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Interview with manga translator William Flanagan

Date: 2011 August 25 10:05

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Otaku News is happy to present our interview with manga translator William Flanagan in conjunction with the Fumi Yoshinaga month at the Moveable Manga Feast.

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As Otaku News is currently reposting my work on the Moveable Manga Feast and I took part in the Fumi Yoshinaga month, we're chuffed to bits to present this interview with manga translator William Flanagan, a translator of manga in the United States. Mr. Flanagan took time out to answer some of our questions via email. Some of his most recent work can be seen in Yen Press' Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! by Fumi Yoshinaga. This except is taken from his website:

AG Productions and the Translation Dojo is the brainchild of long-time translators William and Megumi Flanagan.

AG Productions started as William Flanagan Translations back in 1991, and there hasn't been a time since when we haven't been involved in translations.

However, without giving up his first love of translation, William was able to rise to the position of Director of Editorial at Viz Communications in 2002-2004 (now Viz Media).

But now, back doing the translations that we love, the people of AG Productions are responsible for such best-selling hits as Fushigi Yûgi, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, and the all-time best-selling manga in North America, Pokémon.

Questions about translations in general

How did you become a manga translator? Was it something you always wanted to do or something you happened into?

Hm. I certainly didn't "happen" into it, but I didn't expect to become a manga translator either. I was (am) a fan of nearly all Japanese media -- manga, anime, movies, TV, games, etc. I also tried to write science-fiction and fantasy short stories and American comics before I "discovered" manga and anime, so there was that too. While I was learning Japanese -- not to take away anything from my teachers, but -- one of my main methods of study was reading manga of the period. Things like Kimagure Orange Road and Maison Ikkou and other shonen/seinen romantic comedies of the time. For Maison, I'd read as much of it as I could without resorting too much to dictionaries, then I'd read it again the same way a few months later to see what more I could understand that I didn't get before. It was great practice.

But when I finally felt I was ready to start translating professionally (I wasn't ready, but I felt I was), I expected to get work translating Japanese live-action movies for art-house theater or home video release. But I didn't have the contacts for that, and there wasn't a huge demand for it either. Where there was a demand was the just-starting world of manga and anime. So I got in on the ground floor of the manga/anime industry. Most of my translation practice was in manga and anime anyway, so it was a good fit for me.

Can you describe the process of translating a manga from you being assigned a title to when you sign off on the title?

Well, first I receive a query e-mail to see if I have time in my schedule for a new book. They usually give me the title, publisher, author, and a pay rate and ask if I'm interested in working on it. Once I agree, I try to get my hands on as many volumes of the series as possible. In my case, I live in Japan, so it's easier and faster for me to order it on than request a copy from the publisher. Prior to translation, I read as much of the series as is available and I have time to read (usually all that's published), so I can get a feeling for the characters. I also look for how and where the plot twists come, so I can be prepared if there is any foreshadowing in the dialog.

When time comes in my schedule to start the translation, the process is about how most would imagine it (I think...). I use a book holder placed right in front and below the screen of my computer monitor, and I start with the first page and work my way through the book. I have a number of dictionaries next to my desk for when I come across a word or phrase I don't know, and if there is a word or phrase I just can't figure out, I mark it and move on. That's my first pass.

I have my wife, who is Japanese, record a reading of the book for me, so on my second pass, I listen to my wife's reading while going through the script again. Sometime inflection can change the meaning of a passage, so I do corrections. Sometimes just hearing it will trigger in my mind a more natural English translation than I had on the first pass, so the second pass is a translation correction and rewriting pass.

After that, I print out my script and sit down with my wife to I go over any unresolved questions I might have. Usually the questions are in regard to cultural points or idioms I hadn't encountered in previous translations.

Finally, I go over the printed script for grammatical errors. I don't catch them all, of course, but the effort makes my scripts pretty clean for when the editor at the publishing house has to go over them. Sometimes, again, I am hit by an inspiration for a better way to word a translation. So the third pass is basically proofreading with a tiny bit of rewriting.

Then I submit the translation along with my invoice, and in many cases, that's the end of it until I receive a copy of the final printed version.

Can you describe how, if it's applicable, a manga translators job might be different from, say, a translator of novels?

I've only done one novel professionally, so I'm no expert, but as I see it, manga translation is all about the sentence whereas novels are all about the paragraph. In manga, a word balloon will contain only one sentence or phrase. On a paragraph level for novels, you reformat the information so it makes sense and reads well. Sentences might be moved around and reworked so that it flows more naturally in English while retaining the same information as the Japanese. In manga, you can do the same thing within a sentence, but you can't really move the sentences around. It isn't very often that you have more than one or two sentences in a word balloon.

In manga, you have to be aware of how much space the letterer has to work with. Especially in shoujo or josei manga, the word balloons and caption boxes can be very long and thin, so you want to use those extra-long words as little as possible. Some hyphens are okay, but if there are many hyphens in a sentence or multiple hyphens in a single word, your reader will lose the pace of the dialog.

Sound effects are another big consideration. If your letterer has to cover up the original effect with an English effect, the translator/adaptor should be aware the shape of the letters overlaying the Japanese. This was a big thing before digital lettering, but in some cases, like with sound effects over hand-drawn cross-hatching, which letters you choose still can make a difference.

There are other differences, but those are the ones that strike me right now.

How input does a manga-ka have in the translations you do? Do they vary from author to author?

I'm glad I was able to give you long answers for the first several questions because this one is going to be short. None. Every translator in the world would like direct access to the author/artist, but hardly any get it.

There are a few authors who look over a translated version, but I've never heard of any corrections coming from that. (It's possible that there have been corrections that were simply corrected by the publisher, and I was never informed.)

What was the longest translation you've done on a manga? Conversely, what's the most complex manga translation you've ever done?

The longest in recent history wasn't "officially" a manga. I would be the Tsubasa Character Guide Vol. 1. Just a huge number of words (not quite as bad as a novel, but close). They were very good words that later helped in my translation of the series. but I estimated two-to-three weeks to complete it, but it took over a month and a half.

The longest manga to translate was any volume of School Rumble. Kobayashi-sensei likes to put between seven and nine panels on every page and put dialog in every panel. On top of that, I'm translating humor which takes more time and there are cultural references galore which take research.

The most complex in recent history would have been Q-ko-chan. It was a distopian science-fiction story with a complex political system all as background information to the main story with the kids. The parts with the kids zoomed by, but the parts with the military slowed me down to a slog. It had technological references and political terminology in which I had to determine if they were references to history or actual technology, or if they were made up, or some combination.

In my overall history, the Patlabor movies (I translated them for the original release by Manga UK. They have since been retranslated by someone else for the more recent re-releases) were dense scripts, and they based the near-future technology on a lot of real-world research and engineering. And, as I'm mentioned in other interviews and on my website, The Dark Myth (Ankoku Shinwa) used and misused history and myth from many different sources, all of which had to be researched.

As technology as moved on, has the process and art of translation gotten easier or harder for you?

Okay, first, you know that technology such as machine-assisted translation and translation memory are useless for work on manga, right? They are only workable when you have digital files of the original scripts, and we don't get that. We get printed copies of the manga to work from, so our translation has to be done the old-fashioned way, looking up what we don't understand. (OCR doesn't work on manga pages.)

That being said, electronic dictionaries and Internet dictionaries do speed things up a bit. Also I can now research on the Internet what it took me going to a university library to do when I was translating in the '90s.

So technology has helped, but not as much as one would think.

In Japanese language, both written and spoken, words can have different meanings depending on context and delivery. If and when you've come across this in the course of translating something, how do you decide which is the correct way of translating a line or sentence?

Generally context lets you know what meaning you need. The same thing is true in English with words like "play." (child's play; perform a play; play a record; etc.) there are many different meanings, but we don't really get confused.

In some cases, where inflection would make the difference, I have my wife's recording of the manga dialog to help guide me. Since manga tends to leave off punctuation on many of its sentences, the reading helps me differentiate "ikanai" (a rising intonation for the question, "Won't you go?") from "ikanai" (falling intonation for the statement, "I won't go.").

With puns, it will have both meanings. There you either have to get inspired and come up with an English pun that means the same thing, or more often, choose one of the two meanings, make a pun with that one, and explain the whole thing in a translator's note.

In terms of workload, which is better: freelance work or working for a company directly?

As always, it will depend on your boss (or in the case of freelance, your editor), but in general, you get a better workload and benefits when you work directly for a company since, when you are overloaded, you can (theoretically) ask someone for relief.

You think you fully control your schedule when you're a freelancer, but you can't say no very often before they stop asking. So you have to take on just about every project that's offered. I've been blessed with a lot of reasonable editors, so when I have a problem and have to push a deadline, they've been willing to work with me.

But the best situation was, as a freelancer, getting all your work from a single company. Then you have only one contact and that editor has the power to push a project later to make room for one that is needed more quickly. The downside to that is if the single company decides to cut back, you might find wide, wide openings in your schedule and no way to fill them.

But in-house translation positions are so rare as to be virtually non-existent. I did translations when I was an editor at Viz, but that was through their indulgence rather than as a part of my job description. For any kind of job security, you will want to be an in-demand translator at multiple publishers. It can mean crazy schedules sometimes, but it's the only way to survive.

Questions about Not Love But Delicious Foods.

First up, congratulations on such a great job! Such an incredible amount of recipes, food ingredients and dialogue! Marvellous!

Thanks! It's our job as translators to be invisible, so we don't expect people to even realize that we exist. That means the compliments we get are particularly welcome! Usually when people notice us, it's for all the wrong reasons.

The book itself has wonderful spotlights on the restaurants Y-naga goes to in it. Did you recheck if they were still around?

I don't live in the Tokyo area, so I wasn't able to go to them. But I did check each one on the Internet. Most, if not all, are still around. Some have their own Internet web sites. I was able to see the facades of some others using Google Earth and Street View.

Did you have any contact with the author or original publisher? If so, did you have any questions for them or did they have any requests?

I wish I could have! It would have been an honor to meet Yoshinaga-sensei, but unfortunately no.

Let me quickly describe what goes on when one has a question. My question gets sent to my editor. My editor sends it to his/her publisher's licensing department. The licensing department sends it to their counterpart at the Japanese publisher's licensing department. They send it to the Japanese editor, and the Japanese editor (if he/she decides it's not burdening the mangaka too much) will pass it on to the author. The answer comes back via the same route. If, at any point, anyone in the chain decides that the question isn't worth bugging the mangaka over, they will (and do) say, "No." I've only had a few questions that were important enough to go through that process. The names in Fairy Tail, for example went through that. But usually, you find your own methods of getting your questions answered without bothering the busy mangaka.

In the notes you wrote at the end of the book, you talk about Goukons and how they are used to make sure every single person gets a chance to meet with each other. When translating the dialogue in the Goukon scene, did you have to change any meanings given as how it's couples talking as opposed to strangers or family conversing?

I didn't change the meaning much, but comparing my script to the final version, I can see that the good editors at Yen Press tidied up some of my awkward sentences a bit. (laughs).

The meanings were the same, but one thing I wish I could have gotten into the script was how Y-naga quickly changed from semi-formal to intimate in her spoken sentences while I-ta always kept semi-formal. His thought balloons were condescending in a bad way, but his spoken speech to her was always semi-formal. In other words, she's trying to get intimate as quickly as possible while he's trying to keep his distance. That's a hard thing to get into a translation, but I think the visuals and other social cues convey that.

By the way, when I say semi-formal, I'm talking about the way most Japanese business people speak when confronted with someone they don't yet know. If you know any Japanese, I'm talking about masu-desu speech. There's a whole other form of formal speech above that which I would call formal, so this comes out as semi-formal. Business casual speech, if you will. (laughs)

There are some French food/drink names and terms in the text. How do Japanese people write such terms and how difficult is to translate them?

Some were as easy as looking up in a katakana dictionary (the dictionary that contains foreign words from the Japanese standpoint), and others took hours of combing through the restaurant's website, cooking websites, and my French-English dictionary to try to get the spelling right. I think one or two were simply educated guesses. I hope I didn't mess up too badly on those. They write them all in the writing system called katakana, and the problem with that is trying to work backwards from the Japanese pronunciation to the French pronunciation to the French spelling (which may or may not have silent letters). Any book with a lot of katakana is difficult to translate, but French or Welsh-based English words are especially hard to decipher -- as opposed to Spanish-based words which are relatively easy.

How do you decide how to give priority to characters dialogue, their thoughts and the authors scribblings beside the dialogue? Especially when the author has written them so close together?

Do you mean, how do I know who is speaking amid all those tiny hand-drawn text? Fortunately for me, Yoshinaga-sensei is good with characterization, so just reading the text gives me a good idea on who is saying what. Aside from that, there are clues in the image like those lines coming out from the characters on either side of what they say. Or when the author is making editorial comments like, "Useless human being," those are sometimes indicated by an arrow.

Given as how this is a manga revolving around food, have you tried any of the dishes it featured? Also did/does it help to understand Japanese cuisine when translating the food terms?

Although I don't consider myself a "foodie," I've tried many of the dishes in the book, and it was a huge help to have tried them first. I had to exhaust my vocabulary for the details of how food tastes and how it feels in your mouth, so when I already had tasted the same kinds of food, I was able to find better words to match that particular experience.

Yes, knowing Japanese cuisine was a huge help, but they still came up with dishes I had never heard of before. Still, having tasted a "close relative" of the food can help me when researching what the food that was actually being served was.

Finally, what was the best part of translating this particular manga?

Most of the fun in translating manga comes in the interaction between characters, and in trying to get the character dialog to accurately represent the information in the word balloon and still keep it in character. In other words, my favorite parts were the little comic interactions between characters. So I entered and exited each chapter with a smile on my face. Then, in the middle, I got down to the hard work of finding new and different ways of saying, "delicious." (laughs)

For more information on Mr. Flanagan and his work, please visit his site.

Source: Otaku News
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