9b. An Insider’s Perspective on Manga Translation

This week’s post is comes by way of Andria Cheng, professional translator and all around awesome human being:

I’ve been a freelance translator for six years, and people always want to know how I got started in the industry. After I graduated with my degree in Japanese in 2005, I sent my resume to all the major manga publishers at the time: TOKYOPOP, Digital Manga Press, Viz, and Del Rey. I got no responses from any of them. Two years later, a professor told me about an online message board (now Google Group) for professional translators called simply “honyaku” (translation). A translation agency posted a request for freelance Japanese manga and novel translators. I applied, took and passed a translation test, and then waited for my first project. At the very beginning I had to “compete” for every job I received, which meant a sample text would be sent out to a pool of translators and the client chose which translator they wanted. But after I won a few of these, the publishers began to request me directly and I no longer had to compete for work. Through this translation agency I was able to work with and have my translations published through all the companies who had previously ignored my resume. Throughout my years as a translator, numerous volumes of manga I translated have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers List for Manga.

But I wouldn’t recommend working with a translation agency. At the time, I was desperate to break into the translation industry and had no other means to do so. But I had to sign restrictive contracts with non-compete clauses, and who knows how big of a cut the agency got from all my translations. If you’re fluent in another language and want to become a translator, I recommend that you post your resume to proz.com, a site for professional translators. Companies can contact you directly and you can browse job postings. I have a paid membership, and I definitely think it is worth it. Another one of my classmates took his resume to Comic-con in San Diego and directly approached all the publishers’ booths. He got some steady work translating novels for a major publisher thanks to this tactic.

Around the same time I started translating professionally, I began graduate school to pursue my Master of Fine Arts in literary translation. A big part of this degree was participating in translation workshops, during which the students would bring in poetry or prose they translated and have it critiqued and evaluated by fellow students and the professor. There were about fifteen students in the entire program whose ages ranged from 23-50+, and there was only one other student who also translated Japanese. The others translated Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, and one student translated from Chinese. I was actually surprised that I was the only published translator among the entire group.

But it didn’t take me very long to find out the director of the program at the time did not consider what I translated and had published “real literature.” She actually stopped one of my former Japanese professors in the grocery store one day to inform him about her concerns about how serious I was about translation. When it came time for me to choose the piece to translate for my thesis, the first question the professor asked me was, “Is this ‘real’ literature?” It was, in fact, a fiction novel by a prize-winning Japanese author, but she still seemed incredulous. At this point in my career I was not only translating light novels and manga, but I translated the bulk of a short story anthology for Del Rey manga called Faust 2, which featured many gifted and popular Japanese fiction writers. But even though I was the only one in the entire program who was actually making money translating, the content of the work I translated was apparently not “real” enough or “literary” enough to count. In the end, I came to the conclusion that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t gain this professor’s approval, so I switched to a different advisor and successfully completed my thesis and got my MFA in translation.

I came into the manga translation industry at a great time. I made enough money to pay for my graduate school education in full, but it wasn’t enough money to support myself. If I didn’t have my husband’s income, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue translation as a career at that time. In the beginning I got paid a flat fee per volume of manga. This was anywhere from $400-$700, but when you get a contract for an entire series of say, ten volumes, it can add up quickly. I generally translated anywhere from five to seven volumes of manga a month, in addition to any light novels I was doing at the time, which I got paid for by the page. When I started translating manga, someone else would be hired to “adapt” my translation, which basically means they Americanized my literal Japanese translation. This only lasted for one manga series I did for Viz called St. Dragon Girl, and after that I was credited with my own adapting. Most of the time the adapters don’t even know Japanese, so in my opinion there are much better results when the translator can adapt their own work.

When the economy took a turn for the worst in late 2008, the entire publishing industry got hit hard, but manga suffered a lot. Not only did I see my pay get cut by more than half, but the publishers were putting out fewer volumes of manga, more series were getting discontinued, and very few new series were being considered. TOKYOPOP basically tanked completely. Shojo Beat, the only monthly magazine specifically for young girls’ manga and which featured a few of my translations got cancelled. This was when I saw a very sharp decrease in my translation income and I had to start supplementing with things like translating family registers, legal documents, and other miscellaneous things just to stay afloat. (Strange anecdote: Around this time, I received a translation request from a man who sent me emails from his Japanese wife to a friend of hers. The man clearly didn’t know Japanese and wanted to know the content of these emails. I skimmed them and found out the woman was cheating on him after an emotional breakdown related to painful infertility treatments. It was clear he broke into his wife’s email account and there was no way I could ethically complete this translation, so I emailed him and turned it down without any explanation! Life of a freelance translator=crazy!)

I think when the economy tanked, there was a huge boom in amateur manga translations (“scanlations”) since the number of manga series being published started to drop. But in my opinion, I don’t think that scanlations have ever majorly negatively affected the translation industry or the livelihood of professional translators. Obviously any time someone chooses to read a scanlated version of a manga over a professionally translated published version, the industry loses money. But I actually know of quite a few series that were specifically chosen to be published because of their popularity in scanlation form. Seeing what scanlated series are most popular and most read can give a publisher a quick idea of how well a certain series or genre might do. And if it’s done right, the published version will be a better translation and of better quality than the scanlation, so a hardcore fan will still purchase the real thing.

But the biggest blow to the industry was just simple economics. Half the publishers I worked for before stopped working with freelancers altogether and turned to their own in-house translators to finish series. And the publishers who kept me on didn’t care that the series I translated for them (and was previously getting $700 a volume for) had every single volume on the NYT Best Sellers List for Manga. They just wanted the work done as cheaply as they could manage, and I had to suck up a lot of my pride at the time because I didn’t want to burn any bridges just yet. I felt loyal to these publishers and didn’t want to leave them mid-series with no translator. I even took on a series at volume 25 after its previous translator jumped ship after the pay cuts to show my loyalty. Trying to figure out the plot and continuity for that series was a nightmare, and obviously I never got paid for that extra time and effort.

So for a few years I translated a number of series for a ridiculously low amount of money. It wasn’t until this particular publishing company removed the first page translator credits and stuffed my name in the very back of the book in a tiny, barely readable font that I finally knew I was done.

I had held onto hope that when the economy turned around my pay would go up and more volumes would be published, but that just didn’t happen. I had hung onto these manga series despite the poor pay, insane deadlines, and almost complete lack of credit up until that point because I know there is always someone who will work for a cheaper rate than you. Despite my initial request for a higher rate of pay in 2008 when my rates got slashed (which was, of course, denied) I had never complained about the poor pay. I faithfully turned in every volume on or before the deadlines. My initial plan was to just say no when the next translation request came. But no translation request came. The translation agency I worked for never even gave me a courtesy email to inform me my projects had gotten assigned to another translator. My suspicion is that most of those series I had worked on, some for years, got re-assigned to in-house translators. So my career as a manga translator ended with very little fanfare, but it was great experience and an amazing boost to my resume. I’ve been told by numerous clients since then that the “New York Times Best-selling translator” line on my resume caught their eye.

Within a few months of my retirement (termination?) from the manga translation industry, I got contacted out of the blue by a company in Japan which makes games for mobile devices. They’re a great company to work with, the pay is great, the work is steady, and there’s no way I’m saying more because in this industry someone can steal your work right out from under your nose! I’m sure my former professor would turn her nose up at the content of my translations because they are most definitely not “real literature” but the work is fun and I’m finally able to contribute to my family’s income in a meaningful way, which is worth more to me than anything else.

Andria Cheng is the translator of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Ninja Girls, Wallflower, ARISA, Mardock Scramble, Faust 2, and more.

Next week: fair use, academic cowardice, and how the licensing mindset gets in the way of scholarship.

Stay tuned!

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

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4 comments

  1. Colleen · · Reply

    I read this article today on voice actors and the two together were a gut wrenching ball of depression. http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/4/2/4104160/why-arent-video-game-actors-treated-like-stars?src=longreads

  2. […] you’d like further proof of the difficulties manga faces, I refer you to Andria Cheng’s earlier writeup of her experiences as a manga translator trying to get a master’s degree in translation.  I would also note that the same person who […]

  3. […] 9B. AN INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE ON MANGA TRANSLATION […]

  4. Thanks for the useful information! I’d like to do some creative translation, and trying to find a way to break in.

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