When and how to start off as a vn translator.

It’s a question with many sides to it: who is capable of being a translator, how do you know if you are capable, if you wanted to get into it, how do you start. Well? Are there any answers?

Probably not a satisfactory one. Here’s the problem: we live in a world where, for the most part, you can do anything and say anything you want — whether the rest of the world thinks you’re a crackpot, a threat, or a blessing is another story. So, all of us “translators” essentially just decided to stand up and say they were a translator at some point in their lives. By whatever internal measure they have, they decide they can take up that title, and produce works under it.

That’s not particularly helpful. All the time we see X saying that Y shouldn’t be translating since they’re doing such a horrible job of it. And you know what, sometimes, they’re right. No matter how much you want to be considerate, you will find someone that is just doing more harm than good by putting out a ‘translation’ that sounds like it has nothing to do with the original. Think back to the translation rating scale. I’d argue that people who consistently produce F level works really should stop wasting people’s time with “translations” that aren’t.

Even taking the excuse of “well I’ve said already that I suck at translating, so you shouldn’t complain” doesn’t work. People may “know” that you “suck” on some intellectual level, but they won’t know the important “by how much”, nor at what points. There’s a big difference between 10% wrong, 40% wrong, and 80% wrong, and there’s crazies out there who think 40% wrong isn’t “sucking”, let alone 80%. And if there’s a 50/50 chance that a given line is wrong, and they’ve all been edited heavily so it’s a smooth picture, how can you pick out the ‘wrong’ parts?


But here’s the catch. You learn about translation best by doing it, then thinking about what you’re doing, then doing some more. Over and over, building experience as you go. Are we facing a paradox here?

Not quite.

See, people tend to take issue with “horrible translations” when they feel that it’s damaging a work’s reputation by misrepresenting it. Since number of translations for a given work tends to be 0 or 1 in most cases, it’s an understandable reaction. There doesn’t exist any other reference for even a motivated reader to figure out what’s wrong without resorting to learning a new language.

In most cases this is where we see the ever common, and always stupid arguments where one side shouts “This translation is crap!” and the other side shouts “It’s better than nothing! If you can do better why don’t you!” That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax I’ll probably rant about at some other time. For now, I pose this question, what’s the fun of generating all this drama?

Second question. Why must your first translation in your life be the first thing the entire world will ever see from you? Even Mozart must have played with musical ideas in private, somewhere somehow, before writing his own compositions, child prodigy that he was. He certainly had musical training at some point. Are you proposing to dive into a translation headfirst with no practice, no training, probably not even thinking about what it involves, and expect to be anything but a disaster?

In the VN translation world, it’s even worse. Like a normal book, you’ve got one shot at it, because there’s only one work. If you horribly twist what the original is saying the first time, and release a second edition, how many people are going to care enough to read it a second time, especially if you did a poor job the first? It’s not like a series of manga or anime where as you go on in episodes, you get noticeably better each release.

So do us all a favor. Shut up, and try it out. It’s not hard, all it takes is some time and the ability to do something without having a bunch of anonymous people on the Internet going “ooo” and “ahh” like circus monkeys. Translate something short, like a 10 page story, or a web site, a book of manga, whatever. Do it seriously, do it the best you can.

When you’re done, take a stretch, grab a snack, then come back, quietly take your work, go to the first page — and translate it again. From scratch. Comparing against what you’ve done before. Check every detail you can, grammar, syntax, tone, word choice, readability. Don’t assume you got it right the first time. Do it as many times as you can stand without going insane, or until you find yourself unable to make it any better.

Gaining experience

By the time you’re unable to make your work any better no matter how hard you try, you’ve reached the limit of your ability. Now’s a good time to get another pair of eyeballs to look at it. Don’t fling it on the Internet! Just find someone, anyone, even a non-translator, and let them take a look. Chances are, they’ll have issues about it. Learn from them. Repeat this a few more times for good measure.

If you can find yourself another translator to work with, even if they’re around your level or worse, bounce ideas off each other. The chances that you and someone else both understand the same things the same way is probably low, and even just sitting down together and tearing a puzzling sentence apart or doing research is good. Of course, working with someone more experienced is faster and more educational, but we all have to learn on our own eventually.

Incidentally, setting up an IRC room like #denpa (see the ‘contact’ link on the menu for details) was an effort of mine to gather other people interested in visual novel translation, for the very purpose of letting people hang around and have a place to throw ideas at each other. Not just translators of course, but the idea is the same, people similar interests and aspirations in a place to help each other out.

Only showing a people you more or less know and/or respect has a few good effects. First the probability that they’ll give you useful criticism is higher. Second, they’re less likely to get worked up about what horrors you’ve inflicted on the original work. Also, you’re not putting out a substandard work that would have any real effect on the work in the public eye.

Stepping into public life

Finally, you’ve practiced for months and months, you’ve annoyed the hell out of your friends and peers, you look back at your old work and want to bury them in the back yard. You now have to come to a decision. Are you ready to do something publicly.

What does it mean to do something publicly? It should mean being responsible for your work. None of that, “I suck, but here’s something since you people will take even the crap I can churn out, here you dogs.” attitude. You should be answerable for the quality of your work. If you read a piece of junk, don’t you sometimes want to shout “Give me my last 10 minutes!!”? If a work was worth your blood and sweat to translate, is it acceptable to know you haven’t done as much as you can to make sure you didn’t put it in a bad light by your inability?

It is because anyone can do anything they want on the Internet that I’m pointing this argument inward. You could try to say that you’re “ready” when the world at large stop complaining about your work. But that’s not really true. Who’s reading your work to begin with? It’s easy to mistake being unknown, or ignored, with being ‘silently accepted’.

Personally, I bumbled into public view as an accident after about 6-7 months of working quietly alone. It wasn’t the best way to go about things, but once out in view, there’s no choice but to do the best I can and own up to it.

There will be people who will praise you, and there will be people who would throw criticism and insults. This is true no matter what your level, from rank newbie to award winning professional. How you deal with them is up to you, but I’d pay just as much attention to the insults as the praise. They hurt more, but you’re more likely to find something to use to improve yourself in them. Identifying which criticism to listen to is the hard part.

Carving a niche

Ultimately, your status as a translator isn’t determined directly by yourself. Sooner or later, you’ll come across other translators, especially in the public arena, and they’ll comment on your work. It’s from joining a community of respected peers that the title “translator” takes on any real meaning. When translators stop saying “this is wrong, that is wrong, what are you smoking?” and start saying things like “I don’t agree with this, but if you chose that direction then fine” That’s a good sign of improvement.

Even then, resting on your laurels is a bad thing. Nothing says that your peer group is much better than you after all, in fact, they’re most likely not after you’ve mixed in for a time. There’s always room for improvement, read more books, on theory, on writing, other people’s translations, other languages. Reach out to new people, find new circles of peers. Whatever it is, there’s something more to do to move higher.


  1. 10/07/2009 10:12 AM | #

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