– Welcome to Roar Deep Dive, a podcast produced by the Middlebury Institute’s translation and Localization Management Program, bringing together global voices from the localization industry. I’m your host for this episode. Lena Wakayama and today we’re talking to Ryan Holmberg, a historian of Japanese art and translator of alternative manga.
-Lena – L: Thanks so much for being here with us, Ryan.
– Ryan – R: My pleasure.
– L: So, to start off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
– R: So, I was trained as an art historian. I obtained a PhD in art history from Yale University. I ended up right, I was interested in Post War Japanese art initially, but I ended up writing my dissertation about the manga magazine Garo in the 1960s. Garo is well known as the main magazine, the earliest magazine for alternative and literary manga. So, I wrote my dissertation on four artists from the first decade of Garo. Since then, I’ve bounced around teaching in academia, academic writing, and more recently, full time. Translation, translator mainly for manga projects, most of which I initiate and edit and oversee and also write historical essays for. But I also make money doing translations for the art world usually funneled through projects from the Japanese government or other corporate sponsors.
– L: Awesome, so I mean, so how did you sort of get into I guess manga trend? Like how did you go from your dissertation into kind of the translation of manga?
– R: Well, I wrote my doctorate in art history and even now comics have a very low standing within art history. So, it was always doubtful that I would have a stable career in academia doing what I did. Now I’ve gotten a lot of research grants and I’ve got a lot of support from individuals in academia and a lot of like 1-year jobs short term jobs. So, if I had got my act together and been motivated properly, I’m sure I could have secured a tenure track job at some point. However, I was more interested in I realized, you know, like comics like the history of manga is, even the foundations haven’t been established in English.
– L: Yeah.
– R: …so, it struck me that would be much more important to like kind of lay the groundwork and the groundwork would not just be about writing essays or histories, but also about getting important works out into English and in addition doing translation, even if it doesn’t pay a lot, it does pay something, so doing the full trans., so doing the translations with the historical essays appended to them gave me a paid platform for my historical writing, and overtime, that’s kind of in the past couple of years, that’s kind of taken off. So, at this point I have more projects than I can handle.
– L: Wow, that’s like kind of awesome to hear, I mean, I definitely kind of want to get into sort of like the point that you made about getting important works into English, but first of all can you kind of talk us through a little bit about like what the translate, like what the process of translating manga looks like, ’cause I think a lot of us don’t really know what kind of goes into all of that?
– R: Translation itself or the whole project of starting books and want to hear the whole thing?
– L: Yeah, sure if you if you know the whole process that would be kind of awesome to hear.
– R: My understanding is that most people who do manga translation, the vast majority, if not all of them, but except me and maybe a couple other people that they translate books that are assigned to them by the publisher. I mean, I think some cases people missing more senior people, they who are working with smaller publishers, they can suggest titles that they think are interesting, but ultimately the selection of the work is done by the publishers and the editors at the publishers. In my case almost all the books I’ve done, I think I’ve done 25 or so were all at my initiation. I initiated all of them who to do was my idea. So, I usually also do all the contract work. So, I had to, this is not something you learn in in school or anywhere, or pick up on the street like I had to learn how to write a contract in Japanese.
– L: Oh wow
– R: …but you know people, I knew people in Japan, someone who translates a lot of French and Belgian comics, so they helped me out showing me sample contracts and I have a lot of editor friends in Japan, so they showed me kind of what kind of things need to be in it. So, I do all that work and then I start the translation after all that settled and the translation, I know that a lot of people work from, they usually generate a script in a word file and I started by doing that, but I found, that it’s at the time after you do that and then place it in the speech balloons, you have to really edit your translation.
– L: Right
– R: …so, it was easier just to kind of do the translations directly on the PDF, either writing on the PDF is what I used to be writing like on the computer on the PDF or comments. I think eventually it would be best if I just did used InDesign and pop the rough translations in myself and the reason is that, A, it’s just not just a translation issue, it’s also a design issue and design issue in the sense that you have to see how much space you have to fit things in, and it’s much easier, it’s only possible to judge if dialogue flows well if the words are popped into the balloons and you see, you can imagine that people actually conversing back and forth.
– L: Right
– R: …so, yeah, and then what happens after that? It goes through, I think, I can be a pain in the ass to work with ’cause I do a lot of revisions, I hope that the end product is better for it, but I do a lot of revisions on the translation. I find that you know after you read if you put things in and then re- Read them, you really have to change a lot for flow and for accuracy etc. Yeah, so that’s, that’s the process.
– L: Yeah, just for like clarification, so when you said like, you kind of like pop it into the PDF so you like do it in InDesign. Was that all stuff that you just kind of have to figure out on your own?
– R: I don’t do that now. What I’m saying is I think I should start doing that
– L: Right
– R: …and people have requested that maybe I start doing that. Because, you know, if you have, this becomes a case by case, but you know, hiring a letterer is more money, costs more money. Doing translation, translate editions are expensive for publishers because you have to pay the translator and you have to pay the letterer
– L: Right
– R: …and most comics, comics in their native language at least outside of Japan, the artists themselves do all the lettering. So, you have to add on all these other costs and they probably add up to another. I don’t know, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 a book so you really have to build that into the cost and that cost is enough to make some projects too expensive make it prohibitive. So, I think if the process was economized by the translator doing some of the lettering work,
– L: Mhm
– R: … ’cause lettering work isn’t really that hard and I know for some specialized projects that you want people with a better design sense, but I think the initial go through lettering is, the basics are not that hard. It would mean more money from the translator. It would mean less money, less expenses for the publisher, so I think in terms of long term, even within this year, I might kind of shift over to that model.
– L: I mean, you kind of already talked about sort of like I guess the challenges involved in the process, like because manga is you have to like make sure it fits in the bubbles and stuff like that.
– R: Uh huh.
– L: Like do you find that you have to like even though you do your own revisions, like do you get like pushback from like your publishers about revisions? Like do you have any like, do the, do you have to like make edits after the fact at all, do you find?
– R: Push back, no bearing there so you know sometimes will be debate about the point out senses that are unclear. But almost never do they have anybody on their side who speaks Japanese
– L: Right
– R: … or read Japanese, and even if they might, they’re probably too busy to go back and check it against the original Japanese,
– L: Right
– R: So, everything’s on me. So, all the oversight is mainly the clarity of the English, and sometimes I can’t come up with any examples right now, sometimes there is pressure to change things that might come across as offensive in the present within English, speak, English language world.
– L: That makes sense. I mean, you also kind of mentioned that since, like you’re, you don’t like work for it, you do it sort of you, you initiate the contracts and stuff like that. So how do you go about finding the works that you want to translate and like what would you say is like your success rate? Like finding, getting a contract like when you send them out?
– R: Most of the artists I’ve done or come out of the world of alternative manga, literary manga, Bomgar manga and most of them were associated at one point with the magazine Garo, so they are artists that I know through my own research or just who have enjoyed reading in the past, and a lot of those artists, especially the older generation, they are independent in the sense that they are not represented, represented by a major Japanese publishing house. Most bigger artists who publish with like Shueisha or Shogakukan or Kodansha they will be represented by their publishers, even if there is no official, contract between them that says that they may not license their work independently, there is an understanding that they owe their livelihood to these publishers, so they will defer to those publishers for making, for putting together contracts, etc. Which means a loss of money for them because the publishers take quite a big, big cut. So, most of the ones, almost everyone that I’ve worked with, I’d say about 75% are independent, so I know editors and scholars in Japan who can introduce me to them, directly, so I usually, I just do it directly with them, sending them contracts in the mail or through a colleague who’s an intermediary, etc.
– L: So, like, I mean, you sort of touched on it already, like sort of how you got into the manga industry, but like what were, I guess like kind of aside from having to write those contracts in Japanese, what were the challenges that you found trying to get into it? Like ’cause, especially as you know, like as just like a white guy from America like, did you find that you had any like trouble kind of breaking into that industry?
– R: I mean white guy from America is a huge privilege in Japan and it goes a long way. You know people. This is a case in the art world, probably case in any industry in the art world, in comics. I mean, not only are you kind of a, an exotic curiosity because you’re a foreigner, but being white and male they will open doors for you that they probably wouldn’t for anybody else. So, in that sense it’s been easier. My, you know Japanese at this point is, is good enough to teach classes at a Japanese University in, in Japanese, but I was born in Japan and half grew up in Japan, so I’ve always had a fairly highly level of Japanese speaking ability, which builds a lot of trust when you’re pitching these projects to people and to the artists and usually it’s you know, for the first couple few projects people are wary, but once you can show them that you’ve done a number of books, they’ve turned out decently, and then their peers or their associates within publishing can speak well for you, they’re more than happy to do projects even if the money is not great and the money, money not being great doesn’t mean they’re being ripped off. It just means that the print runs are low and no one is really making a lot of money off of them. So they are, I don’t know how they feel about, say, additions in European languages, but still, especially for an older generation, if you say it’s going to be in English, they believe that you know English is the international language, the global language. Even though for a lot of literary comics, the English language market is probably smaller than what it is, say, in France or even now. I mean, you know now, now Chinese, now China is growing for as a market, but there’s still this cachet about it being translated into English and especially say it’s coming out from American publisher,
– L: Right
– R: …their eyes dazzle, even though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the best, their financial wellbeing.
– L: I mean, I guess in that sense, so have you seen like any shift at all really did kind of talk about how like things are kind of going more, maybe more towards like Chinese and stuff,
– R: Uh huh.
– L … but like how, I guess how’s the industry like from your perspective, how do you think it’s changed since you kind of first entered it into what it is right now?
– R: It’s growing a lot really fast right now. You know the other, my main source of income right now actually is being a translation editor for Kodansha. Uh, what series in my editing? I’m editing Fire Force, something called, Yuzu the Pet Vet, a shojo manga. What else? This medical manga called Cells at Work! Code Black near the Netflix anime. Oh, what else? Trinity in Tempests, this is like a side thing from something called, “I was reincarnated as a slime or something.” But you know they are expanding the number of titles they’re publishing and I think, I don’t know who the translators are, I know their names, but I don’t know anything about them. My sense is that they’re many of them are young and starting off. So, they hire someone like me who has more experience and I think probably also better language abilities to serve as editor, so that’s my main, so I would say that you know I, I heard number that the YA manga market in English this year, expand, grew by something like 40%,
– L: Oh, wow
– R: …which is gigantic.
– L: Yeah
– R: I don’t know if it had, I don’t know how much it has to do with coronavirus, ’cause they’re already saying this back in like May, June, so you know it’s really expanding. I’m sure Netflix and all its anime off, animation offerings are really also helping that boom. So, there’s that, on, that’s not the main thing I do, right? So main income for me at this point, so I can definitely see that growing and that that’s something that’s changed. What else is changed? You know when I got into it, it was not long after Tatsumi Yoshihiro got big, Drifting Life. So, there is this interest in something called gekiga and then more literary or alternative manga and then the kind of the market had kind of sunk a little bit on that and part of the reason for that is, you know the number of people who work on this at are very few. You know there’s like one publisher, (17:04) one Jap side editor, and then like someone like me like you count the number of people who are actually involved in making these things happen, it’s very few. So, if say, like two of those people stop talking to each other, there’s a fall out, it might mean kind of the end of that kind of publishing for a while,
– L: Right
– R: You know, now, now there’s more publishers doing these kind of projects, so if one publisher stopped for whatever reason, it won’t necessarily be a problem for the overall health of this, of all manga publishing. You know, in some of the publishers I work with, like Breakdown Press in London when I met them, they were just doing already risograph zines. So, there are many, many of their first real books were projects that I pitched to them, so one of the things that I like, you know, sometimes people tell me you know, “Why do you work with such small publishers? You probably don’t get paid much?” ect, ect. Maybe they would be better served by publishers who have a wider market, bigger market presence and on the one hand, sometimes only smaller publishers that will do some of the projects I do, but I also think it’s in the long-term benefit of the fields to work with smaller publishers with the hope that maybe they’ll grow to help, you know help expand the infrastructure, publishing infrastructure of people who do these kind of projects so if you keep funneling them all to one publisher, other publishers won’t get a chance to get into that field, right?
– L: Right, I mean so I was going to ask you like, kind of like how you would like to see the industry change, but I’m kind of getting the sense that like this is sort of what like, you know, getting more of like these smaller publishers’ kind of in the scene involved. So, I was like wondering, do you think like I guess, is there any responsibility I guess like on people who want to do translations to kind of reach out to these publishers, these artists to get kind of going back to what you were saying earlier about getting important works, works of manga translated into English? Like do you think that there is any responsibility on the translators as well to get those out there?
– R: Responsibility if they want to see certain things in prints and the kind of things, say a Kodansha or a Viz Media or whoever won’t just do naturally because of a guaranteed buyer ship audience.
– L: Uh huh.
– R Then yeah, they’re going to have to initiate it. They’re not going to have this in it, just, you know, emailing a publisher and saying, “Hey, this is a cool manga, do you want to do it?” It’s not going to happen, they have to, they have to do all the grunt work that you have to bring the whole package to them ’cause the publishers are too busy is unknown, it’s an unknown entity and they don’t have the language skills necessarily to set the projects up themselves. So, if you want to do kind of like the projects that I do or other things that don’t necessarily that publishers aren’t going to automatically do themselves, then you are going to have to have a wider skill set and also the connections, the Japan side connections, and I’m getting the sense you know, now more and more, I think one thing that’s I don’t know if this was the case was like 10 years ago., but recently I’m getting a sense that there’s more Japan side agents, translation agents. They’re not always just for manga, and they’re often times for literature for novels, and then they branch out into manga, but there’s a few of them now, and when I say agencies is usually one or two people, they’re starting up companies that they will do a lot of the grunt work for you, but they will get a cut, you know. So, a lot of these projects because the amount of money involved in them is so small, uhm, I sometimes feel bad, when you know, not just me, but the artist loses money because you have to go through an intermediary for some reason, so I think it’s in everybody’s, I think, it’s I think it would be in everybody’s interests if it can happen to, you know, be not just a translator but also be the agent if you, if you can do that, but not all projects will allow that.
– L: Right, so I mean would you want would like that be kind of like your image of like the future of manga slash, like, what would you want? What, where do you think like the future, I guess of manga is heading in your opinion?
– R: In English language translation?
– L: Oh yeah, translation yeah.
– R: I don’t know I, I know it’s, you know there is a concerted effort now within the, I think you know, like I think, shojo manga, is fairly well represented, I don’t know any numbers and I don’t read many YA manga to know exactly how the spread is, but my sense is that content created by women for women mainly. I mean, I know, I know, you know the readership for shojo manga is much wider than, women, but I, I would say that the YA markets maybe well represented, but the stuff that I work in, I don’t know what you want to call it, literary manga, art manga, female creators are not well represented. So, you know the book I did last year at DNQ, it’s called The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud, by artist named Tsurita KuniKo she was, uh, until the 1980s, the only regular female contributor to Garo, so we did a collection of her work, it did really well, I think it’s going into a reprint, so as a continuation of that, we’re going to do more books of by female creators from the 1970s and 80s related to literary manga.
– L: Uh huh.
– R: So, you know, I think changes like that are good, so you expand the beyond, you expand out manga beyond these kind of like dark angsty things by men, there, to a wider number of things, and I, I’d also like to do, and I’ve tried pitching products of a more political source, you know, dealing with Hiroshima from a different angle, dealing with WWII from a different angle, dealing with different types of social issues in the past few decades more, and a lot of times the publishers that I work with, they’re not necessarily interested in political content,
– L: Yeah
– R: But some publishers are, so I’d like to expand that, or right, so those are two things I hope would change, but they’re already starting to change.
— L: I mean so like I think there are a lot of like students, people studying in like kind of the Japanese translation industry who are kind of interested in getting into the manga translation field. So, do you have like kind of any advice that you would give to these people who are maybe interested in trying to get into the industry that you’re in?
– R: I mean they know that doesn’t pay much; I hope.
– L: Yeah.
– R: Well, you know for me it’s like, knowing the language, Japanese has never been an end in itself. It’s always been a tool, and for me, originally the tool, the job I wanted to do with that tool is to do research about Japanese art, Japanese society, culture in manga, right, it was not the end, it was the means towards the end, and I think that even I would say, even if you are studying Japanese or any language because you want to become a translator, I think it would be wise, I mean maybe this is something this is obvious to say, but this think about the language as a tool for any number of ends and think about what other ends that language can be used for, especially considering that translation in this field does not pay a lot. So, the other thing is to be a good translator you have to be a good writer in English. You know you have to be able to write in a succinct way without a lot of additional noise and you really have to be able to, I mean, this is obvious, but you have to identify like things that just don’t sound natural in English and know how to remove them, because especially with a manga or any of these things, it’s not slow reading, it’s fast reading, and you want it, it’s you know the images drive things. So, you don’t want to translate in a way that’s going to slow that down, right? And also because for my case, like the size of speech balloons, you also want to just reduce excessive verbiage in different ways you know, and for me, I think like, being, loving writing more than anything else, I think it’s really helped me become a better translator, just ’cause I have a better sense of what sounds clear and know what not to put in there, and I know especially young translators, I think they are so scared that they’re going to misrepresent what the Japanese says, that they end up doing everything too literal and putting too much in there and kind of like being scared to de-Japanize some of the, the syntax. So, like you know, my job as with for Kodansha translation editing, 98% of what I do has nothing to do with checking the Japanese, it’s not about accurate translation, it’s making into readable English, smooth English, so I think that’s a big thing. You know, I think people need to, if you want to be a good translator, you need to spend a lot of time just becoming a better writer.
– L: Well, I just wanted to kind of like one last sort of more like fun question, I guess. So, what would you say was your favorite, your most favorite thing you’ve ever worked on? And why was it your favorite?
– R: I have a bad memory but, I don’t know working on Sky is Blue, the Tsurita Kuniko book last year for DNQ was, was fun ’cause I also really felt like from the publisher side DNQ, they’re really excited about the project, this is unknown artist who’s pretty unappreciated also in Japan, though obviously has a very important position within the history of global comics and produces really exciting work. Uhm, they were excited to introduce it when it came out, people were excited. It was a trickier translation job, you know, writing the essay too was a challenge, but it was also felt good. You know, I would say I would say that was probably the most, I don’t know enjoyable was, is the right word, but it was definitely overall like the most rewarding, one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve done, ’cause it actually also could see that if it succeeded, it would open up new avenues for similar types of publication projects. You know other projects, even though there’s something I like and the publisher likes you know that it kind of like fits into what is already out there, and if you continue in that vein, it will be more of the same. Not to say that the same is bad, and there shouldn’t be more, but you can just see that it’s not necessarily going to reach a new readership or open up people’s understanding of what history of manga is, and what’s out there, nor will it open up new kind of like lines of publishing. So, in that sense, I think that was the most rewarding project that I’ve done in a long time.
– L: Well, that’s kind of all the questions that I had. I mean, is there anything you want kind of wanted to add at the end? Like any last words, any thoughts or anything that you would like to share with our audience?
– R: Hm, I don’t know, I mean, you know I didn’t learn, I don’t know what kind of advice I can actually give to people who are learning Japanese in school, or learning a language in school, and then why they’re learning that language thinking about how they want to use it for a paying career. Mainly because I didn’t learn Japanese in a classroom, I mean, I took a few Japanese classes in college, but they told me it’s best if I just like taught myself what I didn’t know because my, you know I learned it as a kid but I didn’t have, it wasn’t a classroom. I basically learned Japanese by playing family computer and playing with Japanese Nintendo and playing with Japanese kids. So, I was really fluent in some things and just utterly un-fluent in other things that you learn in the classroom. So, I, you know, I don’t know what that perspective is. It also makes me not able to necessarily talk about language or translation or localization issues. I don’t know what the right word would be in articulate in classroom way like a technical way. Oh so, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know, advice things to say
– L: Or just like you know any last words about like the industry, the manga industry or anything like that doesn’t have to be advice. Just kind of anything. Any thoughts that you, you had that you haven’t been able to share yet during?
– R: Well, a lot of people who I see that are like, quote, unquote, successful as translators, they also run blogs. They’re pretty present on social media. They also you know blogs, not just chit chat but you know like very serious fan stuff or like covering new publications and stuff like that and I think, I mean that comes, the people who are really into that comes naturally, you like this material. You’re going to want to relate to it in different ways, but I think also from like a marketing perspective, a self-marketing perspective, you know, you need to become a name, you need to become someone, right? ‘Cause lots of people can translate Manga, right? It’s actually, some wouldn’t say all the case, but a lot of them it’s not that hard, right? It’s not that high level of, of translation task in most cases. So, you know you have to find different ways to build up your brand, your name in different ways and so I mean, that would be my advice, not just to focus on mastering the language, mastering the tools and then finding the connections and finding the connections is pretty hard to write. It’s like you have to work both sides. I was thinking to work, you know, the English language side publishers’ companies, but also build up connections in Japan because some projects they might be through North American side companies, but sometimes the personnel who are involved are suggested or set up on the Japan side, so I don’t know. You just have to like anything, you just have to like, you have to work the network. In terms of and also like creating making you know, making a brand, making a name for yourself, but as you know like you know, in Japan, if you’re too pushy about who you are, it can backfire on you, but you know just to do projects, show that you’re trustworthy, show that you’re diligent so that you’re competent. and then just build up from there.
– L: Well, I think that’s about all the time we have for today, thank you so much Ryan for coming on and having this chat with me
– R: Sure, my pleasure.