– Discussions with people in the
Japanese media localization industry –
Can you tell us about yourself?
Hiya! I’m Jasmine Bernhardt, an American Japanese to English translator living in the UK. I mostly translate light novels, video games, and some manga.
When I’m not working I’m baking, fussing over my plants, listening to/playing/arranging music, studying Welsh, or binging my random video game of the month (currently: Guild Wars 2).
On the side, I’ve also been doing writing and a bit of quest design for my partner’s tabletop RPG, Legends of Avallen (which you can buy now!). I’m excited to point out some of the flavor text I wrote when it comes out!
How did you get into localization?
In short, I decided after a 3-year stint on JET that teaching wasn’t for me, so I switched to translation and some strokes of luck led to the career I have now.
The longer answer is that when I was a senior in high school, and we got almost a whole month off to do our end-of-year senior projects. I decided to translate Tales of Hearts—it had yet to be localized for a Western audience at that point and I hadn’t played it yet (and most importantly, my friend owned a copy so I snagged it off her. Sorry Alex, I don’t know if you ever got it back); I’d also just come back from a semester abroad in Japan and had already played through a Tales of game entirely in Japanese, so I figured it’d be doable.
In the end, I reached the end of the game and had (very badly!) translated the entirety of the main story. It was a huge learning process, but hugely fun and activated the translation circuits in my brain. (There were a lot of missed meals and absurdly late nights though, which I do NOT recommend doing as a pro!!)
But I still thought I wanted to be a teacher so I went on JET as an ALT.
It turns out teaching doesn’t mesh so well with my personality, so I came to the UK to do my MA in Translation Studies at Cardiff University in hopes of finding a bouncing off point. It was fascinating because a lot of what I learned were things I had sensed instinctively while doing fan translation and translations for practice, but now they had names and reasonings behind them.
My bouncing off point didn’t come from my grad degree, however. It came from friends I’d made previously in my life—I owe my career to Carly Smith and Graeme Howard, I literally would not be where I am without them today. It’s thanks to their help, generosity, and a couple of passed tests on my part that I started getting paid work. And the rest is history!
What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in your career?
Overwork and Burnout
Some of the biggest challenges has been managing my time, workload, and burnout.
Growing up, I could get something creative done in one day if I was in the zone, sacrificing a lot (sleep, sustenance, socializing, sunlight) in between. But that’s not feasible with a workload that’s essentially endless.
I thought I could bust out a novel in a week or two if I just “sat down and did it”, but surprise(!) my first project was a disaster because of that mindset. It took me a while to figure out where my comfortable daily quota was, and to realize that in order to work well instead of fast, I needed genuine rest in between.
That meant finding entertainment that didn’t activate my work brain. That meant finding hobbies that weren’t in Japanese, translated, or prose/writing/story heavy. Now I just overwater my plants and that gives me energy to translate again on Monday.
Another big challenge has been managing expectations for myself.
It’s difficult when your default expectation for yourself is “perfect” but life circumstances do not make such a thing feasible. I can sometimes find it easy to lose perspective on how well I’m doing and fall into the destructive mindset of “what does it matter if I can’t be perfect.” And I can burn myself out spending hours coming up with the perfect turn of phrase. I have to tell myself that it’s okay if it’s a bit rough around the edges, because I can always ask for help from peers or leave a note for the editor.
The impostor syndrome can hit hard because of this, so I do my best to try to spin it in a positive direction (and hey, external positive comments always help, too!).
I can’t say I’m a perfect translator, or that I’m 100% happy with everything I’ve done, but I’m always trying my best to improve.
– Your Loc Work –
What do you enjoy working on most?
This is very specific, but I love working on prose passages that really dig deep into a character’s melancholy. I love it when I can sink my teeth into a passage with tears streaming down my own face. I do my best when I empathize with a text, because I find putting in my own visceral reaction to a particularly heart-wrenching scene turns out to be the best informer of my word choice.
And if we want to get very, very specific, my favorite genre of text is “notes left behind in abandoned places that capture a specific scene and need in time.” I pepper them in throughout my tabletop campaigns and I was over the moon when I got to do a juicy handful of those for NieR: Re[in]carnation!
What have you been most proud of?
I feel a little swell of pride whenever I get a comped book copy of a light novel or manga that I worked on in the mail. It feels good knowing that it finally made it back to my hands and I can feel the physical weight of the text, especially if it was a particularly long or stressful volume.
More specifically, I was very proud of the work I did on the WorldEnd: What Will You Do at the End of the World? Are You Busy? Will You Save Us? series. It’s an amazing feeling when the original author’s writing style matches up with your own, and I felt comfortable pushing the emotional limits with that one. That said, it’s been a few years since I worked on it, and I would jump at the opportunity to give it a second shot and make it even better.
I’m also, in general, proud of the growth that I’ve gone through in the past few years. The impostor syndrome makes it almost impossible to accept that I have indeed done good things in my short career so far, but I’ve gotten to revisit things I translated early on and I think to myself—holy crap, I’ve gotten a lot better than this now!
As a side note, I find it difficult to make friends online and being a freelance Japanese>English translator in the UK can be isolating—most of the communities are centered in the US or Japan. So I am quite proud of myself for having found online communities and (perhaps?) made a few friends so far! Thank you.
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
Look, I know you don’t read the weapon, costume, or companion stories in NieR: Re[in]carnation, but you should. The sheer variety of texts within those stories have made them a delightful challenge to work on and editor Alan has done an amazing job making it all fit in the character limits. Please read them. I love them.
If you could do anything what would you love to do or try out?
I would love to try my hand at project management or localization coordination or production. I love myself a good list and overly detailed calendar. As well as helping others do their best and make the best game/show/book/stage play/what-have-you ever! I have also heard that this role might include working with voice actors and I think voice actors are super cool and I would love to do that one day.
If video games and localization as a whole suddenly vanished from the world, I’d like to go back to art history and do museum curation or art conservation.
– Study and Inspiration –
What tools/resources do you use (or have used) to learn new things and improve your skills?
Different Speaker’s English
I have found that my perspective and understanding of English has greatly widened since moving to the UK. And that’s not to say that I learned how to speak “proper English” (that’s a whole different pet peeve of mine).
I’ve gained an entirely new arsenal of speech to use in my translations to give depth to character dialogue and description in addition to the vocabulary and writing skills I already had growing up as a native American English speaker. I’m constantly analyzing how people speak and tucking interesting turns of phrase and words into my mental pocket to use later.
On a similar note, it’s important to read and keep up your language skills in your target language. It’s easy to forget about while concentrating on the source language as you study translation, but the smoothest reading experience in translation comes from an expert grasp on the target text.
I find my writing is positively influenced while I’m reading well-written books, and conversely negatively influenced when I’m engaging with poorly-written media. This one is a bit tough for me though, because reading novels to improve my work after I’ve been reading novels for work all day can rocket me straight into burnout city. It’s a hard balance.
Since most of my translating is focused on prose, I make it a point to practice writing descriptive passages in tabletop RPG writing every once in a while.
Even though I have a long history of writing original prose and fanfiction, I still do this to develop my own vocabulary and style, and maintain writing as a skill on its own and not purely for translation or as a mirror for Japanese.
As for my Japanese skills, I try to keep those up through a messy hodgepodge of methods. I keep a small collection of reference books on hand for quick look-up, I keep up with listening skills by watching all kinds of stuff on YouTube (I find better listening can lead to better interpretation of dialogue in prose.) I also follow informative accounts on Twitter that talk about Japanese slang, niche phrases, grammar points, translation skills, etc. This way I’m at least learning something when I’m procrastinating.
It’s not easy keeping up while living outside Japan without any conversation partners, so being proactive in keeping myself fresh takes a lot of work!
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
I could sit here all day listing people. The localization industry is full of so many hard-working and interesting people that I look up to, and it’s really hard to narrow it down to just a handful!
In general, I really admire the other women and those of underrepresented genders in the industry for forging onward and creating niches and names for themselves despite everything working against them; I really admire those who are vocal and committed to educating fans and people in the other parts of the industry about translation and localization, and advocating for a full understanding of what kind of work exactly goes into the business; and lately I have been impressed by the enthusiasm of the newer people in the industry, which reminds me just how much passion goes into works that pass through translators’ hands, and is granting me a newer kind of joy for my own work!
My twitter is so full of brilliant people that I have to browse on dark mode.
– The Industry in General –
What do you think people don’t know about localization that you wish would?
One thing I find that isn’t well known is that the “translator” role has a wide definition and can vary greatly among companies, project types, and even individual teams.
From the outside, it seems as though translators have a large amount of control over what makes it into the finish text, but that isn’t the case across the board. On one end, you sometimes can have a translator that has full control and oversight of a text, or one that also acts as both the editor and LQA for their own text. And then on the opposite end of the scale, some translators are only meant to come up with a basic text so that the text can be subject to further creative rewrites or edits, and sometimes the translator has absolutely no control or even knowledge of what happens to the text once it leaves their hands. And of course, you have all kinds of variations in between.
The expectation of the job can differ so wildly, and the translator themselves might not even know what sort of role they might fulfill along that spectrum until they start working.
More often than not, outside of rare cases where the translator is taking care of everything single-handedly, localized popular media is the result of an entire team’s hard work and dedication. There are so many factors at play that go into the decision making.
It’s important we celebrate all the people helping in the process, and not be so quick to blame mistakes on one particular person.
What is your vision for the future of localization?
I’d like to see a future of localization where the work that goes into the job isn’t so criminally undervalued as it is now, so things like better crediting, better pay, and a better understanding by the layperson of what goes on behind the scenes.
It isn’t “put game in language A into the machine, get same game in language B out, pay the people who put game into machine two dollars”. I think this is slowly, slowly getting better, and that’s a good thing. Here’s hoping it keeps going in the right direction.
Catch me on Twitter at @jazzy_bern where I retweet pictures of deer.