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Comics Feature

Found in Translation

Lillian Olsen Has Discovered a Way to Make a Living From Comics Thanks to the Japanese Invasion

Sam Holden
Comic-Book Fan: Lillian Olsen Translates for Shonen Jump, one of the most popular comics in the U.S.

Comics Issue 2004

Out of Sequence The Third Annual City Paper Comics Contest--Plus . . .

The Trouble With Girls Playboy Cartoons Sell, Don’t Shock | By Tim Kreider

Comics 101 | By Tom Chalkley

Found in Translation Lillian Olsen Has Discovered a Way to Make a Living From Comics Thanks to the Japanese Invasion | By J. Bowers

By J. Bowers | Posted 9/29/2004

“In Japan, everyone gets into manga when they’re young,” Lillian Olsen says over a plate of tempura and a small, brightly colored stack of the Japanese graphic novels. “Manga accounts for around 40 percent of printed materials over there. People buy the latest issue of Shonen Jump [a weekly anthology magazine] on newsstands and read it on the train on their way to work. In Japan, it’s everywhere.”

Olsen, 29, ought to know. The daughter of a Navy veteran who wed a Japanese woman, Olsen was born in Tokyo, raised in Chicago, and currently lives just east of Northwood, where she helps feed America’s ever-growing demand for Japanese comic books by translating manga for Viz, one of the industry’s largest publishing companies. She’s been freelancing for Viz since her college days, when a fellow member of Cornell University’s anime club put her in touch with an editor who was looking for some new blood.

That was 10 years ago, when translating was a good way for a fluent Japanese speaker to make some extra cash. These days, it’s big business. In October alone, Viz will put 40 new graphic novels and three anthology magazines on American bookstore shelves. Best-selling titles like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z have become standard playground vocabulary. And Olsen is working full-time, translating high-profile graphic novels like Evangelion, Ceres, Please Save My Earth, X, and Battle Angel Alita, while lending her talents to the English-language version of Shonen Jump, one of the best-selling monthly comic books in the United States.

Getting a new manga ready for American audiences is a three-step process. First, a translator like Olsen creates a literal translation of the text. Then, a rewriter turns Olsen’s work into a readable script, swapping Japanese turns of phrase for more readily understood English equivalents. Lastly, a touch-up artist pastes the translated dialogue into the artwork and replaces the Japanese sound effects with English ones. The whole process can take anywhere from six to eight months.

“I do my best work between midnight and 5 a.m.,” says Olsen, who often works on four or five titles at one time. “Some translations fly by in a couple hours, some take me a whole week. The fighting manga [aka shonen] are so straightforward, but the shojo [emotional sagas geared toward women and girls] take longer to work out, to get the emotions right.”

Because she puts so much effort into staying true to the original Japanese stories—many American manga fans are downright rabid about getting authentic translations—Olsen tries to get her rewriters to leave her work intact whenever possible.

“Some rewriters have an American comics background—they speak American comicese,” she explains. “But Japanese word order is broken up in different ways. For example, in Japanese sentences the verb is last, and the subject and object come first. So when someone’s talking, they can trail off and leave the verb ambiguous, whereas in English they’d leave the subject ambiguous. So, if it sounds like he’s going to say, ‘I love you,’ I’ll make him say, ‘I always . . . ,’ to retain the meaning but keep the ambiguity.”

“It’s our policy to help the reader as much as possible,” explains Eric Searleman, an editor at Viz’s San Francisco headquarters. “We explain cultural differences. We can’t expect people to learn Japanese to enjoy our manga.”

To that end, American manga companies often include a glossary or key to help readers understand references and ideas that might otherwise get lost in translation. But in keeping with fan demand, more and more of manga’s uniquely Japanese features are being left untouched for the U.S. market. These days, most manga read right-to-left, Japanese style, instead of flipping and retouching the images—a concession that retains authenticity while reducing the time and expense it takes to bring a translated title to the market. And a few titles leave Japanese sound effects intact—for instance, “guuu” to imitate the sound of a character’s stomach growling, and “ba” or “bagu” instead of the English “boom” or “bang.”

One of the first companies to translate manga for the U.S. market (major competitors include Tokyopop, Del Rey, and ADV), Viz has been in business since 1986. There has long been a core audience of American manga die-hards to keep the industry afloat, but ICv2.com, a trade-news Web site that monitors manga trends, reports that sales reached $100 million in 2003, a leap of 75 percent to 100 percent over 2002 figures. Searleman says the recent explosion of Japanese pop culture in America has expanded the market for manga, creating more job opportunities for fans like Olsen—and a whole new breed of comic-book readers.

“J-pop bands are starting to tour the States, J-horror movies are catching the eye of Hollywood, anime is big on Cartoon Network. There’s a ton of Japanese toys, books, movies, cartoons, music, and fashion to consume, and manga is just one part of that,” Searleman says. “Plus, the major U.S. comic publishers have ignored a large chunk of potential readers. Not everyone wants to read superhero comics. We publish a comic in Shonen Jump about a boy who loves to play the game go. We also publish a book called Kare First Love about a girl who experiences her first kiss. Comics don’t necessarily have to be about guys dressed in long underwear. Manga is inclusive, whereas the comics produced by Marvel and DC are exclusive.”

Still, every fad has a shelf life, and while Searleman seems optimistic about manga’s stateside staying power, Olsen remains cautious about the recent surge in popularity.

“There is a bubble, and it might burst,” she says. “The industry is putting out a lot of crap, to keep up with demand. But it’s still too early to say. It’s not oversaturation yet.”

Bubble or no bubble, Olsen remains enthusiastic about her chosen profession. Before long, she’ll be translating a brand-new (and super-secret) monthly title for Shonen Jump. Her graphic novels are on bookstore shelves all over the country. And she gets free manga in the mail every month.

“I have a huge collection myself, and if I went to a Japanese bookstore I’d spend a fortune,” Olsen admits, smiling. “But I get them for free. And when there’s a series I’m really excited about, I can talk about it all day, think about it all day. And it’s legit, it’s my job. It’s just so great to be working in comics. I mean, it’s my life. That’s just amazing to me.”

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