Despite some slowdown, manga is still leading graphic novel sales in North America. But that success hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the professionals who help bring manga to market: translators, letterers, and editors, including many freelancers.

After the last manga boom/bust cycle (roughly 2007-2008), which resulted in layoffs at many publishers, freelancer rates were cut dramatically. For the most part, rates haven’t returned to pre-2007 rates. For example, translation services companies MediBang and Amimaru have drawn criticism for paying letterers as little as $1 to $1.15 per page, as reported on Anime News Network.

M, a veteran Japanese-to-English manga translator who spoke to PW on conditions of anonymity, said that “some manga series move a few hundred copies. Others, millions. But I get paid the same for both.” They complained that the standard is flat fee payment for translation, without residuals, and bonuses and raises are atypical. The result, they said, is that “rates drop every year when taking inflation into account.”

But with manga publishers enjoying a period of prosperity, freelancers have begun speaking out and demanding pay increases. The United Workers of Seven Seas, the first US manga/light novel publishing union, was formed with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) last year; the union was recognized by Seven Seas Entertainment soon after. Two publishers, Yen Press and Viz Media, also reportedly responded by raising rates for freelancers. Specific payment terms were not disclosed by the publishers, who offered no comment. But according to M, between the two major manga houses, base rates rose between 10-20%. “We were thrown a long overdue bone,” says M.

That said, translation costs and time present a real concern for manga publishers, especially for digital releases, which may net less margin combined with shorter turnover time for simulpub print and e-pub volumes.

One possible solution being actively explored is machine or AI-assisted translation. As Beth Kawasaki, executive director of content and marketing at Media Do International, a leading digital manga distributor, put it, “human editorial expertise is still needed, but advances in tech may make (AI-assisted) localization more cost effective in the future.”

Machine learning and AI-assisted translation is a controversial topic, for both manga publishing professionals and readers.

“Quality comes a cost,” explained Kae Winters, marketing lead at Tokyopop. “I understand why there’s a lot of interest in machine translation as the technology progresses…but I think we’d all agree it’s got a long way to go. If you’ve ever run a Japanese book description through Google Translate, it’s a coin toss whether it’ll even be understandable.” And yet, she added, “I’m sure when the radio was invented, the idea of having moving images to go along with it sounded like science fiction, too.”

From the professional translator side, M defends the skills required by human translators in capturing the nuances of Japanese language and culture in manga storytelling. Manga is “filled with puns, jokes, cultural references, allusions, context-sensitive SFX (sound effects), callbacks, call-forwards, and unspoken nuance that all requires the deft touch of a fully bilingual human brain to parse, contextualize, reimagine, localize, and write,” M explains.

The pitfalls of shoddy translation were evident in the recent release, then quick removal, of Blic Publishing/Book Live’s first digital release of The Ranking of Kings by Sousuke Toka from e-book stores due to complaints about the translation quality, followed by similar complaints about Titan Comics's release of Kamen Rider Kuuga. Manga fans are eager for more manga, but as their taste for a greater variety of subgenres grows, so do their expectations for the quality of what they’re buying.

We do whatever we can to publish the highest-quality translations that stay true to their original versions,” says Mark Gabriel de Vera, sales and marketing director of Yen Press. “Seeing how mainstream and casual AI use has already become, it would be foolish for me to say that it will not become a bigger part of the creation of art and storytelling.”

As demand for translated Japanese manga and Korean webtoons into English and other languages increases, the calls for more equitable pay for freelancers is likely to grow louder. At the same time, the appeal of AI-assisted translation technologies for publishers is undeniable, especially as the technology continues to develop. How the comics publishing industry, in Japan, Korea and overseas, will respond to these tensions and challenges remains to be seen, but it will definitely be a hot topic for years to come.

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This article has been updated for clarity.