Interview with Neil Gaiman

  Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman
(photo from

   Neil Gaiman is one of the premier fantasy authors of our time. While his humorous apocalyptic novel with Terry Pratchet, Good Omens, was excellently received, it was Gaiman's Sandman comic series that cemented his place. Sandman was hailed for its literate tone, mythological underpinnings, and the self-referential way in which it told stories about telling stories. Since Sandman, Gaiman has experimented with new styles and media, working with artist Charles Vess on Stardust, and the solo novel and BBC miniseries Neverwhere. Gaiman has won many awards for his works, including the prestigious World Fantasy Award for Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Shortly thereafter, the snooty judges modified the rules to prevent a mere "comic" from winning again!)

   Now, Gaiman is diversifying yet again--this time into fields which will undoubtedly interest GIA readers. His first filmed screenplay, a translation of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, (Mononoke Hime) is coming to theaters this Friday, October 29th. Even more excitingly, Gaiman is returning to the Sandman stories in a collaboration with Final Fantasy character designer Yoshitaka Amano. This 96-page story, The Dream Hunters, will be available in bookstores shortly. The GIA caught up with him to ask about working with Amano and the difficulties of localizing Japanese works.

GIA: Thanks for taking time out of your scandalously busy schedule to talk with us. Our first question has to do with your upcoming Sandman story, The Dream Hunters. Did you complete the story for Dream Hunters first, after which Yoshitaka Amano created the artwork? Or did the two of you collaborate on both aspects simultaneously?

Gaiman: I wrote one chapter, and sent it to Amano, who had it translated, and read it. He started to research at this point -- visiting fox shrines, going to Kyoto, and so on -- while I kept writing. By the time I was about halfway through [with the book], Amano had started drawing.

I got to the end, very happily, with the stuff that I saw from the early chapters feeding in to the later ones. The artwork was so lovely and delicate, and I think that kept the story elegant as well.

GIA: Outside of a few small circles, Amano isn't too well known in the U.S. How were you introduced to Amano's artwork? How did his artistic style influence your writing style during the creation of Dream Hunters?

Gaiman: Jenny Lee, Sandman assistant editor, is a huge Amano fan, and she talked us into asking him to do the tenth anniversary poster. After seeing the poster, I found myself very excited -- I realised I'd never done a Japanese SANDMAN story. And more than that, I found myself wanting to.

The biggest influence [his artwork] had was in my knowing that what we'd be getting was really Japanese, which allowed me to feel much more comfortable about the details. And then, as the art came in, I just became increasingly happy. The eight-page gatefold of The King of All Night's Dreaming is one of the most beautiful paintings of Morpheus anyone has ever done.

The Dream Hunters
The Dream Hunters

GIA: Doubtlessly, dozens of proposals to return to the Sandman mythos have come your way since the series' end [in 1996]. Yet it wasn't until you saw Amano's now-famous tenth Anniversary Poster that you chose to revisit the character. What was it about Amano's rendition of Morpheus in particular that made you return?

Gaiman: Mostly, that it wasn't quite a Morpheus that I had ever written; and also, that this wasn't a story I had ever told.

It was fun reading the whole story at the Amano exhibition on the 7th. I don't know which I preferred, the laughter as people recognised Sandman characters like Cain and Abel in their Japanese disguise, or the tears when we got to the sad bit and people started fumbling for their kleenexes, or the audible shivers at the scary bits.

GIA: After Stardust with Charles Vess, Dream Hunters marks your second recent "illustrated novel." How does storytelling in this format compare with a monthly series? Will we see more works from you in this format in the future?

Gaiman: Well, we asked Amano-san if he would like to do a comic, and he said no -- but that he would love to do an illustrated book. Which made the choice of format pretty easy. I don't know if there will every be anything else from me in this format. But then, I didn't know until January I would ever do this book. It took me about as much by surprise as it has everyone else.

I also didn't realise how much of a demand for the book there would be. I was astonished and delighted to see this morning that it was #70 on the charts, weeks before it officially comes out.

GIA: We also have some questions about your recent localization work for Miramax. Assuming you're not fluent in the Japanese language, how did you translate and localize Princess Mononoke? Did native speakers translate the script into English which you then "smoothed over," all at once, or did you work directly with the Japanese script and Japanese speakers from the very beginning, localizing bit-by-bit?

Gaiman: Essentially, I was given the Studio Ghibli subtitles, and went from there, working it over, querying lines with Steve Alpert at Studio Ghibli as needed.

Sometimes we'd argue. Sometimes I'd win.

GIA: A translator must often choose between adherence to the original source material and making material accessible to a foreign audience. When translating Mononoke, how closely did you adhere to the original Japanese words and sentences, and how much did you diverge to create "natural" sounding dialogue?

Gaiman: Wherever possible I tried to do both, but if given the choice I'd go for something that sounded *right* and worked for a western audience, rather than just a literal translation. After all, one has to take into account what impact the lines are having on a Western audience, and what impact they had on the original Japanese audience.

An example of this might be Jigo's first line. In Japanese it translates as "this soup tastes like water". It's a very insulting thing to say from a very coarse, crude, funny man. We made it "is this soup or donkey piss?", which matched the lip flaps and told you exactly who Jigo was.

The main thing was doing it with respect and with love.

GIA: Japanese children grow up steeped in much of Mononoke's mythology (such as the forest spirits). Unfortunately, these concepts are virtually unknown to American audiences. How did you localize uniquely Japanese concepts for an American audience without diluting their significance?

Gaiman: You add a little explanation here and there, like salt, wherever you can, to give it flavour, and without seeming didactic. Too much, like too much salt, and it would be inedible.


GIA: What scene in Princess Mononoke are you most proud of localizing?

Gaiman: Probably the scene where Ashitaka learns of his quest. There's a lot of information packed in there, that makes sense and sets the viewer up for what's going to happen later in the story. And most people don't notice that we snuck it in.

GIA: And, for good measure, one final, game-related question. Japanese RPGs are an extraordinarily story-heavy genre; unfortunately, these stories are often plagued by uninteresting, error-filled translations. Have you ever considered lending your talents towards localizing a plot-heavy RPG? Your recent partner Amano is renowned for videogame character creation as well as "general" artistry. Have you ever considered branching out into videogame character or scenario design?

Gaiman: It seems like every time I agree to work with a video game company they go out of business. I stopped because I was starting to feel guilty. I'm currently talking to Quicksilver about creating a story for them....

I think the most important thing in the way that Miramax treated Princess Mononoke was simply that they were willing to spend money on it. My writing services do not come cheap -- on the other hand, you get what you pay for. I suspect that the same is true of Japanese RPGs. If they can get away with lousy translations they will, unless and until someone raises the standard.

   The GIA would like to thank Neil Gaiman for this interview. Readers interested in ordering Gaiman and Amano's Dream Hunters can pre-order it at For more information about Princess Mononoke, try the official website or the excellent fan site

Interview by Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos, GIA.
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