Translation and authenticity entwine when it comes to discussions of manga paratext features such as onomatopoeia. Retaining the original Japanese words -- if not the kanji -- is an important factor for many Western manga fans and is, in fact, an integral factor in many memes. In this short piece, I look at these paratextual factors as used in on line spaces by Western fujoshi (“rotten women” or readers of Boys Love manga).
In addition to the artwork, the paratext is where a lot of residual authenticity remains in translated manga -- the panel arrangement, the reversed reading order, the background kanji, the retained use of honorifics such as -chan, and titles such as seme and uke. In fact, the use of seme and uke (rather than top and bottom, for example) are tied to the specific thrills of reading BL manga in the West. The imaginary Japan and the imaginary queer enjoyed by Western fujoshi are partially products of the paratextual aspect. Kanji and foreign onomatopoeia – as paratextual terms and representing queer, foreign dynamics of erotic moments -- give rise to memes that take images and enhance the moment of strangeness.
Kabe donis an example of onomatopoeia (don is the sound of the wall – kabe – being thumped) being turned into shorthand for a gendered, hierarchical moment in manga and anime. The male character (or seme in BL) traps the female (or uke in BL) against the wall with a masterful extended arm, posed perfectly to intimidate or kiss. It’s a problematic trope and one that has given rise to many kabe don parodies as well as defense suggestions. Here, however, I am focusing on the fantasy of Japan and of a fantasy of queer gender manga dynamics being encapsulated by an untranslated instance of onomatopoeia.
The practice has given rise to countless memes (both heterosexual and BL), and their on-line location means transnational recursive instances occur. Western BL fans share and create BL kabe don memes which depend on the foreignness and on the paratext for their meaning. The location of the paratextual memes in online groups forms a type f paraspace. The term paraspace is used in sci fi theory; however, here I am offering a definition that involves the sharing of the memes and images that appreciate the paratext in online locations such as Facebook groups, Tumblr, or Instagram. Using Genette’s formulation of paratext, I suggest these spaces are paraspaces -- online communities existing adjacent to or surrounding other spaces allowing the memes to be presented. The presence and reception of the meme (a paratext extension of the original) in a virtual community is a paratextual activity taking place in a paraspace.
As Casey Brienza observes “the story of manga’s success in the United States is very much one of paratext” -- the very Japaneseness that is retained and not translated is a key part of the recognition and appeal. “Authenticity” may be a US marketing tool, but the authenticity often resides in paratextual aspects and is often the very thing that fujoshi migrate into memes. In addition to seme and uke jokes, the kabe don onomatopoeia and its accompanying pose encapsulate the Japanese and the queer appeal. The meme cycles back in English language speaking even as it relies on the Japanese sound effect. While efforts to localize and conform to what were perceived as US paratextual norms undermined manga’s initial market in the US (Brienza), retaining Japanese sound effects actually increases the authenticity and the desirability for most readers. There is a specific thrill for a Western fujoshi in recognizing a paratextual meme that allows the reader to feel privy to the “authentic” Japanese moment and to the “authentic” queer erotic moment -- while simultaneously understanding that both are a fantasy.
Brienza, Casey. "Paratexts in Translation: Reinterpreting ‘Manga’ for the United States." International Journal of the Book 6.2 (2009): 13-19. Print.