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Human Versus Machine Japanese Translation Mini Battle

Date: 2024 May 09 20:04

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The manga tech start up Orange Inc recently raised over 19 million USD in funding for machine translated manga. We were quite intrigued because machine translation hasn't always worked out in the past for manga titles. One recent example was the Ranking of Kings Manga that had to be pulled because the quality of the translations were so poor. What's worse was the lack of quality control from everyone involved in the publishing of the title.

As we were curious, we reached out to some professional translators to ask their opinions on the current state of translation.

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We asked Emily Balistrieri. He has worked on many notable manga translations including Kiki's Delivery Service, Tatami Galaxy, I Belong to the Baddest Girl at School and It Takes Two Tomorrow, Too.

He told us 'It's less that it won't work, but that it would entail further exploitation of workers who are already often underpaid and underappreciated. Orange has humans cleaning up the AI output. Even they know the machine can't cut it.

Like if they could illustrate all manga beautifully with AI and human cleanup will that be next?'

Thinking about this, we decided to pit some experienced human translators against machine translation. We asked the translators to look at this official Japanese Bocchi the Rock! T-shirt t-shirt. It is effectively a single panel of manga but since it's been made into a t-shirt people should be able to understand it in isolation.

Bocchi The Rock T-Shirt Indigo in Colour. Bocchi Look overwhelmed. With the Japanese text which reads いいいいイキってすみません...

Andrew is J-E Media Consultant, Manager, and Translator whose translation works include Anonymous;Code, Infinite Dendrogram, Dies irae, MAMIYA, Loner Life, VTuber Dad Rance X to name a few. Andrew can be found on Twitter / X as @DistantValhalla

'Ultimately I feel that it's a fad that comes and goes. Some business types always think they have the easy answer to streamlining the process, but the current AI trend is just machine translation with a different coat of paint. I don't see it taking over the tried and true approach any time soon because it's just not at that level. Most of the businesses I work with understand that reality too.'

While translating the t-shirt Andrew suggests:

'Uhh... Probably something like "S-S-S-Sorry for being full of myself..." or "S-S-Sorry for existing..." A little context-dependent, but that's more or less the punchline.'

'With the context of the scene that's actually from, it could even be something more like "I-I-I'm sorry. I'll show myself out."'

Zack Davisson is an Eisner-winning Translator, Writer and Lecturer. He writes Demon Days and Art of Star Wars Visions. He has translated the works of Shigeru Mizuki, Matsumoto Leiji and Satoshi Kon. You can find Zack on X / Twitter as @ZackDavisson or on Bluesky as

We asked Zack what he thought.
'I think... the industry is in flux. And ultimately it will be up to readers to decide if they prefer quality over quantity. What people say online is not really impactful. The true barometer is how people spend their money. That is how the future is made.'

While translating the t-shirt Zack said:
'Oooooh... that is tough. Translating things entirely out of context is a gamble. Dialog is predicated on what comes before it, the voice of the character, the overall tone, the emotional beats...

Also the "ikitte" is written in katakana without kanji, so it could have a number of different meanings.
Going by standard usage, and matching the words to the face...
"Sorry. It's my fault anyways."
Although without context not super confident about that.
Other things that might work.
"I'm sorry I ruined everything..."
"Just go ahead and kill me."
Too many options, really.'

Zack continues "Good translation is getting an emotional feel for the characters, not just looking at the words. Every character has their own voice and would say the same things in different ways. As a translator, what I want are the words with the same emotional impact as in the original Japanese."

"You should be able to tell who is speaking dialog without ever looking at the art. That is how you know you have captured a voice."

Over at Otaku News we can't help thinking that this is a great illustration of how an initially straightforward bit of Japanese text can have multiple interpretations. The human translations had the same gist, but both translators also point out it's largely dependent on context and have offered multiple ways to translate it. No doubt if they were translating the whole manga, they would have picked a particular translation that best captured the nuance of the narrative and the tone of the manga. It's ultimately a creative decision that is a key part of the translation process.

With this in mind, we next tried a machine translation of the Bocchi t-shirt. We picked Google Translate as it's widely available and has been offering translation since 2006. As it has over 610 million users daily we expect a decent translation, most likely quite similar to Andrew or Zack's translation.

Bocchi The Rock T-Shirt - As Translated by Google Translate - Screen shot of the translated t-shirt. Text in English translated reads I'm cumming sorry

Erm. OK. This wasn't quite what we were expecting. Not only is the translation inaccurate, it could cause problems for someone wearing this t-shirt in public! Machine translation definitely has some way to go here.

We'd like to thank Emily Balistrieri, Andrew 'Steiner' Hodgson and Zack Davisson for making this article possible.

The manga of Bocchi The Rock is published by Yen Press in English. The anime is available on Crunchyroll. The t-shirt in this article is available from Cospa Japan.

Source: Otaku News
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