Here's a look at the tools manga translators in the industry use to translate your manga in the best way.
For almost every craft, there’s a process you abide by to get the work done as well as possible. So I wondered: what exactly is that process for manga localizing? Well, since there are passionate people looking to bring the best manga they can, figuring out what they’re doing is pretty important.
So I reached out to numerous people in the industry to find out what type of tools they’re using to work on manga. From those who might be interested in getting into the business to even those in the industry already, hopefully there are a few things you’ll see here and might want to look into further.
Now, with that said, let’s get into the common tools manga translators use to translate manga.
If you want to translate manga for a living, you have to know Japanese. Based on talking with industry translators though, carrying a dictionary with you is a close second. “It doesn’t matter how fluent you are in a language; chances are you’re going to come across something you don’t know.” This from the translators of Love Hina, Noragami, Negima!, and many more, Athena and Alethea Nibley. They’ve been translating since the 2000s, so yes, having a dictionary is necessary.
Now, what kind of dictionary depends on your personal taste.
The most common one brought up was Jisho and ALC, both of which will help you find what you need, though ALC will help you by providing sample sentences for contextual examples, while Jisho is useful for Kanji. But each translator is using more than one dictionary. Amanda Haley (Translator Tea Time Co-Host, and is translating Girls Last Tour and The Royal Tutor) for example uses ALC for Japanese to English conversion but also uses Kenkyusha Online Dictionary as well. Simona Stanzani (Italian manga translator for Air Gear, Bleach, Ghost in The Shell, and more) uses Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC and ALC. Elina Ishikawa (Tokyo Mew Mew! Omnibus, A Centaur’s Life, upcoming release of DNA Doesn’t Tell Us) uses Eijiro on the WEB Pro Lite and Jisho for anything she needs help verifying.
In addition to strictly Japanese to English dictionaries, idioms, thesauruses and phrases were commonly mentioned as a resource. This is also why Google was another common saying when it comes to translating manga — sometimes, search engines are your friend. “Having good Google skills really helps for the words and phrases that are completely baffling,” mentioned the Nibley Twins. “Usually those searches just take us to the Japanese version of Yahoo! Answers, if it’s a linguistic problem, but Google also helps for cultural and historical references.”
For Adrienne Beck, translator of Food Wars and The Ancient Magus’ Bride, “Google.jp is my friend,” she said as she revealed her common tools of the trade. “When I need to hunt down the meaning of cooking terms for Food Wars or volleyball terms for Haikyu!! or the name of an obscure fairy type in Ancient Magus Bride, Google is there for me. Sometimes it takes some effort, but I can usually find the meaning of the word I’m looking for eventually.”
Another of the important things is knowing how Japanese sound effects are done — which is where the Jaded Network comes into play as another resource. ” I don’t know who put that site together,” said the translator of Ghost and The Lady, the Showa Series by Shigeru Mizuki, and is the translator for the future release of Devilman, Zack Davisson, “but it is 100% gold.”
Finally, you need Japanese dictionaries, sound effects, etc, to translate manga well. Don’t overlook English dictionaries either. “English language dictionaries and thesauruses are really important,” mentioned the Nibleys, “because once you know what a line of dialogue means in Japanese, you still have to make it sound like natural English, and ideally have it be written well, too.” One example of a site that helped them with that is RhymeZone, which helps with rhymes, but you can find related words and descriptive words that can help with wordplay.
“When I’m trying to recreate puns,” said Stephen Paul, who is the translator for Sword Art Online, Yotsuba and One Piece to name a few, “I’ll use a lot of http://thesaurus.com and http://rhymezone.com to try finding various combinations of sounds and ideas. A thesaurus is good just in general for when you feel like you’re being too redundant and need a memory jog for other word options.”
To sum this section up, you should have a dictionary next to you when working on a manga. You should at least have three or four dictionaries, as every translator I’ve talked to uses multiple dictionaries. Whether it’s Japanese to Japanese or Japanese to English or just an English dictionary, it’s never one thing.
If also possible…you can try and go beyond the dictionary if you can. Not quite as a common, but a few translators pick up new ways that help them translate. For Adrienne, having a circle of friends can be a boon while she’s translating. The translator for Overlord and the upcoming releases of The Saga of Tanya the Evil, Emily Balistrieri, has a friend help whenever she’s stuck on something. And not always but sometimes, Elina can pick up the latest phrases and slang thanks to her kids.
If knowing Japanese is required, then knowing English will also help as well. As Jennifer Ward, the translator for Love and Lies, Magatsuki, & My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong as I Expected, told me, you don’t need a formal education to succeed in the business, but it is super helpful to be able to have command of the language. “Like, can you write? Do you write for fun? If your answer is “My resume on A03 includes over 100k words of Kingdom Hearts slash fanfiction” then that’s a good sign.
“I’ve actually read the fan translations for more than a few of the projects I’ve worked on (for point of comparison) and even moreso than Japanese errors, what really stands out is poor English, poor dialogue, and just stilted language in general. In order to be a good translator, you have to be able to write English.”
As mentioned in the dictionaries section, having English dictionaries is very important as well. There’s nothing wrong with using resources like Oxford or Merriam-Webster — if you need to convert Japanese sentences to English, then you use the best resource to do so.
In the end though, translating a title is going to come down to how much you’ve done it. From your first to maybe your 50th title, things will change drastically. In some cases, you’ll have to use trial and error before discovering the best way to work on a manga.
Being into comics is also going to be helpful. “The most valuable tool I have is a lifetime of being a comic fan,” said Zack. “I’ve been reading Western comics for as long as I can remember, and read my first Japanese manga when I was about 11. All of that has helped give me a feeling for dialog, for sound effects, and for how speech balloons work with each other.” In addition, Zack has lived in Japan, which has helped him not only understand the language but has helped him speak it as well.
As the Nibleys’ told me, being aware of popular pop culture quotes or sayings will only come with continuing to work on manga, or just years of consuming other media. “The more you know, the easier it is to puzzle out the trickier translations. Sometimes it’s a visual gag with a picture of something you only recognize because you saw it in a different manga; sometimes it’s an especially difficult-to-translate term that you had an inspired and surprisingly universal rendition of in the past.”
Sometimes, translating and listening to music seems like a match, no? Using an app isn’t the worst thing ever, right?
A few translators try to do what they can that’ll make it easier to work on manga. For example, Jenny McKeon (Translator Tea Time host, translator for Nichijou, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and Death March to The Parallel World) likes to listen to music while working on a title. She also uses Rikaichan/Rikaikun and the Google Translate app in case there’s a word or kanji she’s not sure of.
Word processors are definitely a need. If you have one on your computer, or JWPce, a free software created in 2005 that Stephen Paul continues to use even today, then you should be good to go.
Some Key Quotes
In talking with the translators, there were some useful advice that I didn’t want to force into a section — I have them presented to you below. For some, these may not apply to you. For others, it may be what you need. In the end, the tools of the trade is ultimately a stepping stone that will work in a manner that fits you. And hopefully knowing these skills will help you if you can break into the industry.
“Of course, it’s not about simply using these resources—you have to use them well. Not deploying the first word that pops up is common sense, but sometimes it’s not the second or third one, either. It’s good to refer to J-J resources to find the nuance you need. Sometimes you can find a word that fits the mood better by checking a thesaurus, but I always cross-check with a dictionary to make sure the definition is not straying too far; pay attention to range of meaning. Above all, if you’re going to stretch your natural vocabulary, make sure you fully understand the usage, and have a specific reason for it (e.g. the register is elevated, the Japanese word itself is not very common, etc.).” – Emily Balistrieri
“There are a million articles out there on how to master a language, but I’ll give my two cents: a formal, intensive education (4+ hours a day for at least 3 years), at least two years spent in Japan, and lots of absorbing Japanese pop culture in Japanese is basically all necessary.” – Jennifer Ward
“This will depend on the particular series you’re working on, but in cases where it’s a bigger title and perhaps has been around for a bit already, there might be a fan wiki, probably on Wikia. I will make use of them sometimes for context reasons, especially if it’s not possible or feasible to be fully up-to-date on everything in the franchise. However, I do exercise critical thinking when using them as a source for creative decisions, such as character names or terminology. Many of them are based entirely on scanlations or other secondhand sourcing that might not be accurate or advisable – if they can source the author directly either in the work or on social media (some authors do answer questions on twitter et al) that’s much better.” – Stephen Paul
“Translating manga is a challenge, to be sure. You have to balance accuracy, readability, and a few other factors. There are definitely times when I make mistakes. There are times when I don’t accomplish what I want to. There are times when I get lost, and have to ask my wife. There are times when I want to hug and kiss editors who caught something that I missed. But it’s worth it. Sharing these awesome artists that I love, seeing them get their due for their hard work—it’s all worth it.” – Zack Davisson