I had the special opportunity to send a few questions to Stephen Paul about what it’s like working as a translator for Yen On, the light novel imprint for Yen Press. The work that goes into bringing light novels to English-speakers is a topic I haven’t seen delved into much, so I think it’s great we get to hear a little about it now straight from the source! Stephen Paul has translated many manga, and is currently helping Yen On with a number of light novel series–namely Durarara!!, Sword Art Online, and Sword Art Online: Progressive.
Cho: We would love to hear about what it’s like to be a light novel translator. How did you end up working on light novels for Yen On? What constitutes an average day’s work when translating a book? And is it a mostly solitary job, or is there a lot of collaboration with Yen On staff involved?
Stephen Paul: It’s quite demanding in certain ways. I have been working with Yen Press manga since shortly after they started up, and I do a hefty amount of their manga schedule — usually two volumes of manga a month. So when they made the move into publishing more light novels, they turned to me. While there was a learning process for working on prose novels, I got used to the different style eventually and now I handle lots of light novel work as well. Because the turnaround for LNs is longer (but still not very long) it’s rare that I am only working on the one book at a time; I’m usually splitting a day’s work between a personal quota of LN pages and then other manga work. There’s almost no contact between me and my editors about creative choices, they trust me to do what I do and usually the only changes in the published version are proofreading and clean-up alterations (and sometimes stylistic edits, like changing character name spellings to match Crunchyroll subs, for example).
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Cho: It looks like the currently-releasing light novels you have been working on are Durarara!! and the two Sword Art Online series. How well have you been enjoying these books? How do the two stories compare when it comes to translation? Do Durarara!! and Sword Art Online offer different kinds of challenges?
Stephen Paul: It’s been very interesting to work on the two franchises, especially because they are so different in style and setting. In addition, while both writers are definitely writing in the “light novel” style in terms of syntax, there are big individual differences in their stylistic choices and grammar: Reki Kawahara tends to be more straightforward in his prose and descriptions, while Ryohgo Narita jumps around a lot more and builds up dramatic tension by using repetition, setting certain important quotes apart by surrounding them with a blank line on either side, experimenting with typesetting, and stuff like that. In regards to their individual styles, the challenge for me is usually learning through experience or trusting my instincts when trying to represent those individual touches in English — seeing what works and what doesn’t, gauging where the original structure fits in English and where it needs to be changed, and how to do that.
Cho: There have been quite a few manga you have translated as well (One Piece, Blame!, Vinland Saga, Until Death Do Us Part). How does translating a light novel compare to translating a manga?
Stephen Paul: Translating light novels is much harder than manga because there’s a lot more work, period. If translating a manga is like being a movie scriptwriter, translating a novel is like being cinematographer and editor as well. Everything has to go through your mind, so there’s more effort and, of course, more material to parse through. The first year or so of translating LNs was especially difficult because I was still picking up the idiosyncrasies of the writing and absorbing what certain prose phrases approximate to in English in a functional sense, rather than their literal meanings. So there are a number of little things in the first few novels I did that I would do differently now. This process of learning through experience is exactly the same as what I went through when first working on manga, and is entirely related to absorbing the particular stylistic details of the writing, so while it was difficult at first, and I often felt frustrated not being sure how to handle certain creative choices, I’ve grown much more comfortable and firm in my particular way of translating. At this point I like to think I have a personal “handbook” in my mind with standards of how to handle the various LN syntax forms that look satisfactory to me when I read them back in English.
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Cho: The stories of Durarara!! and Sword Art Online were first officially exposed to English-speaking audiences via anime and manga adaptations. Were you familiar with the adaptations before you began work on translating the source material? If so, in what ways do the anime and manga affect how you translate the light novels?
Stephen Paul: I had heard of both DRRR and SAO before I started working on them, but I hadn’t watched or read beforehand. When I started working professionally about a decade ago, several of my assignments were things that I already owned(!) but that’s less common now because my workload is so heavy that there’s little time for reading other material. As far as the manga adaptations, I work on those as well because Yen likes to have consistency when possible between versions, so there’s a lot of overlap and double-checking to make sure many of the lines of dialogue are the same between versions (sometimes this isn’t really possible, or the line needs to be tweaked a bit to fit the context of the other medium better). I usually don’t do much checking on the anime, however. It can be useful for clarifying certain details if they’re not clear from the original material, but for the most part I prefer to take my cues just from my source material.
Cho: While working on the light novels, have you had the opportunity to communicate with the authors Ryohgo Narita (Durarara!!) or Reki Kawahara (Sword Art Online)?
Stephen Paul: In my experience, there is essentially never contact with Japanese authors directly, whether in manga or light novels. They are very busy people and while I’m sure they would be nice enough to oblige creative questions if asked in person, there are probably a dozen or more localized versions of their properties around the world and they certainly don’t have time to help everyone in that way. In my experience, I’ve never had a major question about how to handle important material that would necessitate asking the author, that wasn’t already made clear within the work.
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Cho: Besides the series you have worked on, do you get the chance to read many other light novels? In English or in Japanese?
Stephen Paul: While I do read other manga for fun, the time and energy commitment to read other light novels is too much to engage with. It’s hard enough to find time to read ahead in the series I actually work on, and when you have hours as long as I do, oftentimes the last thing I want to do when done with my daily quota is read more of it! Sometimes when I walk into a bookstore I will idly flip through other LNs just to see how other translators handle the prose. In those cases I don’t know the original Japanese text, but you can recognize certain sentence structures or phrases in English and think, “Ah, that’s how I do this,” or, “Hey, that’s a really neat/elegant trick there,” or, “Oh, I started doing that too, but then found a way I like better.”
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Cho: And lastly, any advice for aspiring translators? It would be interesting to hear a little about the path you took to became a translator yourself.
Stephen Paul: The most important thing by far is to apply yourself to something that you enjoy so that the habit and work ethic will stick. If the end result is something that makes you happy and is worth the trouble, that will carry you through anything. That’s how I learned Japanese to the level of being able to translate. And in regards to doing creative translation, something that is absolutely crucial is to continue improving your ENGLISH writing! Coming from a non-native background, there will always be Japanese you’re learning as you go — it’s a lifelong process — but your best weapon to becoming a professional is to take full advantage of your native fluency to express foreign concepts in ways that are as natural, fluid, and beautiful to readers in YOUR language as the original work is to Japanese readers. At this point in my career I learn more useful tricks and tools from reading English writing than anything else, and stocking your writing arsenal with new ideas and methods is your best weapon in both bringing across a faithful and enjoyable experience to the readers and catching the eye of your professional editors: remember, they spend all day cleaning up other peoples’ writing. :)