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Why this translator quit - and what we can learn from it

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Mar 27, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Recently, Kumar Sivasubramanian, a respected Japanese-to-English translator of animes and mangas, tweeted an announcement that shocked fans of the manga Cipher Academy, his latest translation job: “Sorry, peeps, Chapter 13 will be my last.”

Sivasubramanian’s decisioncame as a shock to fans of the manga series. But when you look into the details of the job, it’s surprising he didn’t quit a long time ago.

Cipher Academy is a Japanese manga whose installments are published weekly on a platform run by Viz Media. The manga’s original Japanese version and its English translation are released at the same time. With this type of publication, known as simulpub, there’s little to no planning or advance notice, so Sivasubramanian would receive the weekly chapter with very little time to translate.

A tight deadline would be a challenging aspect of any translation project, but this particular one was made even harder by the fact that Cipher Academy includes complicated enigmas and codes. Many involve things like messages with missing characters in the original Japanese, and prove a formidable task to translate.

In fact, fans marveled (and appreciated) that Sivasubramanian had even bothered attempting to translate - or, in some cases, transliterate - some of these puzzles, which the manga’s Japanese publisher had warned “didn’t work in English.”

But eventually, the pressure and relentless standards Sivasubramanian holds himself to got to be too much. In an interview with Kotaku, he stated that he’d requested better work conditions, including higher pay per page and more time to translate each chapter. But Viz Media refused, leading to his decision to quit well before the fifty chapters he’d committed to.

The company has hired a new translator, but fans of Sivasubramanian’s work are disappointed and unsure as to the quality of future translations. Some have pointed out that those of them who were bilingual would probably create their own translations (albeit ones that aren’t checked for accuracy).

It’s a sad end for an acclaimed translation project. The popularity of the manga, aided by Sivasubramanian’s translation for Anglophone audiences, was such that the translator’s quitting made headlines even in several mainstream publications.

This probably wouldn’t have happened if Viz Media’s simulpub model didn’t mean neglecting what might be the two most crucial parts of any successful translation job:

1. Time

The more time a translator has to work on, or at least prepare for, a translation - especially one that might involve complex terminology and jargon - the better.

Asked about the Cipher Academy translation problem in a recent Slator article, localization specialist Katrina Leonoudakis explained that Cipher Academy’s writer, Nisio Isin, doesn’t have the entire story plotted out. If he did, that information undoubtedly would have been useful to Sivasubramanian, especially when it came to the challenging enigmas.

Not only would this advance notice have been helpful for translating; Leonoudakis points out that it also would likely improve the overall quality of the English version of Cipher Academy. For her, this project would have worked better if the translation that had been made of the finished work, not weekly installments: “That way, any connections between puzzles, quotes, and mysteries can be adequately tied together, and the translator could establish an approach to translating the puzzles that’s more consistent across chapters.”

Fortunately, most translation projects don’t have the restrictions of a simulpub work. This allows clients to do helpful things like giving translators material relevant to the translation in advance, and being clear about expectations and any potentially unusual challenges. Even projects that have to be completed in a short time can greatly benefit from this technique.

2. Communication

Sivasubramanian wasn’t able to know much about his translation job in advance,. But what if he had been able to exchange messages and information with Cipher Academy author Nisio Isin, or someone else close to the manga?

Maybe Isin could have contacted Sivasubramanian as soon as he’d come up with a complex enigma, or even shared any ideas he might have had about how to convey aspects of these to global audiences. As he was working, Sivasubramanian could also have reached out to Isin to see if he approved his choices or simply for answers to any questions he might have had.

While this wasn’t an option for this particular translation project, fortunately it is for most translation projects in general. In fact, we recently covered a way to make this even easier, by setting up a single point of contact - one person (rather than just anyone who’s available) that a translator can communicate with about a translation project.

It’s unfortunate that Sivasubramanian had to give up on his impressive translation of Cipher Academy. One consolation is that hopefully the media coverage of his quitting will spotlight what NOT to do when it comes to a translation project. If the right people see this, it could possibly improve or change the way clients and translators communicate.

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