Translating Anime (Shirobako Style)


I’d like to take a step back from the anime for a moment to share with you something that many of you might not be aware of regarding the anime/manga you enjoy. It goes without saying that before you can even engage with the media, you need to understand it — and that’s where translators come in. Yes, I’m a translator. I’ve “worked” as a freelance translator in the “scanslation” scene for nearly a decade before going professional on a per project basis. Since I work full-time as a medical professional, I can only offer my services whenever I have the time, so this arrangement of working whenever there’s an opening works for me. And that means most of the time, I’m doing translation checks or other small bit translations (i.e. sign boards, SFX in manga, etc.). So chances are, you might have come across something in animeland that was translated, in part, by yours truly.

It sounds cool and all, and true — it does feel good being able to bring stuff out for other people to enjoy. But being on the supply side of the equation does have its downsides. And much of what I’m referring to is the backlash that you’ve probably heard of in the form of complaints in localization. Ew, the dubs suck. Subs were better. They changed the script so much, they totally re-wrote everything! Where are the honorifics? They’re whitewashing my anime, wtf!? 

Sound familiar? There’s a whole discussion behind preferences in localization and how a sort of heirarchy of anime supremacists have come about — the upper echelons of which are occupied by long-time “veterans” in the hobby who bemoan the degradation of anime into an industry of mass-production catering to “lesser” individuals that were “late on the bandwagon”. But I’m not here to talk about how a fragmented fanbase of anime/manga enthusiasts describe the media they consume. I’m here to give you an idea of what it’s like to be a translator, and perhaps give you a little insight as to why the media you enjoy (or loath) so much is in the form it is today.

1. Translation ≠ Localization


I was having a discussion the other day with a fellow translator, and though we have rather different views and styles with regard to how we translate, there is one thing we agree upon: Translating is different than localizing. Translating refers to the process of expressing one language into another in a way that is coherent. Localizing, on the other hand, refers to restriction — it means using translations to cater to a specific geographical audience, taking into consideration local customs, cultures, and idiosyncrasies. You would use the former, for example, when you’re trying to serve as an interpreter in a diplomatic setting. You don’t color words — you translate word-for-word and allow the recipient to decipher the meaning behind the words. What’s important is that what is conveyed is coherent. The latter, on the other hand, is inherently colored — it results in paradigm shifts or alterations that allow the media to be readily understood by the receiving audience. That also implies that there are MANY people on the receiving end, so localizing also has the nuance of being extremely generalizable.

That said, all commercial “translations” of anime/manga are actually localizations. When we translate the anime/manga you enjoy, we’re taking into consideration people who might not be familiar with Japanese culture or customs. This also means avoiding transliterations (i.e. lifting Japanese words verbatim) as much as possible. So out goes your onii-chans and your dakimakuras. This also means that majority of the Anime we translate is localized for a predominantly American (USA) audience. I have met a couple British translators, but even they admit that they have to avoid “obscure” British terms and use words that are more “American”, instead. Fansubbers/scanslators probably stick to English unique to their own cultural upbringing, but majority of the official releases have always been biased towards an American audience. Again, we’re “localizing” here, and with that comes the generalization that there are many more American anime fans than any other nationality.

2. Translators have their own styles… and standards.

Like I hinted a while ago, not all translators agree on exactly how we should go about localization. For one, the Japanese language is quirky in that regional accents go so far as having lexical alterations. So if in English you have accents in the costal regions or the south (along with their own preference in words), Japanese has something similar but takes it one step further by even altering some grammatical structures. This is one of the reasons why you can probably try to imitate a British accent (and fail) if you wanted to, but if you speak Japanese in the standard format, you probably can’t speak the Kansai dialect even if you wanted to. But you can still understand it if someone spoke it to you. And the localization of these many different Japanese dialects has always been tricky for translators because we have different approaches to it. The example above is from episode 6 of gi(a)rlish number where we see a drunk Kazuha stumble back into a Yamagata Accent. The translation on the left is the official CrunchyRoll sub, while the one on the right is by a fansub group called DaVinci. As you can see, CrunchyRoll opts for a conservative approach and uses truncations in speech to convey drunkenness; but DaVinci goes one step further and throws in Boogan English to emulate her strange accent.

In fact, you might have come across certain shows that portray the popular Kansai dialect as something akin to Redneck English. I personally think that such nuances are difficult to convey in written words, and instead of utilizing a radically different set of words, the translator should be creative enough to utilize semantics to convey the same quirkiness in dialogue. Accents should be left to dubs — so if the producers want to use someone with an Australian accent in place of Kansai dialect, then fine. But the point I’m trying to bring up here is that the quality of localization really falls to the translator and their own preferences, experience in translating, and overall skill.

3. Transliteration is a contentious topic

There are no fixed rules for Transliteration. Like I mentioned earlier, this applies to honorifics, and since some people actually look for them, this is one of the reasons why some fansubbing groups provide two subtitle channels to cater to that market. But the choice of whether or not to keep honorifics has little to do with the translator than it does with the producers involved. I personally want to avoid transliterating honorifics since I follow the conservative views of Localization, which I mentioned earlier. But then there’s the argument that many more people who watch anime on a regular basis probably already know what these honorifics mean, so it works more as an appeal to popular belief than an actual recognition of the general purpose of localization.

That said, many decisions to transliterate actually fall beyond the control of a translator. So that means “popular” Japanese words like Katsudon remain transliterated. But even then, the actually method of transliteration is still split between translators, as you can see in the example above. CrunchyRoll uses what’s known as the Revised Hepburn method of romanization, which results in the name 仁王 being written as “Nio” (although strictly speaking, the actual romanization requires a macron on top of the ‘o’, making it “Niō” — but characters with macrons are non-standard in keyboard inputs, so for convenience, it is often omitted). DaVinci, on the other hand, uses a Non-Hepburn Variant called Wapuro Style, making it “Niou”. Again, there are no standards to say which one should be used, and though this is a problem limited to subtitles, it’s still a very contentious topic for translators. But still, the decision of which style to use usually falls outside of our control, and we are often asked to follow one style or another for the sake of consistency.

4. Things will always be lost in translation


No matter what we do, things will always be lost in translation. The statues above are 仁王 (Niō), two guardian deities that guard the entrance of most Buddhist temples. Yes, that statue on the left is what Koto was referring to when she made fun of Chitose’s stance. It used to be that fansubbers put T/L notes to explain cultural quips like these in shows — and sure, most of us probably learned a lot about Japanese culture thanks to these little notes. But the use of T/L notes seems to have lost favor with translators as of late, and to be honest I’m not too sure why. Part of me thinks that maybe it’s because a big chunk of translators in the scene actually AREN’T as passionate about Japanese culture and anime as others, so they tend to skim over these details as trivial things. But the more likely reason has to do with economies of scale: some cultural references may be too trivial to have any impact, or are too obscure to integrate into the actual dialogue. But whatever the reason is, the point is quite clear — there are limits to what we can translate.

We sometimes have to accept that fact that part of the work should fall on to the watcher to look into it themselves. We live in the age of the internet, anyway, so the pragmatic approach is to just allow people to google the stuff they don’t get. And when you think about it, this isn’t an alien concept to anime, either. Did you look up on YouTube the classical songs referred to by Haruki Murakami in his many books? Did it come with a T/L note explaining what those were? Again, that’s just the way narratives work — we can’t assume perfect knowledge — and throwing in excessive information tends to detract from the narrative and becomes superfluous. Likewise, if you’re familiar with a cultural reference that wasn’t directly mentioned in a localization, then good for you — you’re part of the 99th percentile of people that actually get it — you’re the outlier. Give yourself a cookie.

5. Translators come from all sorts of backgrounds

Translators all have different skill sets. Some are only proficient in spoken Japanese and have limited knowledge of the written language; others are the other way around. Some have N-JLPT levels much higher than others; others have no official rating and are self-trained. Some have lots of time; others work multiple jobs and don’t have as much free time. Some translators enjoy watching anime themselves; others do this as a job with no interest in the shows, whatsoever. All of this probably boils down to the fact that Anime translators are so diverse because we all come from different backgrounds. There is no school out there that focuses on training up translators specifically for animations. Sure, there have been books published here and there that give tips on how to be a good anime/manga translator, but don’t expect these references to be handed out in a language course.

And because of these varied backgrounds, you get similarly varied results in production. And there really isn’t a way for producers/publishers to predict how faithful or accurate a given translation is to the original save by passing the work through a second translator for verification. But then things get more complicated: factor in simulcasts and you get tons of errors due to either lack of time to edit or lack of foresight. And this is because the translators aren’t directly a part of the production process on the supply side (i.e. Japan). In fact, most translators work at home or in a translation firm, so unless that translator is based in Japan, there’s no way for them to be involved in the production process at all.

6. Translating as a job doesn’t earn much


At the end of the day, it’s what you get out of doing it. And to be frank, it isn’t much. For the number of hours spent working through scripts or editing lines on the computer screen, the payment isn’t much. Yes, this is Shirobako all over again, except this time it’s from the side of the people who try to make sense of the content people consume en masse, ergo the translators. And you also have to think about all the time invested by translators to actually learn the language. If you wanted to become a full-time translator, take note that the ROI isn’t really much. Plus, the work load just got a lot tougher now with the new consumer demands of simulcasting and on-demand streaming.

Now you may think this is unfair and all, but look back up at what I’ve pointed out and try to think about things from a capitalist perspective. Given the varied nature of anime translators who have just as varied styles with varied outputs and no standards whatsoever, why should we expect to compensate them any more than what could be considered minimum wage for the job? Because of simulcasting, translators can’t goof off and spend hours on just a single release. Also, not all shows have equal difficulty levels, but all of them will end up with the same amount of pay. So good luck if you were the unlucky dude to be assigned to work on Bakemonogatari. And even if you translate more content, most of the compensation is based on your salary anyway, especially if you’re from a translating firm. If you’re a freelancer, the cut is even less since it is based on a per project fee. So the set up, itself, is what causes the whole thing to be as messed up as it is for a translator.

And that’s just the way it is.



There are a lot more specifics behind the scenes when it comes to translating, but I hope I made it clear that there’s a lot of effort that goes behind translating anime and bringing it to audiences so that they can enjoy it. And I’m not writing this as a plea for attention, nor am I writing for the sake of making you feel ashamed of yourself. I’m writing this to remind you that there are talented individuals that work hard for this — and I’d like to believe that their dedication to their work rests on a passion to do this because they want to. It can be disheartening at times, but at the end of the day, knowing that someone enjoyed a show indirectly because of you is always a great feeling. Which is why it hurts whenever I see insensitive comments that insult the work of translators; how personal preferences in translation don’t meet certain people’s expectations. We can’t please everyone, but at least we try. I hope that that frustration can be channeled into more productive ways. Give constructive criticism in the comments section of CrunchyRoll or Funimation videos. Send the translators emails of support or recommendation. Remember, there are real people behind the scenes who aren’t even credited for their work once the credits roll. That is the reason why I chose to write this piece.

So to all the translators out there, I salute you. Stand proud and continue to do what you do. Always strive to do your best regardless of the hateful comments against you, but always knowing that you and should always improve yourself to make better and better translations for more people to appreciate. Our waifus and our imoutous depend on us to share our gifts with the rest of anime-kind. But we can’t do this all on our own. We need the help of the industry and the anime-loving community to support us. It’s a thankless job, but it’s a job that must be done nonetheless. Stay strong brothers, and may God bless us all.

6 thoughts on “Translating Anime (Shirobako Style)

  1. Ma. Venus Gamboa November 22, 2016 / 01:47

    For some reason, I feel inspired. I work as a freelance writer so I can definitely relate to the hard truth about the job’s financial aspect. I salute you too edsamac-san! Working as a translator even on a part-time basis while having a full-time job (a medical one at that) is tough.

    Sending you (and all the translators out there) positive chakra vibes! Keep it up and thank you so much for the hardwork! I wouldn’t get to enjoy anime so much without the effort of translators, so I owe it to you, guys! Gambatte!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • edsamac November 22, 2016 / 09:08

      Thanks for the support! I’m glad to know that you feel inspired. I know it’s not a perfect system, but it exists nonetheless, and to a certain extent I think it’s working. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. remyfool November 22, 2016 / 19:35

    This was incredibly insightful. I know this wasn’t a plea for attention, but I really have to respect translators more from here on.

    Thank you for sharing. And thank you for being in the translating business!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Otaku Judge November 26, 2016 / 20:23

    Translating anime/manga sounds like a cool job, even if the pay sucks. Alas I haven’t even mastered English let alone another language. My heart goes to the guy/gal who was assigned Bakemonogatari. They deserve a bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • edsamac November 26, 2016 / 21:46

      I’m pretty sure they split up the episodes per translator, which is common practice. But yeah, kudos to whoever had to do all that.

      Liked by 1 person

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