Nick and Chris weigh in on the vitriol and misinformation swirling around AI usage and localization in anime and manga translation.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Chris, since our reboot discussion went so swimmingly last time, I think it’s only suitable for us to put our brains together yet again and solve another long-contentious facet of the anime industry. And by that, of course, I mean we’re going to finally, definitively, and once and for all solve every single argument anybody has ever had about translating one language into another.
As much as some people can’t understand some languages, I can’t understand why agreeing about anime translations is so hard! Fortunately, a couple of close nakama like us are just the ones to have a nuanced discussion like this go all according to keikaku!
There are a lot of angles to this topic—some much more legitimate than others—but we might as well begin with the news that kicked off the most recent online firestorm. What would otherwise be an unequivocally welcome announcement that The Ancient Magus’ Bride would be returning with a simulpub was complicated (i.e., marred) by the mention of an AI-assisted translation.
“AI” has already been a contentious buzzword both in and out of the manga and anime spheres. Concerns have been ongoing over artists’ works being used in training datasets without their consent (translation note: that means “stealing”), alongside auto-generated pseudo-artwork encroaching on creators’ spaces. Bringing the technology in as a quick, cheap substitute for the long-standing job of human translation and localization of manga was pretty much guaranteed to be a big ol’ machine-operated boot to a hornet’s nest.
Just last season, we had that debacle with Crunchyroll‘s initial subs for The Yuzuki Family’s Four Sons, guys. Read the room.
As much as Silicon Valley execs would love every manager on the planet to believe otherwise, computers are pretty dogshit at writing on their own. And, perhaps more importantly, people are pretty good at discerning whether a sentence is intelligible or not. This is why MTL companies like Mantra (mentioned in the above article) like to hedge their “revolutionary” technology with human proofreaders/editors. And if the companies advertising this amazing product are relying on the human touch to scrub its inevitable mistakes, then what is even the point?
The other irony is that those needs for human contextualization mean that machine translations like the one for Magus Bride still won’t be completely “neutral” in their adapted language the way several manga readers might be hoping they will be.
Yeah, those are two main arguments for AI at the moment. The first is economic, a point that sinks from scummy to outright depraved when considering the peanuts already being paid to most translators. The other costs that go towards licensing and releasing an anime/manga into English almost surely dwarf the money spent only on translating it, so this is miserly penny-pinching on a scale that would make Ebenezer Scrooge blush. The other point is a belief that AI-assisted translations will inherently be more accurate to the original text—a belief that is either misinformed if I’m being generous, or willfully ignorant if I’m being mean. This topic makes me feel like being mean.
That doesn’t make it any less exhausting when some commentators use news like Bushiroad‘s use of machine translation, which should be a separate subject, to leap to the topic of this will somehow eventually oust their be-hated human translators.
I was trying to find a diplomatic way to word this, but hey, I’m among friends: that shit pisses me off so much. The discussion has nothing to do with translation anymore. Like everything else subsumed into the culture war, insecure chuds transform its nuances into a blunt axe to grind. Any detail or moment that doesn’t conform to their narrow ideology becomes “Western politics,” poisoning the translation because there’s no way a Japanese author or artist would ever see the world differently than they do.
There is a reason so many of my examples of these are gyaru-based.
It’s a good place to springboard off onto deeper points since it’s (ironically) easy to understand why it’s done this way compared to other nuances of translation. For a comparison, I tend to go back and forth on leaving honorifics in subtitles, since even laypeople can still easily hear those in the spoken Japanese dialogue. A slang-based dialect is significantly harder for untrained ears to catch, and a straight machine transliteration will miss out on the adaptational sensibilities needed to communicate that personality.
More often than not, literally translating slang is going to sound like nonsense because slang, by definition, is going to be rooted in the quirks of one’s native language. The perennial example is “yabai,” which can mean anything from “sick nasty” to “hella fine” to “wtf gross,” depending on context. You need an expert working behind the scenes to make sure each instance of slang sounds just as insufferable in English as it does in Japanese, and that is where our most fearless warrior localizers tread. We salute you.
These are all objectively hilarious, and of course, they flew right under the radar of the types trying to score culture-war points on YouTube.
It turns out it’s a lot easier to harp on the same seven examples when you don’t care about the subject matter. This is why it’s frustrating that those voices try to dominate the discussion because localization is such a rich topic otherwise. For example, the comparatively boring subject of honorifics is fascinating nonetheless precisely because there is no one good answer. It’s a facet of the Japanese language that we have no 1:1 analog for in English, so any “solution” has to be a compromise.
It also fuels a lot of frustration, because the conversation around that context could be about how cultural penetration of anime has reached a point where things like “tsundere,” which would previously require translation notes, now function as understandable loanwords. Instead, much of that potential interest is drowned out by reheated arguments about honorifics, slang, and localizers secretly manipulating you like it’s still 2004.
Japanese is also more context-dependent than English, which fuels many misunderstandings. A contextless “literal” translation of someone’s words might look quite different from the final product. Another bugbear, shikata ga nai, “literally” means “there is no way.” It’s perhaps too frequently translated as “it can’t be helped,” and depending on the context, it can mean a whole bunch of other things. Translators aren’t trying to trick you when they use different phrasing. They’re trying to find words that fit the situation and the flow of the language.
Even the largest of language models could never.
There are, of course, complicating factors. Many translators are overworked and underpaid, and considering the tight turnarounds required for simulcasting, it’s unrealistic for every series to regularly get the same degree of care as Kongming. That’s not the translators being negligent, though. That’s streaming companies being cheap.
Not every attempt at a connective cultural reference can also be a winner.
But with the sheer amount of anime being released and translated for simulcast at this point, that’s effectively a law-of-averages problem as opposed to any sign of malicious incompetence. No one is immune; I can remember a time when Spice & Wolf fansubbers struggled to hear what its ending theme song was saying in English.
This is not to say there aren’t legitimate grievances with the localization machine. Back in the day, Funimation‘s video player could be notoriously bad at handling subs, especially for onscreen text. This is a mechanical part of localization, but it’s still important.
Crunchyroll‘s subtitle integration is much more robust, thankfully. However, it, too, is ultimately dependent on translators, editors, and timers being given the resources necessary to do so. Not every anime gets this treatment.
I read Twitter on and off while writing these columns. I just got a retweet on my feed of a translator whose client let them go last year due to ChatGPT, but three months later, they came back asking about their rates for “correcting AI output.” That’s the degree of shortsightedness and shamelessness we’re dealing with.
To which I say, come on, you guys are Seven Seas, you published Booty Royale and Inside the Tentacle Cave, what’re you doing getting precious about some light-novel fanservice? The thing is, to hear Mushoku Tensei‘s translator tell it, those changes were done at the editorial level, meaning they’d have occurred regardless of whether a human localizer or an AI handed in the translation.
We should also emphasize that these issues are by no means unique to the anime/manga spheres. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for instance, got some significant cuts when it was published in English, which was at the publisher’s request. I also read The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu last year, and the English translation has a different chapter order than the Chinese novel. In that case, though, the English version skews closer to Liu’s original intention, so is that the definitive copy now? The literary world is full of works with multiple translations that have had their differences debated and discussed, sometimes across centuries. Look at the dang Bible. You think about this stuff for too long and start to wonder what “authenticity” is.
It sucks! I’m just venting here, too. But one day, it would be nice if adults could have a nuanced online discussion about localization without fearing that the worst posters on the planet will hijack it.
I lived through Crabstick subs and Duwang scans, but I never had someone with a Patreon account tell me those were indicative of some boogeyman seeking to destroy my hobby.
For all its foibles and pitfalls, translating anime and manga has got to be a labor of love. You need a firm grasp of English and Japanese languages and cultures, and that’s a tall order. But you also need to be able to write within the restrictions of the particular medium and write in a way that people will enjoy reading. I’m simplifying that a lot, too, but I’m working with my limited perspective as someone who is pretty okay at English and very rudimentary at Japanese. My hat is off to anyone in the translation mines, and I hope conditions improve.
To clarify misinformation that has been spread, I would like to provide some additional information.
Firstly, regarding “AI-assisted translation,” we have implemented a system from Mantra Corporation (https://t.co/f4C8VuBYGw). This system combines their unique machine…
— 魔法使いの嫁/ゴーストアンドウィッチ原作公式 (@magus_bride) December 22, 2023
Translation note: “Banzai” means “Banzai”