Manga is an outrageously popular artform In Japan. It even outranks anime by several orders of magnitude. The keyword is accessibility; everyone can read them, from school student to salaryman on his daily commute. The counterpoint to Western comics, manga has also made inroads in our part of the world. Hence, being a manga translator is now a viable career path.
With its flair and signature style, manga has conquered the hearts of hundreds of millions of avid readers worldwide. It’s even got a place of honor in comic conventions and specialized meetings. It’s become as much of a staple of pop culture as books, music, comics, cartoons, anime, video games, and movies.
But if you want to break into this record-breaking, rising market, what do you need? What are the skills, talents, and abilities a manga translator must possess? What’s your competition like?
Let me guide you through the nuts and bolts of the manga translator profession and history. That’ll give you the tools to help pick out an actual pro from the vast pool of talent.
Listen to the TLDR (Too Long Didn’t read) version of this article:
Or if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
This article was updated on March 2021
Manga: an abridged history
We in the West have only been exposed to manga in the last few decades. Even though we presume it to be a rather modern form of art, its roots go way back. Japan has always had some form of satirical or comical illustration as part of its culture; the term manga was invented by one Hokusai (1760-1849), a master engraver. The term itself resists a literal translation, with ga meaning “drawing”, or “image.”
With his whimsical Hokusai Manga, he informed his audience about the news of the Edo period with wit and humor. Manga didn’t become incredibly popular until after World War II, though. With the influence of virtuoso mangaka (manga artist) Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the genre boomed.
Tezuka gave rise to a myriad of classic works that are now part of the manga canon. Some of his notable works include.
- Tetsuwan Atom, or Astroboy.
- Princess Knight
- Simba, I mean Kimba, the White Lion (Or Jungle Emperor in the original)
It was with Astroboy, though, that Tezuka catapulted manga (and therefore anime) into stratospheric success. With an artwork that wasn’t immediately perceived as Eastern, he channeled the influence of his beloved Walt Disney features into his style. The rounded linework and the big, emotive eyes straddled the line between cute and expressive.
This breakout success made Tezuka into a shining star, and also made his works known outside the bounds of Japan. With accessibility that was also welcomed by audiences overseas, Astroboy became a runaway hit.
This opened the floodgates for manga to break away from its roots as children’s entertainment. People in Japan started to regard the medium as a valid path for serious dramatic expression. It continued to evolve throughout the decades, gaining important traction in the West.
The Western expansion
Manga entered the North American market in 1979 thanks to the work of manga translator and writer Frederik Schodt. This capitalized on the success of anime adaptations, which were more palatable to audiences on our side of the pond. TV shows like Speed Racer were big hits with audiences and had already acclimatized Westerners to the manga aesthetic.
Viz Media made further inroads in the scene with their faithful, edgy adaptations and localizations in the 80s and 90s. While Japanese is read right-to-left, with a reverse order from ours, manga in the West was flipped. That is until Tokyopop saw the opportunity for a more “authentic manga experience” in 2002. Their idea of manga in the original orientation sold like gangbusters.
Since then, audiences have gotten used to the authentic feel of manga and read it left-to-right. It shows how quickly acclimation takes place when a company is willing to make the leap and take risks!
Since then, the penetration of anime and manga in popular culture continues to rise. Netflix produces live adaptations of best-selling anime and manga. It’s also giving the genre a fair share of exposure. Some are even exclusive to the platform, like “Seven Deadly Sins”, which is based on a manga.
Even the manga that was not officially translated into Western languages found an audience. Communities of amateur manga translators flocked to the hobby. Some even became specialized in Japanese due to their desire for a more authentic experience. These communities gave birth to online sites where translated manga was made available (illegally).
Many eager fans took the risk and went ballistic over as-of-yet untranslated mangas being translated. This, in turn, while not immediately good for sales, gave companies an idea. Bolstered by these growing communities, they could gauge interest more effectively.
The manga translator- have we really moved on from amateurs?
Sites with fan translators were all the rage in the 2000s. Weird, quirky, and niche stories spread like wildfire through an engaged manga community. Still, translations were typically not of a high standard. The woes of literal translation and nonexistent localization were endemic.
The lack of localization was a special kind of problem for both the fan manga translator and fansubbers. A sort of “Japan-worship” set in, where the highly metaphorical and unique nature of the language was held in high esteem. This made translators focus more on maintaining a stuffy sense of “authenticity” rather than attempt to make the content understandable. Needless to say, their translations often contained more footnotes than a Borges story.
When an actual manga translator took the reins, though, things shifted dramatically. At first, professional translations still relied on the old tropes, like maintaining honorifics and “untranslatable” terms. That’s because manga companies were still hiring freelance translators out of anime conventions and the endless fan pool.
As time went on, things evened out quality-wise, and standards improved. But that doesn’t mean that many low-quality translators are not trying to pull a fast one over the public; even established companies like Kodansha USA still suffer from bad-quality translations on flagship titles like Sailor Moon.
It gets worse!
Katie, a professional Japanese translator for MissDream, was especially negative about shoddy or low-effort translations prevalent in manga. She had this to say about the tendency to retain original words or honorifics:
“The problem with this model is that it’s lazy. It’s much more difficult to produce an English translation of a Japanese word without relying on suffixes and honorifics; a translator must be much more adept at using English vocabulary and grammar to get the point across. Translators working in this field (…)
(They) don’t need to have much experience in print media translation to be able to quickly chug out Babelfish-like work. Translators are given license to be lazy; to not worry about English grammar, to not worry about accurately reflecting politeness levels in speech using English alone, and do not address problems between how Japanese speech functions compared to how English speech works. Basically, they’re given a pass to spit out dictionary definitions of all the words that appear in a sentence, leave them in Japanese word-order, and call it a day.”
So, what do I look for in a good manga translator?
It’s not just about their knowledge of Japanese. Sure, you will want someone who has a good knowledge of both the Japanese and English languages — especially the latter. Ideally, they’ll be knowledgeable on slang, colloquialisms, and the formal structures of both languages. It’s not just about their training and capabilities. They can be from any background — University or self-taught — as long as they can deliver the goods. What you want is not only somebody that can understand Japanese; they have to know what they don’t know and show impeccable research skills. A big part of any translator’s job entails having their nose shoved in a thesaurus or dictionary. No matter how good they are, they’ll always be fact-checking their stuff.
If not, you could just end up with something uninspired, nonsensical, or lacking any authenticity. Your ideal manga translator is going to be an accomplished wordsmith in the target language. They should have both a strong understanding of Japanese and manga style and narrative. Jay Rubin, English translator of the highly-regarded Haruki Murakami shared his thoughts:
“When you read Murakami (in English), you’re reading me, at least 95% of the time.”
While this is controversial — and surely not uncontested — it does have a ring of truth to it. Not all translators will be invisible; not all translators will be reinterpreting the original in such a way as to elicit the same grandiose statements as Rubin’s.
What it does point to is the difficulty of translating such a difficult language as Japanese in a way that’s understandable and natural in English. That requires both an ability to interpret and to reinterpret the original. While localization is seen as different from translation, a manga translator usually ends up doing both.
A manga translator explains a joke
Zack Davisson, in “Confessions of a Manga Translator”, a column for The Comics Journal, explains the above via a joke:
Husband: I want to eat salmon roe!
Wife: But how much will it cost …?
If you’re hearing the sound of crickets chirping, you’re not alone. I was as unmoved by that joke as you probably are right now. Plot twist! It turns out that Davisson explains how in Japanese “salmon roe” and “how much?” are homophones. Both are pronounced “Ikura”, so this is a pretty nifty play on words.
And Japanese is riddled with these little, economic, context-sensitive doozies. If your manga translator doesn’t know their way around this complexity and lack of 1/1 transfer, the result is going to be looking like a Pubmed article. Can you imagine what a killjoy it is to have to read endless footnotes for every term? I came for a story, not for a class in cultural studies!
And that’s compounded by the complexity of the Japanese language. It has four elements to its writing system; hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romanji. Each one can slightly alter the meaning and nuance behind a sentence.
To top it off, even manga itself has its own pseudo-language. Cecile Sakai, Director of the French Research Institute on Japan, said:
“One of the characteristics of manga is that dialogue is punctuated by a system of onomatopoeia that is not just auditory, but also visual, gestural, and psychological. This is achieved through formal and linguistic creations, many of which by mangakas, with some having become a part of standard vocabulary.”
Still think it’ll just be enough to hire someone who’s bilingual?
Japanese is an extremely nuanced, complex language. A manga translator has to be an ace at conveying meaning rather than just transferring words. While this is true for any good translator, it goes double in Japanese (maybe triple, I don’t have statistics). Understanding the Japanese language means understanding the culture. This applies to English as well, though that’s generally the translator’s first tongue.
If any element in the translation process falters, your manga is dead on the water. Coupled with the fact that the profession is mostly handled by freelancers, there is one quality indicator. A pro’s portfolio.
Whether you try to book a freelancer, you need to emphasize the portfolio and previous reviews. Normally, manga fans are pretty vocal when a translation is not done correctly, even for pretty niche titles. You can find plenty of forums where they discuss the details of a particular translation to death.
Go for people who have proven to excel in the field. It may take you a little while longer and cost more, yeah. But you’ll be glad you read this article when your manga translator aces the job.
If you’re looking for the best manga translators in the business, we’ve got them at Bunny Studio. Submit a project with us today, and we’ll make sure to deliver excellent results every time!