What is the Anime Localization Controversy? – This Week in Anime

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.

There’s no way for us, a pair of non-experts, to break down every single thing wrong with machine translation, but the simple fact is that it does not work. It will misinterpret nuance, spit out gobbledygook, and sometimes be just plain wrong. Anyone who has used the auto-translate feature on Twitter should know this. It can undoubtedly give you the gist of a message occasionally, but it’s not the kind of tool I want anywhere near art and entertainment.
The amount of time we’ve been in this fandom is probably a point we’ll be returning to a few times regarding this debate. Still, I have to point out that my recoiling at Bushiroad‘s decision regarding The Ancient Magus Bride comes from having been around just the last few years. I have been seeing cruddy machine translations put out from fans and ill-advised official publishers alike for a while now. I’m aware that this ain’t it.

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 depressing answer is that the licensors can pay people just a bit less than they already were for the translation of their material. One irony is the provable point that going through and editing machine text can be more time-consuming and inefficient than just composing and editing your material.

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.

Distrust giving way to disinformation has been a part of the discussion around anime, translation, and localizations since I debated Dragon Ball Z character names with my schoolyard friends. So, trust me when I say there’s nothing technically new about anime localizers being treated as boogeymen by subsets of fans. It’s just been reskinned into this generation’s vitriolic culture war.

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.

I don’t feel like I need to point to any particular commentators because A) I don’t want to give these types oxygen, and B) a lot of their grievances have been done so many times as to be ubiquitous. Much of it’s the sort of complaints I’ve seen since the fansub days, like issue being taken when modern Western slang is slotted in, regardless of whether it fits the translated material.

There is a reason so many of my examples of these are gyaru-based.
The gyaru goldmine, I like to call it. And these are legit illustrative examples! Japanese, like any other language, has many different dialects depending on your place of birth, how you identify, or what social situation you find yourself in. Gyaru has their own noticeably different and slang-heavy manner of speaking among friends, so it’s often a great place to find localizers flexing their muscles and giving characters distinct voices. You don’t want a gyaru who speaks like a newscaster.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the gyaru horses in Uma Musume didn’t talk like this.

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.

It makes for some real irony in Bushiroad of all people making front-page news for going the AI translation route, since their own English releases of their previous franchise material had showcased some wild examples.

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.

That point gets to the inherent problem of wanting “literal” translations and a fundamental misunderstanding of what translation is. Because it turns out the Japanese language was not conceived as a direct cipher for English! Rather, like any language, it’s an expression of broad communicative ideas that can only be approximated in a way that makes sense to speakers of another language. And like “yabai,” a lot of that stuff, like honorifics, will depend on context.

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.

Sometimes, a dedication to that flow intersects with other context elements to showcase why translation can be such an art form that so many people dedicate their careers to it. One of my favorite examples from the past few years is the rap battle from episode 6 of Ya Boy Kongming!, wherein translator Jake Jung adapted 192 bars of verse while keeping them on-beat and with rhymes.

Even the largest of language models could never.
These are artistic endeavors! Humans made them to begin with, so I want humans to handle their adaptations and localizations every step of the way.

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.
An issue is that human translators are, ultimately, human and are thus capable of making human mistakes. Sometimes you get innocently egregious, but amusing whiffs, like that time in SSSS.Dynazenon where they heard “miira” and translated it as “mirror” instead of, you know, the mummy that was right onscreen.

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.

English’s cross-pollination with Japanese is a fascinating subject. Languages, as a whole, are pretty interesting! But back to the point at hand, while translation is a creative endeavor, it’s also a job. Sometimes, you must turn something in and move on to the next assignment. That’s the nature of the beast. No conspiracies, just capitalism.
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 certainly don’t want anyone to think I have any love lost for Crunchyroll, especially lately. I’m here defending translators as a practice, and the pittance the streaming giant pays those people has been no secret for years. It’s honestly disappointing that so many bad-faith commentators level blame for issues at the translators themselves when they’re more borne out of the systems of the entire machine itself.

This is why we must be vigilant about companies and clients trying to pivot to AI. At the end of the day, the heads of these corporations are craven, profit-driven, and heartless scumbags, so if they think they can save a buck, they’re going to do it regardless of the future consequences. So we, the audience, have to be those future consequences and be loud.

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.

“Shortsighted” is an excellent way to put it, especially as the bad actors championing moves like Bushiroad‘s also miss that it won’t solve their real issues. There are egregious cases out there of material alterations by publishers like Seven Seas yanking out fanservice-y passages from the Classroom of the Elite and Mushoku Tensei light novels.

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.

The difference is that it’s harder to wind up English-speaking fans of Chinese sci-fi novels as part of an online grift machine (Bible fans, on the other hand…). But the far-back historical context makes me think about how hotly debated something as elementary-seeming as the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus can be. So people these days think two anime girls wanting to date must be a translation error, which only makes time feel like an even flatter circle.

There’s just no winning those arguments because they aren’t even arguments. Those people are ready to willfully misinterpret visual and nonverbal cues like wedding rings if it means supporting their regressive ideas. They have nothing of value to say about translation or art of any kind.

Oh, I fully understand that I’m yelling into the void on much of this—a lot of those internet shoutmen have a pretty captive audience ready to believe whatever affirmations of their biases they spew at them. We’re talking about a crowd that still talks about Funimation as if they’re an active force that hasn’t been defunct for years, or conflates English dub adaptation scripts with text translations as if AI has any chance of supplanting the former any time soon.

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’m sure the comment section for this one will be a real utopia. It sucks because, as I’ve said, I have been around the block when it comes to seeing all manner of translations, and I’m familiar with the frustrations that might eventually mutate into more toxic elements, given the right provocation.

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.

I also hope the translation environment becomes one where the people in it can flourish. And I also hope that anyone who might find themselves on the cultural fence when they see news like that about Ancient Magus Bride heed the advice we’ve so gingerly tried to deploy here: Don’t be a sucker. If someone tries to tell you this decision is all about pushing out those “woke” translators that publishers must hate working with, consider instead the info of the people behind the manga itself: That they’re still going to be keeping professional translators on to at least proofread. They’re doing it to get ahead of damages caused by piracy.

Now, other companies have been able to combat piracy without AI by doing things like providing a convenient service at a reasonable price, but I digress. I’m not going to be mad or despondent anymore. Maybe AI will go the way of the NFT, and then we’ll be able to have slightly less unhinged conversations about localization. That’ll be something to cheer about.

Translation note: “Banzai” means “Banzai”

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