudon is ready to eat] is uttered by Doraemon when he sees that the food grown in the magical, large, radish-shaped containers on the soil is sufficient. The image mode shows a close up of three radish-shaped containers and a speech balloon. The image mode in Example 2 in Table 1 shows Doraemon, Shizuka, Suneo and Gian sitting at the table. Nobita’s seat is empty, as he has not yet returned. There is a radish-shaped container in front of each of them. In Example 2, Gian complains, ‘おれはカツ丼をちゅうもんしたはずだぞ!’ [Ore wa katsudon o chūmon shita hazuda zo; I have ordered a katsudon] when he sees a big radish-shaped container being served and is afraid that his order has not been taken. カツ丼 [katsudon], which appears in Examples 1 and 2, refers to pork cutlet on rice. The meaning of カツ丼 is only conveyed by the writing mode, which is the lexical カツ丼as the semiotic resource that conveys the types of food. The interaction of multimodal ensembles does not signify the physical appearance of the food. In the target texts ‘Saya nak makan mi segera!’, we can see that カツ丼 is substituted with ‘mi segera’ [instant noodle]. This causes the partial transformation of meanings because the food term カツ丼 (katsudon) is lost in translation, although ‘mi segera’ (instant noodle) still conveys the same meaning that it is a type of food. Hence, the translation procedure of detraction is adopted in addition to substitution. The reason behind this decision was probably because the majority of Malay-language readers are Muslims and consuming pork is prohibited in Islam.



ST back translation


TT back translation


神かくし」ってきいたことない?日本の古いいいつたえだけど...。(p. 65)

Have you ever heard of ‘spirited away’? It’s an old Japanese legend though…

Tak pernahkah kamu dengar mitos Jepun ‘Tuhan menghilangkan diri’?

Haven’t you heard the Japanese myth ‘God disappears’?



(p. 76)

Now, ‘translation konnyaku’

Gunakan ‘kuih terjemahan’.

Use ‘translation cake’.

Table 2: Japanese cultural references in大長編ドラえもん9のび太の日本誕生 and Cerita Panjang Doraemon: Kelahiran Negeri Jepun

In Example 3, Doraemon says, ‘「神かくし」ってきいたことない?日本の古いいいつたえだけど...。’ [‘Kamikakushi’ tte kīta koto nai? Nihon no furui iitsutaedakedo…; Have you ever heard of ‘spirited away’? It’s an old Japanese legend though…] when he is explaining the turbulence in time and space. 神かくし [kamikakushi] refers to a situation where someone is spirited away by a fairy or ghost. When children were missing and could not be found, people would use神かくしto express their belief that the children had been spirited away. The meaning of ‘spirited away’ is only conveyed through the writing mode; the image mode only indicates that Doraemon is speaking. In the Malay translation, 神かくし is substituted for ‘Tuhan menghilangkan diri’ [God disappears]. It can be regarded as an incorrect translation, causing detraction, as it does not convey the original meaning of the line.

Regarding Example 4, ‘そこで「翻訳コンニャク」’ [Sokode ‘honyaku konnyaku’; Now, ‘translation konnyaku’] is uttered by Doraemon after pulling out a gadget that looks like a jelly or cake. This gadget is called 翻訳コンニャク [honyaku konnyaku; translation konnyaku]. ‘Konnyaku’ is a konjac jelly. The image mode shows a close up of Doraemon’s hand holding the gadget. In the target text, コンニャク [konnyaku] has been substituted for ‘kuih’. ‘Kuih’ is a local snack that is made with coconut milk, rice flour or glutinous rice flour, sugar, palm sugar, pandan juice or tapioca. Translating it to ‘kuih’ does not create incongruence, as ‘kuih’ also has the same chewy texture that is demonstrated in the image mode. However, detraction or partial transformation has occurred, as the meaning of the Japanese ‘konnyaku’ is not communicated.



ST back translation


TT back translation


ワレコソハつちだま!!(p. 106)

Clay work is talking!!

Aku bola tanah!

I am a soil ball!

Table 3: Japanese cultural references in大長編ドラえもん9のび太の日本誕生 and Cerita Panjang Doraemon: Kelahiran Negeri Jepun

Doraemon and friends scream, ‘粘土細工がしゃべってやがる!!’ [Nendo-zaiku ga shabette ya garu!!; Clay work is talking!!], when they are surprised that a clay figure can talk. The clay figure is very angry and replies, ‘ワレコソハつちだま!!’ [Warekoso wa tsuchidama!!; I am Tsuchidama!!] (Example 5 in Table 3). つちだま [Tsuchidama] literally means soil ball; it is subordinated to the villain in the story. The image mode shows the physical appearance of つちだま. It is the 土偶 [dogū; clay figurines from the late Jōmon period] in Japan. 土偶is used to worship the Earth Mother Goddess, who prays for the fertility of their crops. The interaction of semiotic resources つちだまand the physical appearance of 土偶 conveyed via two different modes show that the manga author tried to connect the story to Japan’s history. However, the author did not use the lexical 土偶 but つちだま [soil ball] instead, signifying their interest in using an easier-to-understand lexical item, as Doraemon is a kodomo manga, targeted at children. 土偶 conveyed through image mode can be understood by older Japanese children who may have seen it before in their history books. For younger children who see it for the first time, it is a good introduction to Japanese history as well. In the Malay translation, つちだま is substituted for ‘bola tanah’ [soil ball]. One can see that a partial transformation of meaning occurs. However, the cultural meaning conveyed via the image mode will not be conveyed to Malay-language readers who are not exposed to 土偶 [dogū]. The above analysis demonstrates that regardless of whether cultural meanings are communicated through the writing or the image mode, they are not translated into the target language.



ST back translation


TT back translation


お母様 お盆はお父様が帰ってくるんでしょう?(p. 11)

Mother, will father come back for Obon?

Adakah ayah akan pulang untuk Pesta Tanglung nanti, ibu?

Mother, will father be home later for the Lantern Festival?


お盆は実家に帰られるの? (p. 21)

Do you intend to go back home during Obon?

Adakah awak akan balik ke rumah awak untuk Pesta Tanglung nanti?

Are you going back to your house for the Lantern Festival later?

Table 4: Japanese cultural references in恋月夜のひめごとand Rahsia Cinta Malam Purnama

Tables 4–6 show five Japanese cultural references identified in manga 恋月夜のひめごとand Rahsia Cinta Malam Purnama published in 2009. The story is about a girl from a rich family who fell in love with a poor intellectual. The image mode shows the clothes and backgrounds of the Shōwa era. In Example 6, the image shows the female protagonist and her mother having a conversation. Saying ‘お母様 お盆はお父様が帰ってくるんでしょう?’ [Okāsama Obon wa otōsama ga kaette kurundeshou?; Mother, will father come back for Obon?], the female protagonist asks her mother whether her father will return for the Obon or Bon festival. お盆 [Obon] is a custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors and has evolved into a family reunion holiday. お盆 has been translated into Malay as ‘Pesta Tanglung’ [Lantern Festival], which may also refer to the Chinese Yuan Xiao Festival or the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated by the Chinese Community in Malaysia. The substitution appears to be prompted by the cultural similarity of these festivals, where lanterns are lit. Detraction and partial transformation occur when Obon is not conveyed in the target language, but the meaning of ‘festival’ is. Meanwhile, Example 7 involves the use of お盆, when the female protagonist asks the male protagonist whether he intends to go back home during the Bon festival. Again, when お盆 is substituted with ‘Pesta Tanglung’, detraction takes place. Malaysia is a multicultural country; these examples indicate that the translator’s social experience in understanding Chinese culture influenced him or her to choose a local festival as the motivated sign that was appropriate to replace the cultural festival in the original language.



ST back translation


TT back translation


私 今着物を選んでいて (p. 11)

I am choosing a kimono now

Saya tengah pilih kimono yang sesuai.

I am choosing a suitable kimono.

Table 5: Japanese cultural references in恋月夜のひめごとand Rahsia Cinta Malam Purnama

In Example 8 (Table 5), the protagonist tells her mother that she is choosing a kimono: ‘私 今着物を選んでいて’ [Watashi ima kimono o erande ite; I am choosing a kimono now]. 着物 [kimono; the traditional Japanese garment] is substituted with its transliteration as ‘kimono’. This translation reflects the assumption that the target readers will be able to understand ‘kimono’ or indicates that the translator was interested in introducing the word ‘kimono’ to the readers. ‘Kimono’ is found recorded as a loanword in the Malay Online Dictionary, Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu (2022). This shows that ‘kimono’ has been regarded as an easily recognisable cultural reference. In terms of semiotic change, this change may be viewed as a partial transformation, as only the Japanese pronunciation is translated.



ST back translation


TT back translation


では ごきげんよう (p. 17)

Then, goodbye

Saya pulang dulu!

I am going home first!


ごきげんよう(p. 17)


Selamat jalan.

Safe journey.

Table 6: Japanese cultural references in恋月夜のひめごとand Rahsia Cinta Malam Purnama

After having tea and chatting with a friend, the protagonist tells her friend, ‘では ごきげんよう’ [Dewa gokigenyō; Then, goodbye]. Her friend also replies, ‘ごきげんよう’ [goodbye] before leaving. ごきげんようin Examples 9 and 10 (Table 6) was an interjection used by Shōwa-era ladies of higher social status to greet someone when they first met or before leaving. The expression is seldom used nowadays. It is difficult to find a semiotic resource that can convey similar social meanings in Malay. In the Malay translation, Example 9 is substituted and detracted with ‘Saya pulang dulu!’ [I am going home first!], while ごきげんようin Example 10 is substituted with ‘Selamat jalan’ [literally, ‘safe journey’, a common expression used to say ‘goodbye’ in Malay]. A partial transformation could be said to have taken place, as the meaning of the greeting is conveyed in the target texts, but the social meaning is lost.



ST back translation


TT back translation


お盆にしか逢えない (p. 49)

We can only meet during Obon

Kitorang hanya boleh jumpa masa Perayaan Bon Odori.

We can only meet during the Bond Odori Festival.

Table 7: Japanese culture references in式の前日and Raikan Cinta

In the manga 式の前日, お盆 [Obon] appears in the story entitled あずさ2号で再会. The story begins with a young protagonist, Azusa, who is alone at her home and whose father visits and spends time with her. This gives rise to an impression that her father is not staying with her and her mother. However, after the father leaves and her mother returns, the image mode of a panel shows the picture of the father, in the form of a plaque, burning incense in the incense burner on a table and a calendar page on the wall shows ‘8月’ [August]. The writing mode tells us that Azusa’s mother blames her for not following her out. Azusa’s monologue ‘お盆にしか逢えない’ [We can only meet during Obon] (Example 11 in Table 7) is also seen. In the following panels, Azusa is seen looking at the 精霊馬 (Shōryōma). Literally known as ‘spirit horse’, it resembles a vehicle that was displayed during the Obon period to welcome and send off ancestors in some areas in Japan. It was made with a cucumber to resemble a horse and with an eggplant to resemble a cow. The horse is meant to welcome ancestors who return home early, while cows are intended to send them off slowly. Both are meant to express the desire to spend as much time as possible with the deceased ancestors. Azusa touches the eggplant with her fingers, implying that she is reluctant to let her father go. The interaction of all these multimodal ensembles enables us to understand that Azusa’s deceased father visited Azusa during Obon in August when her mother went outside to pay homage to her husband. In the target text Raikan Cinta published in 2016, we can see that お盆 is substituted for ‘Perayaan Bon Odori’ [Bon Odori festival]. Bon Odori refers to the Bon festival dance. This festival has been held in some Malaysian states since 1977 by the local Japanese community to promote cultural ties between Malaysia and Japan in line with Malaysia’s Look East Policy (Muthiah and Rahim 2022; TheStar 2022). Comparing Example 11 with Examples 6 and 7, one can notice that the interests of the translators are different. The material aspects (lantern and dance) of the Japanese cultural reference that are widely known in Malaysia’s social environment are used to translate お盆.

On 8 June 2022, Datuk Idris Ahmad, a minister in the former Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs), advised Muslims not to participate in Bon Odori because it incorporates elements of other religions, based on an analysis conducted by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Muthiah and Rahim 2022). This viewpoint encountered opposition from members of society who believed that the Bon Odori Festival aims to strengthen ties between two countries and that people can enjoy exposure to other cultures without embracing the beliefs of other religions. They further argued that the dancing and drumming are the festival’s main draws (Muthiah and Rahim 2022). In a Facebook post on 10 June 2022, Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin suggested renaming the event as the ‘Japanese Cultural or Society Festival’. This proposal encountered opposition as well. Many Malaysians expressed outrage on social media and questioned how someone’s faith could be so readily influenced by a foreign cultural event (TheStar 2022). Nevertheless, the festival was jointly organised by the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur, the Japanese School of Kuala Lumpur and the Japanese Embassy, with support from the Selangor state government and cooperation by Tourism Selangor on 16 July 2022, with an estimated 35,000 participants. Along with traditional dance and drum performances, the yearly event featured a wide selection of Japanese foods and beverages for sale at booths. Thus, it is not difficult to see that the dance is being stressed when we consider the translation of ‘Perayaan Bon Odori’ because ‘Bon Odori’ refers to the dance. The cultural programmes during the event reflect this as well. Hence, the translation ‘Bon Odori’ shows an occurrence of substitution and detraction. A partial transformation of meanings occurred here.

This episode demonstrates two different perspectives in response to cultural globalisation. When a controversy occurs, the translation of a cultural reference would be criticised, although it has long existed in the country. Further, this episode shows that it is necessary to consider whether a translation should retain the original meaning or simply some components of the cultural reference to encourage cultural exchanges in the new social environment, especially when translating cultural references that may conflict with the local culture.



ST back translation


TT back translation


雨季は さすがに巫女様の結界も薄まりますなあ (p. 5)

The rainy season will weaken the miko’s power, right?


Musim hujan memang akan lemahkan tangkal miko*, kan?


*Miko: gadis tokong

The rainy season will weaken the miko*’s power, right?


*Miko: temple girl


こう毎晩大型のが出るんじゃ...身がもたん (p. 5)

If a big ayakashi appears every night like this… it’s hard to withstand.


Kalau ayakashi** besar muncul setiap malam macam ni… susahlah nak bertahan.


**Ayakashi: makhluk ghaib Jepun

If a big ayakashi** appears every night like this… it’s hard to withstand.


** Ayakashi: a Japanese supernatural being

Table 8: Japanese cultural references inあやかし、あまやかしand Ah, Manjanya Kau!

Table 8 shows the Japanese cultural references identified in the mangaあやかし、あまやかし and Ah, Manjanya Kau! published in 2021. The manga depicts a shrine maiden caring for a phantom child who gets hurt in an incident. The phantom child grows up quickly and they fall in love with each other. Two Japanese cultural references were identified in the manga, that is, 巫女 [miko; shrine maiden] and 妖 [ayakashi; Japanese supernatural being], as shown in Table 8. Examples 12 and 13 are two dialogues that appear in the same panel. The image mode shows that a few members of the shrine personnel have killed a huge supernatural wolf-like being. In the Malay translations, 巫女 [shrine maiden] in Example 12 is substituted with its transliteration marked with an asterisk through the addition of a note in the gutter under the panel. 妖 [supernatural being] in Example 13 is likewise translated with a substitution and addition marked with two asterisks. Its additional note is placed under the first notes. The adoption of these translation procedures enables the Japanese transliteration and the meaning of the cultural references to be conveyed in the target language. In this case, transduction occurs in addition to the transformation of meaning because the meanings conveyed in writing required the gutter (the semiotic resource of the layout mode) to carry the explanation to complement meaning-making. Adding a translation note in the gutter is a common practice of meaning-making in scanlations (Fabbretti 2016). The incorporation of notes in translations of manga in Malaysia thus shows that the translator has been influenced by the practice of scanlations. In addition, 巫女 [miko] and 妖 [ayakashi] were used a number of times in the story; however, these later occurrences are translated as ‘miko’ and ‘ayakashi’ without additional notes. This indicates the translator’s interest in preventing additional notes from disrupting the flow of reading.

6. Conclusion

Adopting the social semiotic multimodal perspective, this study analysed the Malay translations of Japanese cultural references in manga published in 1997, 2009, 2016 and 2021 in Malaysia. The analysis showed that substitution and detraction were adopted in the analysed Malay translations published in 1997, substitution and detraction were adopted in the translations published in 2009 and 2016, and substitution and addition were adopted in the translations published in 2021. The substitution and detraction used in the 1997 and 2009 translations generally fail to express Japanese cultural specificity. The substitution of kimono and Perayaan Bon Odori, however, conveys meanings more effectively because the Japanese transliteration of the cultural reference is conveyed in the target language, although readers may need to do further research to understand the cultural reference according to the given Japanese transliteration. In the Malay translation published in 2021, substitution and addition were adopted to deal with Japanese cultural references. This enables the Japanese transliteration and the meaning of the cultural reference to be conveyed. In terms of semiotic change from the source text to the target text, both partial transformation and no transformation took place. Nevertheless, partial transformation may occur because a certain aspect of the cultural reference is given salience, or certain aspects are removed to avoid contradictions with the local culture. Regarding semiotic changes identified from manga translations published between 1997 and 2021, transduction occurs as cultural meanings shift from being communicated through the writing mode to being communicated through the writing and layout mode. In other words, the layout mode’s affordance, which helped the flow of reading initially, has been expanded to create new potential for accommodating additional notes to support the interpretation of Japanese cultural references. In addition, the availability of semiotic resources in an environment for communication contributes to the partial transformation of meanings, especially social meanings. Assuming that social change precedes semiotic change, one can infer from the semiotic change that the characteristics of Malaysian society have changed and that it shows a greater readiness to appreciate Japanese culture. In addition, translators have been motivated by the social history of meaning-making activity in the community of scanlators, which has changed the semiotic system of meaning-making in Malaysian manga translation.


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This work was supported by the Universiti Sains Malaysia Short-Term Research Grant (304/PHUMANITI/ 6315471).

About the author(s)

Yean Fun Chow is a senior lecturer at the Translation and Interpreting Studies Section, School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Her research interests include media translation, multimodality, Japanese translation, Chinese translation, and Cantonese translation.

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©inTRAlinea & Yean Fun Chow (2023).
"Reimagining Manga: A Social Semiotic Multimodal Analysis of Malay Translations of Japanese Cultural References"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2630

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