Invisible Layers of Manga

April 1st, 2012

I often refer to the fact that I very often mention “steps that were skipped” or “things readers don’t see” in reference to manga publishing. I’m asked about that quite often – what are those steps? What is it that readers don’t see?

I’ve been meaning to address some of this for ages and today seemed like a good chance to mention some, but probably not all, of the things that readers probably don’t know about (and frequently don’t care about.)

Let’s start with licensing. I imagine very few readers really have any grasp of what this entails, and to be honest there’s no one formula for licensing manga. Different companies have different requirements, some have agencies that represent them, some hire individuals, others have in-house groups that handle that. American manga companies may also hire an agent or representative, but they are more likely to do licensing in-house. In book publishing, this stage is handled by an “acquiring editor” who interfaces between legal and the author or agent. There are no acquiring editors in manga right now, because relationships are so often personal before they are professional and many of the Japanese companies, once they create a relationship, still prefer to go for exclusive agreements. That’s changing a bit. And some manga artists, especially independent ones, are starting to use an agent, but most still rely on their publisher to represent their interests.

Licensing involves more levels of negotiation than you can possibly imagine if you’ve never done it. This stage might takes months or years, while every single detail is hammered out – even down to the way the title looks, the way the credits are handled, distribution for first and successive printings, payment, milestones, formats the files will be sent in…Every. Single. Detail. Obviously, scanlation groups skip all this – they can hit the ‘net faster, because there’s no pesky lawyers, company wanting to know how the books will be distributed or how it will look, making sure that previous contracts are not infringed upon or creators wanting to be paid and make sure the spellings are the way they want them.

After the licensing is done, then the folks who are doing the localizing can get to it. The translator gets a script from what would, in the book publishing world be called a “managing editor.” Managing editors manage the project from this point on until it actually goes to the print. Ideally, these days the manuscript are the pages of the raw manga in digital form. This is where scanlators start the process, having skippped all the tediousness of licensing negotiation. Manga companies do not typically have a “managing editor” and the editor in chief of the company may act as project manager if it’s a really small company.

Translation is not a science. It’s an art. I’ll keep saying that until people get it. ^_^ There is no “right” way to translate, there are a number of ways to translate any given thing.

At this point, there’s a couple of ways a company can go. Some translators send the script as a text file to the adapter. Maybe that person has a bit of understanding of Japanese and has the manga to hand, so they can compare, but that’s pretty rare, honestly. Most companies now require translators to do their own adaptation. Some are better than others at it. Usually this takes some fluency as a writer in the language being translated to. That’s an entirely different thing than just speaking your own language fluidly. The most important thing removing the adapter does is 1) removes a fresh new pair of eyes looking over the script, and so losing an opportunity for some input on things like Voice. 2) It saves money and time, as well.

Some companies have an editor look over the script at this point. A few do, and you usually can tell, because those companies have unusually good translation. Copy editors do not just proofread. They are looking for consistent language use, widows and orphans in the text, grammatical and syntactical errors and other larger issues. Of course, they also find typos. Most manga companies have a translator and an “editor” who does the copy editing and project management. Because of this – and because the quality of editors are so variable, you sometimes get rougher “translation” to your language than you might like.

Then the script goes to lettering. Oh, but wait, there’s no way to letter a page with lettering already on it, so first the page is cleaned up and touched up in places and then it is lettered. Scanlation circles typically use a DPI of about 200 or 300 for their distribution. I can tell you from personal experience that that is absolutely nothing like cleaning up a page at 1200 dpi and retouching it, so that 1-pixel specks don’t show up as black dots in a print version.

Then lettering begins. Companies make hard choices about things like sound effects, which are so often drawn into the manga panels. Do they just translate them, or do they go to the considerable time and effort of replacing them? In almost all cases, I replace them at ALC, because it looks so much nicer. But it definitely takes way longer. And in a few cases, there’s just no way around it and a sound in English has to be set next to the art.

Here’s where it all gets very messy. In book publishing, the managing editor then gets a “galley” copy – a rough copy of the printed volume. This is sent back out to the editor and more importantly, another missing layer here – a proofreader. Some manga companies send lettered manuscripts to the copy editor at this point. It’s a little harder to make changes, but it’s pretty key because…

Okay, so when I reviewed JManga.com this week, I told you that there are almost always errors in manga. Well here’s why….because there are no galleys. Manga publishers do not get rough copies back. In offset printing the most expensive book is the first one and every time the plates are set, it costs. Even big manga publishers here in the US don’t have in-house printing and can’t afford this step. So there are no galleys to send back to the editors and proofreaders who can then spot the mistakes the letterer made. THIS is why one has to presume there are typos in every manga.

And, in some cases, where the letterer has already done their work, there still is only one layer of editing, so after the copy editor makes changes, *no one checks the finished manuscript.* This drives me absolutely crazy. Every manuscript needs more than one editor looking at it once.

True story – when we finished the very first Rica ‘tte Kanji!? volume, we had a total of 5 editors and proofreaders – and there were still two typos that escaped. You can never have too many eyes check a manuscript.

So, in book publishing, the galley goes back to the copy editor and then a proofreader…and then if the managing editor is not a moron, they take a look at it and THEN it goes to print.

In manga, the letterer gets a script that’s been edited once and no one checks the lettered manuscript for errors. Or, if the editor gets the manuscript after lettering, no one checks it a second time after those have been fixed. There can never be too many eyes. And manga companies almost always skimp on eyes.

So, why do they do that? Well, remember, manga companies have been constrained by comic book and bookstore distribution until recently. That means that they had to determine a release date way back at the beginning of the process. Readers expect the book to be ready by then, and are very demanding about things going as fast as possible, which means the company has to get that thing out the door to the printer asap to be ready. (Printers are never fast.) So they send books to print after one read rather than holding the thing up while they wait for a second round of reading/changes – and forget a third round. I have friends in book publishing who will be hired to copy edit/proofread books going to second and third printings and even with all those added layers, they still find errors.

About half the time when you see an editor-in-chief’s name on the book, they never actually edited it. Again, at ALC I always re-read a book after the editors have sent in their changes and then I hand it off to proofreaders to catch the things I still missed (and we still miss some. It’s just the way life is.)

True story – when I was a child I had a book I loved. (This was back in the day when publishing books was a respectable job.) At the very climax of the book there is a critical typo that changes the entire story. At 11 years old, I crossed out the wrong word and wrote in the right one. It just bothered me that much. ^_^

Then we head into issues of distribution and marketing which I have talked about previously, so I won’t belabor the points here. But they also take time, one of the many things fans are always so dissatisfied about.

I hope this gives you a little glimpse into some of the layers that readers never see – and hopefully explain to you why you see errors, and wonder why the company never caught it or what’s holding the book up or other questions and concerns readers have, but have no answers for.

Perhaps this new world of digital distribution will make it simpler for readers to catch an error and companies to fix it. Here’s hoping. ^_^

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14 Responses

  1. Arkadi says:

    Well, this was really illuminating O_O I had always assumed that in manga/comic publishing the whole process wasn’t quite as thorough as it is with book publishing (I’m used to spotting typos and translation mistakes in comics)but I hadn’t imagined the whole mind-blogging complexity of it all. Thanks for the insight!

    Just one thing I don’t understand, though: the bit about skipping galleys. Printing plates are expensive, OK, but .rar files are free: why can’t the editor get some digital feedback? Sure a digital file isn’t quite the same as a rough printed copy, but any mistakes in translation, for example, would be apparent… ?

  2. @Arkadi – Because using digital manuscripts is a very, very recent change in the industry. Editing and proofing have been done on paper manuscripts until just a very few years ago…..and if you have evener tried to edit a digital manuscript, you would understand why editors and proofreaders prefer a real page.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “…Translation is not a science. It’s an art. I’ll keep saying that until people get it. ^_^ There is no ‘right’ way to translate, there are a number of ways to translate any given thing…”

    There’s no *one* right way to translate. There are *many* right ways :) and many *wrong* ways too.

    If there were no wrong ways to translate, then I’d have deserved a 100% A+ for each and every assignment and test in every foreign languages class I ever took. ;)

    “…Usually this takes some fluency as a writer in the language being translated to. That’s an entirely different thing than just speaking your own language fluidly…”

    ABSOLUTELY! If money were no object, then every translation job would deserve a translator who reads the origin language as a native and a translator who reads the destination language as a native. When these are not the same person who has at least two native languages, they’d at least be a team. That is, two native readers who each read the other language as a second language and work together.

    “… THIS is why one has to presume there are typos in every manga…”

    …and increasingly in other books too. In recent years some publishers of books in English without pictures have skimped on the proofreading too. :/

    “…Editing and proofing have been done on paper manuscripts until just a very few years ago…..and if you have evener tried to edit a digital manuscript, you would understand why editors and proofreaders prefer a real page.”

    YES. Until (and I hope it’s soon) the touchscreen and stylus let our hands mark up a page as finely and precisely as paper and red pencil let our hands, paper rules.

  4. AstroNerdBoy says:

    Excellent and educational piece to be sure. I have noted that some companies appear a bit better with QC issues than others though. Right now, Kodansha Comics seems down on the low end.

    As to the licensing stuff, *sigh* The insanity of it is just stupid. *_*

    Regarding Arkadi’s comment and your response, I’m kind of puzzled. I used to work in the publishing field and all our books had proofs that were printed on laser (before that, it was photo print sheets). These pages would be identical to what would appear in the book, only the books wouldn’t be 8×11 in size. The book was completely edited before the final version was created. Once it was sent to the printers, it had already been edited and gone through the QC process. Any mistakes after that were charged to the printer, who would be forced to make corrections for free.

  5. @Anonymous – Yes, there are incorrect translations, but there are also multiple “correct” ways to translate. ^_^

    A great example of this is the first sentence of Maria-sama ga Miteru, which I don’t have to hand. It’s a complex sentence and there are umber of ways to translate it “correctly.”

    @AstroNerdBoy – Re-read that bit. Time is a HUGE pressure on manga companies, they oftend don’t have MONEY to have someone read it over again and a photocopy is not a galley. Galleys are a copy of the book. This way you can seen when margins are fubared and spacing is off, notes got cut, the relative sizes of text fonts….these are the kind of things Galleys are used for in publishing.

  6. AstroNerdBoy says:

    Well, maybe the legal publishing field was different somehow. As I said, when photo pages were created (using developer fluids and the like), they were already margin-set and appeared exactly as the page would in print, right down to the font choices, notations, whatever. The final copy of those pages were what was sent to the printer. It sounds like we used these photo pages (which was abandoned when laser technology reached a point that laser pages could be cut for proofing and bundling to the printer) in the manner that you guys use galleys.

    I do understand the time constraints though.

  7. @AstroNerdBoy – Yes, legal and business publishing are different. Manga publishing has more in common with textbook publishing than document publishing.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “@Anonymous – Yes, there are incorrect translations, but there are also multiple “correct” ways to translate. ^_^

    “A great example of this is the first sentence of Maria-sama ga Miteru, which I don’t have to hand. It’s a complex sentence and there are umber of ways to translate it “correctly.”””

    I wholeheartedly agree! There are tons of ways to translate it correctly :) and at the same time I bet there’s at least one way to get it wrong.

    For a simple English-to-Spanish translation example:

    original: “I am cold”
    correct: “Estoy fría”
    correct: “Yo estoy fría”
    wrong: “Soy sombrero”

  9. Arkadi says:

    @Erica Friedman -Yes, I’m aware a digital manuscript is nowhere as good as a printed rough, for the reasons you mentioned; still, it is useful for some things -such as catching erros in translation, distribution of text, etc- so I was surprised to learn that it’s a recent practice. Hope it catches on ^^

  10. @Arkadi – I know of one publisher who only moved to electronic manuscripts within the last 6 months – this is a major, globally known publisher. Paper was the most common manuscript form right through the end of 2011 in most forms of publishing.

  11. Arkadi says:

    @Erica Friedman -only last year? Talk about moving on with the times, huh? XD Some day, when we hear the whole story, it’ll turn out that the guys in charge simply didn’t want to bother learning to use the new media -or something like that.

  12. @Arakadi -Comapies have vastly different decision-making and rollout issues than individuals. The larger the company, the slower it can move. In the case of the company in question, many of the editors freaked out that they had to do digital. It seems reactionary, but I really do understand – it’s just harder to edit digitally.

  13. Anonymous says:

    @Arkadi – More likely that it’ll turn out that the guys in charge of the new media simply didn’t want to bother learning how copyediting is done (often you need to write notes in the *margins*, or *between* the lines, or *on top of* the pre-existing text, or etc. without making the original text that you’re marking up move at all!).

  14. Ahhh, this was an interesting post to read. It reminds me of TOKYOPOP, which was a pretty good place to edit by these standards.

    We got manuscripts of the book printed out on regular old laser printers before we switched to digital. We did lots of rounds of editing on those, printing out new ones as needed. Each editor also approved the final copy of each of their books that was about to be sent off to the printers.

    The digital change was hard, but now I prefer it as a freelancer. I had fewer reasons to go into the office, which definitely saves a lot of time.

    I don’t get enough rounds of editing nowadays. I want to write a post about how frustrating that is, but it might be hard not to step on toes.

    What I miss the most is being able to communicate easily with the letterers. My job as an editor is made so much easier if a)I’m given direct access to the letterer and b) the letterer speaks English.

    Good post, Erica!

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