Sophie Schwimm, Hiroto Hamada, and metatextuality in Magus of the Library

September 9, 2021

I accidentally became a mod of the subreddit for my favorite manga, which means I'm using reddit again despite my better judgement—but also means I have more reasons to write about my favorite manga! This essay was already posted there and on my fandom writing tumblr, but since I don't like the UX of either site I'm keeping this here as well. It'll be a precursor to that "1 year of learning Japanese" blog I've been meaning to get to, anyway...

So, given the handful of confusion-laden results when googling Kafna of the Wind (and the fact that there’s even a TikTok evoking this), I’m sure the reveal of Sophie Schwimm as a in-world character in volume 4 ruffled quite a few readers’ pages. Profound ramifications for the story abound, and I can’t be the only one who thought Sophie managed to “coincidentally” write a novel heavily resembling the story that will unfold before our eyes before it ever happened. Sounds like something that would be right at home in a shonen manga, right?

Well, Japanese Wikipedia page be damned, Magus of the Library is actually serialized in a seinen magazine. Despite all the densely-mystical-fantasy stuff going on, some of the background events are relatively realistic—the attempted genocide of the Haupi people (where Theo’s pointed ears come from) was started because a Hyron ruler read a copy of the Black Text—so it’s pretty unlikely that there’s any surprise foretelling involved. And plus, Sophie’s reveal isn’t far out of left field at all, since we’ve been reading words she’s written for the whole manga’s runtime!

The very first line of the entire story is the opening line of Kafna of the Wind (“This story is devoted to my champion.”); and if you put Theo and co.’s group assessment in practice by looking very closely at the italics of the title, you’ll notice Kafna of the Wind is styled in the selfsame font as the narration on the next page and countless others. It’s pretty easy to miss, and up ‘till figuring that out I’d believed it was just Theo giving distant commentary himself—but as chapter 14 wraps up you can see his thoughts in the usual dialogue, so it’s probably not coming from him. With myriad of historical context and scientific explanations and extremely important foreshadowing provided in places, the narration has to be written by someone who has full knowledge of everything that’s happened.

So, if Sophie has enough knowledge to contextualize things and write a story that Mitsu Izumi herself supposedly ““based her manga on”” (big airquotes because it obviously can’t be anything but the other way around), then how the heck couldn’t she be some sort of subliminal consciousness whispering plot events in the author’s mind for her to bring into the world for our reading pleasure?

Well, Sophie has full knowledge of everything that took place because the events of Magus of the Library have already happened. If Magus of the Library is “based upon” Kafna of the Wind, then Magus of the Library is a story framed in the past tense, and putting Sophie’s “source material” on the cover is a way for Izumi to subtly call attention to this.

Notice how I wrote “framed” instead of “told”—the story we’re reading is almost certainly still the full, “unedited” sequence of events as they happened instead of Sophie’s abridged text. However, the reference, in the words of this random .edu page, is an example of metatextuality:

“…a quality of certain types of literature (we might say that a certain book or movie is very “meta-fictional”) that seem to have two levels of dialogue going on at once. The text, whatever it is, has a layer in which it generally proceeds as normal – it is a typical text. At the same time, however, there is a second level of commentary in which the text knowingly comments on what it is doing.”

That page goes on to list a few examples; the most relevant one here is by being self-referential - whenever the text recognizes itself as a text - it breaks the illusion that it is reality.” It then ends with “One last definition: Metafiction emphasizes its refusal to take for granted how stories should be told and thus implicitly comments on the nature of fiction itself, playing with, and exploring, how stories are told.”

A la English Wikipedia, metatextual works are widely considered to be exploring “the relationship between literature, life, reality, and art.” Magus of the Library certainly could head in that direction—though honestly, something as lofty and involved as that might fly over the head of many readers looking for a vast world to escape into, if not outdated given what this story’s world is based on.*

But, while this might not be relevant to our relationship with Magus of the Library, the relationship an in-world text has with Magus of the Library’s world is very relevant. What with all the political intricacies about the place of books and kafna on the Atlatonian continent that are pretty beyond the scope of this post, Magus of the Library is very much a text about texts. Or, in ours and Sophie Schwimm’s case, a story about stories—and like all stories, whether fictional or not, what gets told and recorded to text for people to read is always affected by who’s telling it. The coincidence in all this, then, is simply Sophie ending up in the same class as Theo; granting her an up close and personal view of things and subsequent veracity to write the authoritative account over all other onlookers’ accounts.

Around Kafna of the Wind’s publication, and likely guaranteed wide circulation by way of being the closest account of the hero that saved the entire continent or something, there will be another conundrum to consider: how is it going to be translated?

Magus of the Library is getting localized into numerous real-life languages, and if a cover design is listing the metatextual “source material,” there will be another credit under Sophie’s: “Translated by Hiroto Hamada.” This isn’t any of the numerous people translating Magus of the Library itself—open any volume of yours to the back page and you should find the true translator of whichever language your book is in. In English’s case, your thanks for the ridiculous amount of effort that goes into an immense story like this should be directed towards a Stephen Kohler, who also translates Witch Hat Atelier and a number of other series.

Though we’ve yet to meet this Hiroto Hamada, all signs point towards someone of the Kadoe, which I’m pretty sure is Magus of the Library’s version of Japanese culture. Look closely at the Japanese volume covers, and one can see the kanji for “translate” (訳) followed by “濱田泰斗” which can be read as “Hamada Hiroto” (emphasis on “can,” since as far as I can tell Hiroto isn’t a common enough name to be in many dictionaries. Also, since Sophie’s name isn’t native to Japanese, her name is written out above Hamada’s in katakana as ソフィ=シュイム). On an aesthetic level, this coding can be seen in stuff like the kimonos worn by Sohn (plus one of the Central Library’s stewards) along with the architecture of a building in Aftzaak—and similar parallels are used to make the Rakta representatives of Chinese culture as well.

Since Magus of the Library is dealing with all things texts, it’s important that attention be called towards the to-be-met Hamada and the translation process as well. Because as someone who’s been learning Japanese on and off for the past year, I can tell you with absolute certainty that translation is Very Hard. Especially when, in the case of Japanese to English translation, the source language has an entirely different phonetic and grammar and sentence and who knows how many other structures from the target language. To keep this already long point from going on, I’ll leave you with two things, this morpheme map of a Japanese sentence to English (plus its source to compare with other languages), and this Tim Rogers quote:

" truly experience a work as its author intended, one must learn its language fluently; spend a large fraction of a lifetime inside the culture that made it; and live, love, and lose in its language. I believe no such thing exists as a "perfect" translation of a work of literature from one language to another. All translations require compromise."

From my limited understanding, one of the most common points of difficulty in translation stems from words with multiple practical definitions. For example, the kanji for energy (気) can mean many different things depending on context: one’s physical stamina, someone’s willingness to complete a task, the underlying motivation of a person’s actions, or how one feels at a given moment. That’s four possible meanings, all conveyed with a single character! English has plenty of its own multipurpose words, of course—think of the situations and use where someone would use “I can feel this” and “I don’t feel like it”—but Japanese’s comparative terseness makes it much harder to parse out what a certain character means. 気を下がる is grammatically correct and has a sound meaning in Japanese, yet “feel is falling” while also grammatically correct, sounds like something a machine translator would put out.

When translating something for people’s comprehensible enjoyment, meaning and intent is what needs to be conveyed, not just the words themselves. And when it comes to the above dilemma, figuring out how to make a text understandable in a different tongue is akin to bridging the gap between one culture and another, which might as well be the heart of Magus of the Library.

Or, if meaning was misjudged, deliberately or otherwise, and translated as such, another way to spread misinformation that pushes distant cultures further apart, as well.

* I want to say “One Thousand and One Nights,” but AFAIK that’s a very vague catch-all for “stories set in a fantasy desert world,” though given the race relations in Magus of the Library I feel like there’s probably much more specific influences?