Andrew Cunningham on Translation vs. Editing and the Importance of Translators

For those who have never heard of Andrew Cunningham, he is a translator who has done such series as the Boogiepop novels, the Kino’s Journey novel, Gosick, Missing, Death Note: Another Note, Goth, Parasyte, XxXHolic Another Holic, and several of the stories in Faust. Cunningham has received massive praise for his work from the few out there available to recognize him, and is one of my personal favorite people around in general (to the point I will pretty much buy anything he translates, and I actually follow his livejournal.) While there is no way to make this a definitive statement, it’s best to just consider Andrew Cunningham the absolute king of Japanese-to-English translation, namely in the light novel department. He is also a member of Eastern Standard, a general anime blog he shares with two others, which used to be a review site.

Long ago, on his LiveJournal, Cunningham made some very insightful and interesting notes on the importance of a translator and the difference between translating and editing. It’s a must-read in my opinion, especially for light novel and video game fans – the last paragraph in particular being something that I cite often. I am reposting this both to spread the word on this as well as to have an easy citation source as opposed to an impossible-to-find livejournal entry.

Two things editors can do that would make translators very happy:

1. Value the research done.
One of the most frustrating things an editor can do is replace the jargon you spent hours getting right with a generic term. It makes you wonder why you wasted your time getting it right. Sometimes this is clearly a conscious choice, but occasionally it’s a result of them not doing the research themselves – correcting an unusual spelling that I got from primary sources, for example, having assumed I got it wrong.
Which kind of bleeds into point number two…

2. When in doubt, ask.
If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask the translator. If they take any pride in their work, they’ll be happy to look at it and clarify – you may even have discovered an actual mistake. But without the translator’s input or access to the Japanese text (obviously, rarely a problem with editors who are fluent, which is why they should totally hire me) there exists a high possibility for error. Clarifying statements intentionally left vague, changing a word to a synonym but not changing the word thirty pages away that needs to match it, and, in particularly horrifying moments, accidentally reversing the meaning of a scene. (This last one usually requires me to fuck up pretty bad and leave out the word “not” or something.)

I’ve worked with brilliant editors and editors who meant well but should have followed the two rules above more often.
I couldn’t begin to speak for all translators, but I hate feeling powerless – I want the final product to be as close to perfect as possible, and anything that turns out better in the version I turned in than the version that comes out…makes me wonder how the hell I can become an editor, frankly.

Would be interested in hearing what translators do that drives editors up the bleeding wall (leaving in ‘……………’ all the time, I imagine) and any hot leads on editing jobs that don’t require any editing experience.

Excessive love of textbook grammar.
We writers have a few tricks to make dialogue more naturalistic, and a lot of these involve breaking the rules of grammar.
A major one involves omitting an unnecessary subject. “[It] Just says ‘keep out.'” “[You’d] Better not go in there.” “[I] Haven’t slept much.”
I’ve had a lot of editors who add this stuff back in. Even though it makes a rough when character sound uptight, and makes the translation sound awkward and unnatural. The difference is usually a very subtle one, but I can’t really understand why anyone would value grammatical correctness over naturalistic colloquial usage. Unless, of course, the character in question is incredibly anal.

This seems to defeat a lot of internet reviewers. Quite a lot of them fall into the trap of complaining about the editing (if there are typos or grammar errors when I turn in a manuscript, this is because I’m an idiot; if they’re still there when the book is published, that’s editing.)
Personally, I think if you’re talking about the writing style, you’re talking about the translation. A translator can elevate or destroy a writing style at their whim – once the book has been translated, you have no idea what the author’s style was, and you’re entirely talking about the translator’s writing abilities. The original author’s contribution is reduced to plot and characters, which stay largely the same even if the translator is a hack and the book is horrifically written.
My advice would be to break it down that way.
Plot, pacing, structure, twists, characters? The author.
Typos, grammar, gibberish? Editing.
Sparkling dialogue, compelling descriptions, general flow of the writing? Probably the result of a good translator.

One thought on “Andrew Cunningham on Translation vs. Editing and the Importance of Translators

  1. This is definitely an interesting read through. I’ve read a lot about the anime translation and dubbing process, but not textual based works like novels or game scripts. The big mistake is to believe that either process is cut-and-dry, that translation work is “easy”. There are a lot of steps where things can get bungled badly.

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