– Discussions with people in the Japanese media localization industry –
Jan Mitsuko Cash
Can you tell us about yourself, Jan?
I translate light novels, literary fiction, and manga from Japanese to English.
I grew up in California and live in San Francisco right now. But I also spent summers in Okinawa where my mom’s side of the family is from and I’ve lived in Kyoto, Tokyo; on the US’s east coast; and in the midwest.
I used to also work as an editor for a small publisher that focused on tech and computer programming (as all San Francisco companies now seem to do). I didn’t do a lot of localization work while there, but I had the opportunity to edit a few educational manga and acquire some Japanese-language books.
Right now I’m working as a technical writer and translating on the side.
I co-translate the Toradora! light novel series with my husband. I also translate the Chi’s Sweet Adventures, Happy Sugar Life, and Last Round Arthurs series alone. I’ve translated a total of 23 volumes of published and soon-to-be published work in the last three and a half years.
How did you get into localization?
My interest in localization started when I was six. When I watched an episode of Pokemon in Japanese (“A Chansey Operation”) that had a multi-line pun with visual cues. I wasn’t planning on becoming a translator per se back then, but I was impressed by how the translators had handled the scene when I got to see the English version.
I didn’t revisit localization until a while later when I was in college and started volunteering for a translation group that worked with non-profits. After that, I started taking translation classes with my roommates so I could work on technical documents. But I ended up falling in love with literary translation while taking a translators’ creative writing class.
After that, I spent most of my senior year at college translating things for myself and taking advantage of having a structured environment where I could get regular feedback from professors.
What did you wish you knew before becoming an established translator?
I wish I had have known more about how to apply to translation jobs.
I was very lucky in college and had established a connection with Vertical while I was working on a paper to complete my translation certificate. The editor there was kind enough to let me do a test translation for a book. After I worked on two literary novels with them, I was at a bit of a loss on where to go from there since I wanted to work on manga, but didn’t know the English publishers.
It took me about a year to figure out how to find the right publishers. Then another year to get the courage to reach out to them!
I think my biggest breakthrough with that was going to conventions to meet people since I’m pretty shy over email.
What’s been the biggest challenge establishing yourself as a translator?
After figuring out how to connect with people in the industry; I think it’s important to keep in mind that you need a solid grasp of your target language.
It’s really easy to focus in on your source language, especially if you’re not a native speaker of it, but you need to be able to write as well as translate.
I’d also say that speed is a challenge.
We’re often racing against pirates, so translators are expected to work at breakneck speed. When I was first starting out, I had a lot of days when I’d come home from work at 6 or 7pm and then translate non-stop until midnight. Then I’d do it over again the next day. I’d even translate from the moment I woke up on weekends to 1 or 2am.
It took me a while to recognize it; but I eventually realized that fatigue and burnout were slowing me down just about as much as anything else.
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
I spend a LOT of time doing research while I’m translating.
For example, Last Round Arthurs has the legends of King Arthur as its premise. I thought I knew a lot of Arthur lore, but it turns out there were some large gaps in my knowledge and differences in what parts of the story are emphasized in Japan versus the US.
In some cases, it’s harder to translate things that already have an English equivalent. Finding the exact match for a word can be incredibly difficult.
At one point, I spent about thirty minutes trying to figure out the spelling of King Arthur’s kingdom (Camelot is the capital city, it turns out). While the Japanese spelling is in the first sentence of the Japanese wiki, the English wiki has the information in its own subpage and is incredibly difficult to Google.
Oftentimes, things that I spend several hours researching will result in one word or one sentence on the written page.
What do you think people don’t know about in translation that you wish would?
Translation is different from editing. I sometimes get praise as a translator for things that really should be credited to the editors.
Publishing is a bit of a black box to most readers. I think it can be easy to underestimate how many hands a single book goes through before it reaches stores.
We’re often self-editing when translating, but books will also go through multiple editors who improve the text in their own way. There are probably a dozen or so people involved in each book (usually they’re credited on the copyright page, if you’re curious). And they all contribute to the final product that you read.
If you could do anything what would you love to do or try out?
I’d really like to work on something for Pokemon. It’s what inspired me to think about translation in the first place, so that’s been a dream of mine for a while.
I also absolutely adore Yuyuko Takemiya (the author of Toradora!) and I’d really love to keep working on all her books.
Like everyone else who works on manga, I’d also really love to work on something by Rumiko Takahashi. I read Inuyasha all through middle school, and I’m pretty sure I never would have bothered to learn hiragana if it hadn’t been for her books.
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
I take a lot of inspiration from the people who taught me about translation.
The professor in college who taught the translation course that brought me towards literary translation — Idra Novey. She has made me think, in her words, whether a translation inspires “delight.” That’s been my “sparks joy” of the translation world. I know when I’ve done a good job on a phrase or paragraph or scene when I can say it “sparks delight.”
Maureen Freely also taught me so much about how to approach a text in any language. And how to re-weave the magic of the original work.
I’m really grateful to both of them.
Something else that I tend to go back to time and time again is actually a bit of (then unpublished) academic research that a professor spoke about in a neuroscience class back in college.
The professor’s lab at the time had been studying speech comprehension using fMRIs. His initial findings suggested that when a person is listening to a story, the same (or similar) areas of the brain are activated as when the same person is telling that story themselves. I often think of translation’s goal as being to elicit the same response in a person reading the English as they would have had they read the text in Japanese.
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