In the tight-knit circles of certain Japanese fandoms, translators are not just known but venerated, and linguists and their fans are on what you might call a first-name basis.
“Sorry, peeps,” longtime Japanese – English manga and anime translator Kumar Sivasubramanian tweeted on February 18, 2023. “Chapter 13 will be my last.”
Sivasubramanian’s farewell referred to manga mystery series Cipher Academy, whose 12th chapter in English was published February 19, 2023. The series has now made headlines for a game of wits between characters that takes place in the form of lipograms, wordplay that omits specific letters.
Gaming website Kotaku reported that the English version included a transliteration of the Japanese lipograms accompanied by a rough translation, along with an editor’s note explaining that “these lipograms didn’t work in English due to the phonetic differences from Japanese.”
Chapter 10 was the first installment in which Sivasubramanian opted for transliteration over English translation of the puzzles.“[T]he lipograms in Cipher Academy are basically impossible to translate perfectly,” opined entertainment news website Screen Rant in a February 17, 2023 article Sivasubramanian linked in his resignation tweet. “This makes it even more impressive that the translator of the manga Kumar Sivasubramanian has not had to resort to this sort of translation before this chapter.”
Fans seemed to understand: “With the recent cypher academy chapter I was genuinely questioning the translator[‘]s sanity,” one tweeted in response to Sivasubramanian’s news. “No man should go through such torture.”
Simulpubs and Early ‘Retirement’
According to Kotaku, Sivasubramanian’s decision is a departure from his initial agreement to translate 50 chapters of Cipher Academy. Still, he offered to continue translating the series under two conditions: an unspecified “much higher” page rate and a modified schedule (e.g., translating eight to 10 chapters every three to six months versus translating one chapter weekly).
“The higher-ups at [Viz Media] were not willing to do that, so that’s when I begged to be let out early,” Sivasubramanian told Kotaku.
Japanese – English localization specialist Katrina Leonoudakis explained to Slator that Cipher Academy is what is known as a “simulpub,” meaning that chapters are released in English and Japanese simultaneously on a weekly basis.
Moreover, since the series is still ongoing, the translator has at best one to two weeks of lookahead for any dialogue or puzzles.
“You can’t know if a word or aspect of the puzzle you’re localizing is going to play a role in a plot point or, God forbid, another puzzle a few dozen chapters down the line, so any change or localization to puzzles are tougher,” Leonoudakis said.
She added that in her opinion, this manga would best be translated once the series is completed: “That way, any connections between puzzles, quotes, and mysteries can be adequately tied together, and the translator could establish an approach to translating the puzzles that’s more consistent across chapters.”
In the meantime, a new (but as yet unnamed) translator is already in place — not that everyone was counting on a replacement.
“Ok I’ll just wait for the fan translation lol,” one joker replied to Sivasubramanian. Any takers?