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Interview: Shoko Oono

by Sean Broestl,
Shoko Oono

Without knowing it, you've likely read or heard a translation by Shoko Oono. Her work goes on to become the dub and sub tracks we rely on to enjoy the DVDs we purchase. As if her plate wasn't full enough with working on multiple anime translations at a time, she also does video game translation. Major games such as Xenosaga: Episode 1 have had Shoko's translation talents applied to them. She's taken some time out of her busy schedule to offer some insight on the anime localization process and the industry in general.

Who she is: Japanese Translator

What she's done: Anime Translation: 801 T.T.S. Airbats, All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, Azumanga Daioh, Birth, Chrono Crusade, Colorful, Comic Party, Cromartie High School, Excel Saga, Galaxy Fraulein Yuna, Gantz, Getbackers, Gravion Zwei, Grrl Power, His and Her Circumstances, Ki*Me*Ra, Maburaho, Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, Magical Witchland, Mahō Yūgi , Metropolis, New Fist of the North Star, Noir, Petite Princess Yucie, Princess Nine, Princess Tutu, RahXephon, RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio, Sailor Moon, Saiyuki, Saiyuki Reload, Sakura Wars, Sakura Wars 2, Sorcerer on the Rocks, Soul Hunter, Steel Angel Kurumi, Super Atragon, Super GALS!, Super Milk-chan, The Princess Blade, You're Under Arrest: The Movie, Xenosaga Episode 1 (video game)

Quotable: "It's not everyday that you can turn your hobby into a living, so I jumped on it and the rest is pretty much history."

First off, could you tell us how you got involved with Japanese to English translation?

Back when I was in school at UIUC, I translated for the local anime club at the university. It was a hobby. A time consuming hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. I think during my years in college, I translated something like 200 episodes worth of anime for the club. That came to an end my senior year as I turned my eye towards finding a job after graduation. I was a computer engineering major, but I'd really enjoyed translating anime, so my fiancé and I decided I had nothing to lose by seeing if I could translate anime professionally. I retooled my resume and sent it out to all the anime companies. And much to our surprise, we got some favorable responses. We decided this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. After all, it's not everyday that you can turn your hobby into a living, so I jumped on it and the rest is pretty much history.

Is it hard to deal with the scrutiny your work sometimes comes under?

It is sometimes frustrating, because the topics that attract attention when it comes to translations are rarely related to accuracy. The translations that come under fire are generally based on misconceptions, such as when someone saw something translated another way elsewhere and assumes that version is correct, or are about philosophical differences. Some people have strong opinions regarding how something should be translated, but I wish they would at least see that there is more than one way to translate something accurately and correctly. However, I do understand that with any fandom, there's no pleasing everyone, and all I can do is translate the best way I know how.

What's the most satisfying part of translation for you?

I look at translating as problem solving. I have the Japanese pieces and I have to figure out how to put it back together in English. And like solving problems, the most satisfying moments are when I come up with the perfect solution to a particularly sticky problem. It doesn't happen often. Difficult passages often require some sort of compromise, where I end up having to settle for the best out of less than perfect choices. But when I find that perfect solution for a difficult word or passage and I know the translation doesn't lose an ounce of meaning from Japanese to English, it just makes my day.

What sort of things run through your mind when you hand off a translation to the ADR directors and the like? How about when you finally see the finished product?

When I'm finishing up a translation to hand off, I'm generally just trying to think of any last minute pieces of information I might have missed that I should provide the people downstream of me. Did I explain all the cultural points? Did I remember to note all the dialects the characters speak in? It's the kind of thing that'll go on and on if I let it, but there's a point where I have to just trust myself and let it go.

As for seeing the finished product, I have to admit that I don't see a lot of dubs of my own projects, because I've already seen the show so many times by then. But the few times I have, I've been amazed and entertained by some of the workarounds the ADR writers come up with to make things work in spoken English. They come up with some really creative stuff, because they have to make it fit the flaps and also because they're more free to come up with localizations, but they still manage to stay true to the original material. I've always been impressed by that.

What do you think is the best way to handle English localizations when it comes to things like puns and colloquial humor, on-screen notes, printed linter notes, or just changing the joke? Why?

Oh, boy, that's a really huge topic. But before I go into any specifics, I want to make it clear here that I'm only going to be talking about the subtitles. The dub naturally takes more liberties in this area, because it's supposed to be more of a localization, but that's really not my area.

First of all, I believe that every effort should be made to translate these sorts of things. The purpose of a translation is to get the intent across. If the intent of the joke is to make people laugh, the joke should be translated or even localized to something similar, if it will get that humor across. Likewise, if a pun is supposed to make the audience groan, then the translation should ideally elicit the same response. A joke is never as funny when you have to have it explained to you. I do believe in explaining the cultural point as well, I just think that can come in a liner note later for the people who want a more in-depth understanding of the culture. And it's not about dumbing down the translation in any way. It's about making the show as enjoyable in English as it is in Japanese.

As for the “best” way to handle the explanation of such things between on-screen notes, printed liner notes, or just changing the joke, I believe it really depends on the situation. On-screen notes are ideal for shows that have a ton of small points that need to be explained, like Excel Saga or Abenobashi. Liner notes work better for shows with fewer points or points that require more explanation, like His and Her Circumstances. And as for changing the joke, some common sense needs to be applied to how far something should be changed to get that laugh or groan, but I believe the number one goal of translations in anime should be to give the English-speaking audience the same viewing experience the Japanese audience gets.

Which is harder to find out about? Shows that use recent slang, or old slang terms? Do you have to keep up with the Japanese slang terms?

Slang in general is just hard to research. The newest are the worst, of course, since they have the least coverage, and no dictionary or glossary listing can ever be complete. And they are also often limited to certain communities or regions. So, the answer is, the newest are the worst, but translating any slang is generally a challenge. And as much as I'd like to stay absolutely current, staying on top of all the new slang would be a full time job in and of itself.

Since you're usually working independently, who do you go to if you encounter a difficult part of a translation?

That really depends on what kind of difficulty I run into. I'm not above going to friends and family for help when I come across something that I know their expertise could help with. I've asked my sister about French, a friend I have in California has helped me with some Chinese stuff before, and I ping various friends on IM to bounce off ideas on all sorts of wording choices. Naturally, that's on top of lots of research combing the Internet, rifling through dictionaries and reference books, etc.

You've also done some video game translations. How does video game translation differ from anime translation?

All the video game work I've done are off of scripts, so that's a big difference right there. I just get the text with no art, no animation. After all, it's not as if I can translate while playing the game. There's no pausing cut scenes, no way to see all the various options and endings in one shot, and as much as I like video games, it'd be highly inefficient if I had to fight every monster I ran across just to get to more new dialogue. And because of the way video games work, the text isn't always in chronological order, so that can make it harder to get the whole picture, too. With anime, you can watch the whole show through and it's linear, so in some ways, anime is much more straightforward.

Also, the translated text often has length limitations to fit in those in-game dialogue boxes. This can be a challenge, because with the use of kanji, Japanese can say an amazing amount using very few characters and finding a translation that conveys everything the Japanese says that still fits in the given space can be tough. Anime subtitles have space limitations, too, but they're nothing compared to some restrictions I've had to work with for video game translations.

Any type of work you prefer to translate over another?

Anime is nearest and dearest to my heart for the obvious reasons: it's where I got my start and it's what I've worked on the most. Still, I enjoy the variety of work I get and the different challenges that come with them. They've definitely helped me grow as a translator.

What's your take on how the anime industry has gone the past couple years?

It's certainly grown far bigger than I'd ever imagined. I remember when anime couldn't be found in mainstream stores. Now, there are multiple shelves of anime at Best Buy and half a wall of manga in mall bookstores, not to mention all the shows being televised. It's pretty amazing. Of course, the industry seems to have reached a point of saturation recently and is going through a period of correction, as all growing industries do. It was probably inevitable. But I think it's just the growing pains of a maturing industry.

Who's your wrestling alter-ego? Or an anime one, if wrestling isn't your thing.

About all I know about wrestling is that The Rock came from that world... I think... right? So, I'll have to go with an anime one. I'd say Yomi from Azumanga is a lot like me. I'm sure we've all known people who've annoyed us and I can really sympathize with Yomi having to deal with Tomo, and I envy that Yomi can actually smack Tomo directly! And while sending postcards to radio shows isn't my thing, being a girl, I can certainly relate to her obsession over her weight.

Have any dream projects?

Anything Miyazaki. I've loved his stuff since I was a kid, so anything Miyazaki would definitely be a dream project.

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