Date: 2020 December 14 20:47
Posted by Joe
Localising manga is more than just buying the rights and getting it translated, there's also sorts of factors to consider to bring it to market. While people often consider the translation there's another part of the localisation process to consider, the letterer! All the words you read on the page aren't just magically put into place, there's actually a lot of art and craft to lettering a manga page. So we thought we'd catch up with a manga letterer to find out more about the process.
Sara Linsley is a software developer and comic book letterer living in NYC, she has done lettering for manga including Sweat and Soap, Spoof on Titan, LDK and Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches. Recently she's also just released a font of her own intended for manga use! We thought we'd catch up with Sara over e-mail to find out how letterer can make or break a good localisation.
What exactly does a manga letterer do?
Manga letterers (also known as "typesetters") place translations on the artwork. We get the translated script and high-resolution art files from the editor, and we marry the two with InDesign and Photoshop. We're responsible for placing everything you see in English. This includes any dialogue, signs, posters, phone screens, maps, etc.
So it's more than just putting text in the speech bubbles?
In addition to placing the dialogue you see in speech balloons, we're responsible for maintaining the design aesthetic of the whole comic. We work with editors to choose suitable fonts, and we format all of the text to be both easy to read and consistent.
It depends from publisher to publisher, but most art files are flattened. This means that everything in the script has to be manually removed and the art underneath retouched. It surprises most people to learn that it's the responsibility of the letterer to retouch art, since I guess you'd assume the art is always fully layered.
Again, it varies based on publisher, but letterers often recreate sound effects to match the style and shape of the original Japanese. This is my favorite part of lettering a book, but it's easy to sink days into matching the artwork exactly.
How did you become a letterer?
I was offered the opportunity to try lettering after an internship with Kodansha Comics, and I've been lettering as a freelancer ever since. If you're looking to get into the manga industry, internships are a great avenue, and many are now fully remote for the first time ever!
What challenges have you faced as manga letterer?
When I first started lettering, it was really hard to find resources on how to use InDesign and Photoshop in the specific ways we use them for manga. For example, manga is printed in the opposite direction of other English-language books. To get documents to flow the right way, you can either download an Arabic or Hebrew version of InDesign, or you can override a document setting with a script. It's really easy to find that script now, but back then there wasn't this fantastic community of localizers sharing their tools.
I've spent a lot of time making tutorials and sharing my techniques as a way to contribute to the community as a whole, but it's mostly to support newer letterers. It's my way of giving back.
What part of the job do you enjoy?
I love making comics accessible to more readers. Seeing people engage with the comics that I helped bring to the English-speaking market gets me up in the morning.
I also really enjoy working with editors who let me try new techniques and approaches. Editors are responsible for ensuring a series is cohesive, so I value their constructive feedback. Trying a new technique that you're not sure is going to work, and then getting approval from your editor is the greatest achievement
What kind of lettering work has impressed you?
There's so much excellent lettering these days that I can't keep track of it, and I'm impressed by the quality of work that's being published.
I always look forward to anything Deron Bennett and AndWorld Studio have touched, especially Deron's work in Ping Pong and Cats of the Louvre.
Phil Christie is an adaptive letterer who matches the tone of every series he works on. I loved his work in Sue & Tai-chan and The Witch and the Beast.
Lys Blakeslee is a powerhouse of lettering, and I'd recommend anything she works on, from Witch Hat Atelier, to Yona of the Dawn, to Blue Period.
What kind of choices have you had to make with fonts/typefaces?
When I'm offered a new series to work on, the first thing I do is come up with a style guide. I have to choose fonts for the dialogue, captions, flashbacks, handwritten text, author notes, and any additional inside pages I'm asked to design like the table of contents and translation notes. Each of these fonts has to be distinct yet cohesive, while complimenting the style and tone of the art.
Readers might have noticed (or are about to notice) that all the text in Western comics has a handwritten look. Comics are a very specific flavor of graphic design with a list of conventions and best practices, and the fonts we use are constrained by that tradition of comic lettering.
Finally, I have to make sure that I can legally use each font. Depending on the publisher, they might have to own an expensive license to a font for me to be able to use it in a book. This is why different series from a single publisher can look similar, and why free fonts are so popular with letterers.
Do you have a favourite typeface?
I love using Blambot's Milk Mustache for animal voices. I have a running joke that animal speech counts as dialogue and not sound effects, so using a font intended for use in dialogue is my way of inserting my political agenda.
Is there a font you'd really like to use in a manga, but can't really as it's not suitable?
I'd love to see more mixed-case fonts in manga. It's harder to pull off, but I think it looks great!
You've even gone as far as to create your own font! Can you tell us more about Soapy Hands?
I've drawn most of the sound effects for the series Sweat and Soap by hand, and I've been throwing them in an Illustrator file to reuse them. I realized that after lettering 5 volumes of sound effects that the letterforms were similar enough to make a font out of, so I made an all-caps font. The next day I woke up and made a lowercase set. The next day, accented characters. The next, hearts and stars.
It was a fun side project that got out of hand, and I wanted to post it online so other letterers could use it too.
What kind of design choices did you have to make around it?
Mainstream manga has a lot of handwritten text in it. For example, authors often write mini-essays by hand in every volume. Most "handwriting" fonts you find on the internet aren't cut out for that kind of editorial task. They'll have missing characters, apostrophes in outer space, awful letter spacing, or one funky letter that both you and your editor hate.
There are nice handwriting fonts that are suitable for manga, but I wanted to make one with my own spin.
How long did it take you to make?
It took me about a week to put the font together itself, but the design decisions were informed by the years I've been lettering manga and its specific editorial needs.
When you launched it were you surprised at how popular it was? Did you get a lot of downloads for it?
I was blown away by the positive feedback. People keep sending me screenshots of how they've used it, and I tear up every time. Helping people, especially small creators, make comics is a dream come true.
I'm very grateful to everyone who donated money for Soapy Hands. I was able to buy more robust font software, and I'm really excited to continue making fonts from my unique perspective.
What manga are you enjoying at the moment?
I finally got my hands on Mermaid Saga by Rumiko Takahashi, and it's hard to put it down. Takahashi's a master of her craft, and her ability to construct an engaging story within the comic format is unparalleled. The localization team at Viz also did a fantastic job on it, from the lettering, to the translation, to the production design.
When you do read manga do you notice differences in the layout?
Manga's really easy to read - in part because manga has more rigid paneling rules, and in part because the majority of the work is constructed by one person. The artist is always thinking about how the script, art, and lettering are complementing each other, which isn't always the case with, for example, American superhero comics, where differently specialized creators do each step independently.
Have you started to go mad noticing minor kerning issues?
I try not to mess too much with kerning. If you find yourself fiddling with a font that much, I think you should use a better-designed font! Or spend a week designing one yourself, haha.
Otaku News would like to thank Sara Linsley for agreeing to this interview and giving us great answers an insight into the lettering process. Sara's font Soapy Hands is available to buy on Gumroad using the pay a fair price model.