Advice on Manga Translation, From Manga Translators

Sacred Blacksmith Give My Regards to Black JackUQ Holder

So, the project continues right along. Two weeks ago I asked a few manga letterers to share their advice on manga lettering. Today, it’s the translators turn! 

I think we all should know the role of a translator, but I bet there’s some stuff behind the scenes (or maybe some translation challenges) you’d like to know. So let’s get to it! I got in contact with translators for companies like Crunchyroll, Seven Seas, and Kodansha USA, so let’s get to it!

How did you get the opportunity to start working as a manga translator?

Amanda Haley (Coppelion, Aria The Scarlet Ammo Manga): I was a first-prize winner for the 2012 Manga Translation Battle, which was hosted on JManga. Although JManga shut down shortly after MTB, the series I’d won for ended up being revived on Crunchyroll Manga. I also joined Digital Manga Guild while waiting for those contest results, but MTB was the biggest opportunity for me.

Simona Stanzani (English: Pandemonium ~ Wizard Village, Italy: Air Gear, Bleach, Steel Ball Run, NANA): I started in Italy in 1992, when being a manga translator was a very new job; I got contacted by Kappa Boys, an editing team that was looking for translators for Edizioni Star Comics, the oldest Italian manga publisher in activity at the moment. We were both from Bologna and had acquaintances in common, so it was a pretty natural process.

Adrienne Beck (Kashimashi, The Sacred Blacksmith, Toradora!, Seraph of The End): Many, many moons ago, I worked as a volunteer translator for a video game news website. I would translate Japanese articles on video games so that the newsies could write up an English summary on them. I even wrote a (very) few articles myself. It just so happened that one of the site’s regular readers translated for Tokyopop. When I mentioned that I was hoping to break into manga translation myself, he referred me to his editor. Tokyopop gave me a test volume to work on, and I guess they liked what I sent back, because they kept sending me more and more volumes after that!

Alethea and Athena Nibley (Negima!, Kingdom Hearts, Nabari no Ou, UQ Holder): The short story is we got an internship at Tokyopop and one thing led to another.

The long version is that we had been translating unprofessionally for our friends at college, and one of our roommates told us Tokyopop was having a survey, asking fans what they wanted to see brought to the US. All her friends were asking for one or both of our favorite series (Saiyuki and DN Angel), and we were like, “No! Those are /ours/! They can’t have them!” Plus, we had recently been severely disappointed in the English dub of the Saiyuki anime, so we were really worried about our favorite series being ruined again.

A few seconds later, we thought, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Are they hiring?” So we checked their website, and sure enough, they were looking for interns. We applied, got hired, and one the rest is history.

Dan Luffey (Give My Regards To Black Jack, NOGI, Wife By Arrangement): I did manga translations on my own as practice for many years before I got my first professional work translating manga. I love manga and I love language, so it was always a dream job to me, and I kept searching incessantly until I finally found a good opportunity.

Lilly Akabe (Digital Manga Translator): I have a friend, she translates for a game company in Tokyo. She told me about this publisher, and I interned there for free for 10 months. I was really happy when I finally got the real gig. It didn’t pay much at the time but it was a start and I’ve been translating ever since.

If there was one misconception you had about the manga industry before you started working in the industry, what was it?

Amanda: Frankly, the translation rates. I hadn’t asked around about it, since translating still seemed like just a pipe dream anyway, but I’d read some old blog posts from manga translators and thought I knew about what to expect. Well, I thought I’d get a little less than what I’d read about, because of course I was new and those figures were from when the manga industry was at its peak…but I definitely did not realize how much they had dropped. If I’d looked for some more recent interviews and articles I’d known better. Oops.

Simona: Uh, when we started there wasn’t really an International manga industry so I didn’t have any preconceptions.

One of the things that struck us the most (in many ways) was the length of time necessary for negotiations and the necessity to get basically everything authorized by the licensor – all the bureaucracy makes the production process really time-consuming.

Adrienne: Hmm…I don’t think I had one, really. I didn’t have many preconceived notions of how things might work when I started, so there wasn’t much to surprise me.

Alethea and Athena: Not so much a misconception about the manga industry as about the professional world in general. We kind of had this idea that there was this system in place, or something…it’s kind of an abstract concept, but it’s like when you’re a kid, you think your parents know everything about life. We figured the professionals knew everything about manga. And that’s not to say that we found out they were clueless–far from it. It’s just that, when we got into the manga industry about ten years ago, it was still relatively new, and everyone was still trying to find their way around. At least that’s the impression we get, looking back. It probably didn’t help that there were a lot more editors back then who didn’t know Japanese.

On the other hand, while we had this idea that they had everything figured out, we still had this arrogant sense that they would ruin things without our help. I guess that’s a little typical of fans–like, “Yeah, maybe they love manga, but they don’t love it the way I love it–I’m the only one who can truly understand.”

Dan: My biggest misconception was that everyone involved with manga loved the art form known as manga and wanted to further the medium. This is not the case at all. Even in Japan, many people who are deeply involved in the manga industry view comics as “drivel for children,” or would rather focus on derivative works because it’ll mean a fatter paycheck.

Lilly: Translation is pretty dull. I suppose, it’s just like any other job — I try to enjoy it as much you can. I’ve been doing this for so long, so I’m not sure if I enjoy it…or I just do it because it’s my job. Manga translation is a very limited field. There are lots of translation jobs out there, but manga is very very limited.

What’s generally the biggest challenge you face when translating a manga?

Amanda: Getting through the proofreading/editing stage after that initial rough draft. There are so many little details to get caught up on — a 200-page comic may be fast to read, but there’s a ton of text, and a million choices to make. Some of them don’t matter as much as others (will anyone else even notice some of them?), but you’re still trying to make the product as good as you can. Even sound effects can have multiple translation choices (sound effects are actually more difficult to deal with than you might think; no wonder Tokyopop was leaving them out). Editing is easier when you can step away from the translation and come back at it fresh, so it’s the most challenging when you have a tight deadline.

Simona: Romanization of non-Japanese names, especially made-up names; without the licensor’s instructions it is nearly impossible to guess what’s in the author’s head, and to ask for info you have to go through a lengthy chain:

[translator>editor>licensing department>agent (if applicable)>licensor's licensing department>editorial department>if they have time/can be asked/find the right moment not to hinder the author's work/etc. they'll eventually maybe ask the author>back all the way to the translator again]

That generally is too long for your answer to reach you in time. Many licensors just say “Just write it the way it sounds best in your language” but then, if the name comes out in the manga in roman alphabet written differently how are you going to justify that? Thankfully manga that have an anime version generally come with some official info, but more often than not you have to fend for yourself.

Adrienne: Urf, this is a tough one. I think, more than a general overall challenge to translating, each volume will present you with its own unique and individual challenge. Comedy & gag manga are always difficult, because the jokes are so hard to get right in English. Some manga are just plain wordy, or the author has written (worse yet, handwritten) a lengthy afterword, and the challenge is the sheer amount of material to plow through. And sometimes, it can be as straight-forward as trying to translate a certain character’s accent without resorting to giving them the over-done Southern drawl.

Alethea and Athena: Oh, wow, this one’s tough. I think as far as general challenges, like constant in everything we work on, is the challenge of getting to know the work. Different manga authors have different writing styles, and it takes a little bit of time to acclimatize. It’s kind of an abstract concept, so it’s hard to describe, but it basically involves getting to know how the author uses words.

This also includes getting to know the characters and how they talk, because there’s a lot more to it than, for example, “Oh, this character uses desu and -masu a lot, so I should have them speaking politely.” Some characters (taking this example and running with it) use polite verb conjugations while saying very harsh things, so you have to figure out how to balance it.

Of course, it gets easier as you get more experience with the Japanese language, and even easier if the new series you’re working on is by an author you’ve translated before.

After that, each series presents its own challenges, and figuring out what they are and how to deal with them is part of the familiarization process.

Dan: The biggest challenge for me is figuring out what to do when supplemental information is needed. Sometimes, a manga will assume that readers are aware of parts of Japanese history or folklore that English readers may not be familiar with, which means that some kind of note or explanation is necessary. How much is too much? Too many notes on the side, and it will prevent readers from immersing themselves in the story, but too little and they might miss out on everything that’s happening. This balance of information is something that every translator struggles with, I think.

Lilly: Finding the right “genre” to translate. I love to translate current and modern time romance josei manga, erotica and redicomi manga. I can’t translate historical and horror themed manga. It doesn’t interest me and I can’t concentrate. I don’t want to be picky — because work is work — but some just don’t hold my interest.

Negima KashimashiSeraph of The End

If there is one thing translators must do when they’re translating a Japanese title to English, what would it be?

Amanda: Always have characterization, tone, and natural speech in mind. It’s most important to capture the original feel of the manga, the emotions behind it. You have to let yourself be creative about it. Translation is an art.

Simona: Make sure that they have all the info they need before they start. Get your hands on Guidebooks, Official Fanbooks, whatever might carry romanization info and also it’s good to have a general grasp of the story; I always tell my manga translation students to read the whole series — or all the volumes that are out if it’s still on-going — before they start the work.

Adrienne: I would say the biggest thing is to remember that a manga is a story that is meant to be read all of a piece. It is so easy to get caught up in translating each separate sentence one-by-one that you can forget that the result should come together as natural, sensible English.

Alethea and Athena: Just one? If we had to pick just one, it would be to make sure to read over your first draft again, and edit it. We didn’t use to edit our translations, and we found out the hard way that that can lead to some embarrassing mistakes. But more importantly, when you’re translating something, on the first draft, you have to think in two different linguistic worlds at the same time. Sometimes the translator’s internal language conversion over-corrects, and you end up in what we call “Japanese mode.” That means you think that a phrase that sounds perfectly fine in Japanese also sounds perfectly fine in English…and it doesn’t.

The most extreme example we have of this is from one of our classmates when we were studying Japanese in college. He had served a Mormon mission in Japan, which means he spent two years immersed in the language. One time he was talking on the phone with someone back home, and, referring to someone who had been sick, he mentioned that person’s “recovery interval.” That’s the literal translation of how you would say “while you/he/she/etc. were recovering” in Japanese, so when he had to come up with a phrase off the top of his head, that’s what he came up with.

That kind of thing can easily creep in to translations for the same reason–it’s the first thing that pops into your head. We also have a habit of deliberately leaving odd phrases in, just to make sure we get all the information in a sentence, and we like to go back and come up with a more natural-sounding way to say it when we have more mental capacity to focus on how things sound, both as far as naturalness and emotion. (During the first draft, our main focus is on conveying information.)

tl;dr: Don’t let your first draft be your only draft.

Dan: One thing translators must do when translating a Japanese title into English is put the focus on what they’re writing in English. If a translator’s aim is to convey the feelings, atmosphere, and enjoyment of one piece of work into another language, then the output shouldn’t sound like a translation. It should sound smooth and eloquent like the original, which requires natural, fluid English. It also means rearranging word order, not going with the standard dictionary definition of certain words, and so on. Translators must keep their English skills honed, and always proofread.

Lilly: Read the book once thoroughly, before you start translating. It makes a lot of difference! Trust me!

What would be the best way for a translator to break into the manga industry?

Amanda: Most interviews I’ve read with this question talk about making contacts with people in the industry, going out to cons to meet and greet, etc. Networking seems to be the advice given to newcomers in any field, because…it’s true. And most people have already heard that, so…the second-best way is probably to find any other translation work you can to build up your resume, and jump on opportunities like MTB and DMG.

Simona: Umm…well, do a lot of practice, become REALLY good and show your goodies.

In spite of my 22 years of experience it can happen that I get replies like “sorry we’re all set” when I ask to translate some titles I like (the author actually told them they wanted me to do it, but not even that was enough!) too, so it’s a rather competitive field and I guess that the ones who are already working regularly for this or that publisher surely don’t want to leave their spot to someone else.

Adrienne: The best way is the one that works, of course!

But in all seriousness, I doubt there is one “best” way to go about it. Networking is always a good idea not just for translating manga, but for any job. You can talk to (and hopefully befriend) many manga editors and manga professionals on various social media outlets, or attend conventions and events to meet them in person. Also, the Digital Manga Guild and the annual Manga Translation Battle contest are great ways to get your work out there and build a portfolio. There are lots of ways to go about it.

Alethea and Athena: Go into lettering, ha ha.

We’re not really on the inside of the whole publishing process, so this is just speculation based on our observations, but it seems like the industry is a little saturated with translators, but it could use more letterers.

But if you want to break in as a translator, it’s mainly about finding the right connections. Conventions used to be a good way to do this, but since the big manga companies only go to the big conventions and don’t always like to talk about job opportunities while they’re there, that’s probably not the best way to go anymore.

So these days, it’s probably better to use social media and network that way. Follow the companies on Facebook and Twitter, maybe try speaking up so they know you exist. We understand a lot of people from the manga industry are pretty talkative on Twitter, so that might be a good place to get to know people.

And once you get in, do good work, and especially be reliable about meeting deadlines. If you can do that, you’re likely to get more work.

Dan: Use websites like proz.com or TranslatorsCafe. If you’re unknown and don’t have much experience, chances are you will have to do some jobs that you aren’t really interested in, but that’s just how it goes. Search every day in new ways for new opportunities and you’ll definitely find one.

Lilly: Well, know the language. I’ve known a lot of people who’s taken JLPT tests and things but those kind of things, doesn’t really matter.

What type of advice would you give to someone who might be interested in this venture?

Amanda: I love this job, but know that it’s tough. Not just the translating part–as a freelancer, you’re a business. You have to schedule your time and balance your work life/home life. There were a few months where I was basically working two full time jobs because I suddenly had so much manga to work on, but was afraid to reduce my hours at my day job by much because it was on short notice and I still needed those regular checks. I hate to admit it, but my husband got the short end of the stick, and I didn’t realize it at first because I was so focused on the job. So on top of working to improve your actual translations, be aware of the challenges of working from home.

Simona: Manga language is ‘alive’, it changes constantly, following the flow of contemporary culture; to deeply understand the language, especially the one used in manga, I very strongly suggest to spend some time studying or working in Japan, preferably both (a student visa allows you to work 20 hours a week if I’m not mistaken) and also read and watch a lot of stuff you like – manga, literature, light novels, magazines, internet news, anime, movies, whatever – just keep practicing without the hassle of doing it as a duty but seeing it as a pleasure. Communication is also very important, so make Japanese friends, online and off, and write/talk to them in Japanese as much as possible. Music is good as well, learn the lyrics and astonish your Japanese friends at karaoke! If you want to be a manga translator, of course it’s paramount to read TONS of manga, also the English versions, so you get used to the various ways to translate onomatopoeia, that’s generally one of the most daunting parts of translating manga (I personally don’t find them that difficult, but many of my students do.)

Adrienne: Keep practicing your Japanese, don’t forget to practice your English and, most of all, have patience. It might take some time for your big break to come, but don’t lose heart. Ganbatte!!

Alethea and Athena Nibley: Practice. The only way to get better as a translator is to translate a lot. Pay attention to what words are said in what context. Use Japanese language dictionaries, because they’ll give you an idea of the Japanese nuance.

The goal is to figure out not only what the word means in a “the J-E dictionary say it means this” sense, but also what it means to a Japanese person. For example, if you look up “urusai” in a dictionary, it will tell you it means “loud, noisy, etc.” But when someone says it, the sentiment is usually “shut up!”

There are a lot of words, phrase, particles, etc. that you won’t want to translate to exactly the same thing in every context–pay attention to that. “Noni” doesn’t always have to be translated to “even though.” That reminds me–also be aware of how real English speakers talk. Sometimes the “noni” sentiment is conveyed naturally without a translation (based on how the rest of the sentence is worded), and sometimes you want to take it in another direction. For example, an English speaker is more likely to say, “After all my hard work!” than, “Even though I worked so hard!”

We could go on and on about this, but it all boils down to this: know how Japanese speakers talk, know how English speakers talk, and be aware of the characters and their personalities–how they’re written in Japanese, and how they can be conveyed in English. The Japanese text will guide you if you look at the spirit of it instead of trying to translate “by the book,” so to speak.

Dan: If someone’s interested in translation, I highly recommend that they practice on their own before attempting to do it professionally. If you’ve translated 100 chapters of manga on your own time, and you still enjoy it, then chances are you’ll be able to handle professional work as well.

Lilly: Have lots of experience. Know what you want. Be ambitious and be aggressive — nobody spoon feeds you work…

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Justin

Justin is the founder of Organization Anti-Social Geniuses. Anime & manga fan that likes to blog about anime and manga, is addicted to sports, and weak to crossovers. You can follow Justin on Twitter @Kami_nomi.

10 thoughts on “Advice on Manga Translation, From Manga Translators

  1. Very interesting to read. Language is not cut and dried and I recognize translation is definitely an art.

    “(the author actually told them they wanted me to do it, but not even that was enough!)” What an honor to be trusted by the author, and frustrating to be dismissed by the publisher. Grrr.

    As far as translation notes and footnotes etc., personally I love them and say the more the better. It’s great to learn cultural details along with enjoying the manga and I think it can be done pretty subtly and non-distractingly. I used to read a lot of Victorian-era fiction and there was usually a whole section of notes — it’s enriching to get historical or cultural context.

    • Yeah it’s surprising how the business side of it is. Maybe they needed her to translate something else, but that does suck she couldn’t work on it.

      Hmm, it really depends though. I mean, I’ve been in English Lit classes, and some books were great to look at their footnotes; others, not so much (because the book was meh haha). I think there does need to be a fine line though, else you risk tuning out people trying to read the work.

  2. Fascinating stuff. It’s really interesting how many different routes they took to all arrive at the same place. I bet you’d get 100 different stories if you interviewed 100 different translators.
    I’d really like to know how much they get paid per volume, though. Just a ballpark figure will do. $100 a volume? $500? $0? I’m really curious, and I doubt I’m the only one!

    • I’d bet you 10 internet dollars that’ll be impossible. Impossible I say!!! :)

      Hmm, I don’t know if I would ever get an answer for it, but it probably is worth asking actually. You assume it depends on company though (and in some cases, it may be unpaid oh no!). Oh, and page count of a volume. I mean seriously, how much would it be to translate Yen Press’s Thermae Romae compared to Vertical Inc’s Limit? Gotta be a difference there…

      • That’s true. I’d love to know if there’s any room for the translator to negotiate e.g. series X is so much harder than series Y so I want a $– more per page. Or is the amount fixed from above, take it or leave it? I don’t think it’s a job anyone does because they want to get rich, but it would be nice to know if you could at least pay the bills on a manga translator’s salary.

        • Yikes, I hope no professional companies would consider not paying their translators! I do manga lettering full time and can live off what I’m making. I’m single, live in a city with a reasonably low cost of living, and don’t drive (so no car/insurance/gas payments in my budget); I probably couldn’t raise a family on my income but I can afford to feed myself and my two cats and buy manga! :)

          Most of my lettering work is paid per-book rather than per-page (and when I say book I mean a single Japanese volume, so something like Thermae Romae counts as two), and at a consistent rate between series, even if one is really text-heavy and another much lighter (Kingdom Hearts is an exception, since it’s one of the rare Yen titles with all sfx replaced—that about doubles the work involved so it is paid at a different rate. I assume Viz pays its letterers more, since replacing sfx is the standard for them). I figure the easy and difficult series balance each other out. At best, I can letter a volume a week, which comes out to about $15-20/hr assuming a 40hr work week (again, actual time spent can vary from book to book). (it’s also worth noting that I don’t usually have a book due every single week, so I can’t say I consistently make $X/week or $XX/year.) When I started it was more like a month per book: I was still learning how to work quickly and efficiently, and since I was new the publisher didn’t have as much work available for me. So I definitely needed a part-time job to fall back on for the first while.

          • Thanks a lot, lys! That’s just the sort of thing I was hoping to hear. I hope to see more articles from those on the manga frontlines (so to speak) in future,

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