For a month and a week or so now, I’ve been working on a project intended to highlight people working in the manga industry and how hard they’re working to bring forth quality manga (well, that’s one of the things). When the project started, I intended to highlight three of more known positions in manga. I did:
- Advice on Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers
- Advice on Manga Translation, From Manga Translators
- Advice on Manga Editing, From Manga Editors
But, in all honestly, those were the three I had actually known about. But very early on in the project, I learned about another position that I had no clue what it was. That would be an adapter:
…I know a few others in the industry and can ask them if they’d be interested in chatting/emailing with you for your project. Are you focusing on just letterers for now, or looking for translators/adapters too?
So, after asking Lys Blakeslee, Yen Press’s letterer who participated in the project and the one who sent the quoted text above, about what a manga adapter is, her response back implied that it was essentially just like editing. That was what I thought for two weeks or so. Then I finally started getting in contact with as many industry folk as I possibly could for editors, and I went back to the first person Lys gave me contact info for.
This was the response:
…And I’d be delighted to contribute, but I’m actually an adapter/rewriter, not an editor, so I can’t answer this specific set of questions. If you have a similar set of questions about adaptation, I hope you’ll send them my way!
So yeah, I had no idea what a manga adapter/rewriter was. Now, I had seen something like “adaptation” in certain manga series. If you check the credits page of most Seven Seas and Viz Media works, I’d see “adaptation” listed there. I didn’t find much information on it. I decided I wasn’t going to worry about it then.
But flash forward back to a few weeks ago, and now I’ve run into a dilemma. It’s not something I planned to do. I could just turn down doing the last project on manga adapters and call it a day.
Well, that was until I did a search on Google just to find information on what a manga adapter was.
Thanks based Google! So with Google being relatively useless, and my curiosity of finding out what an adapter actually does to a manga series tempting me, I took the plunge. I now plan on asking manga adapters advice on manga adapting, which will be up in two weeks, potentially.
But after I got this response back when I decided to ask what a manga adapter is:
What the hell? A manga adapter? I never heard of this. That sounds like something an anime studio would use.
-Manga blogger I keep in touch with
It became clear that it needed some explanation, so now I’ll talk about manga adapters. So, I guess the basic question is:
What is a Manga Adapter?
Well, from what I gathered from asking around, the job of a manga adapter is to take the translated Japanese script done by a translator into English, and make it sound like words you commonly see on a day to day basis. They normally receive the Japanese manga and English translation in a Word Document, and would adjust the text so it fits the bubbles and reads well in English. “Sometimes a rewriter does very little other than restructure sentences so they sound clear in English,” Lianne Sentar, who happened to be an adapter/rewriter for TOKYOPOP for years before they shut down the manga division in 2011 and is the adapter for Seven Seas’s Alice of The Country of series, said via email. “But rewriters can also do a more deluxe adaptation–adding lines to help clear up ambiguous sections, making connections in dialogue to stitch together ideas that were vague in the Japanese, replicating Japanese speech patterns with distinct English speech patterns.”
Even with this description, I was still mostly confused. Actually, it wasn’t her explanation that was wrong. It’s more or less my line of thinking. My thought was that the translator would already be writing it in proper English form. And if there are any glaring errors or in need of some things that needed smoothing out, the editor would take care of it. So what’s the need for an adapter? Ysabet MacFarlane, who happens to be adapting/rewriting manga such as Haganai, Mayo Chiki, A Devil and Her Love Song, and Strobe Edge, gave me a reason why to think that with this comment: “If someone can translate accurately, for example, but isn’t necessarily a great writer, we can compensate for that.” What this reminded me was that, hey, not everyone can write. And some of the people translating manga might not even be native English speakers. Of course, even some English speakers can have trouble writing, but whatever the case, there can always be a third eye looking it over. I now reflect back to the Manga Editing advice piece, where Daniella Orihuela-Gruber’s had answered my question on what her biggest challenge is when it comes to editing manga. Her answer involved the tone of a manga series, and this particular line implies a few things:
It’s easier if there’s a rewriter on the manga, though. That way there’s three of us trying to get the language right. However, I don’t always get that privilege!
- It would be great to make sure we make this manga good, so having an extra set of eyes would be nice.
- As you can also tell, it depends whether or not an adapter/re-writer will be assigned to the project for an editor, probably by publisher.
Clearly, the tone of a character, story, and how it’s shown is important. So…what happens when it goes wrong? Well, I finally understood it by reading Sensei’s Ramblings on this very subject. This is actually a post done by translator William Flaganan, who explains what they do, and explains it simply: “The most vital domain of the rewriter is characterization. If the characters sound like the characters, then the rewriter is doing a good job. If all the characters sound the same, then there’s a problem.” Here’s the example he gives which finally made me understand the role of an adapter:
Let’s take the line:
I’m going out with friends. Do you want to come along?
Me and the guys are goin’ out. Comin’?
I gonna meet up with some friends! You coming too?
Some of the guys and I are hitting the bars. You coming with?
A few of us are getting together. Do you think you can come along?
Several of us are going to paint the town. Do you feel like joining in?
A few of us had plans to go out. I do hope you can accompany us.
Plans are afoot for a group outing. Your presence is requested.
So, what’s the issue you ask? Well, they all sound the same. For a manga series, it’s possible they can use the first, neutral sentence. The problem? “The experience,” says William, “wouldn’t be as rich as is could be, and worse, wouldn’t be as rich as it was for Japanese readers when they read the original book.” And that’s a big no-no. As expressed by the adapters themselves and William’s article, nobody will ever notice the rewriter made a mistake, which means they’ve done a great job. They will notice when they make a big one like that, and that would be an issue. Now, here’s the full answer from Daniella on tone in a manga series:
Trying to catch the right tone for the series is probably the hardest for me. The copy-editing, the formatting, and the quality control aspects of the job are all pretty easy, but finding language that fits the book the best is always a challenge.
You have to find the right balance of language befitting a character and the overall tone of the manga. This is less about localization or writing the character like they’re speaking in an accent, and more about making sure a trendy teenager in the 21st Century isn’t speaking like they’re a Victorian aristocrat. Unless the manga tells us that’s their thing.
It’s easier if there’s a re-writer on the manga, though. That way there’s three of us trying to get the language right. However, I don’t always get that privilege!
So look back at those lines again, and you should get the point. It’s obviously something we don’t keep in mind when we’re reading a manga series, but that’s what the industry people have to deal with. If we do notice an issue like that, then that means the Adapter has failed. And…apparently we need to bring pitchforks and stuff.
But ok, I think I’ve explained what an adapter is. I sincerely hope you’ve got it.
…So why adapter/re-writer? Why are there two names of these? Who coined the term?
“I don’t know.” That was the answer from Lianne. She then explained that they are used differently:
- Within the industry, it’s referred to as a rewriter.
- But in manga books, it’s “adaptation” or “adapted by”.
And yes, Ysabet was not sure either.
I don’t know, but I think that should get figured out. Or explained. It’d be nice to know who coined the names in the first place actually…
So what happened to Manga Adapting?
“it’s a dying art–” Lianne said.
“the job itself is disappearing”
As you probably figured out from the start, manga adapting is…not exactly popular, it seems. Back in the early days of manga, a lot of people could be adapters.
“My impression,” Ysabet said, “is that adapters were more common back when manga was becoming a big thing in North America, especially because the early licensed titles tended to get more heavily localized than most things do now. I’m pretty sure that most or all of the VIZ series that I was familiar with back in the late ’90s or so had adapters.” So for a good chunk of time, there was definitely more of a usage for them.
“When manga first started to be published, all of my friends who loved manga but didn’t know Japanese wanted to be rewriters,” mentioned William in his article. He added that you didn’t have to take the years of Japanese to actually become a part of the manga industry.
Of course, back then you can consider that a problem. In anime (especially 4kids, poor them), there was a lot of changes that as a kid you wouldn’t know or care about, but you then realize that they effectively changed the original intention of the work itself, and that, with only a handful of exceptions (think of Dragonball Z of course. Then think of Ghost Stories!), is bad.
That’s how manga was back then too.
“There used to be WAY more of a push to ‘Westernize’ scripts before the manga was released to North American bookstores,” Lianne said. “Names were changes to Western equivalents–Yamato became “Matt,” for example–and references to Japanese places, foods, and culture were removed or replaced with Western equivalents (onigiri became donuts). This was really ethnocentric, obviously! And bizarre at times.” But it was thanks to having the manga kept in its original form (right to left) that eventually this type of thinking slowed down. And has remained so for the most part nowadays.
But, as that change occurred, well, so did the number of adapters in the manga industry.
Needless to say, having the manga in its original form was not the reason adapters started to die down. There were a lot of factors. Of course, the manga industry going downward when the economy went south in 2008-2009 is a big factor. But mostly, translators and editors assumed the role of re-writing. As I explained at the start, only Viz and Seven Seas currently use adapters. With tighter budgets and a more targeted approach to what manga is licensed, as opposed to licensing just about everything, other companies might not need an adapter.
Another thing that I think contributes to a lack of adapters in the industry is learning Japanese. In doing the manga advice series, it’s become extremely clear — though not a surprise — you need to know some Japanese, whether it’s Hiragana/Katakana, to actual words, etc. As already mentioned, you didn’t have to know Japanese to be an adapter. But with more of a focus on maintaining the original work as seen in Japan as best as possible, knowing the language is important.
So…what’s next for adapters?
Hard to say definitively, though it is bleak from what I can tell. Viz and Seven Seas it seems will continue to rely on adapters for their manga, so for current adapters, things should be good. It’s just you can probably expect to be doing other things.
“It’s really a part-time freelance position, and most rewriters do other jobs in the industry as well (editing, proofing) to supplement their income and get more work,” Lianne said. “Rewriters are generally hired by the series, so you have to constantly apply for new series to add to your current ones or take the place of series that end.”
But as for anybody who would want to get into adapting…it…looks impossible right now. That said, it doesn’t mean there’s no chance. You’ll just have to be incredibly fortunate. That and if I can get in touch with any other manga adapters, we’ll see their take on the industry in some time. So there may be a way to break in. We just don’t know how.
So did any of you know about manga adapters/rewriters before reading this article? Do you understand what they do now? If you have any thoughts, feel free to reply in the comments below.
Justin is the Editor-in-Chief of Organization Anti-Social Geniuses, a Japanese Pop Culture blog. Even with all the time in the world, he’s almost certain to still be behind in anime and manga. You can follow him on Twitter (@Kami_nomi)
Johanna saysApril 11, 2014 at 11:48 am
Back in the day (2006), I interviewed Kelly Sue DeConnick for Publishers Weekly about her manga adaptation work. You can see an archive of that here:
Justin Stroman saysApril 11, 2014 at 7:01 pm
Haha, that is back in the day xD
“…So when I see someone rant about wanting their manga 100% authentic, I can’t help but think, well, to get that experience they really need to learn Japanese. And they might want to go live in Japan as well, and if they can, arrange to be born Japanese, because we can’t help but bring our own cultural experience to the table when we read these books—” I actually laughed at that. The interview is pretty good, and it has some stuff that’s still relevant even today. Thanks for sharing.
Daniella Orihuela-Gruber saysApril 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm
Great article, Justin! You’re doing such a wonderful job of educating readers on the ins and outs of the manga industry here in America.
Looks like you’ve gotten in contact with most of the re-writers I know and use for TOKYOPOP work, but if you’d like a few more names, send me an e-mail!
Justin Stroman saysApril 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm
And you have been emailed.
Marie saysApril 11, 2014 at 4:14 pm
I’m so glad someone is writing about manga adaptation! It’s something I do think about and try to discuss with others. I feel like especially in the last decade adaptation has become some sort of bad word. People think it is synonymous with Occidentalism. Yet, the jobs of re-writers are in no way about certain methods of the past but, giving a real voice and life to the words so they connect with an audience they were never intended for. The industry and fans have to get out of the shadow of the past! Increasingly the ideas of faithfulness and authenticity have taken on the form of literalness and exotic flair in people’s minds. Most English companies accept or even defend publishing a bastardized English/Japanese hybrid localization of which examples are very few in other publishing categories or countries.
The fact is that anything is going to be a little different language to language. The cultural equation is rarely one with an equal sign. It’s inevitable. So it’s very true a re-writer is probably going to get lambasted first. While I see fans point out typos or, translation mistakes most of what is discussed is always the awkwardness, the feel. It’s never good to encounter a polite character using an obscenity, vocabulary that is above or below a character’s age or experience, slang that falls outside of a character’s gender when they aren’t challenging norms at all or, even dialogue becoming unintentionally more humorous in English. But, there is also that richness that can come from foreign words or archaic language inserted when the setting is far in the past or outside of Japan. This richness gained despite the words never being found in the original, because the atmosphere is to be found on the page. I buy less manga in English because often I do think “this is like a chore to get through” or, “this reads so differently from the original”. But, I also have purchased, praised, and kept examples of more thorough adaptation which are enjoyable and engaging. Rewriting must be the hardest and nail-biting job to get just right.
So I’m always happy to see a separate adaptation credit because it gives me a little more optimism about the quality of the product. I presently feel another person charged with the task can make a big difference. It’s not that some people doing extra duties aren’t producing good work. It’s always a good thing to improve your skills and branch out so that you are a more valuable and flexible in the work force. Still, while it may not be unusual for any industry experiencing economic downturn, I think it’s frankly unfair some of the things translators or editors are expected to do (especially in a certain time frame). The difficult circumstances of that unfortunately show in the product sometimes.
Justin Stroman saysApril 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm
Sure, not a problem. I’m glad you liked it, and thanks for your thoughts on adaptation.
Hmm, yeah it seems from what I tell from what I’ve read and from other people I follow manga has gone through a lot of changes, from back when some were intended to be made for Western audiences, to getting closer to how it’s read in Japanese, to now worrying about whether or not the actual manga is properly vetted to be read correctly…which of course manages to come down to subjectivity. It’s tough, that’s definitely for sure…
Travis saysApril 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm
I only knew about manga adapters because I’m friends with Ysabet. However, for many years I worked as a freelance translator and one of the companies I did the most work for was Saban (later Disney, after they got bought out), and their approach to putting out anime (and live action stuff like Power Rangers) was to have someone translate the script and then a writer would use that script as a very loose base to write the English story. Translators were never even credited, just writers. So until meeting Ysabet, if I had seen the term manga adapter, I would have assumed the story had gone through the same sort of extreme localisation as the anime I worked on years ago.
Justin Stroman saysApril 11, 2014 at 7:13 pm
Huh, you did work for Saban? And did translation work for anime? Apologies in advance, but that just begs for me to ask questions…whenever I think of them!
“Translators were never even credited, just writers.”
Wow, that sucks. I wonder why? I guess they thought people back then wouldn’t care? Weird…
Travis saysApril 11, 2014 at 11:44 pm
Yep, I worked on many series (biggest names were Digimon and Power Rangers, but lots of other random stuff as well) for quite a few years in the late 90s/early 00s. They paid by the script, same price when I started as when I stopped working for them, and the one time I asked about getting more money, I was told that they could easily find someone to replace me. So basically not crediting the translators was just one of many ways they treated translators as disposable. (I don’t work as a translator anymore, but honestly, the majority of companies I worked for over the years had the same “anyone can translate, you’re worthless” mindset, which is one of the reasons I’m glad I only translate as a hobby these days.)
Alethea saysApril 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm
“It’s easier if there’s a re-writer on the manga, though. That way there’s two of us trying to get the language right. ”
Shouldn’t that be “three of us”? Surely the translator is part of the “trying to get the language right” process. What could an editor or rewriter do without a translation, written by a translator?
I have so much to say on this, I don’t know where to start. When Athena and I started working at TokyoPop, we had no experience, and no confidence in our writing ability, so we were happy to know that there would be someone polishing our translation, ideally making it better. It wasn’t long before we realized that it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds. There was one translation in particular that we did, and we saw how the rewriter had changed it and…
Okay, let’s take this back to the topic of character voice. Mr. Flanagan listed several examples of how different characters will say essentially the same thing in English, but in different ways. But what a lot of people seem to forget is that the same principle applies to character voice in Japanese as well. Just like there are different ways to say “I’m going out with friends. Do you want to come along?” in English, there are different ways to say “Minna to issho ni dekakeru. Kuru ka?” in Japanese, and there’s a lot more to it than just whether or not a character uses -masu and desu.
And not only that—Mr. Flanagan’s examples are very simple, but they each represent a category of characters, not a specific individual. Taking Negima! for an example, right at the beginning of the series, you have 31 characters that can be described as “a young woman,” but they each have a unique personality, and often a unique way of talking to match. So not all of them are going to say, “A few of us are getting together. Do you think you can come along?” (In fact, I’m pretty sure most of them would not say it just like that.)
So getting back to our bad experience with our own translation being rewritten. There were three main characters—the teenage boy protagonist, the mystery magical character, and the loner. The rewriter adapted the script so that the characters spoke just like you’d expect them to talk based on those descriptions alone: teenage boy protagonist talked like confident teenage boy protagonist (a la Zack Morris), mystery magical character talked mysteriously, and the loner talked like a low self-esteem loner. The problem is, part of the charm of this series is that the characters’ personalities were not what you would expect based on their categories. Teenage boy protagonist was the low self-esteem teenage boy, the mystery magical character was the confident Zack Morris type, and the loner was the one who seemed to always be mysteriously foreshadowing something. The character voices had all been rotated.
Since then, we’ve never fully trusted rewriters. Still, in recent years we’ve discovered an apparent tendency even among translators to invent character voices, as opposed to translating them. We were working on a collaborative project once, and one of the translators suggested writing a character a certain way, and the editor (who also knew fluent Japanese) replied that yes, that was a good idea—this title could use some comic relief and the character in question seemed like a good place to fit it in. Our opinion on the matter was, “Um, are you reading how this character talks? You don’t have to make him comic relief—he IS comic relief.” (We kept it to ourselves because we didn’t want to stir up unnecessary trouble—the character was going to be comic relief either way.)
tl;dr: As translators, my sister and I get twitchy when people start suggesting that translators need to have someone fix their work. We choose all those words and phrases for a reason—based on the content and nuance of the Japanese text—and don’t like having them changed willy-nilly. We acknowledge the helpfulness of rewriters, but we think they’d be a lot more helpful if they worked more collaboratively with the translators.
Justin Stroman saysApril 13, 2014 at 11:48 am
To the editor comment…yeah, that may or may not be a thing where the translator is not involved in the process. It depends on the publisher/title/adapter though. (More potential secrets explained in the manga adapter advice series, which…may be ready this week lol)
Welp, there’s not much to say — you had the not so good experience of working with adapters. That sucks. I guess it does come down to approach and how proactive an adapter is, and ensuring they see the same things.
Daniella Orihuela-Gruber saysApril 21, 2014 at 8:02 pm
You guys are absolutely right, that should say three people!
I disagree slightly with your opinion that translators don’t need their work fixed, but it may just be an issue of semantics. Most every translator I’ve worked with has needed their work fixed, even if it’s just a little bit. Most of what I have to fix as an editor involves grammar or readability. Only very rarely do I have to fix word choice significantly.
Justin Stroman saysApril 21, 2014 at 8:24 pm
*grumbles for no real reason as he edits this post and the manga editing post to maintain absolute guaranteed 100% accuracy* xD
Daniella Orihuela-Gruber saysApril 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm
Aw, thanks for changing my quote retroactively. :)