Translation Roundtable at New York Anime Festival

Mon, December 10th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

Manga translator Christine Schilling

With the popularity of manga in the United States continuing to rise and an ever-increasing demand for new material from Japan, today's translators have their work cut out for them. Saturday's Translation Roundtable at the New York Anime Festival gave attendees advice on how to break in to the trade and what would be expected of them in a translator's role. Anime News Network's Evan Miller moderated a discussion with Del Rey Manga editor Tricia Narwani, TOKYOPOP's Alexis Kirsh, and freelance translator Christine Schilling.

Miller began by asking who in the audience had studied Japanese, and then launched into a long, excited rant in nihongo. No one seemed to know what he was talking about, which illustrated for the audience that translating is a bit more difficult than it might first appear.

The panelists then discussed how they began translating professionally. Schilling broke in by interning at TOKYOPOP and there building a network that would provide her with further freelance jobs. Narwani said that Del Rey finds most of its talent through conventions and existing professional contacts. Kirsh took a bit more circuitous route. "I was more of a manga fan who knew Japanese, I wasn't really planning on becoming a translator," he said. "I was going to law school but I spent all my time reading and translating manga. So... I eventually just thought I should be working with manga. I started as a copy editor, then a translator, now four years later I'm an editor and still translating."

Kirsh said that, often, Japanese people don't believe foreigners can learn their language--even when Kirsh is speaking to them in Japanese. "They're scared, thinking about how they're going to need to speak English, but they're not listening to what I'm actually saying--yes, I speak Japanese--so I have to say things over and over." He also said that TOKYOPOP tends to stay away from native Japanese translators, as the resulting translations often require further rewriting to edit out stiff constructions. "It's better to have someone who speaks perfect English and knows enough Japanese," the editor said.

Narwani concurred with Kirsh's preference for native English translators. "We have people who, through living in Japan, have attained native fluency but also still have native fluency in English." By the same token, though, she said these native English translators writing natural sounding Japanese would be "less likely."

Regarding a translator's necessary resources, there was also a lot of agreement. "You need a dictionary," Schilling said, "there's always going to be words you don't know. But I don't use a paper dictionary. I rely on a Japanese word processing program on my computer that has a really good dictionary, and the internet, which I'm sure we could have a really good discussion about how important the internet is for translating for all the new slangs and pop references."

Miller then pulled out a small device in a black case. "This is my good book," he said. "My denki-jisho [electronic dictionary]. It has never left my side. Never. Make sure you're getting a good brand--Canon--and it's really important to look at the higher-level dictionaries. The dictionaries that cost 20-25,000 yen, about $200, have a special function where you can highlight text and jump to another dictionary. So if there's this kanji that looks like a big pile of sticks and you're looking at it like--nyeh! --You can just highlight it and bring it over here and it's like, oh, that means 'octopus.' Awesome!"

Miller also recommended the website www.alc.co.jp, which offers definitions and context for Japanese words.

Asked what was most difficult to translate, Kirsh had a quick answer: "Puns. I just translate from Japanese and hand it to the rewriter, and say this is a pun about this, but it's easy because the rewriter's in the office and we can discuss it over lunch. The problem is when there's art explaining a pun. Like if there's a pun about a crab and there's a guy in a crab suit. If he was telling a joke, you can put anything there that's funny. But if he's in a crab suit, you have to say something crab related".

Regarding other things that don't translate directly, such as honorifics, the panelists noted there were different house styles and it was best to check with one's editor. "At GoComi, our policy is to keep those honorifics, and put a little explanatory note first time in each volume," Schilling said. "I think we're leaving it out of more recent books because American readers are getting more used to it."

One fan asked whether doing work for free is a good way to build a portfolio, and Schilling and Kirsh agreed that it is. "Doing 'scanlations,' these people out there pouring their hearts and souls into a project, that's really fabulous practice," Schilling said. "Once you start to get professional work, though, you don't really want to do that."

"When new people who apply, I ask for samples of what they've already translated," Kirsh added. "So anything you have to show is good."

The strongest advice, though, and a topic that recurred through the session, was that a substantial stay in Japan is absolutely necessary to attain a high enough fluency to translate. "When I went to Japan, I stayed with the most sarcastic Japanese family in the world," explained Miller. "My host sister showed me into this room, and she had this bear that spoke English. When you squeezed its foot, it said 'foot.' If you squeezed its hand it said 'hand.' The girls says to me, 'if you want to speak English, talk to the bear.  Otherwise, you speak Japanese!' I was fluent in two weeks."

Miller recommended the JET Program, particularly the non-teaching CIR route which places participants in an office setting. "While you do have to be a fairly high-functioning speaker to be accepted," Miller said, "they do expect that you have some learning to do."

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