San Diego Comic Con 2014
Lost in Translation

by Bamboo Dong,

The Lost in Translation panel, which talked about the translation and localization of manga in North America, was moderated by editor and translator Jonathan Tarbox, and featured Vertical marketing director Ed Chavez, Chromatic Press co-founder and comics editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, and translators Nathan Collins and Steven Paul. The panelists took questions from the audience.

Please note that this is a partial transcript of the panel; some sentences and segments have been trimmed or paraphrased for length.

What's the hardest part of translating manga from Japanese to English?

Diaz-Przybyl: Because at Tokyopop (where Diaz-Przybyl served as editor for several years) the policy was not to translate sound effects, the majority of my professional experience has not been translating sound effects. Since leaving Tokyopop, I've had to do it, or think about it in a different way. It was a much bigger challenge than I thought it would be. A lot of onomatopoeias.

Chavez: There are sound effects that aren't sounds.

Diaz-Przybyl: Like reaching out for something.

Tarbox: Like the warm, fuzzy feelings you get when you're in love.

Diaz-Przybyl: Or when your heart skips a beat. It's fun, but annoying sometimes… Sometimes I'm not even sure what the sound represents.

Regarding translation notes:

Paul: Depending on editorial policy at a particular publisher, some do allow you to write notes. If you come across something that's inherently Japanese, it's hard to put into English. Sometimes it's easier if it's a company like Viz, where they issue notes in the back of the book, or notes in the page. That gives you the liberty to rearrange things to something that's easier to understand in English. Sometimes they want you to leave it as close to the Japanese as possible, and put notes in the back… But sometimes you have to make decisions, like "Will people reading it on the page be able to understand this? Or will they have to flip to the glossary?" You have to make the decision of how much the reader will understand.

Tarbox: How many people want to read something in the back of the book, though? Asks for a show of hands.

I think a comic book or manga should feel like you're watching a movie. Anything that takes away from that—like a note—makes you stop. It pulls you out of the story. That's why I generally don't like notes. Also as an editor, it's more work for us. Notes in the back is fine, but then I wonder if people are actually reading them.

Regarding puns:

Diaz-Przybyl: Puns are difficult in general. Puns are the worst when there's an image that it's referring to as well. In Saiyuki, there was a joke about a table. I could make a pun out of it, but then I had to try and tie it back to the fact that there was a picture of a table there.

Tarbox: You might not even get that much guidance from the people you're working for. Sometimes translators are fishing around in the dark for what the editor wants. First of all, no one cares who the translator is. We have to make a 1000 decisions that will make a big difference in the final product— decisions that the reader probably never even sees.

Chavez: In many cases, you want to make that transition process as smooth as possible. You don't want to see mistakes. You don't want to have gags that fall flat, or visual puns that don't make sense.

Diaz-Przybyl: Or translations that don't make sense.

Tarbox: That's what I meant about taking you out of the scenes… What fans want now, what the market wants now, is something that's smooth. Better English is more important than a 100% accurate translation. It's more important to me to have a good scripter writer than to have a good translator.

Chavez: Ideally you want both.

Tarbox: I've seen translations—I've done them— that were technically great, but they were clunky. It's not about keeping it accurate, but it's about bringing the original artist's feelings to life.

Diaz-Przybyl: One of the frustrations with scanlations is that some of the crap that goes up there, they become the "defining" version of series because some readers will see them first. So when an official translation comes out, people will say, "Oh, it's less authentic. It didn't read like crap." No, it's because we have a translator that knows what they're doing.

Tarbox: "You translated it wrong." How do you know? "Well, my friend has a cousin who took a Japanese class and she told me."

Chavez: I remember I had a title that had whole chapters that were Buddhist sutra. Fans were saying this stuff is wrong. Hang on— do you understand Sanskrit? Secondly, some of these sutras have established translations. I'm just working them around and making sure things fit and rhyme. And they were giving me a hard time. It's bizarre.

Paul: It's difficult to find good feedback on your work as a translator because almost inherently, the opinions that you read—if you're foolhardy enough to look up reviews of the things you've translated—almost every time, if they point out things they think are wrong, it's based on certain objective criteria, like a name is spelled differently from another version, like the anime or a scanlation. It's almost impossible to judge the character of the work itself. Is the stuff that's supposed to be poetic, poetic? Is the stuff that's supposed to be crude, crude? It's subjective. It feels like when you're looking up reviews of your own work that any opinion to see—it's like looking up reviews of convenience stores on Yelp— the only people who are going to submit a review are people who are angry. You can have 100 people read your book, and five people have a bone to pick.

Diaz-Przybyl: Translators are invisible. You don't want people to be commenting about it.

Collins: Lots of times as a translator, you're the last person in the chain who's really aware of the whole scope. There are people who know Japanese or English who read both, but you're working with an editor who doesn't know Japanese. You're the last line of defense of trying to respect what was originally there. You can understand what the mood was supposed to be, or what the tone was supposed to be. It's a balancing act— the English needs to be readable enough and good enough to satisfy your editor, and most importantly, the reader.

Tarbox: Or worse, the original Japanese editors who don't read English, who send approvals saying, "We don't like how you did this." How did they know something's wrong? They've got the English copy. Does the original artist know English? No. Does the editor know? No.

Comment from the audience from Michael Gombos, director of Asian licensing at Dark Horse Comics

Gombos: They have to submit something... You have fans that say, "this is incorrect," and you can't say, "well the licensor wanted to change it."

Tarbox: Like with Attack on Titan… You'll get fans asking, "Why did you call it Attack on Titan?" …Or you'll have American characters with dialogue in English, and it's absurd. Dude, I'm sitting three desks away from you. You could've asked me. Why didn't you. "Well, I wrote what I thought was good." But then sometimes we'll have a sign or t-shirt in our version with English issues, and the question is, do we change it or leave it?

Audience: Working as a freelance translator, is it roughly manageable to find work?

Paul: It's about building a relationship with editors… You have to prove yourself and meet your deadlines, and turn in good work. You have to prove yourself before you can get enough work. I'm not turning away work.

Collins: It's feast or famine. There will be four months where there's nothing, and suddenly two or three jobs come in for six months.

Tarbox: With freelancing, you never want to say no.

Diaz-Przybyl: I'm doing work with Crunchyroll for their manga division, and it's one of the things that's relatively steady. They're doing simulpublishing of chapters. I was told since it's digital, don't quit your day job because the money's not there.

Chavez: As an editor, I end up working with a stable of translators. I don't necessarily deviate from them too much unless we have a new intern in the company… We're pretty committed to the people who we work with. In the case of the person who's working on the Attack on Titan novel, he's working on two other titles for us right now. He's getting paid quite well for his time and effort. We also do things in-house, too. We're a little different from some of the larger publishers in that regard.

Audience: You mentioned not turning down work as a freelancer, but what about the companies that are paying scanlators pennies to churn out cheap translations for digital titles?

Tarbox: I hate them. There was a publisher renowned for paying pennies. The problem is, that becomes "market price."

Diaz-Przybyl: Cruncyhroll pays very little, but it's very straightforward work. It's chapter by chapter, and it doesn't take very long. The time versus money equation makes sense. Do I have concerns about how it affects industry rates? Absolutely. But having been at Tokyopop for a long time, I understand the business side of it. Until digital establishes itself, I'm not sure what some of the other options these companies have are. The experience of JManga and its rapid demise… quality versus quantity is something you need to work on, both content-wise and translation-wise. I did some work on these too—outsourced stuff coming from Singapore, Malaysia— the quality is all over the map.

Paul: It's the economics of quality. If you're good enough, you can probably negotiate a little bit. You can make a name for yourself. This is a person who does really good work, this is who we should go to if we have a big title. This is our chance to make a splash, especially if it's a source that's not as widely established as Viz or Yen Press. Sometimes publishers give you an entry rate and once they like you, and they decide "we want to keep this person around," and they want to continue his or her line of work, then you have room to ask for a raise, which will help support you full time.

Collins: There are so many factors, like how long is this project, is the title interesting, is this a company that will lead to more work in the future? As a freelancer, my least favorite question to get is, "What is your rate?"

Chavez: I don't know what people's perceptions of Vertical quality is, but when our talent ends up going to places like Crunchyroll, they pretty much get the rate that we charge, which is a starting rate of about $10 a page. That's pretty damned good, if you're talking about digital.

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