What Japanese-speaking translator wouldn’t love the opportunity to work with manga?
Ajani Oloye is not only living that dream, but adding melanin to the manga publishing industry! Read about his experience and expertise in the first installment for this month’s series, Black in Japan.
How Did You Start Your Career in Translation?
I got one of my first translation jobs through Craigslist. I offered my translation services and included my resume. I started translating marketing material that I later used in my portfolio.
When I was in Japan, I worked with translation agencies.
Fast forward to now, I translate and edit for publishing companies like Penguin Random House, who has a client relationship with Kodansha.
Why Did You Decide to Learn Japanese?
My high school offered Japanese and I was able to go to Japan in the 9th grade.
I grew up in Miami, so anything related to Japanese culture was a rare find!
The further you go away from Western languages, the more you’re likely to wonder, “Why would I pick this language?”
But I enjoyed being different. Even though I got flack.
Part of my family is from Haiti, and one of my relatives would tease, “You don’t even speak Creole! Why speak Japanese?”
What Led You to Japan?
My major in college was Asian Studies with a focus on Japanese. Then I went to New York to pursue an illustration degree. Things didn’t really pan out with that—I only got some magazine assignments.
I applied to teach English in Japan through Interac and stayed in Japan for about three years.
What Experiences Stood Out to You as a Black Man in Japan?
I got some strange reactions. It was more because I was a foreigner with Black skin. It’s not like in America, where there’s a mindset and a history.
I remember driving around in the boonies of Fukuoka with my wife, who’s Japanese. This old lady crossing the street stopped right in front of our car, pointed at me, and shouted, “Obama! Obama!”
That’s not the only case of mistaken identity that I’ve had. Dante Carver, the Black talent who plays the older brother in Softbank commercials, wears glasses. I do too, so sometimes I’d get called onii-san.¹
What Are Your Thoughts Representation in the Translation?
I’m a member of the ATA (American Translation Association), which holds conferences every year. They actually had decent representation relative to the amount of people attending. Nadine Edwards, the Administrator of the Japanese-Language Division (JLD) of the ATA, is a Black woman who specializes in patent translation.
There aren’t many Black manga or literary translators, however. All the super famous translators are usually white men.
How Would You Describe the Manga Translation Process?
It’s very simple. I get assigned a book from the publisher. For the sake of style and tone, I may ask a few questions or see if there are any resources that I need to go through.
I’ve done this for a while so I usually don’t have a lot of people questioning me. I try to set goals for myself about how much I can get done in a certain time.
It’s more important to get something on paper first then labor over small details.
Even if you start with direct translation, get through the document. That way, you have the puzzle pieces together. Then you look at your translation again and make more informed choices. Do deep research on terms and concepts. Lastly, work on consistency and voice.
What's the Process for Editing Manga Translations?
As an editor, there’s a lot of facilitation.
Translators can translate the same line a million ways. There’s a stock translation for shikata ga nai, “it can’t be helped.” If a translator explains why they’re using that translation, that starts the conversation with the editor.
When I test translators, I’m checking their work and making sure that they’re doing a job that’s respectable to the author and the reader. I can’t do that alone. There has to be a back and forth.
Is There Ever Any Micromanagement When Working with Translators?
Manga editors may be working on 50 or more 200-paged books in a year. That’s a lot of text and moving parts.
So I don’t think anyone has time to micromanage. We want to give advice when we can. Our focus is on getting the translation and checking it for minor mistakes. What’s important is that if the translator is leaving notes and showing the process, that helps the editor move forward.
What Do You Think of Representation in Manga?
There needs to be more consciousness and awareness. Being in the industry is one of those ways to make that happen!
The manga Fire Force has a character named Ogun, which is a Nigerian name. It’s part of my original name! It was interesting to see a Black character in manga using Yoruba².
But representation still has a long way to go. There are still tough questions to answer. Such as, why should a Japanese person who lives in a homogeneous country include a Black person? Or other non-Japanese minorities?
It’s so important to have representation in American publishing. It’s because controversial material comes through all the time. We need underrepresented talent who can help prevent those disasters.
I’ve had opportunities to comment on source material and give advice about why certain things may or may not work.
Actual images, however, are difficult to change. I don’t want to censor things. It’s about providing context, like the way Disney handled their more racist titles with disclaimers.
Does Representation in the Manga Industry Have a Future?
Earlier in my career when I was asked about being Black in the manga industry, I didn’t know what to say.
Dealing with projects that are made in Japan, which isn’t a very diverse country, being Black just doesn’t fit into the equation.
There’s not really much material there in the first place to comment on. I’ve had mixed feelings or maybe no feelings about that.
But I think that things are changing. And the manga industry relies on America to boost its income for Japan.
With some of the conversation going on in the world now, people will be a little more conscious of that. I hope that there will be stories that examine issues that may be more relevant.
Representation inspires. When you see someone who looks like you translating or speaking Japanese, it motivates you.
What Are You Currently Working On?
I’m trying to move into UX design. It’s a tough industry to get into.
I also want to use some of my time and effort to balance things out and help people like me.