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Tips for Aspiring Manga Translators

Manga are full of illustrations. They’re fun and exciting to read. This leads to a common misconception that manga translation must be easier than other types of translation. But those who underestimate the medium’s unique challenges do so at their own peril.

by MAL_editing_team
Oct 20, 12:49 AM | 5,799 views

This article was written by Matt Alt


MTB Matt Alt
There are many types of translation out there, ranging from technical fields such as patents, legal documents, and medical materials to entertainment products such as films, novels, and comics and games. It’s common even among established translators that manga and other “fun” products must be easier to handle. "There’s less text! And there are pictures!" Goes the thinking. "How hard could it be?"


But those who underestimate the challenges of translating manga do so at their own peril. I say this as someone who started his career as a purely technical translator, working for the US Patent and Trademark Office, and transitioned into entertainment later. There was a definite learning curve in working on highly scientific and specialized fare. But I was greatly assisted in getting up to speed as a technical translator by two factors: the presence of seasoned veterans who tutored me and the existence of bilingual dictionaries of technical terms. And the lessons I learned there can apply to entertainment translation as well.


Let’s start with the second factor first: the existence, or rather lack thereof, of resources. Manga (and anime, and novels) aren’t technical documents or instruction manuals. They’re fantasies, written so as to capture the myriad ways that people think and speak. Because manga-ka can express themselves in highly unique and idiosyncratic ways, there is often no roadmap or dictionary that can help you decipher their turns of phrase. The colloquial, slang-y style of manga speech and narration often differs greatly from what is taught in Japanese classes. Your trusty old textbooks and E-J dictionaries will often be of little help. Knowing this and preparing for it will be key to your success.


How to prepare? That brings us back to the first factor: seeking out and learning from veterans. Although many aspiring manga translators work alone, they have advantages that early pioneers lacked – like the internet and the existence of contests such as this very Manga Translation Battle. So I recommend networking both online and in real life and try to meet as many translators as you possibly can, and more to the point, translators more experienced than you are. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to people more advanced than you are. You cannot put a price on the things you’ll learn from them.


In closing, I’d also like to suggest another form of training for prospective manga translators. You need to read as much English material as you can in your chosen genre, and I’d even recommend trying your hand at writing some as well. This might seem a little counter-intuitive, as your Japanese skills are what set you on the path to becoming a translator. But while it definitely helps to know your stuff linguistically, having a firm grasp of your native language is equally important. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you can’t be a top-notch Japanese-to-English translator (or anything-to-English translator) without being a very strong writer in that target tongue. So get cracking: network with veterans to build human resources for answering tough linguistic questions, and don’t neglect your English studies!


A native of Washington, D.C., Matt has been working as a professional translator since the early 1990s. Together with Hiroko Yoda he is the co-founder of AltJapan Co., Ltd., a dedicated entertainment localization company that has produced the English versions of many top video games, toys, and manga, including the Gundam series and the Doraemon series. He is the co-author of numerous books about Japan, including "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide."
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