Found in Translation: An Interview with Jocelyne Allen

Illustration of Jocelyne Allen, a shorthaired woman with glasses waving. Art by Natsume Ono.

One of the unique challenges of the manga publishing industry is the challenge of taking a product in the Japanese language and translating it for English-speaking audiences. Translating isn’t just converting one word of vocabulary to another. A good translation starts with a firm foundation of both languages and their idiosyncrasies, and then uses strong creative writing to capture the original spirit, and even improve on, the original writing. But despite their words being the ones a fan reads, translators are often an invisible (and in my opinion, underrated) part of the process, and translators from marginalized communities even more so. Let’s shine a light on some of these creative, hardworking artists.

I first became aware of Jocelyne Allen’s work while reviewing Claudine, but checking my bookshelves found other works with her stamp on them, such as My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and Dictatorial Grimoire, one of my fluffy, not-so-guilty pleasures. I’m very happy she was able to sit down for a bit and tell me more about her work!

How did you get started in translating?

I actually started in the automotive industry. I got a job working in-house as an editor/translator, and I spent my days translating engineering papers, user manuals, and human resources presentations. I did that for a few years before making the jump to freelancing. I kept working for that agency for years after I started freelancing, too. I doubt I would’ve made it if not for the steady stream of work they sent me. Gradually, I built up a solid base of other commercial clients to support myself while I wormed my way into the creative translation world, to work on novels and manga and things like that, which is basically all I work on these days.

What are some recent projects you’ve done?

I’ve done a lot of things recently. Of the work that’s been recently published, I’m especially pleased with The King of Strong Style, pro wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura’s autobiography, That Blue Sky Feeling, Claudine by Riyoko Ikeda, the Kase-san series, Natsume Ono’s ACCA 13-Territory Inspection Department, and Fumi Yoshinaga’s What Did You Eat Yesterday.

What’s been your favorite project?

I really loved working on the novel Red Girls by Kazuki Sakuraba. It’s this multi-generational story that tells the recent history of Japan through the lens of this one family. And one of the main characters is a shojo manga artist, so it was an interesting overlap between the two worlds of translation I work in. I got to use all my manga knowledge for this novel. For manga, I love working on Aya Kanno’s Requiem of the Rose King. It’s such an interesting take on Shakespeare and a really unusual seeming choice for the artist best known for Otomen. But there’s the same serious consideration of gender identity and roles that she brought to life with such humour in Otomen. But Requiem’s all dark and tragic where Otomen was light and silly. I’m also working on this series After the Rain by Jun Mayuzuki right now, and the more I work on it, the more I love this story. Mayuzuki has such a deft, gentle touch; she manages to convey such emotion without having a character say a word.

What’s the strangest or most interesting translation quirk you’ve come across?

I guess maybe working on a story by Junji Ito, which revolved entirely around the Japanese word “kuse.” This can mean “habit, quirk, kink, idiosyncrasy, mannerism, curl, weird, custom” and so, so much more. But every bit of dialogue in this story played off a slightly different angle of this word, so that the same word could be used throughout and still be meaningful. Of course, that won’t work in English, but I definitely did my best to try and keep the single word wordplay that Ito was going for. I’ve never before or since come across a story that hinged so completely on a single word.

What would you want readers to know about translating?

Two things, I guess. One is that I don’t generally get to choose projects, in the sense of getting my favourite manga licensed. If that were the case, Miki Yamamoto’s How Are You? would have been published in English a long time ago, right alongside Kaze to Ki no Uta. Publishers generally approach me with books they’ve already licensed and ask me if I want to translate them. And at this stage, I choose whether or not I want to be involved, but the decision to publish an English translation was made before I got on board.

The other thing is that translating is more about knowing English than it is about knowing Japanese. Of course, a solid understanding of Japanese is essential, but if you don’t have a firm grasp of English, you won’t be able to capture the subtleties of tone and things to convey the same sense to an English reader that a Japanese reader gets from the original work. If you’re a bad writer in English, you’ll be a bad translator. It’s really essential to be widely read in English, too, so that you’re familiar with a variety of writing styles because you can’t do every translation in the same voice. You need to have an intuitive understanding of writing in different registers for different audiences. It’s not enough to be fluent in Japanese.

Jocelyne Allen is a pop culture translator and interpreter based out of Toronto or Tokyo, depending on the season. She can be found on Twitter, at her book blog, Brains vs. Book, and her website.

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Tia Kalla

Tia Kalla

Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.