Interview: Fan And Professional Translators Speak Out On Western Localization Issues And The Current State Of The English Manga Industry
Both an official translator and a fan scanlator have shared with us their thoughts on the state of the English localization industry.
The recent saga of Seven Seas’ intentional mistranslation of I Think I Turned My Childhood Friend Into a Girl has brought more attention than ever to the growing trend of Western localizers erasing a Japanese artist’s original work in favor of pushing their own personal social and political beliefs on readers.
In light of the growing push back against activist localizers, Bounding Into Comics spoke to manga fan scanlation group Project Vinland and professional Japanese-to-English translator @bansama.
Taking the time to speak with us, the two translators shared with us their thoughts on the state of the English localization industry, how publishers can start to earn back fan trust, and what actions readers can take to improve the quality of translations of their favorite series.
First up in our series of interviews was Project Vinland, the scanlation group perhaps best known for translating popular manga series including Vinland Saga, Yona of the Dawn and Yomi no Tsuga.
Nerdigans Inc.: What are you thoughts on the latest Seven Seas localization scandal?
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Project Vinland: “As a group we always try to stay as close to the Japanese text as possible. We don’t localize series, we simply translate them. Sometimes, when a translation doesn’t necessarily make sense in English, we will see if we can fit whatever is closest. This is usually the case with slang or other colloquialisms.”
“An example of how much attention we pay to staying true to the Japanese: I recently translated a chapter of Vinland Saga where I wrote ‘we will have to wait,’ which was corrected by our main translator to ‘we will wait,’ as there is subtle difference between the two, and the latter is closer to the Japanese.”
“It pains me to see a localization scandal like this with Seven Seas, as it reminds me of the ‘donuts’ from the English Pokémon dub (which were clearly onigiri). I’m just really wondering what the localization theme were aiming for here, as it’s fundamentally changing a story element.”
“I’d also like to know the opinion of the translator, as they usually don’t get too much input (if ant at all) in a localization process after providing a translation script. Personally, I’m absolutely not a fan of these kinds of localizations and I wish that Seven Seas would rescind this publication.”
Nerdigans Inc.: What are your thoughts on the current state of English localization of manga and anime?
Project Vinland: “The current state of English localization seems pretty good at the moment. I usually don’t buy manga in English, but in Japanese. However, the past 5- to 10- years a lot of my favorite series have been receiving beautiful English language releases.”
“I’m a sucker for hardcovers, so series like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Hokuto no Ken, Vinland Saga, Berserk, Fullmetal Alchemist and other receiving hardcover editions in English is just right up my alley. It makes me really happy that companies are putting in the effort to release unique and high quality English language editions of series.”
RELATED: Seven Seas Apologizes For Intentional English Mistranslation Of I Think I Turned My Childhood Friend Into A Girl, Promises To Revise Script “To More Accurately Reflect The Author’s Original Intent”
“I’m also an enormous fan of the digital-only or digital-first publishers like Kodansha are adopting. I’m a huge fan of Shaman King, and it had always been a hopeless dream that we’d get all the new spinoffs and sequels in English. However, Kodansha is publishing everything in English digitally right now, and when the digital sales are good enough, I’m sure they will continue with the print version.”
“The fact that I get to read English releases I’d never thought I’d be able to, even if it’s just digital, is amazing to me. So all in all I’m really happy with the current state of English localization and publication of manga.”
Nerdigans Inc.: In the last decade or so have you noticed a shift in the Western manga localization industry?
Project Vinland: “I have definitely noticed a shift in the industry. Maybe not in the last decade, more specifically the last 5 years or so. I’m seeing a lot of ‘cookie cutter’ isekai and romance manga be localized, especially from publishers like Seven Seas. Now this is simply personal bias as isekai and romcoms are just genres I rarely enjoy.”
“But whenever there’s a new licensing announcement, friends and I try to predict how many cookie cutter isekai romance manga will be announced with titles that take about 7-minutes to say out loud.”
“Meanwhile, fans had to fight tooth and nail to get danmei (a genre of Chinese fantasy novels) officially licensed in English, some of which were unfortunately rushed, leaving no time for the translators to go over their work again and fix some mistakes. It feels unfair when at the same time isekais seem to get unlimited resources.”
“I have to say, that for the localization itself, it currently is very good in my opinion. Long gone are the days of flipped manga with dialogue completely rewritten to be more ‘American.’ More often than not do we now get series with a much better translation that’s closer to the Japanese, with appendixes on translation and explanation of Japanese culture.”
Nerdigans Inc.: What are your thoughts on the treatment of fans (that includes scanlators) from Western publishers?
Project Vinland: “The treatment of fans is something that has grown to be better with the rise of social media. It is far easier to reach out to publishers through Twitter and Facebook, and often when you answer a question it is actually answered.”
“The treatment of scanlators seems to also have improved by miles. Where we once were shunned and taboo, not even allowed to be put on resumes when applying for an industry position, nowadays I have publishers contacting me to see if I am interested in working for them. When fans have so much passion that they devote their free time to a project, to me it always seemed like the easy choice to ask them to join the official localization.”
“Especially now that so many publishers are offering simulpubs. The only publisher that I never really heard from regarding scanlation is Kodansha, which is a shame in my opinion. Myself and other groups that work on Kodansha manga are usually able to offer simulpubs to scan readers, so why can’t they themselves?”
“I know lots of scanlators that are struggling, yet still putting their precious time into the series they love, that would jump on the opportunity to get paid for their efforts.”
Nerdigans Inc.: What actions do you believe should be taken to improve the current quality of English localization?
Project Vinland: “I think the action that needs to be taken is that an editor from the original publication in Japanese needs to okay the English localization, in conclave with the author themselves, perhaps.”
“I think [in the case of it’s rather obnoxious for the editor to state they imply the MC is trans, because they don’t imply, they state it. The MC is indeed gender non conforming, but that is not the same as being trans. I’ve taken a look at the Japanese, and it’s very clear they are not trans and that they outright changed the dialogue to fit their own narrative.”
Nerdigans Inc.: What is the worst mistranslation and localization that you have ever come across?
Project Vinland: “I have never seen severe translation mistakes from Kodansha, and believe they employ some of the best translators in the industry. My favorite being Stephen Paul who does the translation for Vinland Saga. All I’ve seen is inconsistencies in naming, the most prevalent being in the digital edition of Shaman King that came out last year (or even in 2020 I don’t remember).”
“I’ve talked with the letterer, and they told me the work pressure for this series was so high they often had to work on a volume, sometimes two, a day, which left little room for quality control. Thankfully all these inconsistencies are fixed in the new print editions, along with more touch ups, which is really nice.”
Next we interviewed @bansama, a professional Japanese to English translator for over 15 years with credits in a variety of fields, both technical and creative. One of his current roles is editing (and occasionally translating) manga.
Unfortunately due to NDAs and the possible risk of angry twitter mobs attacking their employer, he can’t mention the specifics series they are currently working on.
Nerdigans Inc. From a professional translator’s point of view what is your take on the situation?
bansama: Disrespectful. The published version of that story disrespects the author’s intent, the original audience, and the translation profession. If the author had wanted their story to be about a trans-gender woman, they would have written it that way.
The English publisher, let alone the assigned translator, had no right to alter the original author’s work. The only exception would be if the author had been consulted and had agreed the change made sense. It is clear from their reaction, that the author and gave no such consent and likely wasn’t consulted in the first place.”
“The company I work for has contracts with several Japanese publishers who request English translations across a range of genres. E.g., fantasy, school romance, boys love, slice of life, science fiction, etc. Targeting male and female audiences with a variety of tastes, and this includes titles that focus on so-called alternate lifestyles and sexual identities.”
“A major part of my editing work is to ensure at client request (e.g., the publishers) that the English translation is faithful to the intent, tone, and nuance of the Japanese work. If the English isn’t accurately reflecting the Japanese to the extent that English allows in the limited space of each text box/bubble, then it’s objectively wrong and needs replacing.”
“When there is any confusion on meaning or intent, we do our utmost to reach out to the original author for clarification. To do any less, would be doing a disservice to everyone. Had that specific translation passed my desk, it would have been rejected. Retranslated, and that translator would have been removed from the translation pool—or at least assigned a far easier title.”
bansama: One of the biggest problems right now is the lack of accountability in English localization. Translators, editors, and the English publishers are not being held to task. There’s too little quality assurance and this has allowed certain “professionals” to get away with doing subpar work to the extent that such work is now the celebrated norm—this is especially true of games.
Worse is that now feel untouchable, and will do whatever they can to silence disagreement—even that from other professional translators.
“I do hope the increasing unhappiness among intended audiences with the current state of things will be a wake up call. That more Japanese publishers start questioning whether their authors’ works are being respectfully and faithfully presented to the English language audience.
The best way for audiences to help is to politely voice their complaints and concerns to publishers. Angry, hate filled rants, no matter how deserved they may feel, will only cement the position of these translators as victims, and nothing will change.
Outsourced translators aren’t always vetted for quality I guess. Especially when they’re new. And one of the vendors we work with has this annoying habit of assign new translators long, difficult series. They should be given shorter, easier things first”
Nerdigans Inc.: So vendors aren’t properly training their new translators before assigning them to translate long series? Is it because the vendors are short handed?
bansama: “I don’t know which vendors are being used, so cannot comment with any accuracy. But I believe that there are several factors that lead to a quality problem: Japanese ability, English ability, familiarity with genre, high burnout, and high turnaround.”
“Problems with the hiring process would account for the first two factors slipping through. I can’t really say much more than that, as I don’t know the specifics of their hiring process.”
“The third factor (genre familiarity) is one that the translator would have to address themselves. Read works in that genre, gain an understanding of the general vocabulary in both Japanese and English.”
“The last two are a problem with the industry as a whole. Short deadlines with little or no downtime between and low pay—some companies reportedly pay in the low tens of yen per page for translation (and likely even less for editing) doesn’t exactly attract a well trained translator or one that’s willing to stay for long. Other companies pay slightly better in low hundreds of yen per page (but, again, less for editing).”
“But even on the higher end, it’s not a sustainable living wage. And a given schedule could see you working 6 or 7 days straight (or more). So most translators and editors likely do this as a side-gig. Meaning it’s not getting their full attention and is definitely being rushed.”
Nerdigans Inc. In regard to questionable translators and translations, should professional translators begin voicing their concerns to the Japanese publishers?
bansama: This is another tricky one. Depending on many factors, they may not be able to. They also, unfortunately, wouldn’t carry much weight outside of any social following they may have.”
“However, it would certainly be welcomed if more professional translators did speak out. But know that doing so will likely make getting future work difficult—especially when it comes to games.”
“This isn’t so much a problem with publishers, but with a certain group of translators who enforce their own stranglehold on the industry, keeping out anyone they find undesirable.”
Nerdigans Inc.: What can fans do to help improve the localizations of their favorite Japanese properties?
bansama: “My first advice is, don’t involve the author. Unless they’ve self published and have handled the localization (or licensing) themselves, they cannot do anything. Legally, they can’t. Their publisher owns the rights to their work and the rights to license that work to others. And as such, are the ones who could, in theory, raise concerns about quality with the licensee.”
“Here’s the downside though. Japanese publishers are likely lacking a decent route for overseas fans to voice their concerns. Japanese companies aren’t known for engaging customers (even Japanese customers) on social media. Many will only accept feedback in Japanese, too.”
“I wouldn’t give up, though. Seek like-minded fans, if needed, who can help form a Japanese language comment voicing concerns. Be polite. Don’t demand, ask. As much as possible mention the specific issue, but don’t directly call out any individuals.”
“Privacy is a big deal in Japan, and overly personal allegations, however true, can be cause for legal problems. So any such personal allegations would likely have to end up in the bin to save the publisher from potential unwanted problems.”
“So just a polite comment speaking about how BOOK published by WESTERN PUBLISHER has THESE problems, and how that has affected your enjoyment of the BOOK, would likely be a good starting point.”