Professional Translation and the American Manga Industry

Learning a second language is so powerful an experience that I recommend everyone do it. It doesn’t matter which language you chose; all will give you the same depth of perception and insight into another culture that is needed to create a well-rounded individual. Or at least, it should. If you pour your whole self into studying another language the experience changes your life. Unfortunately some people stop their studies half-way but still expect to work as professionals. (See our Kodansha Error Reports for examples)

Recently I was asked for my opinion of the manga industry trend to include in translations Japanese honorifics, suffixes, and some whole words words intact. One of Miss Dream’s frequent visitors, user Thereisnospoon303, asked how translators could possibly capture the levels of respect represented by Japanese honorifics without reference to the honorifics themselves. He also asked why the inclusion of suffixes and honorifics in manga translations has become standard practice.

Both of these questions are good, and so I’m going to take some time to address them here on Miss Dream. Several users at the forum the questions were originally posted on responded well to my insight, so perhaps it might be useful to people visiting here as well.

My Background:

I work as an interpreter and translator for a Japanese semi-conductor firm. I have several years of experience translating highly technical documents related to semi-conductor technology for engineers. I also do live interpretation service for business meetings, and general interpretation for Japanese expatriates relocating to New York. (IE: I translate Japanese immunization records, school records, birth certificates, and other government documents, as well as helping people with simple tasks like leasing apartments, etc.)
Previous to my current line of work I freelanced for a number of years – translating everything from unknown manga series to pornography and operations manuals. During college I also worked on editing translated publications related to Buddhism in the academic journal Monumentica Nipponica by Sophia University. On top of that, I’ve been involved in fansubbing for the last couple of years and so I have a pretty good perspective on how amateur translations differ from professional ones. I like to think that I have a wide-range of experience when it comes to working as a translator and interpreter in business, academic, and amateur environments.

When did manga publishers begin to include Japanese suffixes and honorifics in their translations?

This trend started with Del Rey. Del Rey Manga was a sub-branch of Kodansha – three parent companies beneath it, to be precise. It began publishing translated manga titles in America in 2004 and recruited most of its translation staff from anime conventions1, as well as from other manga publishing companies; like the now defunct Tokyopop and Bandai Entertainment. Del Rey originally started out as a publisher of science fiction and fantasy genre works. They came into the manga publishing business as a way to bolster waning profits in a market that was squeezing them out. To say that they were inexperienced with manga translation is an understatement; they went belly-up in early 2011 after several years of bleeding money.

Luckily most of Del Rey’s titles were rescued by its immediate parent-company, Random House, which in turn sold the titles to the newly formed Kodansha Comics USA – a subsidiary of Random House’s staffed primarily by leftovers from Del Rey2 and Viz Media (specifically, Dallas Middaugh – former head of publication at Del Rey, current head of publications at Kodansha Comics USA). With the newly created Kodansha Comics USA being structurally closer to Kodansha Japan, getting licenses to translate series in English became easier. Considering that all of the Executives of Kodansha Comics USA (Dallas Middaugh, Kumi Shimizu, John Fuller, etc.) have decades of combined experience in publishing manga in one form or another in the U.S. – getting this new company off the ground running shouldn’t have been a problem.

Instead, the trends that led Del Rey to its ultimate failure have carried over to Kodansha Comics USA – shoddy translations, terrible editing, poor graphical design work, issues with printing and press work leading to consumers buying books with missing pages3 or improperly bound spines4, very slow serial publication, etc. On top of this, their marketing for new series has been terrible. Unless you are a hard core fan of Sailor Moon or happen to run across it while browsing a manga section in a fortunate Barnes and Nobles that is carrying the new release, you might not know that Kodansha has been releasing a newly translated Sailor Moon manga series. Fans have been unable to reach Kodansha Comics USA for comment about the many issues that have so far been documented in the Sailor Moon manga. There has been lots of negative fan reception of Kodansha Comics USA based on their unwillingness to participate through social media with their fans5.

While the multiple challenges facing the business model of Kodansha Comics USA are all worth commentary, I’m going to focus specifically on their style of translation, which is directly lifted from Del Rey’s original model. Back in the early 2000’s, manga publishing companies realized something about their market demographic: they’re nerds. Not just in the sense that they tend to become overly fanatical about whatever their pet series is, but that usually they are interested in learning Japanese language. Most of the time this demographic has no access to learn Japanese language and their only exposure to it is through media they are purchasing from these companies. This new generation of fans wanted to become enmeshed in Japanese culture. The companies quickly realized that they could market an “authentic Japanese cultural experience” to this demographic by keeping suffixes, honorifics, and some whole words intact without translation. Many long-time fans of the medium, like myself, were already familiar with these terms either because we had learned some Japanese on our own or because we had run across the terms while viewing fansubs or scanlations online – where amateurs had included them.

So Del Rey did away with traditional Japanese-English translating methods. They began to include honorifics, suffixes, and sometimes whole words like sempai in their publications. The so-called “weeaboo” demographic ate it up; and since the manga crowd was already such a niche market, the fact that this shift excluded a small population of readers from understanding every word in their books was not a big deal. Other publishers saw how successful this model was and began to copy it. Nowadays it’s common to walk into an American bookstore, pick up a manga from a shelf, and find suffixes like san and chan throughout the pages. The industry has changed.

But what’s wrong with including Japanese honorifics and suffixes in published English translations?

The problem with this model is that it’s lazy. It’s much more difficult to produce an English translation of a Japanese work without relying on suffixes and honorifics; a translator must be much more adept at using English vocabulary and grammar to get the point across. Translators working in this field (and by working, I mean freelancing, which has its own problems…more on that later) don’t need to have much experience in print media translation to be able to quickly chug out Babelfish-like work. Translators are given license to be lazy; to not worry about English grammar, to not worry about accurately reflecting politeness levels in speech using English alone, and to not address problems between how Japanese speech functions compared to how English speech works. Basically, they’re given a pass to spit out dictionary definitions of all the words that appear in a sentence, leave them in Japanese word-order, and call it a day.

This laziness has permeated the work force. Given the nature of the freelancing community this is to be expected. Here’s a little inside view of what people go through to become a professional translator. (At least, this was my experience…it’s not definitive)

    1. The person attends a university and major in their target language, usually spending at least one year abroad in the target country. In their last year they are (usually) expected to take a course which teaches them how to translate for business and academic audiences. This course is often a prerequisite for graduation, and must be passed with high marks. For Japanese, you are generally taught not to include suffixes or honorifics, but to make the politeness levels portrayed by these functions apparent through the use of English grammar and vocabulary.

    2. The subject works extra hard to become distinguished during their undergraduate or graduate career; by doing editing for an academic journal and/or writing a senior thesis. At this time they usually gain some experience in translating for academia. And almost always they are expected to work as a teacher’s assistant for lower level language courses. About a quarter of the upper level students eventually enter the JET program or some similar program in which they teach English to foreigners. Another 25% go on to gain academic scholarships like Mombusho and eventually obtain a PhD. The other half end up working a job having nothing to do with their degree; and maybe 5% total go on to become professional interpreters.

    3. For the ones who want to become an interpreter, it is difficult. If you are not a native Japanese speaker, you will have a very hard time finding work. This is because Japanese companies would prefer to hire a Japanese person who has studied English over an English native speaker who has studied Japanese. Similarly, American companies would rather hire a Japanese person to speak Japanese over an American who has studied Japanese. So if you are Caucasian, you must take special care to stand out against the competition – this means years of underpaid freelance work. You have to build a reputation for yourself that is so amazing companies can’t possibly refuse you. Most of the jobs available to freelancers are very low paying – therefore a freelancer must become very quick at their work so they can take on multiple assignments at a time in order to make ends meet. It takes years to gain enough experience and reputation to get a big company to notice you, so most of the time freelancers quit and get a job doing something else not related to their degree.

    4. There are two types of freelancers: 1) there are those who are recent graduates who are working hard to gain experience and a reputation for themselves, and 2) there are old-hats who just aren’t very good at what they do. Their skills are so terrible that even with years of practice, they never become good enough for a large company to want to hire. It’s usually interpreters of the second variety that become “famous” within the manga and anime industry. After all, they’ve been around long enough to make the networking connections they need to land better contracts.

    5. The freelancers who eventually become good at translating leave the freelance work force typically 3-5 years after graduating college, almost always because they are hired by a large corporation. If someone stays longer than that, it’s a bad sign. As a freelancer, a person has little to no health care, no sick-leave or vacation time, no 401K option, very low wages, and no job security. The job assignment contracts are short; a good one is about 6 months long – and the amount of work you’re expected to turn around is immense. Most people put up with this situation only because they believe it is temporary and because they want to build a reputation for themselves of being able to handle any kind of deadline or working environment. Some people stay indefinitely because they aren’t skilled or qualified enough to do anything else.

The fact that all manga translation is freelance work has a huge impact on the overall quality of the finished product. When you pay people poorly and expect them to knock out hundreds of translations a month, you aren’t going to attract people of talent or skill. You’re going to have to hire from the dregs of the workforce or recent graduates with no real experience.

Can you provide an example of the difference in quality between a translation that doesn’t rely on suffixes, and one that does?

Yes! I hope you have Unicode enabled in your browser, it’s about to get Japanese in here!

田中: ミキさん、昼御飯に行こう?
ミキ: 田中さん申し訳ございませんまだ仕事がありますから。。。
Tanaka: Miki-san, hirogohan ni ikou?
Miki: Tanaka-san, moshiwake gozaimasen mada shigoto ga arimasu kara…

In the first exchange, Tanaka is asking Miki very casually if she’d like to go to lunch with him. It is likely in this scenario that Tanaka is higher up hierarchically than Miki; she might be a receptionist and Tanaka her boss.

Miki responds that she still has a lot of work left to do, so she can’t go to lunch. Since she is addressing someone formally who is her superior, she uses much more polite language (in this case, something called “keigo”; formal business speech).

An experienced translator who doesn’t rely on leaving suffixes and honorifics intact would take the above dialogue and present it in English something like this:

Tanaka: Hey Miki, wanna go get lunch?
Miki: Sorry Mr. Tanaka, I still have a lot of work so unfortunately I must decline.

You’ll notice that in Tanaka’s sentence, the “san” part of Miki’s name has been dropped. In Japanese, calling people “san” is prevalent even among close co-workers; it is similar how a daycare teacher might be called “Miss Karen” by her pupils, even though she is being casually addressed with her first name. If a student were to call her “Karen” instead, it wouldn’t be a big deal since the tone is casual to begin with. Same thing in this context. Miki responds with polite language that reflects her respect to Tanaka without relying on Japanese honorifics. Her polite speech is only partially represented by addressing Tanaka as “Mr.” – the rest comes from choices of vocabulary.

The “right” way to deal with honorifics is to make the level of politeness apparent in the sentence through stylistic word choice. Stylizing doesn’t mean inventing words or meanings that aren’t in the sentence, rather it means to find the precise word in English that accurately reflects the right meaning in Japanese. It’s usually not a one-to-one word-for-word translation. This is why the field of translating is called “interpreting” – there’s more to it than being a dictionary.

Here’s how manga translators will typically deal with the same Japanese lines:

Tanaka: Miki-san let’s go to lunch
Miki: Tanaka-san I can not go regrettably I still have work to do

In this case honorifics are left intact; although the same general gist of the sentences is there, the wording doesn’t sound natural in English. The hierarchy level difference between the two individuals is also no longer apparent – since Tanaka and Miki are both referred to as “san”, an English speaker may not understand that Tanaka is actually a superior of Miki’s. The sentence contains an exact replica of Japanese word order, but because Japanese and English word orders are different the translation sounds awkward. You’ll notice in the first translation that first the “I still have work to do” part comes before the “I can’t go” part; that’s to do with the order of English clauses. The Del Rey style of translation tends to ignore the rules of English grammar.

Why is English grammar important to know when doing translations from Japanese?

One of the first things you learns when you study a foreign language is how your native language functions grammatically. At first, when you take Japanese class and you spend a week or two dissecting English sentences to determine which words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, which parts are predicates, articles, etc., it all seems unnecessary. But this knowledge is indispensable later on when you learn how these same grammatical functions work in another language. When you’re faced with a sentence in Japanese and are told to translate it into English, it is dire that you understand how the tenses work in both languages and what the sentence structure equivalents are. Modern translators never bother with any of this knowledge, and so their English grammar is really terrible and their translations suffer as a result.

Here’s an example that illustrates why it’s important to deeply understand the grammar of both languages you are working with:

1. 田中さんは大切です。
Mr. Tanaka is important.

2. 田中さんは私に大切です。
Mr. Tanaka is dear to me.

In both sentences, the word “taisetsu” is used to describe Mr. Tanaka. If one were to open a standard Japanese->English dictionary, you would find both “important” and “dear” as possible definitions for “taisetsu”. The difference between a good translator and a poor one is that a good translator will know when to translate “taisetsu” as “important” and when to translate it as “dear”. Many times you will hear translators say that their work is dependent on context; this is especially true in the field of Japanese-English interpretation. Luckily this elusive “context” that translators are talking about can often be determined by Japanese grammar.

Compared to English, Japanese is a narrow language. The average English speaker uses about 10,000 words in their vocabulary; the average Japanese speaker uses about 8,000 daily. This doesn’t sound like much of a difference, except when you consider situations where we in English have multiple words to describe someone who is “nice” (sweet, charming, dear, kind, thoughtful, etc.) English speakers have a lot vocabulary at their disposal to nuance the exact meaning they want to convey; more often than not Japanese speakers will rely on grammatical inflection to convey their feelings, so that just one word can be taken several different ways depending on “context”.

Manga translators are never forced to consider the full range of English vocabulary options. Instead, they usually produce word-for-word translations that don’t convey the right meaning. It’s the difference between:

1. Mr. Tanaka is dear to me.
2. Mr. Tanaka, to me, is important.

Although the second sentence keeps the Japanese sentence structure intact and is “word for word”, it isn’t correct – because of grammatical inflection, the right word choice should be “dear”. A good translator would also adjust the word order to conform to the demands of English grammar.

If this practice is really as bad as you claim, then why is it the standard?

Luckily, it is only standard practice in the anime and manga industries. My opinion is that because anime and manga fans are so unfamiliar with the professional and academic standards of Japanese to English translation, they ignorantly assume that what they see being done in manga is standard practice everywhere. It is not.

If you open a novel translated from Japanese into English, you will not find honorifics, suffixes, or words left in Japanese without explanation of their definition. If you go to a business meeting with live interpretation, you will not hear Japanese honorifics and suffixes or words included in the English communication. If you hire a professional to translate a document, you will not find translators who rely on honorifics to help them coast through the translation. Open an academic journal featuring translated articles and you won’t find this stuff either.

This isn’t because professionals and academics are too lazy to include suffixes, but rather because they are working much harder to make the reading experience of their English speaking audience more intuitive and easy.

But I *like* reading suffixes!

Power to you! There’s nothing inherently wrong with suffixes being left intact; it’s just that the way the manga industry cuts corners and produces an overall bad translation generally leaves suffixes in. It’s kind of a “guilt by association” thing. Some modern translators of very high caliber choose to leave suffixes in – and that’s just fine. There are many different styles of translations and one is not necessarily always “better” than another one. But when it comes to how the manga industry in general handles translations, it’s no longer an argument over stylization. Their work is generally lazy and shoddy as a result, and suffixes are only a symptom of a much larger problem.

Similarly there are some bad translators who never use Japanese honorifics in their work, but exhibit the same poor choices in English vocabulary and lack of attention to grammar points as bad translators who do use honorifics.

The American manga industry is screwed. Personally I avoid using Japanese honorifics and suffixes in my translations because in my professional life it is absolutely verboten to do so. (Imagine the faces of my poor American engineers if I expected them to understand the complexities of keigo just to read a document explaining how to install brackets, for instance!) However, in my fansubs and scanlations I know that I am writing for an audience who enjoys seeing suffixes in what they read. So there has to be special care taken not to betray my standards while still targeting my translations towards what my audience expects. In some cases I’ll make an exception to the suffix rule and other times I’ll be a stickler about it. Mostly it depends on my mood.

1. Wikipedia contributors. “Del Rey Manga.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
2. “Kodansha USA to Take Over Del Rey Manga Titles (Update 3) – News.” Anime News Network. Anime News Network, 04 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. .
3. Bednarski, Dan. “Sailor Moon Forum • Information.” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. MarioKnight, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. .
4. Yeisley, Jennifer. “Sailor Moon Forum • View Topic – ANNOUNCEMENT: Kodansha USA Acquires Sailor Moon Manga!” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. Yensama, 22 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. .
5. “Sailor Moon Forum • View Topic – ANNOUNCEMENT: Kodansha USA Acquires Sailor Moon Manga!” Sailor Moon Forum • Index Page. Sailor Cybertron, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. .
Special Thanks:
– Small Lady + Thereisnospoon303 of The Galaxy Cauldron Forums; for encouraging me to write this
– Jennifer Yeisley, for her help in compiling citations.

37 Responses to “Professional Translation and the American Manga Industry”

  1. p-chan

    Thank you so much for this inside view! I’m surprised nobody has left any comment yet. This should be read by any person reading, watching, or listening to translated material, not only from japanese. It reflects some of my own experiences as a translator and contradicts some others. I don’t want to elaborate here, only to recommend this to all fans of manga/anime wanting to gain more insight on what it takes – and/or rather should take – to get their favourite series into their hands. Many thanks again!

    There is one point you did not include in your analysis that I really would like to hear your oponion on. What do you do with japanese sentences including anglicisms, that is, english words mostly used because they are fashionable in modern Japan? (If I were to translate your text into German, I would have to think about how to deal with your use of the german word “verboten” (meaning “strictly not allowed” in this context)).


    • Elly

      P-chan: Thanks for your comments! I’m really glad you found this article interesting. :) We had some comments on it before I switched to WordPress, but sadly those have been lost since the migration. =\

      The subject of dealing with Anglicisms is tricky. For me, it really depends on context. In the case of this article and the use of the word “verboten”, I would simply translate that word into an equivocal meaning in Japanese. (Maybe just “dame”, or something fancier if the mood struck me)

      In Japanese, often times an English word is used in conjunction with a Japanese equivalent. The term “super chou kawaii” would be directly translated as “super super cute” – but since it’s redundant, I’d drop one of the “super” words.

      Sometimes words that Japanese people use that are English don’t have the same connotations. For example, take the word “tissue”. To a native English speaker, we’d think about a Kleenex or facial paper. In Japanese, “tissue” refers to an athletic, acrobatic sport in which a person poses on suspended curtains:

      In those cases, I wouldn’t use the English word at all. English speakers won’t know you mean aerial acrobatics if you use the word “tissue” the way they do in Japan. So as always, it depends on context.

  2. SnowWolf

    I would preferred the honorifics to be left out as well. They make excuses that this is what hardcore otakus want apparently: dialogue that doesn’t make sense. Dark Horse have left the honorifics in their omnibus version of “Cardcaptor Sakura”.

    When I learned the name of Sailor Moon’s translator, I wasn’t suprised to learn he had done “Fairy Tail” as well (another series that hadn’t read quite right to me. I was shocked that he also did “Gate 7”, which I had in front of me, and discovered it read so much better. Dark Horse obviously employed either a better editor or got more copys back from the letterer to fix mistakes. Sailor Moon’s editor says this used to be done 3-4 times, but now to save money is done only once and can be harder if the letterer doesn’t speak the language themselves.

    With Sailor Moon, I got use to it by the end of the book, strange wording and all, but at the end of the day I can’t help but wonder “What if Sailor Moon had been dubbed by Viz Media?”

    Kodansha have recently acquired the right to some OEL manga, will they have the same problem translating them into japanese.

    • Elly

      I think at least part of the problem is that hardcore otaku do want honorifics left in. The problem is that the translators who are OK with doing that in their professional work are usually pretty low caliber. It’s possible to have an accurate translation that happens to leave honorifics intact, but I don’t know of any good translators who do that, because if you’re good enough to translate everything accurately, there’s no reason to leave Japanese words in.

      I don’t know anybody who goes through all the bother of painstakingly doing a really good translation and then flings in random words like sensei or sempai and leaves in -kun or -chan. It just doesn’t happen. Once you’ve put a lot of effort into a translation to make sure that everything flows well in English, you go the extra mile and remove honorifics.

      But my issue isn’t really with that. I guess someone could, theoretically, do a really perfect translation and leave honorifics in for the sake of pleasing their audience. The trouble is that today’s manga translators don’t do accurate translations to start with, and on top of that they leave honorifics intact. So the product they release is doubly bad.

  3. SnowWolf

    Any manga that leaves the honorifics intact should at least have a page detailing what they mean. It should be a common courtesy. Especially with Sailor Moon considering a large number of readers are picking it up as their first manga because they were fans of the original anime.

  4. Arleen

    I found this article from Brad(moonkittynet) on twitter and I want to thank you for explaining everything! I admit, I was one of those manga readers who thought that leaving in honorifics were “cool and nerdy” and I couldn’t figure out why some thought it was lazy unprofessional. But now that I’ve read this, it really gave me an insight as to how translating should be properly done.

    I agree with the other commenter that mangas should include explanations of honorifics. The ONLY one I’ve ever seen do that is “School Rumble” and that was my first manga, so I was lucky to figure out right away what they all meant.

    • Elly

      Cool – I’m really glad you liked this article, and I’m really grateful to Brad for bumping it. :)

      When I first started reading manga, a long time ago, it was almost impossible to find in American bookstores and the translations never included honorifics. Things have changed a lot as the anime subculture has gotten bigger over the years. I’m disappointed in the current translation trends, but hope that the industry will decide to take their work more seriously as their audience grows.

      Most importantly, if fans all agree that they want higher quality translations, the industry will cater to them. It’s how they make their money. It’s just a matter of us changing the fan culture and expecting more for our money. I think we can do this. ^__^

  5. Draw2much

    I was also linked here via Brad!

    I am so so sooo glad I’m not the only one bothered by how some groups translated Japanese into English. People often mistake a literal translation for a GOOD translation. But in most languages what’s needed is a thought for thought translation…. the reader needs to know the INTENT behind what’s being said, not necessarily what is technically being said.

    That being said, I can’t usually tell when I’ve got a bad translation. I mean, I can tell when the English part is shoddy, but if you were to ask me whether the INTENT of the sentences was being properly conveyed… well… how would I know? I can’t read Japanese, so I don’t know what the original said. I only notice a bad translation when it’s particularly mind boggling awful, rather than “regular” bad.

    • Elly

      Woo hoo! I really owe Brad a present of thanks now :)

      I think the main thing current translators forget is that their official job title is usually “Japanese translator AND interpreter”. They’ve left out the interpretation duty altogether, which is what you’re talking about with putting the intent behind the sentences back in.

      It’s a shame that so much is left out and glossed over because people just don’t know better than to ask for more. =\

  6. Sierra

    I don’t really care for honorfics being left in. Though it IS easier reading with them left out. You know, I don’t think it industry is entirely screwed. The translator for the Dragon Ball manga did an excellent job, in my opinion. ^_^

    But when it comes to stuff where you can hear the voices, I like the honorifics being left in. I think it’s just weird to hear somebody say, like, “Usagi-chan”, but not seeing the “-chan” in the subtitles. XD

    • Elly

      That is a much harder thing to deal with. In our PGSM subs we leave our honorifics, even in sentences where the honorifics are clearly audible.

      I’ve been thinking of writing up an honorific guide for anybody curious as to what they mean and how they are used in context.

      I agree that the industry isn’t totally screwed, but it’s getting worse as the years go by.

  7. Bobby

    It’s one thing to translate and interpret in a formal or business situation.
    It’s another thing when you’re writing a translation for entertainment purposes, such as light novels, manga, or subtitles for a movie, for example.
    It may be seen as nothing more than a slight nuance in Japanese, but it’s such an important nuance to the rest of us!

    • Elly

      And it’s completely possible to make that important nuance apparent to native English speakers in English without relying on Japanese honorifics – regardless of the type of translation you are doing or the audience you are targeting. :)

  8. Dferreira


    First of all, please forgive me my poor English.

    Thank you very much for this insightul article. It replies to a lot of questions I had.

    What’s your opinion on flipping manga art? Obviously, it changes a lot of things (like people using their left hand instead of right, or people talking about something at right when the drawing shows it at left).

    I prefer non-flipped art, yet I must say that reading text from left to right while at the same time my eyes should be scanning the art from righ to left makes it a tiresome experience.

    People forget that it is not just the panels that should be read from right to left, it is also the art inside each panel.

    So, while I have both flipped and non-flipped manga editions, I don’t make much ado about it. Either solution has its pros and cons.

    What’s your opinion? Will it be a never ending discussion?

    Best regards.

    • Elly

      Personally I prefer unflipped art, but only because when you flip it it distorts the orientation – especially for things like eyes. Sometimes the results look pretty odd.
      I don’t have a strong opinion about it either way because my specialty isn’t art and it’s not something I feel qualified to comment on. Sorry for the cop-out answer!

  9. C

    I’m quite confused how your argument about honorifics relates in any way to your argument against poor translation of English. I’m part of a scanlation group, and your example using Miki-san and Tanaka-san, with the honorific-retained translation being second-rate compared with the honorific-absent one seems…well, ridiculous. Retaining honorifics has absolutely no relationship to the ability to translate; some of us just prefer to have a more natural retention of the original relationship in Japanese.

    You seem to be fixated on this idea that, “Well if they go the lazy route and use honorifics, they must suck as translators too!” Which…is ridiculous. Many of us are perfectly adept translators and scanlators who just prefer to use the original Japanese terminology, considering its ubiquity in many fandoms.

    “And it’s completely possible to make that important nuance apparent to native English speakers in English without relying on Japanese honorifics – regardless of the type of translation you are doing or the audience you are targeting. :)”

    Except it’s not possible–not entirely. Maybe for ‘sensei’ or something where there IS usually a direct translation, but to have a character calling ‘Tanaka-sempai’ by only their last name or first name or something equally horrific and out of place like ‘Upperclassman Tanaka’…there’s really no way of getting out of that without sounding like you’re trying too hard.

    Why not just be natural, since everyone’s used to it and cultural mores are retained more effectively?

    • Elly

      As I wrote above: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with suffixes being left intact; it’s just that the way the manga industry cuts corners and produces an overall bad translation generally leaves suffixes in. It’s kind of a “guilt by association” thing. Some modern translators of very high caliber choose to leave suffixes in – and that’s just fine. There are many different styles of translations and one is not necessarily always “better” than another one. But when it comes to how the manga industry in general handles translations, it’s no longer an argument over stylization. Their work is generally lazy and shoddy as a result, and suffixes are only a symptom of a much larger problem.”

      As you have mentioned, it *is* possible to make a good translation that utilizes suffixes. The trouble is that in the case of licensed manga translations, suffixes are symptomatic of a much larger problem; that is, laziness. As I am sure you are already aware, it is much easier to produce a translation that relies heavily on the use of suffixes than it is to create a translation which avoids them altogether. It’s much easier to plug in “sempai” than it is to try to convey the junior / senior nuance the sentence in English, without using any Japanese at all. Laziness is a problem that is rampant in professional manga translations, and it rears its ugly head at every level: bad editing, bad image quality / graphical design work, translation word inconsistencies, incorrect translations, etc. My argument is that leaving honorifics intact is a hallmark of a bad translation; not proof thereof.

      “Why not just be natural, since everyone’s used to it and cultural mores are retained more effectively?”

      This is only true among hardcore anime and manga fans. Most native speakers of English are generally not aware of the Japanese honorifics system. The point of a translation is to make the Japanese language material accessible to *any* English reader. Even dissertations with Japanese to English translations do not make use of Japanese honorifics, in spite of the fact that the readers are often familiar with them. It’s simply not professional.

      “Except it’s not possible–not entirely. Maybe for ‘sensei’ or something where there IS usually a direct translation, but to have a character calling ‘Tanaka-sempai’ by only their last name or first name or something equally horrific and out of place like ‘Upperclassman Tanaka’…there’s really no way of getting out of that without sounding like you’re trying too hard.”

      I disagree. While it is certainly more difficult to make the nuance of the word “sempai” apparent in English, it isn’t impossible. More adept translators are better able to deal with trickier honorifics such as the one you’ve mentioned. As always, it comes back to context. Translation isn’t a word-for-word dictionary definition swap-out. The lines are never 1:1. A lot of what is “translated” must first be interpreted. If the word sempai is used in the context of a junior addressing a senior classmate, it may be more appropriate to drop the word sempai altogether from the English version and use more polite speech to reflect the differences in social status. In other classes it may be appropriate to call the character a Senior or a Junior (in the case of people referred to as sempai or kouhai). It really just depends…you know what I mean?

  10. acelee

    Curious how you would deal with gobi, like “dattebayo” for Naruto and other end-of-sentence quirks like -kero for a frog character, etc.?

    • Elly

      It doesn’t really appear in the Sailor Moon meta series, so I don’t have enough experience dealing with it to comment. Sailor Moon translations are the only amateur ones that I do, everything else is for business services so that kind of language doesn’t appear. Sorry!

  11. vee

    For gobi, couldn’t you just translate it into the closest English equivalent? If a frog character says -kero at the end of a sentence, change it to -ribbit.

  12. Zoom909


    Although I understand the point you’re trying to make, you are conflating “skill level/accuracy” with “style”.
    Choosing to translate literally vs in paraphrase is a stylistic choice, depending on the material and the target audience.
    Similarly, use of name suffixes or English workarounds is also a stylistic choice. If the intended audience is familiar with these suffixes, the translator may choose to take advantage of this knowledge and preserve information which might otherwise be lost. Suffixes are a key element of personal relationships in anime/manga. It cannot be compared to putting honorifics in a business document.

    • Elly

      You make an interesting point, as suffixes do add information about relationships between people in anime and manga. However, in many published novels, where suffixes would be used in the Japanese original, they do not appear in the English version. As I noted, it is possible to have an accurate translation that utilizes suffixes, but I believe it is stylistically superior to not expect your English-speaking audience to understand the complexities of the Japanese honorifics system to read a work of fiction. This is especially important in the case of anime/manga, which is (in general) intended to be enjoyed by a young audience without any formal training in Japanese language.

  13. ルミ

    I really love this article and stumbled upon it (and this lovely website!) when googling what to do about honorifics when translating manga.

    I’m working on a translation of an web manga (that’s free–called 喫茶部へようこそ) to build my own translation skills and spread the manga to an English audience and felt while using honorifics would be more accurate to show relationship, it doesn’t read well for some reason in English.

    Then I found this article and I realized I want to challenge myself to develop my writing skills so that I could write a manga that shows these relationships without relying on honorifics first, so I’ve decided to leave them out. Even if I decide later on depending on what audience I’m translating for to put honorifics into my translations. I need to grow as a writer first before I make that kind of decision.

    I think if a fan really wants to know what honorific is being used in the interchange between two characters, they should start looking into the Japanese version and find out for themselves.

    One of my first challenges with translating 喫茶部へようこそ was figuring out how to translate the phrase 学年ワースト, which is used both to describe the character’s position on the class ranking (therefore, could technically be paraphrased as “the worst in the grade”), but it is also used as a nickname by her later on love interest. I eventually came to the decision that I should translate the nickname as “dummy” instead, because saying “Hey, class worst,” just doesn’t sound natural.

    Your website is really challenging me to think about what sounds powerful in English, carries the nuances and stays accurate.

    When I come to the chapter if 喫茶部 in which one of the side characters wants to start calling his girlfriend by her first name and “chan” though, instead of her last name and “san”, I’ll have to figure out what to do then since I’ve decided to leave out honorifics.

  14. Vanessa

    There are words and puns in Japanese that don’t translate over, no matter what. By using off-equivalents, you’re not being a superior translator, you’re providing misinformation, and if that phrase is a key phrase, there will be a difference in how Western fans and Japanese fans remember it. I live in Japan now, so such translators that had me miss out on the same jokes or references get absolutely no thanks from me. I have no affection for overly-liberal translations, either.
    I don’t know about Del Rey’s quality in translation, but I loved how they kept their honorifics intact, how they handled sfx’s (SFX’s are art, too, and how some of these companies redo them and make them look super tacky like in an Archie comic has me gagging), and how they provided translation notes in the back. I’ve never had a printing issue from them, ever.
    There are a limited number of different honorifics in English, and many in Japanese. If the translator decides to keep those intact to stay true to the original, you have 0 right to judge them for it, or act like they’re slacking. Wanting to keep honorifics is not relevant to being a weeaboo. The weeaboo translations are the ones who keep “kawaii” or “sugoi” or other things that have an English equivalent. If you think translating “dattebayou” to “Believe it!” is good translation… just, no. If you tell me translating “Bakanda” (mocking someone with the name Kanda) to “Jerkanda” or just “idiot Kanda” (well, the latter is rather acceptable but), I’ll look at you funny.
    There are also series in which honorifics are very important to be kept, like in manga where the characters are in an environment with a set hierarchy, like in the gokudou, or in period settings. Omitting them in your translations is your choice; but to say that anything besides your standard is lazy and inferior is pretentious and ridiculous.

    • Elly


      Please re-read my last paragraph, quoted below for your convenience, bolded for emphasis.

      “But I *like* reading suffixes!

      Power to you! There’s nothing inherently wrong with suffixes being left intact; it’s just that the way the manga industry cuts corners and produces an overall bad translation generally leaves suffixes in. It’s kind of a “guilt by association” thing. Some modern translators of very high caliber choose to leave suffixes in – and that’s just fine. There are many different styles of translations and one is not necessarily always “better” than another one. But when it comes to how the manga industry in general handles translations, it’s no longer an argument over stylization. Their work is generally lazy and shoddy as a result, and suffixes are only a symptom of a much larger problem.”

      I acknowledge that it is possible to create a good, authentic translation while leaving suffixes intact. However, the vast majority of official companies do not produce good translations, and their usage of honorifics in their releases is sloppy and unprofessional – just like the rest of their work.

  15. Chill

    Hi, I stumbled upon this article after googling about professional translation in the industry, especially novels.

    I completely agree with your take that an interpretive and stylistic approach is necessary in correctly conveying Japanese-to-English conversations, especially including the nuances of Japanese manner of speech (including polite, casual, impolite, and rude forms). I’m curious as to your take whether it should also be a stylized approach whenever characters suddenly change their manner of speech in a given conversation. A given example such as when someone senior insists to someone of lower rank to drop their use of title, suffix, or polite manner of speech altogether. I know for one it will drastically change how a translator would word the transcribed sentence and poses a more difficult scenario in part of the translator.

    My second question would be your take on Japanese nouns without a direct English translation. A given example would be native cuisine or traditional words such as parts of a Kimono or parts of a musical instrument. I’ve read a few published works and some translators tried too hard in translating something like taiyaki into bean curd pancake or mochi into rice cake; which in my opinion aren’t good translations since even English equivalents does not come close to the original. It was during these instances I wished the company should have just placed a translation note by the end of the volume or a subscript in the page detailing the word instead of trying to force localization in an effort to translate everything into English and losing the intended meaning.

    • Elly

      I think translators should use a stylized approach when translating heirarchal speech. So in the example you gave, I think the translator should use some liberty to say, “You don’t need to be so formal”, in place of a more literal line like “You don’t have to call me -sama.” A little artistic license is definitely needed in those situations.

      Similarly, for translating Japanese food items, location names, etc. – I think it’s best to leave those intact if they are unfamiliar (items like sushi are so common place that it’s safe to simply romanize them) and include a small translator’s note.

      The goal should be to make understanding the work as simple for a native English speaker as possible. So you don’t want to leave in too many technical or obscure references if there is another way around it.

  16. Relm

    Honestly, I agree, but almost all of the clients I work for (in manga) want suffixes these days, so it’s not even my choice. I’ve handed in stuff sans-suffixes and had it handed back saying, “put them back.” It’s kind of frustrating as a translator to be funneled into that style because of what’s happened with the industry.

    But I if you’re talking about shoddy translations, I don’t think the problem is the translators – it’s the editing. I have different editing requirements depending on the project, but to be frank, the editing standards are low as hell. For one project, I have my work go through one editor and than back to me and then it goes through a brief scan by someone else and then it’s done. Bam. For two other clients, I have it go through two edits by two different editors (and for one project, neither of these editors is fluent in Japanese) and then a quick scan. If I make a Japanese error on a number of my projects, nobody is going to catch it. And I think I’m pretty good, but everyone makes errors!

    From what I’ve heard, the editing standards used to be so much higher, like 3+ edits. But we don’t have the time for that anymore. I mean, I have to get stuff out the door for online simultaneous release projects in a matter of days. I’ve had same-day and next-day projects – it happens at least once a month. And it’s hard to consistently pump out quality when I don’t have the time to do more than a single quick edit. I read something by a translator who started back in the nineties who talks about taking a week or two to do a book, reading the whole thing beforehand, doing three edits before handing it to his editor and then getting paid 18 bucks a page for doing a text-only translation with no lettering… ha HA! What kind of Shangri-La did he live in? Who the hell has the time for all that?!

    These days, the per-page rate is so low, you just have to throw it out the door and be done if you want to make a decent wage. I do way more volume than what I’ve heard translators did back ten or fifteen years ago, and I do my best not do go over 40 hours a week because it is not worth my while to put in all that extra time and I want a life. I would love, love LOVE to make 4 dollars a page. Shit, if I made that, I could do an extra edit on many of my titles and rent my own apartment to boot! But that’s not the way the industry rolls. If you want translation quality to get better, translators need to be paid better, man. And we need more edits, and more editors who can speak Japanese.

    Sigh, I’m so bitter and jaded already. I think I’m going to go back to school and study something useful, like computer science >_>;;

    • Elly

      Hey Relm,

      I completely relate to your experience. I’ve dealt with having to work with editors who don’t know any Japanese. Watching them shred my work to bits or let stupid errors go into print was so frustrating that I quit. I was willing to face JLPT 1kyuu rather than deal with that nonsense for another day. I still translate manga, but only privately for individuals who won’t pressure me into using suffixes. I don’t think I could go back to working for publishing companies because I don’t like other people mucking up my work. And as you mentioned the pay rate is ABYSMAL. I charge roughly $4/page of manga for private clients, and I’ve never looked back from making the choice to work for individuals rather than publishing companies. I get more control over the product I create, I have time to do editing, and I’m paid fairly for my time. I really recommend going the route of a private freelancer rather than working for companies – it’s much more satisfying than being overworked and bitter and jaded!

      $18/page for translation sure would be nice for manga! I can charge that kind of rate for medical or legal documents perhaps, but manga? HAH. If only!

      I have this feeling, though, that the standards for translation are only going to continue to decline as publishers try to squeeze more and more dollars out of each person they contract to freelance translations. That seems to be the direction the industry is headed in, and I get why the executives are making that choice. But it sucks for folks like you and me, who went and developed this skill only to have it completely marginalized. It seems such a waste to take someone who can translate J<->E and have them fixing up people’s laptops, you know what I mean? =(

      • Relm

        Thanks for your reply. Haha, the only thing worse than having an editor who can’t speak proper Japanese is having one who can’t speak proper English! I’ve had editors that want me to write stuff that’s flat-out grammatically incorrect. I had to fight to protect my decisions on those!

        I’d like to hope that once the manga industry finally gets a firm hold on digital distribution, piracy will decrease and the industry will recover enough to pay everyone better. But maybe that’s just a pipe dream. I’m not usually one to hammer on pirates (I’ve pirated plenty myself), but it’s particularly bad with manga. I’ve seen almost all the legit manga I translated and got paid for up on any number of scanlation aggregate sites, where people read them not even knowing where they came from and how easy they are to get digitally. Manga is so much easier to get and so much cheaper than back when I started reading it… and yet people are not buying.

        Can I ask, do you do lettering as well? Because I do lettering as well as translation, and I’ve wondering if this is common practice or not. From what I’ve seen, most places tend to have separate letterers, and making translators do both is a new thing some do to cut costs, but it kills the quality because most translators are translators first and letterers second and don’t really have much in the way of Photoshop skills, nevermind, say, owning a tablet.

  17. Caitlin

    I found this article very informative and mind opening. You’ve included some great examples as to why honorifics aren’t the best option. Personally, I enjoy reading them for a couple reasons but I also don’t think it excuses poor English grammar.

    First off, the honorifics which aren’t necessarily suffixes but can be used as words such as “senpai” and “sensai” are things which to my mind can be translated into English fairly simply. If one character says “You’re my Senpai in this industry”, it isn’t that difficult to say “You have more experience in this industry”, and so on. (Keep in mind I don’t know Japanese so feel free to politely correct me.) I haven’t read a great deal of manga but one of the ones I’ve really enjoyed is Skip Beat! ( スキップ・ビート!) by Yoshiki Nakamura. I’ve read both the official English versions as well as scanlations and one instance in particular really stood out of me. At one instance a young boy actor Hiou calls out another characters name. Up until this point, the person doing the sclantion had been using honorifics, except at this instance they didn’t. The importance of this was that it was a critical moment for this character and showed changing moods. I wish I could find the exact page and show you but I don’t seem to be able to. Sometimes the translator did go too far and left in words like Oniisan which appear to have a clear translation of “big brother” and often would translate phrases as “This place” and then have a translators note specifying that the kanji for “This place” was “hospital”. Another issue I find is when translators will sometimes use honorifics and sometimes won’t. If in the first several pages I keep seeing -san and -chan then all of a sudden it drops, that’s just more confusion.

    On the other hand, proper English grammar is a must as well as ensuring that the English speaking audience understands the references. One of the other mangas I read is Love Com (or Lovely Complex depending on who you ask). I became curious how my print copy differed from scanlations and I was surprised. In the scanlation, the book starts out by one of the main characters saying this, “I’ve been tall ever since I was a kid. Even though my name is Koizumi, I was always the last one in line at morning assemblies.” At this point several other students are shouting “Oisumi” at her. She then says “You’re wrong, I”m not Oisumi! I’m sick of this!”

    However in the official English version, my print copy reads as this: “I’ve always been tall for my age… …so at school assemblies and stuff I’d always be at the very back.” And this time around the other students are yelling Koizumi. She then says, “And with a last name like koizumi which means ‘LITTLE spring’ …. It’s like, sorry my name isn’t Oizumi. I.E Big Spring.” Here, the translator took special care to make sure it made sense to an English audience.

    When it comes to honorifics specifically, I think a lot can be left up to personal preference. I think one of the reasons I enjoy it is because it’s a quick way to view a characters disposition towards another character. It’s not a requirement but it can help. I agree with a previous poster that if you’re going to use honorifics and suffixes, include a list of what they mean. Often times the mangas I read will include a sort of “how to read right to left” guide in the back of the book, this should be no different. Grammar, however, is very important to change over, in my opinion.

  18. Rascal

    “The American manga industry is screwed. Personally I avoid using Japanese honorifics and suffixes in my translations because in my professional life it is absolutely verboten to do so.”
    So your pride as “professional” translator is more important than expectations of fans? Many of us wants translation as close as possible to original. Cutting honorifics is unforgivable, the same goes to names of food, changing whole dialogues, jokes etc. When I’m buying manga, I expect to feel the original, their culture, their talking style etc. I don’t want americanized shit, only because it’s “professional”. I’m spending on it my hard earned money, so I don’t want to read a pride of translator, I want to read TRANSLATION (not interpretation or imagination of “translator”). And I’m not a random person who don’t know anything about translation and complaining. I’m learning Japanese for 4 years, I’m reading original releases if I only can, so please, don’t tell me that ANYTHING could replace original honorifics or talking style.
    And one more thing – anime/manga readers are reading it enough for knowing what honorifics and other untranslatable words mean, so it’s not problem at all. OK you tell me “what about ‘new’ people”? Translator notes. Look on Seven Seas releases. This is exactly how translations should looks like.
    Ah, one more thing, sorry for my not professional English. It’s not my main language.

    • Rascal

      Oh, one more thing – like someone said above. SFXs are the art. Of course it SHOULD be translated somehow, but not by complete erasing it and putting English equivalent. Some of YenPress releases handles it pretty well – they are leaving orignal SFX as it is, but next to it it is romanized version and english equivalent – this is totally ok, and you just can’t do anything better that this.

  19. StarvingMilennial

    I am one of these translators. I’m JLPT N2 and feel like I have decent English writing skills. I try to do a good job, but like others have said above, I have to pump out material *fast* to keep my earnings above minimum wage, and I get pretty much zero help from my editor. I can tell you these conditions in the industry are only going to get worse unless the translators in it manage to unionize.

    But we probably never will unionize, because the conditions of our labor make it impossible. I work from home and am totally isolated. I don’t have any experienced colleagues to help me develop and show me the ropes, much less to lead an organizing campaign.

    Elly, you mention that it’s considered a bad sign to stay in manga translation for too long, that you can get better work by networking. I can’t see how I possibly could network, though, when I have no contact with anyone except by email. Do you have any advice for how to network, to meet other translators, to go on and make a decent living as a translator?

    As it stands, I’m literally losing my mind (although my working conditions are only one factor causing that), and I’m starting to wonder if I might be better off becoming a CNA or something.


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