Interview: Translating and Writing LNs with Aorii

Seikai: Crest of the Stars
Seikai: Crest of the Stars

Cho: For a while now I’ve been meaning to make interviews a more regular part of this website. And I thought it would be a good idea to make sure we get a post in with Aorii! We can start off with a quick introduction:

Aorii: I’m Aorii. Former part-timer (translator/editor) at Baka-Tsuki. Current author of the light/webnovel Daybreak on Hyperion. I’m also a hobbyist worldbuilder, an amateur historian/wargamer, and a software engineer with project management training.

1) Getting into Light Novels

Cho: From the looks of things you have been involved with the light novel community for some time now. How did you first learn of light novels? What are some of the titles you have enjoyed the most?

Aorii: I didn’t even realize the tiny books I bought from Tokyopop were “light novels” until I stumbled across Baka-Tsuki’s community. When Sharramon first started the Sword Art Online translation project there, I was amazed at just how much better Kawahara Reki’s prose was compared to most other LNs and how much of a difference it made in enjoying the book. Since the translator wasn’t a native English speaker it persuaded me to join up and get involved. We used to joke that since he translated from Korean>English and I did cross-editing via Chinese>English, we should be able to reacquire most of the original Japanese meaning ^^’

Titles I’ve enjoyed? I’m a huge fan of the old series The Twelve Kingdoms and Crest/Banner of the Stars; loved Fate/zero enough to criticize the anime; read more volumes of Zero no Tsukaima and BakaTest than I’d like to admit (fun ideas, terrible writing); enjoyed Sword Art Online‘s 1st volume enough to work on it (and wished its followup volumes never existed); embraced every bit of translation on Saiunkoku Monogatari and Hakushaku to Yousei I could find (shoujo LNs need more love); laughed until my ribs hurt at 1/2 Prince. Only novel I’m religiously following now is Only Sense Online for a love of crafting games.

Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online

2) Translating Light Novels

Cho: You’ve managed to translate a couple light novels into English, which is definitely no small feat! Could you share a bit about your translation process and approach to localization? Are there any future translation projects you are considering working on?

Aorii: I’m somewhat of a qualitative purist in translation/editing, which explains why I didn’t do many — it’s just so time-consuming! My process? Just two text editors, online dictionary, English thesaurus, and CN vocalizer — since I’m a CN>EN translator who can speak perfect Chinese but can’t read anything above elementary school level. In localization, I strongly advocate keeping the original term if a word or phrase cannot be matched in English without losing a significant amount of meaning. I believe that it is part of the translator’s job to bridge the cultural gap by introducing concepts that have no equivalency or would otherwise be lost in translation. However, I tried to be strict about this, as more foreign language terms than absolutely necessary is jarring to the reader. I should also note that jokes/puns should be localized whenever possible, otherwise the TL is ruining the careful mood balancing/buildup the author tried to achieve. Lastly, I’m particularly a stickler on trying to get the right adjective/verbs to match the original meaning, because it makes a big difference to those who can imagine the scene in their mind. The most time-consuming part for me isn’t actually the translation itself, but in selecting the right synonym and restructuring the sentence to present the author’s original meaning without degrading the experience for an English reader.

As a writer myself, I can understand the labor and pride any author imbues into their work. Therefore to me, it seems a matter of gross disrespect when translators handle the work without taking it seriously, especially since most translation projects do not have permission from the creator. So you could say I have something against quantitative “speed translation”; my opinion is that if one is truly a fan, they would do everything they can not to degrade the original author’s work — because a translator’s failure is usually blamed by readers upon the author as ‘poor penmanship’.

Future projects? Heck no, Daybreak takes too much time as is!

3) Writing Light Novels

Cho: Last summer I read your online light novel Daybreak on Hyperion, which I hear has a second volume currently in the works. I’d love to hear a bit about your writing process, including how you came up with the intricate setting of your story’s fantasy world. What would you consider your inspirations and influences? And as you propel the story on to its second volume, in what direction do you hope to take the series?

Aorii: Second volume is almost done actually. Work is halfway through the last chapter.

My process can be highlighted in three words: “don’t plan, feel.” One of my biggest issues when reading a lot of famous works is that the characters often feel more like devices to advance a plot thread than actual entities with their individual concerns, ideals, and interests. So for Daybreak I tried a different approach: instead of planning the story in detail, I simply created a rough “event skeleton” as I entered each arc. Instead, all the preparation work went into the major characters: what are their social traits, personal interests, annoying habits, friends and foes, hobbies and aspirations, etc etc. When writing the chapter, I try to envision the scene from each character’s point-of-view, step into their shoes per say, and ask myself the same question over and over: “What would I do if I were him/her in this situation?” There were many times when I realized what a character should do is very different from how I originally envisioned the scene to turn out — in such a conflict between story and character, the character should always win.

Similarly, I also detail out the setting as I go along. This isn’t something most people can manage without problems maintaining internal consistency. But I’ve been a hobbyist worldbuilder for many years; Hyperion is actually the 4th original, high-magic setting I’ve created, so I know most of the worldbuilding difficulties and how to anticipate/handle them. Being a prolific reader of world history and the evolution of real cultures/religions also helps.

Inspirations and influences? Too many to count. But for my greatest inspiration, try “history of the world” =) The story and its characters aren’t just realistic, they’re real!

Cho: I really enjoy researching history and different parts of the world as well. I think there’s a lot of overlooked places and time periods that can make for great inspiration for fresh and engaging stories! Of course, it takes a lot of work for authors to build a strong connection between the audience and the characters–there’s often that need “to relate to” or “look up to” the protagonists.

4) Impressions on Popular Trends

Cho: Light novels are steadily gaining more awareness around the world, and more than a few popular series are beginning to get official English publications. Fan translation communities online also seem to have grown in recent years, and there may be a similar trend found there in regard to the genres that are given the most focus. What common threads (be it themes, premises, etc) have you noticed are shared among popular series? What elements of storytelling would you like to see more of from the light novels being translated these days?

Aorii: To be honest I’m not a fan of the direction LNs are heading these days. Unlike the early days when LNs often blurred with conventional novels in writing and themes, recent-year light novels have become increasingly meta and fan-pandering. Of course, any novelist should consider the target audience, but too many LNs nowadays specifically target otaku/gamers to such a degree that it becomes difficult for outsiders to enjoy or appreciate it. Almost all of my literary friends, even the otakus, look down upon light novels. This is exacerbated by the wish-fulfillment, fanservice, and power fantasies so common to most LNs.

Sure, most forms of fiction are ‘wish fulfillment’ to a point, and any movie critic will tell you how action movies are made to be “macho power fantasies”. But the conflict needs to be there. The ‘superhero’ protagonist must be sufficiently challenged by an equally capable ‘supervillain’ to earn their reward. Even the most cliché of shoujo manga understands that love is only as powerful as the obstacles it overcomes. Instead, countless light novel series often have fantastic powerups and beautiful girls falling in left, right, and center with but a pinkie’s waggle from a blank protagonist…

Well, it could be worse. Our protagonist could be the second coming of Jesus Christ. He can do no wrong. He could walk on water. He could fight against the world and win, and only those who are morally-depraved heathens and vile Nazis would turn against him. Have I mentioned that he apparently has a ‘weakness’ that almost never affects him beyond the premise? Oh wait, this sounds remarkably similar to some recent popular LN adaptations.

Light novels are still one of the most creative forms of entertainment. They often boldly go in directions that western paperbacks wouldn’t even dare to touch. But authors badly need a return to their roots: to refocus on their characterization, storyboarding, and other basic writing skills. A personal example of this being how I loved the anime series Log Horizon and Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon, the former for its intelligent gamer portrayal and the latter for the sheer creativity that has my worldbuilder self in awe; yet I can’t stomach the writing of the LNs themselves (the pacing is terribad! one works better than sleeping pills and the other reads like technobabble!). I would really like to see this genre stop sacrificing quality for wish-fulfilling popularity so we might receive gems like Fate/zero once more.


5) The Appeal of the Light Novel Medium

Cho: One thing I enjoy about light novels is the variety in the stories that the medium has proven capable of providing. What aspects of light novels in general have kept you invested in them over the years?

Aorii: One of the biggest problems plaguing light novels is also its biggest pro. Because light novels do not adhere to most literary standards and derive off a very dialogue-centric form of storytelling, it allows the writers to cram in all kinds of creative details while still keeping the pace up. Good LN writers can easily use characters to show off a unique world or relationship without having to explain it in a  heavy-handed info-dump manner, so more like how a good movie does exposition rather than how most books do. Nowadays when I pick up a normal novel I often feel that the descriptions run on for too long (i.e. paragraphs running to describe a room or equipment) with not enough character interaction driving it. The best LNs advances its plot through constant character development, even if it’s just internal monologue, so the readers always feel like they’re always in-sync with the writing rather than looking in through glass.

Another aspect of LNs I enjoy is focused on the genres I love: Western high-fantasy/sci-fi adventures have been growing more ‘conservative’ for decades, where an entrenched audience expects certain themes/traits to be played out, certain technologies/magic to run in a certain manner, etc etc. Even the (in)famous Game of Thrones plays into the traditional standard, just differing enough to completely throw the average reader off — finally, some amateurish realpolitik in a mainstream novel series! LNs, as a recent and very liberal literary medium, has none of this traditionalism. An author can get away with writing any type of setting and relationship they want — although many of them need to work on their internal consistency and topical research (complain complain!). The execution may often be lacking, but these days I often find myself intrigued by a LN just because of some fun concept they’re fast exploring — an emotion I haven’t felt from conventional novels for a long time.

Cho: Sounds like you have a clear picture of the types of stories you’re looking for! And even better, you’ve taken matters into your own hands by contributing novels of your own design. I’ll keep in mind to give your second Daybreak volume a read once that’s wrapped up.

If any readers have a question for Aorii or anything to add to the discussion, feel free to post a comment below!

14 thoughts on “Interview: Translating and Writing LNs with Aorii

  1. This is a question for Aorii. You mentioned you’re a hobbyist worldbuilder. What makes a good fictional world? And where do you think lesser sci-fi/high fantasy authors tend to slip up in their worldbuilding?

    I’m looking forward to the second volume of Daybreak in Hyperion, btw!

    1. Internal consistency and localized concepts.

      Internal consistency mostly deals with mechanics, but can significantly extend out from there. It doesn’t matter how preposterous and wild it is (looking at you Kyoukaisen!), as long as it maintains consistency with itself. Concepts that have shown up in the past should be utilized again in the future, rules that are defined should remain active, pertinent, and inviolate (at least for a while). Otherwise it doesn’t matter how well explained they at ‘at the moment’, they’ll simply feel like a plot device in the long run. In real life, there is no such thing as an ‘exploit’ that wasn’t immediately copied, utilized, and possibly countered by everyone else. Even the super-conservative Catholic Church accepted their worst foe (the printing press) and moved on to provide three bibles for every man =P.

      ‘Localization’ is far harder to achieve. By that I mean the setting should have cultures of its own. It needs to feel, at least on a basic level, like real religious/racial groups. The people in it should have differing values and concerns and habits. They live and fight for differing ideologies. Their societies a complex web of political and economic balance stretched over it based on centuries of internal history. There are too many times I’ve read a setting and scoffed “this world couldn’t possibly exist” because some countries/societies there (most often the antagonists’) should have collapsed decades ago. Every culture and every country in the world needs its redeeming value — ask yourself why you would play that faction if the world was transformed into a Civ-style grand strategy game. Authors often take lame and easy paths like “but they’re a barbaric, an iron-fisted military dictatorship!”. Well, even Stalin did not rule on fear alone (he industrialized the Russian heartlands, raised the people’s standards of living, introduced widespread education and healthcare, and told the Germans ‘you shall not pass!’ before the gates of Moscow; hence why so many Russians view him as a hero still, despite the fact he’s no more Russian than Napoleon is French).

      I hope to push vol2 out before the end of the week!

  2. Your mention of the amazing worldbuilding in Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon put a big smile on my face :) (even if the novel does indeed have a lot of flaws). I think you captured the appeal of the LN genre very well here, it’s simply very different and experimental when it wants to and my question is about that point in particular:

    Which theme (or set of themes) would you like to see handled in an LN? I know there are topics which I personally think LNs could have a very interesting take on, so I thought I’d ask you as well.

  3. I’m actually a fan of the MMO-trend, even if it has yet to deliver me a “Lord of the Flies”. This is a genre that has as much potential to discuss modern society and its trends as western science fiction. Now please, more works where the main character takes a red pill and realize that the world is not made of cake!

  4. Great article! I agree with how light novels do not adhere to most literary standards and is the reason why I love them. As I started to try reading books, I was recommended to read Game of Thrones and it was tiring to get through. But then I found light novels and they’ve been a pleasant and engaging read which has kept me up at night numerous times.

    Do you read web novels and if so, what are the main differences you can identify between web and light novels?
    Also, with the recent debate on machine translations vs actual translations in the western light/web novel community, where do you stand with your opinion on this matter?

    1. GRRM (author of Game of Thrones) does have the writing technique that most authors could only dream of =P
      Webnovels is to light novels as self-publishing is to western novels. It’s just an easier way of getting works out there, which automatically results in greater derivation of quality and style.
      I think my response to TL makes my standing quite clear: machine translation is an insult to the original work and the effort the author put into it.

  5. So, Aorii… “Sure, most forms of fiction are ‘wish fulfillment' to a point”, huh. So… you want to be reincarnated as a pretty/handsome member of the opposite gender? :P

  6. I agree with the pros and cons of light novels listed here. I think one difference between western vs japanese fantasy is that western works value execution over ideas and in japanese works it’s the other way around. I think a lot of LNs are really poor quality and I like them more in theory than in practise. But I do really appreciate the ideas and the freedom of imagination the authors seem to have. I think this is at least in part because in japanese fantasy there doesn’t seem to be any work like Lord of the Rings that defines the whole genre and casts a shadow over everything that came after it. Rather, the japanese authors seem to draw from multiple sources, both japanese and western.

    I’ve never been interested in western fantasy fiction because I find it boring. It rarely seems to go beyond the usual Medieval European settings or snarky vampire killers. When it does break through those barriers it tends to get intentionally too bizarre/artsy (like China Mieville) for my tastes. Yes, western fantasy fans are very conservative in their tastes and look down on anything that doesn’t fit the established rules of the genre. I think the rules of how magic and fantasy worlds should work in western fantasy fiction are almost as strict nowadays as the rules of how technology should work in sci-fi works!

    So although I often feel that LNs are not living up to their potential, I continue to stay interested becuase of all the interesting and fresh ideas. Thank you for this interview.

  7. “Hakushaku to Yousei” Hoooooly cow I haven’t thought about that one in years, I think I followed the series sole translator on livejournal for many years. And were there ever any translations of the Sauinkoku novels? I know the anime was licensed previously (twice and that it’s lapsed) and that Viz has the manga but I’ve never heard even a whisper online of a partial fantranslation for the novels!

    1. I wasn’t aware there was much TL for Hakushaku… just snippets here and there (and vol18~). I haven’t really found another shoujo LN that caught my attention so well since, but I’d love to get some recommendations xD
      Someone tried to start up a Saiunkoku TL project once…. it sadly didn’t get very far =\ Honestly I’m not entirely surprised — that novel can’t be easy to TL given its writing, and audience support for shoujo LN is very limited so motivation is low…

  8. Perhaps a now little-known fact about the interview subject – Aorii was the best aniblogger there ever was. I’m so glad to have stumbled upon this interview, as now I’m eager to read Daybreak on Hyperion!

    1. Shhhhhh!
      And hey, you’re still around! Successfully running too! Would love to hear your thoughts on it, especially as someone else religious =P (it’s a theme that slowly creeping in within Daybreak, causing some tussels between me and a beta-reader lol!)

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