Allison Wolfe has been moonlighting. Under the strobelight of the rock club stage, she is easily recognizable as the former singer of Bratmobile, whose raw DIY sound and politically-charged lyrics helped launch the Riot Grrrl movement and made them one of the most influential bands of the '90s college radio circuit. Still others might know Wolfe from her current band Partyline (with whom she will be touring the West Coast this summer) or her work with Hawnay Troof. But, when the stage lights dim, she can be found behind a computer pouring through pages of Japanese-to-English translations, playing with language until the latest issue of the popular manga series Nana is fit to hit U.S. book stores.
Created by famed mangaka Ai Yazawa, Nana is the story of two girls with little in common outside of their name and a desire to leave small town Japan to chase their dreams in Tokyo. Nana Osaki is the cool and ambitious lead singer of the punk band Black Stones (BLAST), while Nana “Hachi” Komatsu is an outgoing, constantly love struck girl searching for her place in the world. Through a twist of fate, the two decide to share an apartment, their lives becoming nearly inseparable in the process. As witty as it is heartbreaking, the series is one of the world's best-selling shōjo (female-oriented) manga titles.
It takes Wolfe roughly one month to work on each adaptation, carefully deciphering cultural references that are unfamiliar to the American audience and reworking translations of Japanese sayings into English turns of phrase while keeping Yazawa's characters and story intact. With volume 16 ready to hit streets on May 5, we caught up with Wolfe by phone from her New York City home to discuss all things Nana.
How did you get involved with Nana?
This guy who was my editor at the time, he actually called Lookout Records looking for me and said, “Hey, I would like to try see if Allison from Bratmobile could do this job.” Erin [Smith] from Bratmobile, she was working the front desk at the time, she called me in DC, where I was living at the time and said, “There's this guy calling and he says that he wants to offer you some work.” … I've never been headhunted for a job, it's always where you're begging for something that's totally beneath you. I was like, yeah, that's awesome.
I do the English adaptation for the Nana series. I don't translate. I don't know Japanese. I don't do the translation at all. I receive the translation from a woman in Tokyo who does the direct translation from Japanese to English. She emails me the files. I change it up, clean it up and kind of make it sound hip and cool. That's what they hired me for, not to just make it flow and make sure it's right, but to make it hip and cool.
Before Viz, I never really was a reader of manga. I had nothing against it, but I didn't know much about that realm. I got really involved in Nana right away. I loved it from the beginning. I thought it was interesting and I love that there is manga that is really smart and funny. It's kind of ridiculous at times. It feels pretty feminist in this way, there are these strong female characters that really run the show. Guys all feel like secondary characters to me. It seems to me like all of the guys revolve around the Nanas, the main focus is on the two Nanas in the story. All of the girls are pretty strong and wacky and tough and cool.
When you're reading through Nana, do you ever see parallels with your own career?
I think that it's different because BLAST and Trapnest [from Nana] are more mainstream bands on a major label and are huge in Japan. Some of their situation is dealing with agencies and major labels and that world. I've never dealt in that world at all. I have no experience with major labels whatsoever. Even with Bratmobile, when we got back together and did things in a more professional manner than we had in the past, we come from such a DIY background that we barely, we had a booking agent for maybe the last year that we got back together, something like that. We never had a manager.
Do you feel a special affinity for a specific character?
Nana, the punk rock singer Nana, I probably identify with the most, but sometimes, I'm like the other Nana too. Sometimes, I see them as two sides of the same person. I think in a way, I can identify with Nana O. because she's punk rock and irreverent and can be pretty bratty and stuff, but I can be pretty giddy and goofy and girly and can really embrace silly, girly stuff too. In that way, I can identify with the other Nana.
I tend to identify somewhat with both of them, but not entirely with either. I definitely don't agree with all of the decisions that either of them make. I think that sometimes Nana K. kind of gives in to much to the guys, especially her boyfriend/husband's desires. I can't believe that she puts up with him. Sometimes, I'm like “What? Don't do that?” With Nana O., I sometimes think that it's the opposite. She's almost too tough and determined to be alone. If you care about Ren, just go be with him. They almost seem like extreme opposites of the same coin.
I love the storyline and I love the idea that they have the same name and they are opposites that fit together perfectly in that way and will always care about each other a lot. I really love the storyline and that's one thing that makes the work so enjoyable. It's a page-turner to me, so I love working on each page because I want to find out what happens next. I guess in a way I try to keep it with a little bit of a feminist edge. I can't change the story or the tone or anything, but I definitely watch the language to an extent and try to keep the girls strong. Sometimes it's hard when you see the girls go through something that's really messed up.
I like that it's goofy and stuff, but that it has really serious topics too. I think that they're handled well and handled humorously. I think that Ai Yazawa, her storylines are brilliant and the facial expressions she draws are also brilliant. There's a lot of manga that has a wide-eyed kewpie doll look that I'm just not into and I think that her drawing is much more sophisticated and she's really accurate with the facial expressions. She conveys what's going on and the mood and the temper with even just simple eye and mouth gestures. I think that's difficult to do.
I started out taking it on as a cool job, but I got sucked into the characters and the storyline right away and the drawing and everything. I do feel so privileged to be working on this. It's a dream job. I only wish that I could do it full time, a lot more. We can only go with the pace it's being written.