– Discussions with people in the
Japanese media localization industry –
Can you tell us about yourself?
I’m Caleb, and I’ve been a freelance manga translator since 2014. This means that I sit at home from nine to five each weekday (and some weekends), and write out English scripts in MS Word documents. At the moment, I’m working with Viz Media, Yen Press, Udon Entertainment, Square-Enix Books, and Seven Seas on a wide variety of ongoing titles.
I don’t get health insurance from an employer, but I can write off a new desk chair on my taxes, if I happen to buy one in a given year. So, mixed bag.
In my free time, I like to travel (one perk of being freelance—I can do my work from any Starbucks in the world), play video games, bake, make clay sculptures, and be a wife-guy in training.
If I could insure any part of my body, it would be my hands, since those are the money-makers and hobby-enablers.
What led you to your specialization in manga translation?
I did the JET Programme for two years (up in rural Miyagi Prefecture) as a way to procrastinate starting a career, post-college. Mostly because I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my economics degree and Japanese language minor.
Near the end of JET, I got into Waseda’s bilingual business degree program (in the hopes of one day working for Nintendo, in theory.) But while apartment hunting in Tokyo, a large number of landlords either said “no foreigners allowed,” or were asking me to pay double key money, or for extra liability insurance for foreigners because they thought a non-Japanese person would piss all over the walls, I assume. That put such a bitter taste in my mouth that I withdrew from the program altogether, took my ball, and went home. It felt too undignified to beg for housing in a country that, in no uncertain terms, did not want me there.
Anyhow, I had no immediate career prospects back in New York, but I knew I wanted to make use of my Japanese fluency, since that felt like my greatest and probably only asset at that point. And I’d been a fan of Japanese media (manga, anime, games) since renting Totoro from the library at age four.
As it happened, a friend got me in the door (physically, once) at Hachette, which shared an office building with Yen Press.
I took Yen’s translation test, passed, was given the High School DxD manga to work on (ecchi: the strongest start to a career.) And the rest is history.
There was no grand plan to specialize in manga (at the start, I thought of games localization as the pinnacle to aim for), but that’s the arena I’ve found success in, and I know that trying to branch out at this point would require other skillsets.
Manga feels comfortable now, since I’ve got enough under my belt that very little can catch me off guard anymore (though the new surprises do keep things exciting). Personally, a bookshelf full of my work—ready for perusal or reference on a whim—is satisfying in a way that a stack of DVD or game cases wouldn’t be. I’m into print media.
What did you wish you had done differently?
I don’t know what I would’ve done differently, because so much of my career so far has felt out of my control (determined by luck and relative privilege.) In a sense, being a freelancer feels like a mostly passive agent, at least once the work is flowing. Like I grabbed onto the side of a moving train near the back, far from the controls.
The big decisions boil down to “accept this offered project, or not,” and “apply to a new publisher, or not.” I have no say over what licenses get picked up or which jobs the publishers offer me.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in translating manga?
Making enough money
The biggest challenge was making it through those first few years when translation alone definitely wasn’t paying the bills.
That’s a barrier to entry that any new hopeful should be aware of, and there’s no easy solution, because no single publisher is going to give an unproven newcomer a fulltime slate of ~12+ series right off the bat. Some seem reluctant about giving a single person half that much, even, lest the basket with all the eggs gets hit by a truck one day and need instant replacing.
So, the portfolio has to be cobbled together over time, across multiple clients. Which means having faith that the financial/emotional insecurity at the start won’t last forever (or, having a plan B, or, being independently wealthy).
Weekly simulpubs (released online at the same time as the Japanese release) also represent a specific set of challenges. The tight turnaround essentially means arranging one’s life around the delivery of those raw chapters, (for the past six years, I’ve avoided scheduling flights/long drives/dentist appointments on Fridays), so it’s a weighty commitment.
Series that appear in magazines besides Weekly Shonen Jump can have erratic release schedules. This necessitates being on-call and ready to drop everything on any given weekday in order to shoot for the 24-hour turnaround. Asking for a substitute translator is theoretically possible, but I hate the idea of someone else touching my babies, most which I’ve raised up since their chapter 1 infancies.
Being on the cutting edge of the storytelling coming out of Japan also means taking proverbial shots in the dark when something in the text is even remotely ambiguous.
People who work on anime adaptations often have the benefit of foresight (based on the existing manga), but simul manga translators are staring into the void, trying to envision the author’s roadmap insofar as it might affect minute semantic choices, week to week.
What pronouns should this new, unidentified character have? Or do you rephrase in order to eliminate pronouns, which might not read as well, but is definitely the safer bet? Is [jargon noun X] meant to be singular or plural? Is this odd turn of phrase from a specific character just a quirky one-off, or will it become a recurring catchphrase?
One has to develop instincts for those sorts of things so that each decision isn’t a total roll of the dice, but rather a choice informed by experience.
Sending inquiries to Japanese editorial isn’t impossible, but it’s often a lengthy game of telephone that others in the process would rather avoid (and which might not produce an answer until it’s too late for the chapter in question).
It feels like you’re working on so many series at one time. How many volumes of manga do you tend to juggle at one time?
As of writing this, I’m the sole translator on 17 different ongoing manga series. Some will end as others begin, but that number consistently hovers between 15 and 20.
Some come in the form of simulpub chapters (compiled into full volumes later and combined with bonus/interstitial content.) Others are straight tankobon, translated and submitted in one big chunk.
I usually shoot for one or two full tanko a week, plus all the ongoing simuls. So I probably won’t be working on all 15+ unique series in a single given month, since due dates are staggered.
You used to post a lot of trivia about Shonen Jump titles you work on social media. What made you decide to do this?
I initially joined Twitter as a way to get my name out there, promote the work, and drive up support for official releases. Shilling and posting purchasing links is all well and good, but it’s pointless without an audience. I figured that providing an insider’s look at some of these more popular series would draw people in (of course, I never revealed any actual secrets that would break NDA).
As a bonus, the process of prepping the trivia forced me to hold a magnifying glass to the chapters, and I would often notice easily overlooked details that informed my translation decisions.
Finally, it satisfied the urge to share tomes’ worth of translation notes (explaining puns/wordplay, elaborating on subtle allusions, etc.) that, for better or worse, I usually don’t get to include in the published product in an official capacity.
Even now, the archives of those trivia threads can serve as reader’s companions.
I’ve since quit the trivia business, opting for a quieter timeline that only includes friends and colleagues; a.k.a. the good thing to come out of it all. At the end of the day, it was a distraction. More trouble that it was worth.
What type of manga do you enjoy working on most?
Can I say, “well-written manga”? Good dialogue (or, a roadmap conducive to good dialogue in English) can elevate any series from “just another job” to a genuine pleasure.
Out the current lineup, MHA: Vigilantes and Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu have writing that really lets me indulge, since their characters feel more like real people than amalgamations of clichés and stock phrases. So I guess I’m into slice of life, although it’s a genre I rarely get to work on?
Humor is always a massive challenge, but given enough time and wiggle room, it can be some of the most satisfying material to localize.
On the flip side, series with extensive world-building and specialized fictional terminology tend to be a chore when one is juggling five or ten of them simultaneously (sorry, isekais). And repetitive dialogue makes me want to scream, since it’s much harder to get creative with (sorry, sports manga).
In a lot of ways, my priorities as a translator are different than my preferences as a reader.
What’s your favorite manga that you translated?
My Hero Academia (MHA), MHA: Vigilantes, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu, Hell’s Paradise, and Dr. Stone. Those are all long-running series I’ve been working on since their starts, and which—barring my untimely death—I’ll get to see through to the end. There’s a heavy sense of responsibility to do right by them.
I also had the honor of translating Osamu Tezuka’s Ludwig B (for DMP), which has to at least get an honorable mention.
What have you been most proud of?
I’m pretty proud of MHA: Smash!! (the gag spinoff of My Hero Academia). Making four-panel gag comics work in English (and making them actually funny) is an uphill slog, but I poured a lot of love into Smash!!, and editorial gave me the leeway needed to make it shine.
The MHA light novels also felt like I was being thrown into the deep end (having virtually no experience translating prose.) Yet, I’m proud to go back and read what I’ve produced, there.
It definitely helped that this universe and these characters are ones I was already intimately familiar with, since, for instance, I didn’t have to come up with distinct voices for the 20 kids in MHA’s class 1-A from scratch. There was already years’ worth of track laid down, by me, as precedent.
In that sense, I’m grateful to Viz for trusting me with the MHA extended universe. I can only imagine the dissonance that would result from having a different translator on each spinoff.
In broader terms, I’ve been told that I’m very…fast? I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of, but I know I wouldn’t be able to make a fulltime living from this work without that speed. (Given the depressing absence of regular rate hikes over time, income is directly proportional to quantity of work performed.)
I’m absolutely willing to buckle down and give due attention to spots that demand well-considered creativity. But being able to churn out the pulpy, bread and butter pages at a nice clip is what’s allowed me to play a part in bringing so many of these great series to the audience.
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
Again, Tezuka’s Ludwig B! It was done as one of DMP’s Kickstarters, and I’m pretty sure it had a very limited print run for that reason. That flew under the radar for sure. There was something profound about translating words written by one of the grandmasters, in the year I was born, no less!
I’m not going to name any other series (or publishers), because I don’t want to imply that they’re not marketing their stuff properly. But in general, it’s always the hope that the absurdly accessible Shonen Jump stuff is a gateway to more niche series that tend to receive less attention. Which is why it warms my heart when a fan says, “Oh, you’re translating [obscure series]? I wasn’t going to check it out, but now I think I will!”
There’s always the question about how invisible the translator’s voice should be in the work itself, but if more people read more manga based on name recognition, cool.
If you could do anything else what would you love to do or try out?
More slice-of-life! And horror! And hoity-toity prestige manga that win the Eisners and Harveys! (Just kidding? Unless…?).
In all seriousness, I’d like to work on things where the writing itself is a point of interest. I feel like there’s not much nitty gritty translation critique from major outlets (as opposed to angry fans) when it comes to the more mainstream stuff. The focus of reviews is usually on the plot and characters, and the localization is only addressed as an afterthought, if at all. Certainly compared to video games (these days, anyway) and translated lit.
I don’t know the first thing about transitioning from comics to literature, but it’s absolutely something I’d like to pursue once I’m comfortable and stable enough to venture beyond the relative safety of manga.
– Study and Inspiration –
What tools/resources do you use (or have used) to learn new things and improve your skills?
The last bit of concerted study I did was during my two years in Japan, where I studied for the JLPT and Kanji Kentei exams compulsively.
I’m a book-learner, so I bought stacks of test guides and workbooks and tore them apart during my copious downtime on the JET job. In retrospect, that was the last big sprint to prepare me for the baseline fluency needed to translate manga.
Beyond that, jisho.org? Various J->J online dictionaries? I’m not much of a “tool” guy (I used CAD translation software briefly for some early proz.com jobs, but never again in seven years of doing manga). My most reliable tool is a heavy leather book weight that holds books open. Also an ancient, cracked iPad, which is useful for displaying digital files (instead of tabbing back and forth on the laptop).
Translating improves English
The translation work itself provides constant exposure to new Japanese language content, but I feel that any tangible improvement at this point isn’t so much about learning more Japanese, but rather, becoming a better writer in English. Or, a mixture of the two, but heavily weighted toward the latter.
Because from my perspective, the average line of dialogue in shonen manga isn’t a cryptic Japanese puzzle to be decoded, with obscure N1-level grammar. Instead, nine times out of ten, it’s a simple construction with basic vocab I’ve seen a million times before. Shonen characters can only scream, “I’m gonna give it my all!” so many different ways.
The “decoding” (from Japanese text to the raw meaning in no language in particular) happens instantly in my head. Worst case, there’s a kanji I don’t recognize, which I have to look up. But the bulk of the work is all about recoding (from raw meaning to English text). That’s what my time is spent on.
That’s the spot in the process where I can improve, from both an efficiency and quality perspective. Writing better English, faster. The English-speaking reader isn’t affected by how fast I decoded the Japanese (assuming I did so correctly) or how many kanji I had to look up, because those data points aren’t evident to someone viewing only the output (especially a monolingual). All they see is the final product, so that’s where the improvement and fine-tuning needs to happen.
Consume English media
To that point, broad media consumption (in English) is especially helpful for me, as a translator of fiction. Movies, TV, books, games, all of it.
It’s not to the extent that I’m taking notes while watching/reading something for pleasure, but you never know when a clever line of dialogue is going to provide the perfect hint for a translation at some later point.
Or, the example that always comes to mind is how watching a sizable chunk of Law and Order basically provided me with the vocabulary for translating scenes involving law enforcement and/or the legal system. Sure, the criminal could be kept in jail until trial, or, the perp could be remanded ’til his court date.
Jargon isn’t always warranted, but when it is, having those mini mental libraries to draw on at a moment’s notice is a blessing. Especially when tight deadlines mean little time for contemplative research.
Translation and language books
Finally, though I don’t read for pleasure as much as I wish I could/would/should, I am a fan of books about translation and language in general. Some of my favorites are:
- Japanese-English Translation: An Advanced Guide, by Judy Wakabayashi
- Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, by David Bellos
- Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher
- Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper
Remember—if you’re a freelancer, every “tool” is a tax write-off!
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
The colleagues who’ve come before me!
(Translation note: “colleagues who’ve come before me” means “senpai-tachi”)
“Translation of Japanese comics” still feels like a brave new world in the total scope of media history, so those who’ve blazed those trails have my respect. As well as my current colleagues, all of whom are shaping the broader, still nascent industry through their own approaches to the work
It really is inspiring when I come across some well-translated manga, since it keeps me from getting too complacent. I think ours is a generally supportive community (without much ladder-climbing or backstabbing), but the healthy competitive atmosphere (driven not by volume but by quality of work) does inspire me to be better. Staving off impostor syndrome isn’t easy, but putting in the time and energy to keep up with others goes a long way toward that.
“Colleagues” includes letterers and editors too! It’s one thing to take pride in your own work, but when you know that other people are sweating and bleeding to make a given book shine, there’s strong motivation to do justice to their efforts.
Special shoutout to Stephen Paul (translator of One Piece, Vinland Saga, and many other manga and LN series), who stood as an early example of someone doing this well and doing it fulltime. He made me realize that this could be a viable career path, and I don’t know if I would’ve been brave enough to try without that knowledge.
Beyond the manga industry, Nintendo games in general showed me very early on that localized media could have amazing writing. (At a time in my life when I had no concept of “localized media” to start with). It was those games that inspired me to start learning Japanese in the first place.
These days, I also take inspiration from non-localized games written in English. Games with fantastic writing (such as Hades) have such a different flavor from the majority of localized media, because they’re free of all the clichés and conventions so often preserved in J->E text that isn’t give enough room to breathe by house style guides and industry standards (most manga included).
I’ll sometimes run a thought experiment where I take note of clever turns of phrase found in those standout games and try to imagine—if, say, Hades, had started out in Japanese—what Japanese text could’ve possibly mapped to that gem of a line in English.
Which is slightly different in nuance than just running the E->J translation; that inevitably results in a Japanese localization. It’s more like reverse-engineering. The goal being to recognize, in the future, when a piece of Japanese source text could lead me to a similar, particularly inspired bit of English writing.
A transformation that might not have dawned on me otherwise, and one that helps the reader forget they’re consuming translated media. The antithesis of the “it can’t be helped”s, the “even if you say that…”s, and the “I’ll never forgive you”s.
– The Industry in General –
What do you think people don’t know about localization that you wish would?
1) The process!
At least with manga, no one is an island. I may be the one who produces the “raw” script for a manga chapter or volume, but that text passes through many hands before the public sees the final product. Most of the time, I have little to no involvement after submitting my part, and I can be caught off guard by changes made by editorial (which I’m not suggesting are bad things).
The downside is that the implicit rules of etiquette state that when there’s a decision that fans don’t like, I can’t just come out and publicly say, “Whoa, back off, that wasn’t me. It was Editor JerkFace,” to redirect the angry mob.
Most of the time I’d want to defend an editor’s decision anyway, and even when I happen to disagree, it’s unprofessional to throw a creative partner under the bus. But naturally the person with their name on the work is most exposed to backlash, even when it’s a multi-pronged creative process behind the scenes.
In short, the freelance translator has far less control than the average fan seems to imagine. To that point, I think I failed to figure out how to thread that perilous needle of fan engagement.
Too much exposure, even through mostly positive engagement, eventually puts a target on one’s back. I’d like to think that—given the absence of diehard manga/anime fans—the world of literary translation might be different. But the gross (largely sexist) backlash against Emily Wilson following her new translation of The Odyssey, for instance, doesn’t inspire much confidence.
2) The majority of customers are everyday people.
Localization is, for the most part, not performed for the benefit of the hardcore weeb/otaku who’s been studying Japanese on Duolingo for three and a half weeks and has dreams of visiting Akihabara. When a volume of manga is selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, the vast majority of those sales are going to the “average” consumer. Which, statistically, is likely to be a child at a book fair, or a gift-seeking parent browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble or the best-sellers list on Amazon. I hesitate to say “lowest common denominator,” because I intend no disrespect to little Billy at the book fair, but that’s how it is!
Most of the time, localization of commercial products is repackaging a piece of media for the broadest possible audience. I want Billy to be able to pick up a volume of manga I’ve translated and essentially be unable to tell that it wasn’t originally written in English.
That’s often not 100% possible when the story takes place in Japan and includes unique cultural elements (I do think there’s value in Billy learning that riceballs exist), but if the goal of translation is to replicate the native reader’s smooth reading experience as closely as possible, then the target language reader should not have to approach the book already equipped with knowledge of Japanese honorifics, idioms, folktales, and warai-genin from the 80’s.
In nearly every case, the weeb with his weeb-ish bank of knowledge and extensive engagement with fan forums is the extreme outlier.
3) Manga is made to make money
The obvious point that so many seem to miss is that these are commercial products, designed to make money. Publishers wouldn’t last long otherwise.
The artistry takes a backseat (from the cold/calculating business’ perspective), and the localizer’s balancing act is all about finding a satisfying compromise that preserves the integrity of the work while meeting commercial standards designed to maximize readership (which can seem arbitrary at times, and yes, often frustrate me) It’s making the best of non-ideal sets of competing priorities.
Easy example: in a complete vacuum, with no external considerations beyond the creative, I would absolutely make Bakugo use naughty language now and then (as an angry teenager would), but in reality, the book’s age rating doesn’t allow for that.
Raising the rating would drive away potential customers (say, the parent in Barnes & Noble) or even keep the series from appearing on the app. That’s not worth it!
And again, broad house rules are not up to me! If I suddenly decided to have Bakugo say “fuck,” editorial would nix it before it saw light of day. What I do have a good degree control over is how to craft Bakugo’s dialogue in the absence of curse words. Any compromising I do happens within those constraints.
Did you have any misconceptions about localization that have changed over time?
As for my own misconceptions, I used to imagine “localization” was mostly concerned with transforming onigiri into jelly donuts, or references to Japanese celebrities into references to American celebrities, but in reality, those surface-level, often goofy cosmetic changes are such a small slice of what localization is actually about.
All translation is localization, and on the micro level, every single sentence I write for manga is produced with implicit consideration paid to the target audience. Because, as many of my colleagues are quick to point out, localization is not a binary (“Is this localized or not?”) but a spectrum.
On one end, you have the most literal translation imaginable, broken down into parts of speech and sentence diagramming, functionally a Japanese language lesson for the niche-est audience that gets off on the delusion that they’re card-carrying members of some exclusive in-group.
On the other end, media that throws out the entire Japanese script in favor of crafting the English from scratch (see: Samurai Pizza Cats, Ghost Stories.) Or even some modern video games where the Japanese and English scripts are crafted in tandem, blurring the lines of translation altogether!
All the work I do naturally falls somewhere in between those extreme nodes. Manga publishers don’t give translators the creative freedom to go off the rails entirely (rightly so). But I will gladly rearrange sentence structure and employ idiomatic language in the hopes of creating something that, while true to the author’s vision, is, above all else, readable.
What is your vision for the future of localization?
Higher pay? A 2% across-the-board rate hike every year? So we can buy property and retire someday? I guess that’s more of a general concern for all millennials and zoomers in thrall to the gig economy.
It’s an uphill battle, but I hope companies producing localized media start valuing good translation more and more. Knowing Japanese (and being a decent writer) aren’t quite the niche skills they used to be (some people can even do both! Wowee!), so there’s no *good reason we shouldn’t see overall quality improve, assuming the talent is sought out.
The allure of cheap machine translation threatens those prospects, so we have to have faith that the publishers who understand the process well enough to care will realize that technology isn’t nearly at the point where it can be applied to creative translation (especially J->E, especially fiction).
Naturally, I hope that the crowd that believes localization is a dirty word remains relegated to a small, sad corner of the internet while the quieter public at large continues to enjoy well-written media.
The better the products, the broader the audience we win over, which creates further demand for good localization and less acceptance of shoddy industry practices.
Higher standards mean translators/localizers aren’t seen as instantly replaceable resources, leading to more job security, and more incentive to pursue translation as a career. The rising tide raises all ships, and so on.
You can find Caleb Cook here!
More Interviews With Localizers Here!