It’s reading rainbow, but for weebs!
We’ve known it forever, since the days of Haruhi back in 2006, that light novels are money. Popular light novels get adapted into anime and manga, and sometimes spawn huge franchises, and here in the west, successful light novels have thrown their hats in the ring in every relevant arena except, oddly enough, the paperback books themselves. With paperback publishers such as Yen Press, Vertical, and Dark Horse leading the pack, light novel translations could be an untapped market waiting to happen. The Inverseman is back and ready to dive in.
The anime and manga industry overseas is fraught with challenges; your product is always going to be scrutinized from every angle. An anime dub production not only needs a solid translation, but good acting, directing, and matching the technical lip flaps. Then there’s the matter of production, DVDs being more expensive than novels, and you wonder why anime releases are so feature-light (with the exception of Aniplex pricing closer to Japanese models).
Light novels, in comparison are much cheaper than anime, and for many of these western publishers, they’ve already had experience with manga. Moreover, publishers also inherit an industry with less a tradition of piracy they’re used to with manga. You don’t see quite as many people passing around a pdf with Harry Potter as much as the latest chapter of Naru- I mean Boruto. Though the strongest draw for the light novel official translation, above its lack of competition and lower production costs, is that it’s a tested market. Oftentimes an anime or manga license is a gamble, you never know if a series will get big in the states unless you try, and sometimes you pull a dud or are forced to license a lackluster title just to get a possibly good one. However, most light novels tend to get licensed well after the anime adaptation has established some popularity.
For our case example, let’s use the [in]famous “Sword Art Online” series. With an entire franchise behind it, bringing over the original light novel was a no-brainer; you already have a dedicated fanbase out the box. In all this, we can gather that a light novel that has a successful anime franchise in the west was popular enough to receive one in Japan and then do similarly well abroad. For publishers wondering what titles to pick up, a light novel’s anime adaptation is a twofold acid test, one in the Japanese market and one in the western market.
The money isn’t completely free in the light novel business, however. Your only modicum of communication is through the words themselves. You cannot let the pictures of manga or a bigger name English voice actor or actress “carry” the novel so the translation demands full attention. At the same time, the anime industry isn’t nearly as big, so top translators won’t be lining up to translate Index as much as the newest Murakami novel or a Microsoft ad campaign.
Sometimes as a result you get less than stellar translations, ones that try to substitute pop culture references like the “No Game, No Life” translation or ones where the source material is rather infamous for its quality. There’s actually a rumor that Yen Press had to heavily edit their translation of “Sword Art Online” since the writing was so poor. That said, the challenge of the light novel translation is no joke, but also a challenge publishers have risen up to time and time again. There are already some shining examples.
Perhaps due to the more scholarly content, “Spice and Wolf” had a strong translation. Currently on my bookshelf, I am enjoying the official translation of “Kizumonogatari”. It’s about time we got the Monogatari series over here, and with the rumored blessing of a translator picked by Nisiosin himself, the love is real. In fact, the publication, with its elegant formatting feels more like a “real book” than an “anime book”. Were it not for the ads in the back cover, you could pawn this off to a non-anime fan and pull the wool over his or her eyes.
Light novel translations may be an untapped market for publishers to better engage with established fanbases looking to taste the original source material for their favorite anime and even attract new fans who may not have picked up the anime with a different dimension of access. I look forward to hopefully more A+ translations. Join me next time when I eat my own limbs.
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