Toren Smith and the Right Words

Toren Smith passed away on March 4. Many remember him as a pioneer in the manga-translating world, and there’s a lot to his story: how he scraped by while living in Japan, how he made friends with the Gainax crew, how his name was affixed to a Gunbuster character, and how he brought all sorts of manga to North America, starting with Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed. You can read more about Smith’s illustrious career in Jonathan Clements’ writeup and Mike Toole’s recent column, so I'll just concentrate on one small thing.

I was introduced to Smith’s work in the very first manga I ever bought: volume two of Appleseed. In those days I took for granted all of the colorful and coherent dialogue rendered into my native tongue by Smith and his fellow translator Dana Lewis. It was only after I’d digested some manga from other sources that I appreciated how much effort Smith and Lewis put into the process. It was all the more amazing that they'd handled something as technologically dense as Masamune Shirow manga.

Smith and Lewis did excellent work all around, and yet there’s one particular panel that comes to mind whenever I think of their output. It shows up in Shirow’s original Dominion Tank Police manga. Our spitfire heroine Leona has once again destroyed property and endangered lives in her pursuit of justice, and once again she expects a chewing-out from the chief of police. That doesn’t happen.

It’s one little exclamation, but it captures the way Smith and Lewis could find the perfect word for a situation. Oik. Not “huh?” Not “eh?” Not some drawn-out “Say what now?” Those would be adequate, but they fall short of the simple sputtering “oik.” It's pure bewilderment crystalized in three letters, and it fits Leona’s look in a way that no other interjection could.

Finding the best possible phrase is very hard. It’s a ubiquitous challenge for anyone who writes, edits, translates, or, in my case, babbles childishly about old Sega Genesis games. Most of us compromise. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we settle for the lightning bug instead of the lightning. Toren Smith didn't, and a great many manga titles were all the better for it.


  1. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Wait, he translated Dominion? Those were my favourites! Why is it I don't find out about, and pay my tributes to talented people until after they pass away? :(


  2. Anonymous8:08 AM

    Gosh, darn it, I just read that he translated 'Blade of the Immortal' too. That's got to be the best translation of a manga I've read.

    ; ;

    - Terramax