– Discussions with people in the Japanese media localization industry –
Hi! My name’s Brandon Bovia.
I’m 26 years old and have been lettering manga as a freelancer for two years. I primarily work for Viz Media, Seven Seas Entertainment, and Yen Press.
Can you tell us the process you take to letter manga?
The process is slightly different depending on the needs of the project and the publisher.
In a general sense, I use Adobe InDesign to layout the pages to fit correctly to the publisher’s template. Then I copy and paste the translator’s script into each individual word balloon. When I describe it like that, it sounds pretty tedious.
Lettering for manga is this tight balancing act between keeping the text easy to read, faithful to the original Japanese book’s text layout, and matching the style guide of the publisher.
I also use Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint for any sort of image-based editing needs; whether that be sound effects, signs, handwritten notes, etc…
How did you get into manga lettering?
In high school I got into drawing my own comics. As a huge manga fan, I took a lot of inspiration from the kinds of manga I saw published in bookstores.
While most might have stopped at taking reference from the actual artists, I put a lot of time into studying the lettering of these manga as well.
I remember wanting my comics to feel as “authentic” as possible in that sense. So a lot of my sense for font choice, dialogue placement, and sound effects come from those times. I’ve been using Photoshop for years prior to becoming a letterer, and I learned the basics of InDesign in college.
As for my debut, I, jobless as I was, applied to Seven Seas on a whim and official work kind of just snowballed after that. It was a bit of a slow burn at first, but it took about a year or so to have a constant influx of new and interesting projects assigned to me.
What did you wish you knew before becoming a letterer?
That comes down to the typical freelancing stuff I think everyone deals with at some point or another.
What are the typical rates for this stuff?
How do I communicate effectively as a freelancer?
How come it took me a year to realize I owe taxes?
As a letterer I’m constantly evolving my workflow to work more efficiently, so I’ll look back to something I did even two or three books ago and go “what the heck was I thinking?!”
So if there was something I wish I knew on that end, it would probably be everything?
For me, being a letterer is all about having an ever-expanding bag of tricks to pull from. My tiny bag of tricks from two years ago meant I wasted a lot of time on stuff I could do a lot quicker now.
What’s been the biggest challenge establishing yourself as a letterer?
I’m constantly struggling to find the proper work-life balance that’s appropriate for me.
Since I’m constantly tweaking my process and getting faster. So it can be hard to gauge how long a project is going to take, meaning I never really know how much is “too much.” After two years you’d think I’d know my own limits better, but I really know nothing.
I think the hardest part for any newbie letterer is finding projects, which I don’t really have a lot of advice for. I feel like I’m constantly lucking my way into new opportunities.
What do you enjoy working on most?
My current favorite project is probably Snow White with the Red Hair.
While it’s a great manga, I value it for what I would call having the “right” amount of dialogue. It’s dense enough that the process of placing all the text and making sure it all reads and flows well is mentally engaging, without being so dense that it ends up exhausting.
It’s also a series where I’m tasked with not only picking out the main dialogue font, but doing a complete recreation of the of the original Japanese sound effects, which was a completely new challenge. As a longtime fan of other manga with similar treatments; I did my best to make sure my work can stand alongside them.
Much like how a manga artist can improve and adapt their style over the course of dozens of volumes, so can letterers. Snow White is a relatively long series, so I hope any eagle-eyed readers enjoy seeing me improve alongside the manga itself over the next few years.
What have you been most proud of?
See above, but other than that I want to give a shout-out to the entirety of Precarious Woman Executive Miss Black General.
Jin-sensei employs a ton of word balloons that are more long than wide, which makes fitting English dialogue particularly difficult. I put a lot of time into making sure that despite that inherent incompatibility, it still reads well.
There’s also a lot of complicated sound effects, as well as dense sign work that needs to be adapted into English. It’s consistently one of my most difficult series to do, but a big favorite of mine, so I’m definitely proud of my work on it.
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
A lot of times it tends to be signs or otherwise blending in new text so that it matches accurately to the original art. I do have a background in art so I’m pretty familiar with the concept of perspective; but every now and then I’ll get hit with a curve-ball.
Noah’s Notes, which ran in Shonen Jump in 2018, had a lot of handwritten text on paper. This means the text would be distorted in perspective and curved, which was tricky to get right. It also featured some handwritten text from characters with drastically different handwriting. So I remember asking my friends to write specific words for me because I had trouble changing my own handwriting to look like that of 5 different peoples’.
Admittedly I could have just used different fonts, but for some reason I really wanted to retain that handwritten feel for what was ultimately a fairly minor scene.
There was also a recent thing that I don’t think I can get into too much detail, but it involved me spending a couple hours on a single panel because I wanted to experiment with some new techniques.
I don’t think anyone would be able to notice once the book goes to print. But when the time comes I’d like to explain just how convoluted my solution was.
What do you think people don’t know about lettering that you wish would?
Most people don’t know anything about lettering, and I’m mostly okay with that. My job isn’t to stand out, it’s to make the experience of reading manga as natural as possible.
Currently I still ride the highs from seeing my own work read by people all across the world. So I don’t necessarily need recognition for what I do. That being said, a lot of fan releases of manga have some really sub-par lettering. I really hope to spread awareness of it if only so that readers can raise their standards a little bit and be an example as to why official releases are worth supporting.
If you could do anything what would you love to do or try out? (Whether a specific project or a different field)
My Japanese isn’t quite there yet, but I would love to letter and translate a manga at the same time.
It seems relatively uncommon but I’d love to work very closely in two major aspects of a manga’s localization so that I can have an even more intimate understanding of the work. If I keep up my studies, maybe one day you’ll see a manga translated and lettered by Brandon Bovia!
I have a lot of random interests that I don’t often get to use in tandem, so I think having the chance to translate and letter would be a good way to keep the localization process constantly interesting.
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
I’m too embarrassed to name names, but there’s decades of localized manga releases that for a time, I was really obsessed with picking apart and learning from.
Lettering for manga is old enough that there are certain best practices and sets of standards that have been established, so I think all in all those are my greatest inspirations. And of course, every letterer has their own techniques and processes, so I’m inspired by all the great letterers I talk to and learn from!
You can find Brandon here!