Interview: Light Novels and the NanoDesu Translation Group

(pictured: OreImo)
(pictured: OreImo — “My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute”)

It is about time we had another interview! This post will feature NanoDesu, the head of NanoDesu Translations. The team behind that site is hard at work on a wide variety of light novel translation projects, including Rokka no Yuusha, Kure-nai, Saekano, Qualidea of Scum and a Gold Coin, Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, and many others.

Cho: Can you start off by telling a little about yourself and your translation group? How long have you been translating for?

NanoDesu: Our group was founded in late 2011 off the Oreimo (Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai) project, which I had honestly just casually picked up just as a way to practice Japanese. I never really was planning to do anything after that, but the readers were very supportive and soon one project turned into two, two turned into three, and well… I guess we’re at around 30 projects now? I think at a certain point I realized we had a real ability to make an impact in the light novel community and decided to just continue with it.

Cho: That’s really neat. What are all the light novels you personally have worked on?

NanoDesu: Personally I’m the lead translator on the projects Ore no Imouto, Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?, and Sasami-san@Ganbaranai. I also filled in and translated the latter half of Volume 1 of OreGaIru (Yahari Ore no Seishun Rabukome wa Machigatteiru). Of course it’s not really about me anymore – it’s really about the other talented translators, editors, typesetters, and admins on our staff who are really working hard to put out all this content now.

Cho: I’m interested in how things went for your first translation project. What would you say your level of Japanese was when you started? Were there any specific challenges you faced while you worked on Oreimo?

NanoDesu: Actually, when I started Oreimo I only had around half a year of Japanese experience. It was a fairly intense period of six months when I barely did much else, but even then my Japanese was much worse than it is now. Luckily my obsessive perfectionism compensated a bit for my lack of experience. I would often find myself spending hours on a *sentence* just to make sure the nuance was right, let alone a page.

Oreimo was a rather ideal choice to be honest. The text is rather straightforward, and the vocabulary not too difficult. Luckily for me, slice of life is a genre where your English ability is far more important than your Japanese, since the effectiveness of the translation heavily depends on flow and characterization.

(pictured: Sasami-isan@Ganbaranai)
(pictured: Sasami-san@Ganbaranai — “Ms. Sasami@Unmotivated”)

Cho: In comparison to Oreimo, how has translation fared for KoreZombie and Sasami-san? Each series you are working on seems quite different from one another, and I’m curious how the different authors, settings, and themes behind each story may require different translating approaches.

NanoDesu: Sasami-san and Korezon are actually quite similar to Oreimo. The themes and writing are often much more difficult to translate (Korezon‘s author is an old anime fanatic and pun lover, while Sasami-san draws heavily on classical Japanese mythology), but the stories themselves are heavily character-driven.

For example, for Sasami-san, while what’s happening and who’s battling whom is certainly important, what’s more crucial is that I keep the characters colorful and consistent. Tsurugi is delinquent/slangy in tone and laughably irreverent in character. Kagami is semi-formal/cold in tone but a closet tsundere in character. Tama talks like an eight-year-old in tone and… well, she’s also an eight-year-old in character. I’m generally drawn to series that heavily rely on characterization to appeal to readers.

Cho: What is the process the NanoDesu group takes to translate each light novel?

NanoDesu: The process we use is fairly simple. Each translation project has a self-contained staff consisting of a lead translator, editor(s), and an admin. The translator and editor work fairly closely with each other and all work you see on our site is generally already gone over by the editor. The admin keeps the translation staff happy, the project on track, and also reports back to me and the other group admins so we all have a handle on where all the projects are and which are in need of more support. We also have general staff, such as typesetters, graphics artists, and tech specialists who belong to no particular project.

I think when I started deciding how to best structure the group, these self-contained projects made the most sense since that way the translators have more freedom to control their own content. It’s just so very, very difficult to translate an entire novel, and if you’re willing to take the time out to do that then you deserve the right to run your project the way you want. This is especially true in LN translation when the workload is very heavily lopsided and most of it rests on the translator’s shoulders, whereas in manga scanlation (as a comparison) the work is much more evenly distributed to typesetters, cleaners, etc. This is also why we never assign any particular series to any translator – if you’re going to spend that much time doing something for free, then you better be interested in what you’re doing.

(pictured: Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?)
(pictured: Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? — “Is This a Zombie?”)

Cho: What suggestions do you have for would-be translators who are still learning Japanese?

NanoDesu: If there’s one piece of advice I would tell people interested in learning Japanese, it’s to learn from what you love. Textbooks and the base materials are important for getting your foundations in order, but as soon as you think you can swing it just dive right into real sources – novels, manga, anime, whatever you like. It’s so easy to lose motivation while learning a language, and it helps immensely to actually use things you genuinely care about. This is especially true if you don’t have access to college classes.

Cho: Speaking of learning to translate Japanese, it looks like NanoDesu Translations has begun a new and intriguing experiment with the “ND Academy.” Can you share a little about what that program will entail? How long will it go for, and what do you hope everyone will achieve with these new projects?

NanoDesu: I’m glad you asked about ND Academy, since it’s something I and the ND team are quite proud of. I think a lot of people around the world are in the midst of learning Japanese, and some are actually quite advanced, but there’s a very big gap between “proficient” and “fluent” and it’s very hard to cross that gap on your own. Not only that, but for self-learners it’s hard to get feedback over how well you’re doing, and when faced with that people tend to assume they’re worse off than they really are.

Meanwhile, our group is in a rather unique situation, in that we have something like 60+ staff, which makes us one of the biggest active translation groups today. More importantly, those 60+ people represent a lot of knowledge and a great willingness to share that knowledge. We also have (I hope) a good reputation within the community, and I think people generally do view our group as an authority on LN translation. So it was natural for us to reach out and try to help fans within the community who are tired of learning Japanese in a void and give them the reliable support they need to become more active participants within the fandom.

Right now we have five students, who are all busy working on weekly guided translation tasks before picking up a final LN translation project. They are being directly mentored by me and SoraSky, another ND translator, and there are usually at least one or two ND translators in their chatroom holding “office hours” and offering live help (a good thing about having a very international group is that somebody is always online). After they finish a substantial amount of work on their final projects, we hope that they will use the lessons learned to remain translating in the fandom, whether with our group or not, although of course we do hope that most of our students will elect to stay and continue the projects they started. But yes, I think we have a good shot here of making a nontrivial difference in the community with programs like this, since it’s really the grassroots fan efforts that still form the backbone of this great culture. We want to contribute to those efforts – not just by providing new content for the fans to enjoy, but by helping people find meaningful ways to contribute themselves.

Cho: Thanks for the insight! I hope everything works out well for each of the translators. And with that, I think I’ll finish off with a final, more general question: What are some of the things you like most about light novels?

NanoDesu: I think my love for light novels stem from how perfect they are for unwinding. You’ll often find a lot of great content, but it never feels tedious or pedantic (at worst, it’ll just be boring and you stop reading). I guess unpretentious would be the best way to put it. At the risk of sounding a bit corny, I enjoy LNs because that’s precisely why I feel they were written: to be enjoyed. After so many years of being forced to read thick tomes filled with philosophical digressions in school, you really start to appreciate being able to curl up with a simple book with good characters in an interesting world. I know that’s a bit vague – I really want to say something more specific too, but LNs span way too many genres for me to even hope to try.

Cho: Thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions, NanoDesu!

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

15 thoughts on “Interview: Light Novels and the NanoDesu Translation Group

  1. Hello!
    questions questions,
    when you said the you only had half a year of japanese experience, you mean that you started learning half a year since then?
    did you have formal studies or was it all self taught? What kind of materials did you use to learn?

    1. Oh my… I’m hated by my own ally….
      Oh anyways unspeakablehorror, any idea on who to interview next…? Or maybe another interesting articles…? Reviews are kinda boring… not that they are bad but new things are fresh :3

  2. WOW you learnt Japanese and translated in 6 months? How did you do it? How long were you practicing per day? Any tips?

    1. Well… I was actually in Japan on an internship for most of those six months… so the environment was rather conducive to learning Japanese. I’m sure I spent at least 5-6 hours a day learning haha. I wouldn’t recommend something that intense unless people are crazy though.

  3. “This is especially true in LN translation when the workload is very heavily lopsided and most of it rests on the translator's shoulders”

    Have you folks ever considered rolling cross-language editors on projects? I know most Chinese>English translation groups use this role, someone who is proficient enough in the original language to understand it but more fluent in English than translators. The main job is to further refine the translation as well as restructuring sentences so that they flow well in English (something too time consuming for the TL to always do on the initial pass, but hard to do for an editor that doesn’t understand the original). The end result is a dual-translation dynamic which makes it not only more accurate but easier on both members. Most smaller groups don’t have enough dual-language folks to deal with this role, but you guys should — especially with the ND Academy.

    1. We have a few of these type of staff yeah, and many of them are involved with the Academy. Although we don’t really give them a special title. Maybe we should…

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