Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Manga Translator?

Do you think you have what it takes to be a translator? Or maybe you just like fooling around with kana and kanji? Here's your chance to test your skills: The online manga site JManga is running a translation contest, and it's pretty straightforward: Download the yon-koma (4-panel) gag manga at the site, translate it into English, and e-mail your translation to JManga by February 14. The winners will get a free digital copy of the book Young-kun, from which the contest comic was drawn.

I asked JManga's Robert Newman how many winners there would be, and he said, "We will be announcing multiple winners based an varying criteria such as accuracy, humor, tone of voice, etc." I also asked him to clarify whether winners would have to have a paid JManga account to claim their digital book, and he said no, a free account was fine.

To accompany the contest, JManga interviewed veteran translator William Flanagan, whose credits include xxxHoLiC, Fairy Tail, and Fushigi Yuugi, about the challenges of the job. He talks about giving each character a different voice, preserving the humor, and a challenge that is unique to manga translation:

One of the hard parts has to do with foreshadowing. As translator/rewriter/editor, you have as little advance knowledge of the future events in the plot as any Japanese reader. So you have to be aware of lines of dialog that might foreshadow future events in the manga to preserve the author's foreshadowing. Not an easy task, let me tell you!

It's clear from Flanagan's comments that there is a lot more to translating manga than just moving the words from Japanese to English.

There has been some debate about the future of manga translation in recent years. Matt Thorn, another longtime translator who started with Viz in the early days and is now translating Moto Hagio's Heart of Thomas, commented bitterly on the state of manga translation a few years ago. In his blog post, which attracted a swarm of comments, he said,

There’s no diplomatic way to say this, so I’ll be blunt. The vast majority of my kouhai, my juniors in the field of manga translation, have no sense of rhythm, so sense of meter, so sense of what makes a line worth reading, and no sense of how to write a line worth reading.

Among other things, he said, they lack a sense of voice:

In any decent manga, each character has a distinctive style of speech. In some cases it is more subtle than in others. It seems that most manga translators today (Have any of them lived more than a year in Japan?) have their noses buried in their dictionaries, translating word by word, rather than looking at the speech as a whole, and considering the personality, background, and mindset of the speaker.

Two years later, when Tokyopop shut down its manga publishing operations, Thorn stated that Tokyopop had pushed down translation fees to below a living wage, which he felt not only brought down the quality of Tokyopop's work but hurt the industry as a whole.

On the other hand, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber, who was an intern and then a freelance editor at Tokyopop, made the case for having a range of translators, in terms of pay and skills, as a way for newcomers to learn the ropes:

Sometimes the only way you can learn a job is through experience. If that means putting out some really crappy manga at first, so be it. (Edit: Because you don’t know better as a newbie, not because you want to put out poor work.) Whether it be translation, lettering or editing, the more you get to work on, the better you’ll be able to do a good job.

Like it or not, this seems to be where the industry is right now: Many translators are learning by doing, and their pay reflects that. Digital Manga's Digital Manga Guild brings this to its logical extreme, with amateur translators, editors, and letterers working for no upfront fee, just a cut on the back end. This allows Digital to publish a lot of books in a short time with minimal risk (the Japanese licensors waive their fees as well, so Digital and the Japanese publisher also take a share of the proceeds).

Is this the way of the future? Last week, another longtime Viz hand, Jason Thompson, wrote a provocative piece at io9 called Why Manga Publishing Is Dying (And How It Could Get Better). Thompson sees "crowdsourcing" tactics such as the Digital Manga Guild as the best strategy to fight scanlators. He writes:

Nor will Digital Manga Guild translators ever rake in anything like the $30 a page that manga letterers and translators used to make in the early '90s…but hey. That's what happens to translation rates when everyone wants to translate manga and when machine translation is getting better and better every year.

But machine translations still have a way to go—just take a look at another digital-manga experiment, Ken Akamatsu's JComi site—there's a list of manga that has been translated into English at their Facebook, but you may have to "Like" J-Comi to see it. The machine translations pop up at the bottom of the page, and they are terrible—they translate the words but not the sense of what is being said. Even the greenest translator will do better than that, and publishers know that a really good translator—a seasoned pro like Thorn or Flanagan, or Naruto translator Mari Marimoto—can greatly enrich their manga. There will always be room at the top.

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