Letters to a Young Translator, Part I: The Initial Read

Table of Contents

Part I: The Initial Read

Dear X,

In your last missive to me, you spoke of getting together with a few of your friends and starting a group to translate a visual novel or two. I was glad to hear it; I have found translation to be an enjoyable, challenging, and fulfilling hobby, and I am always excited to see new blood coming in to fill the ranks. I thought, then, that I should give you some encouragement, some tips and tricks of the trade that you might find yourself wanting in the near future. These are lessons that I have had to learn — mainly the hard way — and I hope that you do not end up making some of the mistakes that I have made in the past.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let us begin at the beginning.

It is not surprising that, given the increasing prevalence of Japanese media forms in the market today, groups of fans have taken it into their own hands to translate and then distribute content — whether it be anime, manga, eroge, what have you — to a larger audience. My purpose in writing this series of letters to you is not to debate the ethics (or lack thereof) of certain distribution methods, nor is it to attempt to sway you toward my moral axis — those are battles that I already lost a long time ago, and they are not ones I wish to fight again. No, my only wish is to relate to you some of ways in which we work, and my only hope is that you might find some of this information useful in your own endeavors.

First, we shall speak of the personnel, as without the people the operation is a dead husk — a structure given form for a specific purpose that no longer exists. In our case, insani is a two-man team: one translation lead and one technical lead. Granted, both Edward and I could hypothetically serve every role required in a translation project — we are both generalists in that way — but it is true that my specific skillset lends me more toward translation, while Edward’s specific skillset makes him the natural choice for programming duties. Between us, we also take care of any graphical translations that might arise, and serve various roles as we draw near to the end of the production process. However, those other roles are a story for another day, and I will not bother to go into them in any great detail here. It should suffice if you understand that we do not attempt to cower behind the specialized safety of our titles and hope that the unpleasant and boring work will be done by someone else.

I am sure that there exist some translation groups that decide on the pieces they will translate without ever having read through said works in their entirety — and while I suppose it might be possible to craft a passable translation that way, my gut tells me otherwise. This is why the first thing that happens in our production process is a long initial read of the work to be translated by the translator. During this pass, the translator must keep a precise record of the following things:

  • Language difficulty: Is this piece at a 6th-grade level? A 12th-grade level? A rocket-scientist level? How comfortable are you with the vocabulary, the grammatical structures, the idioms, and the narrative flow of the piece? If you find yourself struggling just to read the piece you are trying to translate, then you should probably either (a) seek help from someone with more experience and skill, (b) come back to this piece after you’ve grown more skilled, or (c) find yourself a piece that is more at your level.
  • Length of the piece: How long is this piece? How many hours does it take to read through it? If it is multi-/branching-path, then how many branches are there, and how long do those take to play through? What is your final deadline? Is it feasible for you to translate this amount of text given the deadline that you have? There are all too many groups and people out there who undertake a translation project without realizing just how long the project is going to be. Most of these groups sputter out fairly quickly, for obvious reasons. Don’t be one of them.
  • Target audience: Who is in it? More importantly, who is not in it? This will inform the kind of language you will be allowed to use when you start translating the piece yourself. It would be inappropriate, for instance, to include copious amounts of swear words in a piece targetted mainly at 6-year-olds. It would be equally inappropriate to employ a language level suitable for “Dick and Jane” when the writer you are translating happens to be the likes of, say, Yuuichi Suzumoto or Ichiro Sakaki.
  • Graphics to be translated: That’s right, the translator needs to keep count of these, and take screenshots when they come up. This has to do with the fact that when the production process starts in earnest, the graphics should be the first things to be translated. Why? Because otherwise your graphics editors will be left standing still while they could be doing something. Anyone who has taken introductory courses in Computer Science knows of the laundry machine analogy of pipelining — same thing goes here.
  • Difficulty of graphics translation: Depending on the skill of your graphics staff, this may be more or less of an issue. However, you should never assume that your graphics staff can do something. And when you go to ask your graphic editor whether a certain edit is possible or not, do not ask “is it possible?” — you will almost invariably get a “yes” to that. The question to ask is “given your skill level and the set amount of time we have, is such a thing feasible?”, followed rapidly by “exactly how much time do you need?”
  • Readme and manual files: Do not forget about these; they are as much part of the translation as the script files are.
  • Movies and other media: As above, these will need to be translated as well.

When I admonish you to “keep a precise record” of these things, I do not mean “keep a vague idea in your head”. Write things down. Note where and when graphics occur. Detail how long it took you to read through the piece, and multiply that time by at least a factor of 10 — that should, unless you are blindingly fast, give you some rough idea of at least how long you will be spending in translation. If the translation of a piece is beyond your current skill level, do not be afraid to alert your team to that fact. This will save you an enormous amount of headache and heartache in the long run. Most of all, do not let anyone try to rush you in this first reading; by now you should be aware of the fact that it is absolutely crucial to the success of your project, and that if you do not do it, you will have to deal with the problems that arise from this lack of preparation later.

The other thing that should go without saying is this: when you are doing your initial read of the piece, you are doing nothing more or less than a preliminary translation of the piece in your head. Do not ever make the mistake of going “oh, I’ll figure this out later as I translate along”, or “oh, I’ll look it up in my dictionary later”. Do it now. Make sure you understand the piece you are translating before you ever set pen to paper. Or perhaps you are one of those people who enjoys walking out of the bathroom without pulling up his pants?

Once your initial read is done, you will need to report back to the rest of the team, and detail what it is that you have found. Be as specific as you can in this briefing, and begin to assign specific tasks to specific people as soon as is feasible. For instance, in the vast majority of cases, graphics editors can begin work on getting graphical edits together even without the programmer having had to figure out the data structures and rip the relevant data files out of the archives.

In the worst-case scenario, you may have to report back that you do not think this piece is doable. If you are going to say that, you need to be able to tell your team precisely why — otherwise you could find yourself getting pushed to do things that you are in no way ready for. But if you do end up having to admit that you are not quite skilled enough to translate the prospective piece yet, then you do yourself credit — that means that more than likely, at some point in the future you will be able to translate said piece with skill and efficiency. It is better to admit what you cannot do than to lie and say that it is possible …

… after all, when the bar for “acceptable metric” has to be set to 0 lines per day, the ability of anyone — regardless of skill in language — to do a translation rises to 100%.

The ball is in your court. What will you do? I suppose we shall see next time.

Sincerely yours,

Seung Park
Lead Translator


Essarem @ May 24th, 2006 | 7:00 am

Surpassingly insightful and well-written, particularly because I was expecting to read a blog entry. =)

This has further inspired me to attempt something for, say, al|together 2007. Sadly, my knowledge of non-English languages currently consists of nothing but nouns and verbs, but hopefully I’ll be able to understand a simple story by that time…

Plus, the “Game Engine Development” classes I’m supposed to take should help me understand RealLive and such, at least a little.

*ahem* Anyway, enough self-oriented ranting. Very, very nice letter there. Sound advice, and proof of why I like your work so much.

Haeleth @ May 25th, 2006 | 8:01 pm

Golly, I never realised I was getting quite so much wrong. :P

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