Interview with J-Novel Club Founder Sam Pinansky

(pictured: My Little Sister Can Read Kanji -- art by Halki Minamura)
(pictured: My Little Sister Can Read Kanji — art by Halki Minamura)

If you’ve been following this site, you’re probably already aware of J-Novel Club, the new online distributor of light novels translated into English. J-Novel Club launched only a couple months ago, but already they’ve released several completed volumes. The translations I’ve been reading are high quality, so I strongly recommend everyone go take a look at what their site’s offering.

But before you go, it’s time for an interview with J-Novel Club’s founder, Sam Pinansky!


Cho: In your Crunchyroll interview you talked about light novels you’ve enjoyed, and how you got into translating and distributing them. How did J-Novel Club come about in regards to assembling a team? Was it difficult to find good translators?

Sam Pinansky: If you look at my history, when I started out as one of the original simulcast translators ~7 years ago (working on Shugo-chara!), it wasn’t long until I started having so many contracts I couldn’t keep up on my own, so I started looking out for qualified translators. Over the years of running a localization business/group in various forms, I’ve assembled maybe 12-15 translators/editors/timers/checkers who I trust and have worked with for years. So actually I didn’t need to find a team, because I already had one! This is probably the greatest asset I brought to the table when starting J-Novel Club (well, that and website programming, app programming, and cash), and without them I don’t think it would have been able to happen. I did still test all the translators on some light novel prose, just to make sure they could handle that style of translation.

When it comes to new translators and editors, we are always looking for interested, qualified people, and if you can pass my tests then we’ll be happy to have you aboard. 2 out of the 6 people who I’ve tested did not pass my standards, I should say… Many professional translators out there are probably not skilled enough to translate novels, as I do have a pretty high bar. It takes more creativity and writing ability than translating subtitles or even manga.

I Saved Too Many Girls and Caused the Apocalypse
I Saved Too Many Girls and Caused the Apocalypse

Cho: I’m always curious to learn more about “the process” when it comes to releasing a translated work. Once the text is translated, what else has to be done to ensure a quality final product? How many people play a role in a light novel’s release?

Sam Pinansky: Well, with novels the text is pretty much it! But of course there are the images, the cover, and the ebook authoring which go into the final product as well. Images are no different than lettering manga, the same with the cover design. We use one of the top manga cover designers/lettering freelancers out there for our books right now. The ebook authoring is done by coding the html and css basically by hand, using Sigil (an open source epub3 authoring tool which is really just a glorified text-editor). Our epub template should be compatible with any epub3 compatible device. For Kindle release we use Amazon’s kindlegen command line software and make sure that everything converts without issue.

In total, there’s the translator, the editor, the typesetter (for images), myself (for ebook authoring/qc), 2 outside QAs, and of course all the nice people pointing out typos on our prepub releases on the forums!

My Little Sister Can Read Kanji
My Little Sister Can Read Kanji

Cho: What do you think makes a good translation? This is something people like to discuss online, and opinions vary in regard to how much a text should be adapted for foreign audiences. What are some of the decisions you’ve had to make for My Little Sister Can Read Kanji (AKA Siskan), the work you’re currently translating?

Sam Pinansky: Let me be a little bit “era-sou”… I didn’t think I had read a light novel translation that I would say was “excellent” on the market before we began. Everything was either stilted and overly literal, or over-done with localization and character speech quirks in ways that were almost annoying. And the typos and QA issues that were present didn’t help much either. And that was with the professionally released translations, don’t even get me started on the fan translations! To be fair, I still feel like we have a long way to go with our own translations at J-Novel Club, but part of our mission for me personally is to actually develop a group of talented translators and editors who can produce excellent quality light novel translations. I feel like until we came along that there wasn’t sufficient editorial feedback to translators and no long-term commitments to work which is crucial for developing the kind of house style necessary for great, consistent work.

Now, let me try and be a bit more specific about what to me makes a good translation: It should go without saying that the translation needs to be accurate. By that, I mean everything which was said in the original needs to be said in the translation. But that doesn’t mean it has to be said in the same way, and that’s where I think a lot of translations go wrong. When faced with a tricky passage in the original Japanese or some strange sentence construction, the easiest path is to just translate it sentence by sentence or reuse the same punctuation, even if the effect in English isn’t exactly the same. This is lazy, and I think it’s giving those difficult sections the extra thought and creativity that is what makes the difference between a serviceable translation and a great translation. The second thing which is so important to me is that the translator really understand the subcontext of a character’s dialog and thinking. Japanese is a language of what goes unsaid, and being able to properly express that in English is crucial, often requiring jumping through hoops to get it right. This is lumped into proper characterization, which is part of just being a good writer. Without pictures or audio to go on, the importance of characterization and phrasing is amplified tenfold to the enjoyment of the reader.

The question of how much to adapt a text to an audience is what people online focus on, but frankly I don’t care as long as it’s consistent within the work. For My Little Sister Can Read Kanji I have left a considerable amount of things untranslated (like Onii-chan, honorifics, using “Sensei” as a pronoun, and even some passages left in the original Kanji), but that’s a special case due to the nature of the work: I wouldn’t necessarily make the same decisions for a different book. People who judge a translation’s quality on whether or not they translate “ittadakimasu” as “I humbly accept this meal” or “Thanks for the grub!” or “Ittadakimasu!” need to look at the overall context of the work and are missing the forest for the trees.

If a certain word or concept is crucial to the meaning of the work, it should be left as untranslated as possible, but with enough included hints of the meaning (either implied or specific) so a reader is not left confused. One example from My Little Sister Can Read Kanji is the word “gimai”, which means “non blood-related little sister”, which I decided to leave untranslated in the work. But before I began to use the term un-noted, I made sure that it was used together with its meaning a few times. (You might question why I don’t just use step-sister? Because that’s inaccurate as the term also covers adopted siblings, plus the “little” is crucial in the world of Siskan. Let’s just say it all comes down to politics.)

Because of this I leave most of these decisions up to the individual translators and editors of each series. What is important to me isn’t the specific decisions they make for each word, but whether they agree with the overall philosophy of protecting the integrity of the book’s content while still making the translation easy to read for its intended audience.

My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World
My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World

Cho: All forms of media have been “going digital” over the past decade or so–but when it comes to books in particular, some hold strong opinions against their downloadable counterparts. What do you feel are some of the advantages of releasing light novels online?

Sam Pinansky: The advantages are many, and are really what made J-Novel Club possible in the first place. One, and this is obvious: there is no up front cost beyond the licensing and localization. Two, if you are not producing and distributing physical books, it is far easier to license for worldwide distribution, as we have done. Three, distribution through major book distributors requires very large lead times for catalog listings, which will delay the publishing of anything 6 months or more from its release in Japan. With digital releases you are only bound by your translation speed. Furthermore, there is limited shelf space for physical releases which can limit the number of series it is practical to print at once.

Digital releases can be updated after publishing, another crucial advantage, especially for long series where later revelations might require modifications to earlier translation choices.

And the profit per sale is higher for digital releases, because of the lack of printing costs.

Also, philosophically, I feel like most light novels are the kind of fun, “light” reading that are perfect for ebooks. Sure, there are some who would love to collect them on their shelves, but I’d like to grow a larger group of light novel readers who enjoy the content but aren’t necessarily collectors. Like how there are many times more “anime fans” than there are people who purchase anime blurays. That’s the way we can grow the market enough to support a significantly higher rate of licensing and translation, and it’s one of the main goals of J-Novel Club. That being said, producing print versions of books as well would be great, and we’re working on sublicensing some of our most popular titles to partner companies to produce print editions, if the sales warrant it.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

Cho: How do you go about choosing what light novels to translate and release into English? Do the translators get to pick, or is it primarily up to the Japanese publishers? From what I understand, all the titles so far have come from Hobby Japan and Overlap. Will these be the main sources for J-Novel Club’s lineup?

Sam Pinansky: Some publishers are reluctant to license to us with our digital-only business model. We’ll need to prove our popularity and longevity I think before we can access those titles. Hobby Japan and Overlap have been very forward thinking about their titles, and so for now they are the ones providing content (Hobby Japan alone has like, more than 100 titles over the past 10 years!). I’ve tried to pick titles that are well reviewed, weren’t cancelled prematurely, and that cover a wide variety of genres and tastes. Overall, if the book is “fun to read,” that’s what makes it a good candidate for our site.

Once we’ve licensed titles, I do ask our original translators which books they would prefer to translate, but in the end it is ultimately my decision who translates what, and I try and give translators books that play to their strengths. Obviously any translator can refuse to translate a particular title if they want (they’re freelancers, after all).

The Faraway Paladin
The Faraway Paladin

Cho: From your offerings at J-Novel Club, what title would you recommend most for a newcomer to light novels? How about for a “veteran” of light novels?

Sam Pinansky: For newcomers to light novels, I’d suggest checking out My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. The first is a great comedy which is very “light novely” but also plenty accessible to your average anime fan, and full of funny and lovable characters. Grimgar is one of the best examples of a “trapped in an RPG-like world” story out there, and its gritty realism and empathetic characters pull you in.

For veterans, definitely read My Little Sister Can Read Kanji and Occultic;Nine. The former is actually a bitter satire of the state of the light novel industry in 2011 or so, but it has a much deeper message behind its completely ridiculous story. It’ll have you laughing out loud and then maybe re-thinking your own preconceptions about literature. Occultic;Nine is not your typical light novel: It’s more like a horror mystery, and told from multiple disjoint perspectives… It’s the writer from Steins;Gate‘s first attempt at a novel and it’s quite a different feel from your typical book, and also far more detailed than the recent anime.

For both newcomers and veterans alike I highly recommend The Faraway Paladin. This is a truly great fantasy epic that’s just begun, and if you want to get in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing(tm) then now is your chance. Also the art is fantastic.

We have other titles too, like the ecchi+thoughtful Mixed Bathing in Another Dimension and the newcomer’s prize winning Brave Chronicle which should satisfy people who want a little boobage or high-stakes magical battle action, and I Saved Too Many Girls and Caused the Apocalypse is basically every genre all at once, and a non-stop train of crazy shenanigans.

Members can read them all as they get translated so you’ll always have something to read!

Cho: Sounds like there’s a lot of interesting options to try out. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and thanks for putting together J-Novel Club!

For those of you who have been reading the light novels offered by J-Novel Club, what are your thoughts? Feel free to share any questions or comments below.

6 thoughts on “Interview with J-Novel Club Founder Sam Pinansky

  1. Hey, good interview. I just realized that I never got around to thanking you. The web novel you first promoted on your blog ages ago ended up getting published and it wasn’t until lately that I realized that you helping it get attention was one of the main motivators for me seeing it through to the end. I’ll probably do a post in the future to acknowledge this along with other people that helped out. Anyway, thanks a lot.

  2. Great interview! I’ve read the NanoDesu Grimgar fan project and, with all respect to the guys who translated, it always felt off. Might be the source material is hard to translate.
    To be honest, I would definitely buy a physical copy of the Grimgar novels! I’ve read the first 3 volumes and storywise, it’s probably 1000000s times better than SAO and clones.
    Keep up the good work guys!

  3. Put me down as another that would definitely buy Grimgar (and probably several more of their licenses) if it was physical. I was actually really disappointed when they picked it up because it was going to be digital-only – I have an eye condition which makes reading stuff for more than a few minutes on a small screen strain my eyes really badly, even Kindle’s e-ink displays (too little contrast without a backlight, too much glare with the backllght), so I really need a physical copy to be able to comfortably read it. Hope someone partners with them to release a few physically.

  4. I don’t have anything against e-Book releases, but as long as there is a printed version, I prefer this one. But since J-Novel Club has some awesome titles only available for ebook, I’m going to check them out.

  5. Good interview and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of J-Novel Club. Faraway Paladin really is damn good and worthy of every praise, and most their other stuff is really entertaining too.

    I’m happy to now have more Light Novels on the market that I like than I have time to read. A year ago it seemed I’d have to learn Japanese in order to have that problem.

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