Found in Translation: An Interview with Jennifer McKeon

Jennifer McKeon standing in front of a banner that reads "So I'm a spider so what?"

One of the unique challenges of the manga publishing industry is that 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.

Jennifer McKeon is a translator from Massachusetts who has done work for Vertical, Seven Seas, and Yen Press. Following up on a chance encounter with our publisher, Wendy Browne, at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival in the spring, we’re excited to introduce McKeon as part of our Found in Translation series.

How did you get started in translating?

As a lifelong anime/manga nerd with a love for languages, I studied Japanese and linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. About a year after I graduated, I entered the third Manga Translation Battle for one of my favorite series of all time, Nichijou. Much to my surprise, I won first place, and was able to start translating the series for Vertical! This eventually led to working on more slice-of-life/comedy manga for Seven Seas, and later translating light novels for Yen Press.

What are some recent projects you’ve done?

I just wrapped up the third of five volumes of Blank Canvas by Akiko Higashimura. Working on this series has been a dream of mine for years and I’m honored that I actually get to do so! I’m also working on the Kino’s Journey manga for Vertical, and I’m almost finished with the second-to-last volume of Bloom into You, a yuri series that got a lovely anime adaptation earlier this year.

Books translated by Jennifer McKeon
Some of the books that McKeon has translated.

What’s been your favorite project?

I love so many of the series I work on that it’s hard to choose! But Nichijou was the first series I ever translated and it’s still very near and dear to my heart. All of the puns and obscure references made it challenging but rewarding to work on, which is also true of the author’s current work, CITY.

So I’m a Spider, So What? is definitely my favorite light novel series to work on by far—the protagonist’s narration is so zany and fun, and the plot is full of all kinds of crazy twists. Highly recommended!

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

I’m not sure if this qualifies, but some romance series (among other genres) tend to have lots of flashbacks. I sometimes spend a ridiculous amount of time poring through old volumes trying to find the scene or line being referenced. The worst thing is when it had a double meaning that I couldn’t possibly have known about at the time, so I have to try to spin it in a way that makes sense! I envy translators who can consult the author about what they meant at times like these (which is practically unheard-of in manga).

What would you want readers to know about translating?

Translation is highly subjective—ten translators could translate the same line different ways, all of them equally correct! It’s as much about your skill in your target language as the language that you’re translating from. When you’re reading a translation, you’re reading the translator’s writing, not just the author’s. Some readers don’t seem to realize this, which I like to think means we’re doing a good job, but it always makes me happy when someone notices and appreciates my work. The same goes for the rest of the team, too: letterers, editors, etc. all play a big part in the English manga you read!

When she’s not busy translating manga and light novels, McKeon can be found writing and drawing slice-of-life and autobiographical comics. Catch up with her online on her website or on Twitter.

Jennifer McKeon smiles with her head resting on her hands on her desk. Art hangs on the walls and a cat stares from the window.

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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.