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VCRX 2020: We Translate Your Anime & More Panel Report

by Callum May,

There's been a lot of discussion lately regarding conditions for localization workers within anime and manga. Despite them being essential to the popularity of anime in the west, they are often paid unlivable rates and go uncredited. Crunchyroll is just one of the companies where both of these issues persist.

The panel appears to somewhat lampshade these issues, opening with a clip of the Dark Souls bonfire while a voice-over states, “If you're looking for internet drama or trouble, sorry friend. You won't find it here. If that upsets you, then I suggest you just move on to the next panel.” If this is the panel's attempt at dismissing labor issues, that's disappointing, but it's kept vague enough to ensure plausible deniability for this Crunchyroll industry panel.

The panel itself is hosted by Bryan Ingram, the senior director of production at Crunchyroll. Ingram's been with MX Media (now owned by Crunchyroll) since the start and served as “right-hand man” to its founder Ken Hoinsky. Ingram serves as an entertaining and competent host of the panel, but his position makes the dynamic somewhat awkward. Questions regarding the “hustle” of trying to survive as an independent contractor hit differently when those questions are being asked by your boss.

But if you can put the cynicism aside, this is genuinely a great panel and an annual opportunity for Crunchyroll translators to discuss their work. And while the opening's flippancy is disheartening, it's not the panellist's responsibility to address the accusations levelled at the company. At the same time, they do address the realities of working in the industry as both translators and independent contractors.

Featured translators Rei Miyasaka (top-left), Michelle Tymon (top-right), Adam Lensenmayer (bottom-left), and Sriram Gurunathan (bottom-right). Senior director of production Bryan Ingram appeared in voice-only.

The first topic was the obvious one: COVID-19. While anime fans have been disappointed by all the delays, the effect on translators was disastrous. Adam Lensenmayer mentioned that last season, he was working on fewer shows than he has in his entire 12-year career. Lensenmayer works with several anime streaming companies but doesn't depend on translation for his regular income. He said that if he was relying on anime translation, he'd probably have left the industry. Likewise, Gurunathan was also looking into other jobs, and regarded last season as a famine. Thankfully the number of shows have recovered in this fall season.

To describe the panel in one word, it would be: sobering. The translators made no effort to romanticize their anime work and spoke to their efforts in getting enough work to put food on the table. Each translator had a different experience with this, with Miyasaka advertising, Gurunathan cold-calling, Tymon received offers, and Lensenmayer took every available job, even the low-paying ones, in the hopes of finding a better one.

Lensenmayer's philosophy of taking every job also applies to the anime industry. He states that, “with any single client, you're very much subject to things outside of your control.” There's always shake ups within the anime licensing industry, and decisions from executives can leave translators without work. “If you are only attached to that one licensor,” he said, “it will have a very negative effect on your income.” So to keep his overall earnings up, Lensenmayer opted to work with as many licensors as possible.

This seems to be the key to a lot of translation work in the anime-games space. It's important not to rely too much on it. A lot of translators will supplement their income with business or research translation, or even just have a regular 9-5 job. When asked how they get more money out of translation, the panellists seemed to be generally unconcerned. Miyasaka mentioned that there are issues with translation work going down in price due to the increase in available translators and more companies relying on machine translation. Tymon noted that she was offered more from long-time clients over time.

The translators are introduced with their credits and original illustrations of them (except Gurunathan)

Translators are usually paid based on the length of an episode, but the value of that can be hilariously inconsistent. Each translator was asked what their quickest and longest translation was, and while Tymon stated an average of 3-4 hours, she noted that this time could easily double if extra research is necessary. “As a translator, you usually become a mini-expert in something pretty quickly so research is really important,” she stated. On the most extreme end of this spectrum is Gurunathan who spoke about having to spend three days on just the first half of Episode 269 of Gintama. The episode features Gintoki teaching a child history through the use of Japanese mnemonics. Gurunathan would then have to find a way of expressing these in English. As Gurunathan put it, “Translation is 20% actual translating and 80% problem-solving.”

And because of this, the shows that don't involve complex dialogue can be translated surprisingly quickly. Tymon noted that for an action-heavy show, she might only take 1.5-2 hours to translate the episode. Lensenmayer even recalled a time when he managed to translate three episodes of Casshern Sins within an hour. Since the show had such little dialogue, he'd just have all the episodes on his screen playing at the same time. Whenever a character talked, he'd pause them and translate the line. It's clear that this tactic wouldn't work for most shows, though.

While translators generally wouldn't employ Lensenmayer's strategy, most of the panellists did note some form of time-saving technique. Sometimes this involves asking other translators for help and sometimes it just involves creating a library of different software to speed up the process. Miyasaka created a service that compiles multiple English-Japanese dictionaries amusingly titled HugeDict. Each of the dictionaries offers different information and usages for unfamiliar words. He noted that this is most useful for cooking shows. In fact, the panellists generally agreed that cooking shows were annoyingly complex, especially for those who don't regularly cook themselves. Tymon noted that she'd sometimes watch YouTube videos to learn how to describe these unfamiliar topics in English.

Miyasaka shows off his HugeDict

This prompted a brief conversation on the evolution of the Japanese language. They all noted that a lot of anime have gotten simpler, with the technobabble and complex sci-fi going out of fashion. Gurunathan also noted that a lot of memes and phrases have evolved over time, something he'd noted from watching VTubers. The panel discussed the evolution of the phrase “笑う” (to laugh), how it turned into “www”, the Japanese equivalent of “lol”, and how the appearance of those letters eventually became summarised as “草” (grass), which is now used as a shorthand for “lol”.

The panel closed out with Ingram asking what sort of media the translators would like to work on in the future. Gurunathan, as a fan of Japanese pro-wrestling, said that he'd like to work on subtitling wrestling streams. Tymon mentioned that she'd like to get involved with translating more voice actor events and concerts. She's already done a few of these in the past for Crunchyroll, including some for CRX itself. Lensenmayer noted that he's already done about 2,500 episodes of anime in his career, and would like to do more video game translation. In the past, he's translated Steins;Gate Zero, Chaos;Child, Punch Line and a couple of undisclosed major mobile game releases. Miyasaka also noted that he wanted to translate video games, but instead wanted to translate western games into Japanese, noting Firewatch as a hopeful example.

Unfortunately, the VOD for the panel was only available over the CRX weekend, but for those that managed to catch it in time, it was an enlightening and detailed look at translating anime. For those that aren't able to make it to San Jose, this was their first opportunity to watch the annual panel, so it would be good if more recordings were available in the future. Translators within anime/manga/games are frequently devalued not only by the fans but also by the large entertainment companies that seek to exploit them. Panels like these are valuable, not just because they make for an interesting watch, but also because they build more much-needed respect for these essential workers.

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