A manga translation can vary drastically when handled by different people. Not just the translator, but editors, adapters, and of course companies, have their own approaches and preferences (hence why styles guides are a thing).
I (Jennifer) teamed up with translator and manga editor Kristi Fernandez to come up with some common pitfalls that manga translators might face and how to avoid/tackle them.
Before we get started, this article is in no way the “be all and end all” of manga translation practices. It is merely a series of suggestions based on the observations and personal preferences of two translators. As we mentioned, everyone has their own preferences and styles.
That said, our goal here is to compile tips on manga translation that have helped us in our own careers, and we sincerely hope that this article can help you shape yours.
Dealing with Direct Translations
Directly translating a manga can result in a number of really strange English choices.
Sentences such as “We two can do it together” or “Even at a time like this” might be understandable in English, but they’re not what a native speaker would say.
In most cases, a translation should read as naturally as possible.
However, when we work so close to Japanese all the time, read so much manga, and then translate it, it can be hard to see the woods through the trees. That’s when you hope an editor/adapter will point out and improve stilted wording.
To get a translation to a natural-sounding level, we suggest a few techniques:
- Read the translation out loud.
- Use Word’s text-to-speech function to have the text read to you.
- Have a friend or colleague read over the translation.
- Read comics written in English to get a feel for the “flow” of dialogue.
- Google search a phrase to see if it is something commonly said English.
We both love reading manga! From general observations, translating, and editing we’ve noticed some common Japanese words that often get directly translated into English.
- あの人 / このやつ / あのやろ (ano hito / kono yatsu / ano yaro)
This is often translated to “that guy” or “this guy.” Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. If it fits with the context, why not try “this jerkwad”, “you dummy” or simply just “she/he/they” if they’re not trying to be offensive.
- うれしい / はずかしい / かなしい / さびしい (ureshii / hazukashii / kanashii / sabishii)
In Japanese it’s natural to say what you’re feeling, but when was the last time you said randomly said “I’m happy” in English? Native English speakers are more likely to describe the situation that is affecting their mood. Such as “what a bummer” “this is great” “why do all my friends leave me?!” or “I couldn’t be happier!”
- ほんとう / なるほど (honto / naruhodo)
There are situations where “really?” and “of course” work, but these are so often a go-to translation that it can become tired. Good alternatives could include “are you sure?” or “you mean it?” or “oh, I see.”
- ばか (baka)
“Baka” is probably one of the most commonly used Japanese insults where the default translation is “idiot.” While that’s well and good, it’s important to remember the colorful alternatives! Try “fool” “moron” “nitwit” “dork” or if you have an expressive British character try “numpty” “twit” and “eejit.”
If you notice yourself defaulting to the same translation over and over then it can’t hurt to explore a Thesaurus. Thesaurus.com is a great site for finding creative alternatives to tired common words!
Avoiding False Friends
Although Japanese texts sometimes love repetition, constantly repeating the same words can sound quite unnatural in English. Remember to keep an eye out for repetition and don’t be afraid to mix things up in your translation!
In the same vein, keep an eye out for “false friends.” No, we don’t mean people who pretend to be your friends (though you should probably avoid these, too) “false friends” are Japanese words that English roots but mean something different in the two languages.
Here are a few examples:
クレーム – might be mistaken for “claim” but actually means “complaint.”
ドンマイ – one might be tempted to translate this to “don’t mind” but “never mind” is more natural.
シール – this is often a “sticker” or piece of tape, not a “seal.”
サイダー – a carbonated water in Japanese, an apple juice in American English, or an alcoholic apple juice in British English. (The alcoholic variety is called “hard cider” in American English.)
カニング – this “cunning” word means “to cheat” in Japanese.
ハンドル – might make you think of a “door handle”, but it’s actually a “steering wheel.”
When you come across a katakana word, it can never hurt to double check the dictionary. Or even Google images, so see what Japanese people think of when they see that word.
Satisfying Sound Effects
When Jennifer was reading an English manga the other week, there were few points where people running had “DASH DASH DASH DASH DASH DASH.” The squashed wall of nouns didn’t feel natural. Perhaps something like “THMP THMP THMP THMP THMP” might have been more natural for the context? Especially as in the same manga there were other “TMP” SFX, making the panel inconsistent with the rest of the text.
In the judges quotes for the winning manga for the 4th Manga Translation Battle Deb Aoki commented;
“Her sound effects were well-chosen — like “hmph!” when a waitress turns away in disdain instead of “turn” which captured the meaning/natural English equivalent of that moment versus going with a literal translation of that sound effect.”
In fact all the judges commented on how the translator’s approach to creating natural sounds with the sound effects won her the top prize!
However, it’s still not easy to translate all SFX into appropriate sounds. For one thing, Japanese has a lot of onomatope that just don’t exist in English. Secondly, the best word choice all depends on context!
A translator should carefully consider the situation and the best word to use to convey the sound appropriately.
Here are some common SFX that you might consider translating to “sounds” rather than “nouns.”
- ドドドド (dodododo)
DASH -> THMP / TMP
- ハア (haa)
PANT / SIGH -> HUFF / PHEW / HAH
- ムシィ (mushii)
RIP / TEAR -> KSH, RIIIIP
- カキカキ (kakikaki)
WRITE / SCRIBBLE -> SKRIT
- シャリ (shari)
SCRAPE -> SKRRK / SKREE
Some common SFX that work as words:
- しーん (shiin)
Sometimes great comedic timing calls for “SILENCE” but otherwise “…” or even “CRICKETS” could work really well.
- ガーン (gaan)
Again, this SFX can vary drastically depending on the context. “GLOOM” is a little strange unless a scene really is gloomy. And when used with a shocked expression, “SHOCK” can be read as quite sarcastic (depending on the situation of course). Other alternatives could include “BRUH” or “DUDE”, “UGH”, “WHAT?!” or “HUH?!” to match a person’s reaction to a situation.
- クスッ (kusu)
“GIGGLE” is frequently used but “TEEHEE” “HEH” “PSHH” or even “LOL” could work perfectly depending on the situation.
- ドン (don)
This one is such a pain sometimes. It’s often used to emphasize something dramatic (likely based on the sound of a drum made when a character appeared on stage in traditional Japanese theater.) Due to its dramatic nature “DOOM” or “MENACE” are often used, but these doesn’t fit all contexts. Other options to consider are “UGH”, “NOOO” “HAH!” “HMPH” and “GRRR”.
Find a variety of suggestions on The Jaded Network, but be warned, this site was community built and not a be all and end all list of SFX translations.
You can get more ideas from reading other English manga and western comics! It really helps to make a note of some of your favorite sound effects from American comics and other manga.
Wordy Words in Wordy Lines
Japanese takes up a lot less space compared to English when written out. A 7-character line such as なんだったんだ could be translated to as many as 24 letters in English: “But what happened back there.” This means that Japanese text bubbles don’t need to be so large, which results in English sometimes becoming heavily squished and hard to read.
(This feeds back to the direct translation issue. When directly translated the English is not only hard to read because of wording, but also because of space limitations.)
The wordier the English, the more it needs to be squeezed into the space provided.
It is often best to cut out unnecessary words where possible. Such as:
“Why don’t you also fight?” -> “Why don’t you fight?”
“I’ll see you all again, next time at the base.” -> “I’ll see you at the base.”
“But what happened back there?!” -> “What just happened?!”
The 10% Solution by Ken Rand is a fantastic (and short!) book. It’s not only great for learning how to self-edit but to be conscious of wording right from the start. Rand’s argument is that you can cut any text down by 10%, making a text easier and more enjoyable to read.
If you don’t have an hour to read The 10% Solution then here are some of the key takeaways that Rand recommends:
- Once you’ve finished your general re-read, spellcheck, grammar check, etc., take a step away from the computer. Refresh your brain before returning in editor mode.
- Check what you’ve written a syllable at a time – shorten the sounds.
- Look for redundant words (Rand has a list to help you with this).
- Read your work aloud. Does it roll off the tongue? Or do you struggle at parts?
- (As mentioned earlier) Print your text out, then re-read it, and have someone you trust read it.
Capturing That Characterization
No two people speak in exactly the same way, so why would the characters in a manga sound the same?
Characterization is a lot of fun too and can really bring out the characters’ personalities.
Let’s take a character who’s a bit of a gyaru who’s speaking to the class-rep. The gyaru’s going to use slang and informal language. The class rep might speak more like a proper lady but not necessarily as posh as the class princess.
Oftentimes in manga there will be characters who do not speak “standard Japanese,” but with accents or dialects from other parts of Japan. While it might be tempting to automatically slap an accent on these characters, this often leads to greater problems than not.
No non-Japanese dialect/accent can fully capture the nuance the original accent or dialect. Therefore, assigning accents to a character might bring in certain implications or nuances that were not part of the original Japanese text. Or they could simply make the text difficult, rather than entertaining, for the reader.
When done well, assigning accents can also make a character very enjoyable! But it’s important to remember that there are also other ways to show how a character speaks. One fine way to convey characterization is not necessarily through accents, but word choices.
For example, a lowbrow student might say “hey Teach” whereas the class rep would say “Ms. [Teacher’s name]” (or perhaps “Sensei” if the style guide called for it).
Hear each character’s voice clearly in your mind. Make a dossier or personal style guide if it helps! Or make a list of common words they use in Japanese and their English equivalents.
Again, make notes of accents, turns of phrases, distinct words, etc. from American comics and previously translated manga.
The more organized translator always looks more professional!
Keeping it Consistent
It really helps the reader and text when terms are kept consistent. Not just within a single manga series, but in manga based on other media too (such as light novels and games).
If you’re given a manga based on another media that another translator has worked on, ask your PM if they can get hold of the other translator’s glossary. Or (if possible) ask the translator directly. Translators are often more than happy to share terms to keep translations as consistent as possible.
If you’re working on a new series, it helps to create a glossary of your own. Even if you think the manga won’t last long, a glossary is incredibly useful. Include comments, links to useful articles etc.; not just for your own reference but for your colleagues!
Make sure to share your glossary with the editors and adapters too. This way they can see your reasoning behind certain terms. Try asking your editor or adapter to update your glossary or let you know if they decide to change a term.
In summary, it helps to:
- Create a glossary for each manga series. (Keep names, pronouns, accents, and verbal tics consistent.)
- Double check previously quoted lines.
- Read as much of a series as you can before you start translating. (Make notes of common terms and ideas you could use.)
- Do your research. (Have reasoning behind your choices and make sure you can defend them.)
- Leave comments for editors/adapters with above links to research and explain your reasoning for terms/useful links.
Communication is Key!
(AKA working with your colleagues and making their lives easier!)
A professional manga translator does not work in a bubble. Project managers, editors, adapters, letterers, etc., are all integral parts of the manga localization process. So it really helps you and the manga to always communicate and to make their lives easier!
As a general rule it helps to reply to all emails within the working day. (As a project manager I know it really does help and leaves a good impression!)
Don’t forget the style guide! The style guide is there to make things easier for everyone. If you’re not sure how to approach something, double check with your project manager/editor. It also helps to regularly ask for an updated style guide and to re-read it before every new project. (Especially if you work with different companies who have differing styles.)
Speaking of style guides, always make sure to double check that you’re translating into the correct format! Each company has their own format and it helps the editors, adapters, and letterers to stick to the same format.
Adapters and editors love it when you explain jokes and references with comments and links.
Admitting you don’t know something looks more professional than submitting a mistranslation. If you are unsure of something, ask your editor!
Finally, remember, you are creating a work for others to enjoy! So really engage your translation and make it something that you would love to pick up and read yourself!
Thanks for reading! We hope you found it interesting/useful. Feel free to leave comments of your own experiences, approaches, pitfalls to look out for, etc.
About Jenn and Kristi
Kristi Fernandez is a professional Japanese to English translator who has published works with Vertical Inc, Kodansha Comics, Yen Press, Kurodahan Press, and Viki Rakuten. She is also the founder of “Japanese Translators of NYC,” a group for aspiring and experienced translators who strive to hone their skills together. Kristi recently completed an editorial internship at Penguin Random House, and she currently works as a manga editor for Vertical Comics.
Jennifer O’Donnell is a localization assistant for a video game company in Japan, but before that she translated manga, anime, and light novels with Seven Seas, Yen Press, and Kodansha Comics, and interpreted at conventions. She is also the founder of the “Interviews With Localizers” series (found on this website) and has a massive manga/novel collecting addiction.