No ordinary life for Japanese manga translator

Pittsfield resident Jenny McKeon translates Japanese comics into English

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PITTSFIELD — Six years ago, Jenny McKeon entered an online contest that would jump-start her dream career as a Japanese manga translator.

Since then, she's translated at least 100 individual manga (comics) and 20 different series of manga and light novels, including the titles "So I'm a Spider, So What?," "Nichijou" ("My Ordinary Life"), "Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid," "Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey," and "Satoko and Nada."

But, McKeon wasn't always quite sure where her love for Japanese manga and anime would take her.

"I've always read manga and I always wanted to be able to read Japanese. When I went to college, I wanted to be an English major and minor in Japanese. But I ended up majoring in Japanese because they want your full attention to be learning Japanese. By the time you graduate, you're more or less fluent in the language," she said. "But, there's always more to learn."

McKeon graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor's degree in Japanese/Linguistics in 2013, but didn't immediately know what she wanted to do with her degree.

"The thought of translating manga or subtitling anime crossed my mind, but I didn't know how to do that," she said of getting into the field of Japanese manga (comics) translation. "Others [who she studied with at UMass] immediately went on to study Japanese at the graduate level. I didn't necessarily want to do that right away. I was biding my time, figuring out what I wanted to do, when I stumbled upon the Manga Translation Battle."

To enter The Digital Comic Association's third annual Manga Translation Battle, contestants chose from four different featured manga to translate from Japanese to English and submitted their entries online. A grand prize winner would receive a contract for the manga title they translated and a trip to Japan. Additionally, three first-place winners would also win a job offer to translate their chosen manga title.

One of the contest title options was the manga "Nichijou" ("My Ordinary Life"), one of McKeon's favorites. She translated the provided chapter and sent it off to the contest, where a monthslong process would begin with professional translators culling finalists from the entries and conclude with a professional panel of translators selecting the winners.

A few months later, in early 2015, McKeon learned she had won first place in the "My Ordinary Life" contest and a contract to translate the first three volumes of the series. Her contract was later extended to include all 10 volumes. And that work led to other translation gigs. Soon, she had enough translation work to quit her retail job and focus on her freelance work full-time.

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But translating Japanese to English is not as simple as most people think it is.

"You always have a physical or online dictionary open when translating," she said. "Japanese is both difficult and different. It's one of the languages that is most different than English. It's more close to German. It has three different alphabets. Two of them are pretty easy and phonetic, while the third is based on Chinese characters that can be combined to have different meanings."

And, she said, the art of translation, especially when translating from Japanese to English, is much more complicated than using something like Google Translate for a literal translation of a word from one language to the next.

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"Really, there is no such thing as a literal one-for-one translation," McKeon said. "If you gave the same sentence to 10 translators, you would get 10 different translations back. And, all of those translations could be right — just in 10 different ways."

And the job of translation is about more than the text, there's also the subtle art of translating puns or jokes that aren't shared across cultures.

"Being able to write in the language you're translating into is just as important as being able to write in the language your translating out of, especially when it comes to being creative and narration," she said. "The first series that I translated was trial by fire for that kind of thing; so full of puns and very specific Japanese cultural things. You have to make the choice: do you write translator's notes to explain it or come up with an equivalent concept that people will understand in English?"

Four years after going full-time with her freelance work, McKeon is still feeling lucky to be able to have the amount of work she's able to get.

"I'm lucky to be working on several different series at any given time. I have work scheduled for several months," she said. "I know a lot of fellow translators who are not as lucky as I am and have to look for work or balance it with part-time job."

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The time to translate a work, she said, varies by the type of text. She typically spends about a month translating a single manga volume and aims to have light novels completed in five weeks.

"Once in a while the publishers send me a physical book, but more often, they send a digital copy," McKeon said. "I have it open on one side of the screen, a word document and a couple of dictionaries open on the other side of the screen. I type up the script and sent it back."

But, scriptwriting can be tough at times, she said, noting that her translations must fit into the comic's speech bubbles.

"Japenese text is generally vertical, so speech bubbles are generally skinny. The letterer does have to work within that, so you have to be careful that you're not giving them super-long sentences, full of super long words that are not going to fit," she said.

And since she normally works remotely, from a home office, McKeon's had little to adjust to in this time of self-quarantine, other than sharing the office with her husband, Alex Chautin, a high school history and English language arts teacher at Berkshire Arts and Technology Public Charter School.

"It's been nice having Alex around. Luckily, our office is big enough for the two of us. He's teaching his classes over Zoom. I like getting to hear him teach," she said. "It's also a little bit of a mixed blessing. It feels strange to keep translating comics while things around us are in chaos. I know I'm very fortunate to keep working. Our industry is on the lucky side of all this. While a lot of publishers are delaying their print books, they are still publishing digitally."

To learn more about McKeon or to view her comics and illustrations, visit her website at jlmkart.com or follow her on Twitter at @JLMKart.

Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry Magazine editor, can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter at @BE_DigitalJen or at 413-281-1866.


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