Kevin Frane is the translator of Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner Vol. 1 and the author of three science fiction novels of his own. He worked in the video game industry for many years, and currently resides in California.
What are your favorite parts of Avatar Tuner, and what made you want to translate the novel?
There were two main draws for me when it came to translating Avatar Tuner. The first was that it fell right at the intersection of my main areas of professional experience: video games, fiction writing, and translation. Right from the outset, it seemed like such a natural fit for my skills, and that made it really exciting and compelling. The other big thing for me was just how bizarre and unusual the story and the setting were. All told, it struck me as something that would be both fun and challenging, and I’m really glad I got the chance to tackle it.
As for favorite parts, there were a number of things I really enjoyed about the book and about working on it. Doing the dialogue for the different characters was a lot of fun. Yu Godai wrote some very distinct and well-realized characters, and figuring out how to best present them in English in terms of speech and mannerisms was tricky but rewarding; Gale’s voice, in particular, always came very naturally to me, whereas I reworked Cielo’s speech style a few times before I landed on something that I thought fit the character and was happy with.
If I had to pick a favorite scene from the book, I’d probably have to go with the conversation that Serph and Sera have on the rooftop at the end of Chapter Three, though the big climax at the end of Chapter Five is a very close second just because of how intense and visceral it is.
For those who aren't aware of the Shin Megami Tensei games, what other science fiction or fantasy books or manga would you compare it to?
This is an interesting question because the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and Quantum Devil Saga in particular, are fairly unique (and frankly kind of ‘out there’), so finding any direct comparison is a bit tricky. Still, for the first volume of Quantum Devil Saga specifically, the setting is somewhat reminiscent of the future depicted in the original Terminator films, where the world has become a bombed-out wasteland, and small bands of fighters build makeshift bases amongst the ruins. There is also a thematic similarity to the X-Men as, without having asked for them, the characters come into the possession of amazing powers, which some individuals embrace and others wish they could be rid of.
The novel also shares elements with Battle Royale and The Hunger Games in that it tells a story in which people are forced into a deadly, all-consuming competition, seemingly at the whim of those in charge (although here it’s couched in very, very different terms). The film Equilibrium shares some thematic elements with the novel as well, including a post-apocalyptic setting, a vaguely-religious, authoritarian regime, and the notion of keeping a populace in line by controlling their emotions.
Were you familiar with the original Digital Devil Story books by Aya Nishitani that spawned the Megami Tensei video game series?
I haven’t read Nishitani’s work, but I was aware of it, along with some of the other strange offshoots of the Megami Tensei franchise. Quantum Devil Saga is an interesting case, actually, because of its unusual and hard-to-explain origins. Essentially, the books are Yu Godai’s take on her own story, originally used as the basis for the two Digital Devil Saga games, redone without any of the unique restrictions that a story needs to be subjected to in order to make it a playable video game narrative. She has mentioned, however, that being a fan of the Megami Tensei franchise was part of what drew her to accept the offer to work on Digital Devil Saga in the first place, so I guess in a sense it all comes full circle.
What can fans of the games look forward to in this book that they might not be expecting?
The big thing, as I alluded to above, is that this is the author going back to her own original idea and writing it out as a series of novels on her own terms. It’s not a novelization of the games themselves, and towards the end of the first volume major parts of the narrative start to differ from the games, so hopefully there are a few curve balls that will catch fans of the games off-guard in a good way. Also, while Digital Devil Saga was already one of the more graphic and violent entries in the MegaTen lineup, the novels take the violence several steps further. This isn’t done in a gratuitous way though, and violence is deployed in a manner that serves the tone of the narrative and the story; the characters are attracted to or repulsed by the inherently violent nature of their new lives, and struggle with the degree to which they will allow it to define them.
Avatar Tuner contains a lot of religious references, especially to Hinduism and Buddhism, which I imagine were difficult to translate. What role do you think religion plays in the novel, and what do you think it has to say about one's spirit, the afterlife, and the transmigration of souls?
The Hindu and Buddhist terminology did prove to be a very unique localization challenge. There are a number of Sanskrit terms used in the narrative, which in the original text are written with both phonetic markings as well as Chinese characters that denote their actual meaning. Obviously, that’s not something that you can render in English, so I spent a lot of time figuring out how to best introduce those terms in the translation in a way that an English speaker would understand. I also spent a fair amount of time looking up accepted transliterations of Sanskrit terms that had been awkwardly or incorrectly rendered in other sources.
As for religion as a theme, it’s certainly very central to the Avatar Tuner narrative. The third volume, for instance, quite literally asks the question, “What is a god?” However, in the first volume the central question is something closer to, “What does it mean to be human?” That’s certainly a very existential question, and definitely one that can be approached from different religious and spiritual angles. The way the characters look at the reincarnation cycle of their world is very telling; they see the prospect of being removed from the reincarnation cycle as a truly horrifying fate, and yet, by and large, once they are in a position to question what their humanity means the idea that they would be reincarnated doesn’t seem to offer them much solace, as they would lose their identities and former lives.
With the first volume being the beginning of a much larger story, I’m not sure it seeks to answer a lot of the questions it asks—at least not right away—but it certainly poses some interesting ones.
What was the most difficult thing to translate in the book and why?
For me, it was really just the process of translating a Japanese novel at all. I have a little over a decade of professional translation experience under my belt, but the bulk of that has been related to video games, and while that’s certainly relevant to something like Quantum Devil Saga, this was the first time I had ever tackled Japanese narrative prose in any substantial amount, let alone for something as large as an entire novel.
As I mentioned before, I’m also a writer in addition to being a translator, and I’ve written three original novels of my own, but Japanese prose is very different from English prose in a number of ways. For instance, due to the peculiarities of spoken Japanese, it is often immediately apparent which character is speaking without needing to use dialogue tags. Now, while having strong character personalities can make this true in English (people who know the series will know that Gale’s speech sounds nothing like Cielo’s, for example), there are times when a line is very short or doesn’t give much identifying information about the speaker. At other times, there are scenes where four or five characters are all talking or someone speaks up who hasn’t been mentioned yet, and the dialogue needs to be written so that the reader can tell who’s who.
Perhaps even more problematic, though, is that paragraph structure in Japanese prose is very different from English, particularly when it comes to fast-paced action scenes and interweaving dialogue with narrative action. Early in my first draft of the translation, I struggled with how to be faithful to the original Japanese while still rendering things in a way that read properly in English, because it really does require a deft touch. Thankfully, translating, retranslating, and editing a novel manuscript is a process that takes a fairly long time, and I wound up getting plenty of experience by the time it was all said and done.
Did you play the Digital Devil Saga games while translating this, or did you avoid them?
I haven’t actually played them yet, but I’m certainly quite familiar with them at this point (a shout-out and big thank you to all the folks out there who keep such comprehensive wikis and fan sites, and post such thorough “Let’s Play” videos to YouTube). Seeing as how Digital Devil Saga was recently rereleased on PSN though, I’m hoping to give it a whirl sometime soon.
Actually, my initial plan was to intentionally go through and translate the book ‘game-unseen,’ in order to ensure that I treated the novel as its own entity and wouldn’t be influenced by previous localization choices, since the books aren’t a simple retelling of the games. That plan went out the window very early on though, because the setting was so bizarre that I needed some additional context to wrap my head around it, especially when I was just getting started.
In the end though, I’m glad I reversed my initial decision. Over the course of the project I saw just how passionate and devoted the fans of Shin Megami Tensei and Digital Devil Saga are, and I think it’s really crucial to respect the audience for a project as unique as this one. While the novel will certainly shatter fan expectations in many ways (due to inherent differences between the books and the games), I think it’s important to make sure that the aspects of the original, Japanese books that were familiar to fans of the game remain that way in the English translation.
How was it working with Bento Books, and, without giving too much away, can you give us some idea of what we have to look forward to in the next installment in the series?
The folks at Bento Books have been great. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work on this project, and they’ve been great about allowing me plenty of creative control the whole way through. I’m hoping that the end result is something that the fans enjoy.
As for the next entry in the series: while there’s nothing definite yet about the rest of the series being slated for translation, I’ve gone ahead and started reading the rest of the series on my own. Without saying anything about how the first volume ends, I can at least say that there are some major divergences from the plot of the Digital Devil Saga games, and this leads to the second volume going off in some very unexpected directions. Also, there are some key differences to the back story that set up equally unexpected developments in the third volume, so fans of the games can rest assured there are still plenty of surprises in store.