26 March 2019

Tribute to Japan by Marc Bernabé


Marc Bernabé (Japan, 2001) is a devotee of Japanese culture and he states that he has the best job in the world: being a manga translator. For more than twenty years he has been professionally and personally linked to Japan, and he recently published his last book: “Japón, manga, traducción y vivencias de un apasionado del país del sol naciente (Japan, manga, translation and the experiences of a devotee of the Land of the Rising Sun)” which, in a certain way, is a tribute to everything that the country has contributed. 

Q. The title of your new book offers an idea of your experience... Can you tell us a little more?

A. For more than twenty years I have been linked to Japan in one way or another and in my adult life, Japan has given me everything I have: the best job in the world, which is translating manga and lots of knowledge acquired over all these years that I like to disseminate. 

In part, I have written this book to repay the debt I believe I have with a country that has looked after me so well. It contains a compilation of experiences relating to contemporary popular culture, which is the field I feel most at home in, I talk about the culture of Japanese comics (manga), about what translation involves, about how to travel around Japan and many other subjects, approached from an autobiographical perspective at the request of the publisher, which thought I could offer a unique point of view thanks to my own experiences. 

Q. Almost twenty years ago you published the first volume of “Japanese in Mangaland” for learning the language through manga. Thinking about learning Japanese without teachers or schools can be a little daunting...  

A. Yes, indeed, it can be. Self-taught study of any subject, and clearly also of languages, is always extremely difficult. I don´t think that everyone is ready to learn individually; it requires an awful lot of discipline, effort, time and perseverance. 

The Japanese in Mangaland method is based on the idea that even if you don´t have a teacher (for whatever reason), it is still possible to study the language and achieve quite a solid grounding in it, taking into account the difficulty entailed by self-taught learning. Over the years I have gathered many testimonies from people who have achieved it. On the other hand, it can be approached as a gateway; that is to say, you open the book, you begin to study by yourself and if you discover that the language appeals to you, you can continue alone or look for an academy or teacher to accompany you during the process.

Q. Do you think that the interest in Spain for manga and anime is a passing fad or, if on the contrary, the interest in Japan and its culture is growing and is here to stay?

A. Quite a while has passed since the time when people would say that it was a passing fad. It is true that the general crisis affected the manga market, but for two or three years we have been at historic highs and, indeed, there is talk of the “golden age” of manga publications in Spain. Readers are increasingly knowledgeable about reading options, there are more titles, more authors, they know what they can find and read more; this is a very healthy time for the sector. 

I hope that this good period will continue indefinitely and above all at this time when the great change from reading on paper to digital is about to arrive. In the west, for the time being this is not happening with such force, but in Japan there is already data from 2017 confirming that, for the first time in history, the revenue deriving from publishing manga in digital format surpassed that of the physical format. So sooner or later in the west we will reach that evolution in one way or another.

Q. What does the language teach us about the culture of the country?

A. I think that all languages are deeply linked to the culture of the country or the region that they grow out of. There is the typical example of the Eskimos who have twenty different ways of referring to the different shades of white and that is obviously because in the areas they live in, they need to learn to distinguish between shades. 

Japanese is no exception. Learning it also forces you to learn about aspects of its culture that would otherwise not be understood. Culture and language go hand in hand and we quickly find ourselves in a world with unique terminology. For example, in terms of gastronomy we learn a large number of words that are hard to translate or that have translations that do not do them justice: sake, sushi, sashimi, etc.

Q. What cultural curiosities do we need to know about in order to visit Japan for study or work?

A. I don´t think there is anything essential. But the more knowledge you have of what is going on around you, the more you will enjoy your stay in Japan. 

For example, if you are going to work in this country it is advisable to learn about its working dynamic. In this case, in general they really like organising meetings about any matter, even if it is not very important and is an apparent waste of time. We also have a culture of exchanging cards, which has its own technique. Or if you are invited to dinner, you need to know the etiquette for serving a glass to the person in front of you. And if you are speaking Japanese, you need to master the different registers of the spoken language. At a business meeting it is necessary to use formal Japanese and with friends you can chat informally.

If you want to travel, my tip would be to find out what kind of accommodation you can choose. There are western style hotels but you can also go to a Japanese style “ryokan” (inn). Or if you want to visit the public bathhouses you need to know that there is a protocol before getting in the bath, etc. 

In short, this is knowledge that you can gradually acquire in situ but if you can acquire it beforehand it will definitely make life easier for you and you will enjoy the experience a lot more. And in order to find out this and other information, the book can help you.

Q. What would you highlight about your time as a fellow in Japan?

A. It was a total of three years in the outskirts of Osaka, it was a very intense time, working a lot, learning a lot and also having a great time. I was studying not only as a future member of working society, but also as a disseminator of specific areas of Japan.  

It was a unique life experience for me and I am grateful to the “la Caixa” Foundation for awarding me the fellowship that literally changed my life. The fact I now have the best job in the world (which is what I always say) is thanks to that opportunity and the institutions that helped me. I feel extremely lucky to have my job as a translator, and to also give talks, conferences, publish books, articles in magazines, etc. 

In Japanese they have the concept of “on” which is a favour, a gesture of goodwill that you receive. The complementary concept is “ongaeshi” which means returning the favour. Therefore, my self-imposed mission, which I do with great pleasure, is to carry out this “ongaeshi” towards Japan by doing all the outreach work. 

Q. I imagine you are aware that the “la Caixa” fellowships have a program for awarding fellowships to students who want to carry out postgraduate study in countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes Japan. What practical tips would you give to fellows who decide to go and study a postgraduate degree in this country?

A. I would tell them to enjoy themselves, to study, to work very hard as that is the objective of going to Japan as a fellow. They have to carry out their research, do their postgraduate work, but they should never forget to enjoy themselves, learn about the country and make friends.  

One thing that I always say to international students and that I have experienced in my different stages, is that foreign students tend to group together, and that is not a bad thing per se, but if you are interested in learning a little Japanese, it is advisable to interact directly with the language. If your speciality, like mine, is linked to Japanese, your level needs to make a significant leap forward. In the process of making that leap, it can be very helpful to have Japanese friends and interact directly with Japanese society.

There are also other students who come to study other subjects, for example, physics or anything else; in this case, the Japanese language is not required as much but I still recommend making an effort to integrate into society and make local friends. It is a fantastic country that can be enjoyed with a low level of the language, but this enjoyment can be exponentially multiplied if you have more knowledge.