– Discussions with people in the
Japanese media localization industry –
Meet Sarah Tangney
Hi! I’m a translator/editor/writer, and I’ve been fascinated by words and language for my whole life.
My Japanese studies started because of anime but I quickly fell in love with the language itself and it’s been all over for me from there. (I still watch anime though.)
I’m originally from Texas and just returned to the US after seven years living in Japan, which is a huge transition.
I’m doing some freelance translating and editing right now (actively seeking new clients and opportunities!) but I also might end up going back to in-house if something good comes along. We’ll see…
What led you to localization?
I wanted to be a Japanese-to-English translator for a really long time, but for some reason I thought I couldn’t get a job unless I had a degree (master’s) in translation. I always wanted to work with entertainment media (games, manga, anime) of some kind, and had done several internships at a manga publisher in the US.
My original plan was to work in Japan for a couple years while getting my Japanese to JLPT N1 level; then go back to the US and complete a master’s program in translation.
Only then would I feel like I was qualified to work as a translator. (I think I was just paranoid about not being able to land a translation job. Especially without the help of a larger organization, like a school.)
However, to my surprise, a recruiter contacted me while I was working in Tokyo about a localization opening at a mobile game company.
I had just passed N2 and started doing some small translation projects to make extra money. But thought I still had a ways to go before I could be a “real” translator.
I took the translation test for that company, passed it, and started working there. It was in 2014, so the smartphone game industry in Japan was just taking off. And my company had just begun to make English versions of its games. I ended up learning on the job, while continuing to study Japanese on my own and eventually passing N1 about a year later.
Actually, I’ve found that if you have good Japanese skills (at least N2) and are a native English speaker with a college degree already living/working in Japan, it isn’t terribly difficult to get hired at a game company to work on the in-house localization team.
Getting hired from outside Japan probably isn’t going to happen though.
What did you wish you knew before becoming an established translator?
I wish I’d known that you can become a translator even without a master’s degree in translation!
But also, I do wish I had been able to take more translation-focused classes in undergrad. I was able to take one, but it was for French, not Japanese. I so wish now I’d gone to a college that had translation courses.
What’s been the biggest challenge establishing yourself as a translator?
I still don’t feel like an established translator. Even though I’ve worked on the in-house localization team at two game companies and done a lot of translation work at a third one; not to mention many many moji of freelance work for various companies.
It’s still difficult to get new freelance work since there’s so many other freelancers out there. It can also be hard to send off two translation tests in the span of a week and get accepted for one but rejected by the other.
You can be a really experienced, really talented translator, but just not have the style the company is looking for and get rejected.
It’s very hard not to take that rejection personally and start doubting yourself and your own talent and abilities as a translator.
What does working as a Localization Coordinator and Associate Producer for a Japanese game company entail?
For that job, basically I was working in two different capacities for one mobile game.
One of these roles was as the localization coordinator; auditioning new translators; setting translation deadlines for the month; making sure all translations came in on time; reviewing and editing the scripts.
The other role was as the associate producer for the game. The way it worked at my company, associate producers worked under a game’s producer and director, who were in charge of setting the schedule and making decisions.
Associate producers then were responsible for accessing the back end/control panel of the game; uploading scripts and images; creating spec sheets for the engineers to code what needed to be added to the game; registering translations of in-game items; registering times for in-game banners and events so things would start and end on time; gathering data for post-event analysis meetings; and so much more! I was busy all day every day!
What’s the overall office culture like in a Japanese company?
It can definitely feel overly formal sometimes.
I worked at game companies, so we were allowed to wear casual clothes to work every day, but in all other respects it was like any other company in Japan.
At work, everyone uses keigo (formal Japanese) to speak to each other. Even on Slack and other office messaging systems, you’d start off a message to your Japanese coworker with “Otsukaresama desu” and end it with “Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu” and if you didn’t they could interpret it as you being rude.
It could also be considered rude if you passed a coworker in the hall and didn’t say “otsukaresama desu” to them, or didn’t greet your team with “good morning” as you got to work every day.
Most offices are open plan, and you’re not supposed to be too loud because it can be distracting to other teams. When I worked at one company on the localization team (made up mostly of non-Japanese employees using English to communicate), we received many complaints from neighboring teams that we were being too loud.
I don’t think we were too loud. I think foreign languages you can’t understand are just perceived to be louder than a language you can understand. But nevertheless, our team had to be extra conscious of our surroundings and try to be quiet just to discuss work-related things.
You were also expected to be very dedicated to your job. (Especially if you were an official company employee, or seishain.)
People who worked late every day were seen as more hardworking and dedicated than people who left on time every day. Most people worked late every day (often multiple hours past quitting time), either to show dedication; out of habit; or because they truly did have tons of work left to do. I also know lots of people who came in regularly on weekends or holidays.
For me personally, I couldn’t handle this overwork culture. I liked to work hard all day and then go home on time.
If I needed to stay late to finish that day’s work, I would, but most of the time I was able to and did go home on time, but each time the majority of my team would still be at their desks and I felt like a slacker.
What are some of the biggest differences between working in-house and freelance?
I’m not sure I can say anything here that isn’t obvious; if you’re in-house you get steady work/income, but have to actually put on real clothes and commute into an office.
While if you’re freelance you get a lot more freedom in exchange for a loss of stability and reliability in terms of work volume and income.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Oddly, whenever I’m fully freelance I find myself yearning for a full-time in-house job, and when I’m in-house I keep thinking, “I just wish I could go freelance!”
What do you enjoy working on most?
I love getting to be really creative with a translation to reflect how a particular character speaks.
One of my favorite characters whose stories I translated for an otome game was this borderline sleazy, messy guy oozing sex appeal, who loved to tease the female main character. It completely fit his character to have him using a small amount of slang and some sexual innuendos, and it was not too much of a departure from the original Japanese at all.
The fans also loved it and always took screenshots to post on social media. I really loved getting to see lines I had written screenshotted and shared online, even though I couldn’t come forward myself and say “I wrote that.”
When I’m the editor and not the translator, I love getting to work with truly talented translators and seeing what a great job they’ve done with the text.
At one of my in-house jobs I got to edit work by Cassiel Merricat, and most of the time I didn’t need to change anything because what she’d done was already so fantastic.
What have you been most proud of?
I think it was my time working in-house at companies that publish otome games, especially the second one I worked at.
The localization is well-known for being really good there. I was proud to be a member of the team who was directly contributing to that well-deserved good reputation.
I also loved that I got to get in on the ground floor with otome smartphone game translation in Tokyo. (Things got going in 2013, and I joined the industry in 2014.) I was able to work on some great projects that hopefully made a lot of people very happy.
I always got super into the series I was working on and developed my own favorites among the cast of characters, and I think that love was reflected in the work I did.
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)
Since most translators sign NDAs and are not allowed to come forward and say, “I worked on this”. It can be a little sad to not get to claim credit for your work.
I’m a bit jealous of in-house staff at companies like Square Enix who are allowed to have professional Twitter accounts proclaiming that they’re a translator there. (Although it’s true that they don’t always get to discuss the specific projects they’re working on).
I did start a professional Twitter when I worked at KLabGames (Love Live! School Idol Festival and Bleach: Brave Souls). But I wasn’t on the localization team there.
At the other companies where I was on the localization team, using the company’s name as an in-house translator was virtually unheard of. Even most of our long-standing freelancers had signed NDAs. They weren’t allowed to mention the company by name in interviews or any public forums.
Just to keep on the safe side and a little out of habit; I haven’t mentioned the names of either of those other two companies here.
Lack of Recognition
The other thing is that most of the people who end up reading your translation don’t know Japanese fluently. Even if you pulled off an amazingly creative translation in one spot, the only one who noticed was probably the person who edited/proofread the text. And even then, maybe they didn’t have time to comment because they had to finish the edit before the deadline!
So I think there’s a lot of things that translators in general—not just me—feel that we worked hard on but didn’t get enough attention. I almost want to start a Translation Awards where industry professionals can nominate one another for particularly genius lines!
What do you think people don’t know about localization that you wish would?
I’ve seen a lot of fans lately get upset at the usage of slang in a localization. They see English slang and assume that the translator or localization team added it in; because it must not be there in the original Japanese. I’ve even seen people using “contains slang” as a reason to dismiss a translation of an entire game as “bad”. But Japanese has slang!
There are so many amazing and creative ways Japanese people use their own language. If a translator is able to render that same sense in English, that should be applauded. But instead, fans often jump straight to being suspicious that the text was “tampered with” in some way, when it really wasn’t.
I would love for western fans to understand that Japanese has slang and a translation isn’t necessarily “overly localized” simply because it contains slang.
If you could do anything what would you love to do or try out?
I would love to get to do more literary translation. I’m a lifelong reader and hope to write original fiction myself someday, but I also want to take a really good Japanese novel and translate it into well-written English.
I’m thinking of starting a few projects just for the practice, and currently deciding what authors to start with.
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
It may sound silly, but watch Terrace House on Netflix with English subtitles. I don’t know who’s working behind the scenes there, but they’re doing amazing things with the scripts. I keep taking screenshots of things like You (one of the commentators) subtitled as saying, “100% tapped that” about a guy on the show. (This was on an episode from the Hawaii season, for anyone who wants to find it). It’s such a breath of fresh air and it perfectly expresses the Japanese too.
I really like watching Japanese media with English subtitles to see what other people have done. Sometimes you get new ideas for good things to do, and sometimes it reinforces when translating something a certain way is not a good idea. (It also works for watching media in English with Japanese subtitles, which I also do on a regular basis. But most of the time I find the Japanese subtitles aren’t capturing all the nuances of the English.)
I also truly respect all the freelance translators I know, and wish I could understand their secrets one day!
What is your vision for the future of localization?
I believe that you don’t have to choose between faithful and beautiful for a translation; it takes some creativity but you can have both.
I would love for everyone to continue making translations that express what’s in the Japanese and sound nice in English.
Most of all, I would love to see translators come together more to share knowledge and to network with one another. Just recently there have been some amazing new communities. It’s allowed us all to access some great resources that didn’t exist just five or ten years ago.
I would also like for there to be less conflicts between fans and people on the localization side; and for fans to realize that people in localization are very much fans too and not the enemy. A lot of things have to happen for that to become a reality, of course, but that’s my dream anyway!
You can find Sarah Tangney here!