I was in the post office sending off a translated script, when the man behind the counter said: “We can’t just send it to America Small Packet Rate, we have to know how much it’s worth.”
“That depends,” I said. “The Writers’ Guild say it’s worth £18,000, the Institute of Translators and Interpreters say £12,000, in France it’s a thousand pounds a throw, and The Company That Shall Remain Nameless won’t pay for it at all because they’ve got someone who does it for 50p and a bunch of grapes.”
“Whatever,” said the postie, wearily. “I’ll just say it’s a gift.”
Then I get a phone call from Another Well-Known Company, asking if I’d translate a few scripts. An entire series in fact, 18 hours of anime frolics, due quickly for the dubbing studio. I told the man my price, and he ran away laughing.
If you want to get the faintest inkling of how difficult it is writing anime scripts, try doing a half-hour television programme, in English. Just sit there with your VCR and an episode of Frasier, and write down what everyone’s saying. You’ll probably need to flip back and forth a few times to get the nuances. Then you’ll need to watch it again to write down all the timecodes. And don’t forget to type it all up with the notes you think a dubbing director might need. If you’re swift, it’ll still take you several hours. Now imagine what it’s like if everyone is speaking Japanese, and you’ve got to leaf through ten dictionaries and a Wordtank. And let’s assume that there’s a theme song you need to rhyme, a cast list that needs desquiggling and an ADR script with contradictory Japanese annotations in biro. It’ll probably take you a week, all-told.
Then, if you’re an anime translator, a man wearing your house repayments will offer you the money you’d get for the same time working in Burger King. And if you don’t like it, there’s always someone cheaper.
If his sink is blocked, he’ll get a plumber. If he’s drawing up a will, he’ll get a lawyer. But if he’s sitting on a five-figure anime dub, he’d rather get his hairdresser’s girlfriend to bash out a script than pay a real translator.
Many companies in the anime field do not find investment in a “real” translator to be worthwhile. If your dub’s only going to sell a four-figure amount, you’ll have other problems on your mind than your two-dollar script. Buena Vista can afford Neil Gaiman as a rewriter because they’re expecting Princess Mononoke to make big money. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it?
Some rewriters are very good; Manga Entertainment’s George Roubicek has done some incredible work, rewarded with promotion to dubbing director. To my mind, the best is Raymond Garcia, but even with people as talented as these, a company takes the risk that something will be lost. Every pair of hands on a script is another generational loss.
Real translators don’t need rewriters. Real translators are writers, because how else could they do the work justice? Like musicians and actors, they are that vital link between a creative work and the audience. And just like musicians and actors, if they suck, the show does too. This is, incidentally, why translators all round the world took off their hats to Studio Proteus’s Toren Smith when he told a job applicant to come back when he’d written a couple of novels. You need a reader’s knowledge of Japanese and a writer’s knowledge of English to do the job properly. Both of these skills are priceless, but I have seen anime power brokers prepared to value them at a price lower than peanuts.
(I wrote this article ten years ago for Manga Max, but never got round to printing it. Not a lot has changed. The most recent translation job I was offered, a manga in late 2008, worked out at £18 a day. I said no thanks).
Jonathan Clements got out of anime translation because dead people paid better.