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Interview: Translating Anime With Katrina Leonoudakis

By: Tamara Lazic Sep 03, 2022
We spoke to localization specialist Katrina Leonoudakis about translating anime, the current state of the localization industry and more.
Interview: Translating Anime With Katrina Leonoudakis
translating anime

Localization, or the process of translating a product into a different language while adapting it to the culture of the market, is an important part anime industry that often gets taken for granted. Anime translators (colloquially known as subbers) usually work in the shadows, without ever being credited, often with tight deadlines and uncompetitive pay. For a community that recently saw an uptick in conversations about working conditions in the anime industry in Japan, the lack of recognition for people who help deliver the final product to the viewers is a little surprising.

Anime Corner reached out to one of the most well-known localization specialists among anime fans – Katrina Leonoudakis. Katrina translated some Funimation and Sentai Filmworks titles many of you have probably seen: Interspecies Reviewers, Higurashi Gou, Horimiya, O Maidens in Your Savage Season, and more. To our delight, she agreed to answer a few of our questions on translating anime, troubles with Japanese slang, how many people it takes to translate an episode, why you should watch Higurashi Gou legally, and also on the current state of the anime localization industry (among other things).

On translating anime

Q: How did you get into translating anime and manga content? You have an M.A. in translation. Was it the degree that got you into this line of work or was it the other way around?

A: A little bit of both! I started fan translating webcomics and manga in high school, which is where I got my passion for translating. I wasn’t initially going to make a career in it, but one of my professors told me to look at graduate programs in translation. The second I read the summary of the program, I was hooked, applied, and got in. After my first year there, I was looking for an internship at an LSP (language service provider) or another translation company, and on a whim, I applied to Sentai Filmworks. Turns out they were hiring contractors, and I ended up being brought on as a paid translator! I’ve been in the industry ever since.

Q: Generally speaking, do translators work on a contract/freelance basis, or is it possible to actually get hired full-time within the current anime industry?

Most translators in the anime industry are contractors, either for the streaming service or an LSP* hired by the streaming service. Some companies do have in-house translators, but those positions are extremely rare, and typically are held by full-time employees that have been with the company for a long time.
(*LSP: Language service provider, a company that offers a wide variety of translation and linguistic services.)

Q: How long does it take you to translate a single episode?

A: It depends on the show! Some shows, like simple slice-of-life shows, can take somewhere between two to three hours. Other shows that are more challenging can take up to eight. For me, these are typically shows with lots of things I have to research (historical references, martial arts terms, scientific or war-related jargon) or shows with lots and lots of dialogue (joke-a-minute comedies, shows based off 4-koma).

Q: How far in advance do you get the materials?

A: It depends on the studio, and how far into the season we are! Typically, at the start of the anime season, materials come in weeks early. As we get towards the end of the season, however, weeks turn into days, turn into hours before broadcast.

Q: Is it usually one person working on the episode or is there a team?

A: For translation, usually, it’s just me. All the words I type into the document I submit to the licensor end up on screen, so I have to read over it once or twice to make sure I haven’t made any mistakes! Depending on the show and licensor, they may have a supervisor or QA team look over it and report any issues back, but sometimes, you only get these reports after the episode is up online!

We can’t forget the other people who make anime translation happen, though. First and foremost, the subtitle timer. This is the person who takes the translated script and places the subtitles on-screen, making sure they’re on the screen long enough to be read and that they’re spaced in a way that’s easy to read. They’ll also place additional captions over signs or near handwritten notes on a chalkboard, etc. It’s a taxing, grueling job, and we have the subtitler to thank for it! The managerial staff also helps out a lot, too, by communicating with the animation studio and getting necessary materials or information. It takes a village to get anime out to the non-Japanese-speaking world!

Q: Do you get more time for movies/home releases? How long do those take on average?

A: I do get some extra time for movies and home releases, because thankfully, they’re not on the same rigorous schedule as simulcasts. A first pass of a movie translation can take anywhere from 8 to 16 hours, depending on the content, but typically I get a few weeks to get to know the content and perform all the necessary reviews to perfect it for the licensor. I’m also sometimes asked to provide voice walla (shouts, gasps, etc.) in the translated script so they can pass everything to the dub team.

Q: Do you consult the source material/original translator and how often are spellings of the names/certain terms changed

A: If I’m working off an adaptation of something with an official translation, I absolutely consult the source material! It’s a great way for me to get familiar with not just the work, but with the terminology that fans are already used to. I try not to change terminology unless I feel it’s absolutely essential; I’ve made a few mistakes on that in the past (see: Higurashi) and have since learned to respect legacy terminology, no matter how I might feel about it.

Q: Are there still things that you still find challenging when translating from Japanese to English?

Absolutely! I’m always learning new things, whether it’s a very obscure bit of grammar, new slang I’ve never heard before, or a historical martial arts technique that barely has a Japanese Wikipedia article, let alone anything in English. I don’t often get to choose the shows I work on, so every now and then, I’ll get a really challenging show to work on. Luckily, I have a lot of different skills I can use to pull myself out of sticky linguistic situations, and a crowd of talented translators and native speakers I can reach out to with any questions or conundrums.

On Higurashi and favorite titles

Q: The “Big-Brudder” situation – well documented on Twitter and forever ingrained in Higurashi fandom’s collective memory. What made you go back to the “well-established” term? How difficult is it to translate something that already has so many rooted fansub options?

Yeah, that was a big oof on my part. (laughs) I’ve been a diehard fan of Higurashi since 2007, but I’ve always been a little unhappy with its translation, especially with all the borrowing for things that really didn’t need to be borrowed, “nii-nii” included. Considering the time when it was brought over by fans, though, it makes sense; leaving things in Japanese was the thing to do back in the ‘golden age of fan translation’ in the late 2000s, to the point of ridicule in certain places! (“Just according to keikaku*.”)
(*Translator’s note: Keikaku means plan)

I was so thrilled and honored to be put on the Higurashi project, but I knew a few terms were going to be rough on me, especially Satoko’s “nii-nii”. I groused with my friends for weeks about how there was probably going to be a Satoko arc, and I was probably going to have to deal with backlash, because I didn’t want to use that term. I’d avoided borrowing a lot of terms in my translation, and wanted to find a good alternative. “Big Brudder” wasn’t perfect, but it worked, and I was happier with that than “nii-nii”.
And of course, you know the rest.

Internet drama and death threats aside. Looking back on the whole debacle, I realized that in my attempt to clean up the translation and appeal to a wider audience, I’d alienated the core audience, my fellow die-hard fans that didn’t want legacy terms changed. Changing those terms was a bit of a slap in the face. It’s why I decided to go back to the legacy term for the second season, as well as retroactively fix the old episodes to use the legacy term as well. It’s a lesson that was hard to learn, but one I’ll take with me to future projects. I’ve also been careful to ensure that any terminology on new projects is in tip-top shape, so no translator ahead of me feels the need to fix legacy terminology and deal with the same issue.
Unfortunately, if you pirate your Higurashi, you’ll probably still see the old ‘new’ term, since that’s what they ripped during the simulcast, so… go watch it legally! At the very least, it’ll save me some embarrassment. ?

Q: Out of all things you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite?

Oh my GOD, there are so many, but here’s a non-exhaustive list of a few and why.

  • Interspecies Reviewers
    • I’ve never had more fun on a show than I did with Reviewers. At the start of the season, I asked my manager “how hard” I was allowed to go in terms of swearing, lewd references, etc. I was basically told “go to town”… so I did. I laughed so much while I was translating. I was so honored that so many people went to Madman and asked them to pick me up to continue the translation when the show was cut from Funimation! I pray every day that it gets another season…
  • Chihayafuru
    • I never thought I’d get so into competitive karuta, but here we are! The writing is so good, and the characters are lovely. The game at the center of the series is both really interesting and very challenging to translate, which made it all the more fun for me to work on.
  • Kageki Shoujo!!
    • I’m a theater kid at heart and have always been mildly interested in Takarazuka, so this series was almost made for me. The writing is extremely solid, and the characters all have incredible stories to tell. It probably won’t get a second season, but luckily, I work on the manga, so I get to see and translate how the story will continue!
      One thing I really enjoyed translating on this series was the terminology. Normally I don’t like having to do tons of research, but it’s a field I’m really interested in, so the research I did have to do was much more fun. I definitely got sidetracked a lot, watching long performances of Takarazuka shows…
  • Horimiya
    • I loved all the characters and their dynamics! I didn’t have to look up too much, but there was plenty of nuance in the dialogue that gave me a really fun challenge. I love how the translation turned out.
  • O Maidens In Your Savage Season

Q: Is there a franchise or an up-and-coming story that you would like to work on?

A: I’d love to work on a Makoto Shinkai film! I’ve been a fan of his ever since 5 Centimeters Per Second. Comix Wave, if you need a translator for your next film, holler at your girl! I’ll do it justice!

On the current state of the anime localization industry

Q: There are some concerns among the professionals involved in the anime industry when it comes to the recent Crunchyroll/Funimation-Wakanim merger. How do you think this will affect the localization field overall? Is there a reason for concern?

A: I’ve addressed a lot of this in my thread from last week, but here’s a summary: mergers are always great for executives, but bad for workers. There have already been layoffs because of the merger, some contractors only learning they’ve been ‘let go’ just days before they were supposed to get work from the companies in question.

With the two companies merging, there’s far less competition for streaming and home video licenses. Netflix has picked up a few anime in the past, but they typically grab the ‘bigger’ releases, if any. CR/Funi have typically split the rest between them the past few years, with Sentai Filmworks taking what sometimes appear to be the ‘scraps’ of the season. With them merged, though, it means a huge, majority chunk of simulcasts will now be handled by one company, essentially forming a monopoly on this content—meaning they can charge as much as they want to consumers, and pay as little as they want to people who work on this content.

CR’s business practices when it comes to paying translators appropriate wages has been a talking point in the anime localization industry for quite some time, and while it’s gotten better than the $80/episode that was rumored years ago, they’re still not up to par with the rest of the industry’s rates—and even those are rates that audiovisual translators of other language pairs would balk at.

The translation world as a whole is engaging in a ‘race to the bottom’ for a while now as language service providers compete to give the best (lowest) prices to industry giants such as Netflix and Hulu. Between that and the layoffs we know happened because of the merger, I can only worry for what will happen to the wages of the translators that were kept on. Are they being paid fairly for the work they’re doing, or will their pay be driven down, too, because there’s no competition to justify paying them any more than what pittance they’re getting?

Q: Could the localization industry benefit from this merger and how?

A: At this time, I don’t see how the industry could benefit. Competition is good for consumers and creators alike. This merge may seem good for anime consumers now—fewer subscriptions to pay!—but I’m sure that in a few months or years, we’ll start to see what this monopolization of anime content does to the fandom and industry alike.

Q: Anime fans are familiar with voice actors and staff, but translators most often aren’t credited. Netflix only recently started adding credits and most anime-oriented streaming services do not do this still. Should this be a common practice?

A: It should absolutely be common practice to credit localization staff, whether that’s for a TV show, a game, or anything else. We see the credits for dub actors – where’s the credits for the translator, timer, and project managers?

Adding credits is great for the people being credited, as it certifies that they worked on a property. When you don’t get credited on something, and then have to submit proof that you worked on things (for example, at trade conferences), it’s difficult to verify that without contacting the company and telling them to write a letter confirming yes, you have done work for them.

It’s also just a nice thing to do. We worked hard on these shows and games. Translating is an extremely specialized skill that takes years of experience to hone. Give us credit!

Q: Did you ever have to deal with unpleasant situations when it comes to people online being unhappy with your work for whatever reason?

All the time. I’ve gotten good at blocking and ignoring the more hateful messages I get, though. I always remember the advice I got from one of my dear translator friends: if you wouldn’t go to these randos on Twitter for advice on translation, then why should you listen to their opinion? Luckily, I have a group of professionals I can go to for advice or critique – they’ll even let me know if I’ve left a typo in my subtitles! 

Q: Do you have a message/piece of advice for fans who might be looking into starting a career in JP translating/subbing

Translation is an extremely rewarding profession, merging linguistic skill and technical research with creative writing! Here’s my three pieces of advice for anyone wanting to pursue it:

  • Study! Don’t just take classes and tests. Ask questions in class, get to know the professor, do extra credit. Make kanji flashcards and ace every quiz. Read manga, light novels, books, websites; watch TV shows, the news, anything to get more time spent with the language.
  • Practice translating! Translation is a skill entirely in itself. Just because you can speak a language doesn’t mean you’ll be a good translator! Find a webcomic, book, or even your favorite anime or manga and try to translate it for yourself. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll also learn a ton of Japanese while you practice!
  • Consider study abroad / working abroad. (When it’s safe, of course.) You need to know more than just the language to be a good translator. You need to know the culture, and not just what you know from watching every school anime. There’s so much you can’t learn from books or TV shows, and experiencing it first-hand will burn it into your memory. Many study abroad programs can be cheaper than doing a semester at school in your home country, and university classes tend to be easier in Japan than in the West, making it a great GPA boost. If you’ve got room in your graduation schedule for a summer, semester, or year abroad, I can’t recommend it enough!

You can follow Katrina on Twitter, where she often posts tidbits from the localization world and information about upcoming projects.

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