Editor's Blog

Former Executive VP of VIZ, The Legendary Hyoe’s History of Manga in North America

Chapter 5: Right-to-Left (Japanese style) and Left-to-Right (Western Style) and Evangelion Part 1

In Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, I wrote about North America’s first seinen manga magazine, PULP. In the next few chapters, I will describe the difficulties and events that were unique to translating the magazine, including what it was like at the time.

Translated manga is now read from right to left (Japanese style) as a matter of course, but did you know that until the 1990s, most the translated manga was read from left to right (Western-style)?

Left-to-right period (up until around the year 2000)

This next bit may sound slightly technical, but in those days, we didn’t send data to printing houses for printing, we had to send them a physical manuscript (film) for printing. First, materials for printing were mailed from Japan in a film format, not in data format. From there, the film was reversed in order to create a translated version of the manuscript, then the text and sound effects in balloons were literally painted over with correction fluid and the new English version was written and drawn in by hand. As everything was done manually, specialized technicians called ‘letterers’ had to work on the pages after the translation and rewriting stages were done.

When you think about it, in just 20 years, the evolution of present-day methods (data submission, etc.) is remarkable. In the past, the process was super analog, required many workers, and was expensive and time-consuming.

Here I want to pose a question.
“Why did the film need to be reversed?”

Right-to-left period (from around the year 2000 up to now)

There is only one official answer: because there was no concept of right-to-left books in the West.

However, there was actually another reason why the film needed to be reversed. Most people don’t realize this until they are told, but reversing it allows smoother eye movements for Western language readers who read texts horizontally.

Most manga published and printed in Japanese is read from right to left and the texts within the balloons are written vertically. Therefore, readers start reading from the top right corner of the right-side page and make their way to the bottom left corner, then do the same for the left-side page, and then turn the page. Each panel is composed with that in mind. This allows for a very natural movement of the eyes.

The original manga from Japan. Naturally, right-to-left, vertical writing in balloons.(Rumiko Takahashi, Urusei Yatsura or The Return of Lum in English)

On the other hand, western languages are written and read horizontally. And in a left-to-right book, the text is read from the top left to the bottom right. Hence, reversing it makes for a very smooth reading experience. If it remained in its original right-to-left (Japanese style) format, readers would have a more difficult time as they would have to keep moving their eyes back and forth, all over the page.

Nowadays, manga all over the world is read from right to left, but if you ask which direction is easier for people who read horizontally from the left, the answer would without a doubt be left-to-right. This fact has not changed over the past 20-plus years.

Left-to-right translated manga (Takehiko Inoue, Slam Dunk)

So why did right-to-left start becoming more common? What’s the problem with the left-to-right format? There is a major reason for this, which is different from the ease or difficulty of reading, and the story goes back to my encounter with Evangelion. And although this “right-to-left/left-to-right” debate is not often made these days, for me it is a perennial theme when discussing manga globally.

…See, of course, I ran out of word count. I thought this would happen. Good thing I wrote “Part 1” in the title.

Well then, see you next time!


Left-to-right translated manga. The eye can read naturally from upper left to lower right. (Natsuo Sekikawa / Jiro Taniguchi, Hotel Harbour View)


About Manga Planet: Read manga, support artists

In 2012, Manga Planet started as a joint project between Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. and FANTASISTA, INC. to research and explore the ways manga is read throughout the world. Aiming to bring new manga to fans from all over the world and support artists and the industry, Manga Planet pushes for affordability and access to manga through a subscription-based service.

Readers who subscribe to Manga Planet and pay a flat monthly fee of $6.99 will have access to our expanding library of English-language manga. To subscribe, please go to read.mangaplanet.com and create an account.

Related Articles

Back to top button