The Japan Foundation – Parallel Worlds: Translating Manga –  Notes

Credit: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting

About the Event

Jocelyne Allen (My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, Remina) sits down with colleagues David Evelyn (Undead Unluck, Kaiju No. 8) and Jenny McKeon (Blank Canvas, Bloom Into You) to discuss the translation of manga across genres. How is translating a shonen title different from working on a yuri book? What is simulpub? Who decides what manga is released in English? These intrepid translators tackle a variety of thorny questions to explain exactly how your favourite series ends up on the shelves of your local bookstores.


I definitely recommend that you watch this panel. The panelists provide real-life stories and examples that explain a lot more about the culture and experience of working as a manga translator than what I took notes on. It’s an entertaining watch and is only about an hour and three minutes long. 

The Process of Translating Manga (Timeline Varies)

  1. After contracting with a company, you’ll get an email requesting you to translate a book and you agree to do so.
  2. The files will usually be sent as a PDF, Word file, or a link to buy an ebook. If you end up getting a link and have to buy it, you’ll usually be reimbursed for the cost by the company you are working for. Some translators even get physical copies of the book sent to them. 
  3. Next you’ll probably flip through the previous volume to remember what is going on or what has happened (both if you have and have not worked on the series before). If it’s a new series, maybe not. 
  4. Then, begin typing up a translation on a word document. NOTE: As the translator, you rarely have any contact with the creator. You almost always only get to talk only with your editor. 
  5. Revise and clean up after. You may need to contact the editor before submission to ask about a choice in the translation, but after a while you may not feel the need to do so. 
  6. Then send the translation back to the editor (submit it). Every editor seems to have their own style, so you may need to adapt to the wants or needs of that editor per project. Be sure to include your translation notes (notes on what something is or why you have translated a particular word or phrase the way you have), as that can prevent miscommunication and changes you may have considered before sending that the editor has not seen yet. 
  7. You may get notes back from the editor, and that involves a quick revision or discussion before your translation is put into the pages by a letterer. 


Unlike English, which has a somewhat limited range of dialects, Japanese has many (you can learn more about them here). It is a challenge in translating manga because there are ‘vocal’ tics apparent while reading the Japanese text that are difficult to translate into English. Additionally, colloquialisms like slang or certain idioms that rely on the person’s knowledge of cultural concepts to understand the meaning can be difficult to bring into English when the readers may not be familiar with the concepts behind them. For example, we may all know what “crying wolf” means (from the boy who cried wolf), but maybe don’t know the meaning or context to something like “Not seeing is a flower” (meaning reality cannot compete with imagination). 

A common way around this is to just translate the words and let the vocabulary define the characters rather than applying a particular accent. At times an accent will be applied, like “kansai ben” becoming Southern or something similar. For difficult idioms, you have to go down a rabbit hole to find an equivalent phrase and other times you have to make something up and check if it makes sense by running it past your friends or family before sending it to the editor. 

Advice that was encouraged by the speakers is to regularly consume both translated and untranslated media (in both the language you are translating into and the one being translated). Knowing how people speak, write, and communicate is vital to creating a translation that makes sense. 

Over all, it’s more about coherency to the reader than it is about literal translation of words. The dialogue needs to meld together with meaning and make sense to the situation in a way that is not always easy to do with a verbatim translation. 

If you are just starting out, try to form glossaries or a style guide for the series you work on. For example, if you translate an idiom as one thing, keep a record so that–if it comes up again–you know what to use and how to fit it to the text. (These may include names or in-universe brands, for example.)


• Translating a volume’s length of pages can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

• Something to remember is that Japanese is written vertically, so–when translating–the letterer has to take the dialogue written horizontally and apply it to speech bubbles that have been formatted differently from the US or English standard. Sometimes this means you have to change the sentences way more than you thought you would to fit the bubble. 

• Pronouns can be especially difficult as in Japanese you don’t need to include them most of the time. In fact, Japanese, unlike with English, allows all pronouns to be omitted from sentences when the person you are referring to can be inferred from context. The person’s name can also be omitted and you are very likely to, if not more often going to, speak without pronouns entirely rather than with them. 

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