First published in Newtype USA magazine

Winging It

I was the youngest person in the room. Behind me was a mixing desk big enough to handle a movie, microphones on stands, and a TV screen spooling through a Japanese cartoon. In front of me were actors I'd been seeing in movies since I was six years old. There were guys from Batman, Aliens and even Star Wars. They didn't know it, but I was the translator responsible for the English script they were holding, a title we shall refer to, in avoidance of legal action, as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

"Er…" I said, carefully.

A couple of them looked up.

"Yes, er… Hello," I added, stammering in Hugh Grant mode. My name is Jonathan, and…"

"Black coffee, two sugars, please darling," said an actress near the front.

"…and I'm your director," I finished, through clenched teeth.

The actors weren't convinced. The reason I looked like I had barely graduated was that I hadn't. My graduation ceremony was that afternoon, and I was skipping it to be there. The choice was wear a silly hat and stand in line for a piece of paper I already owned, or push actors around. I picked the option that paid. But before long, I was wishing I hadn't.

There's a fundamental difference between recording Japanese and English dialogue. When the original is done in Japan, the animation is highly unlikely to be complete. Instead, the actors face something that the Japanese call a Leica reel, and we call animatics - a moving set of storyboards that passes in front of them at the right speed. This gives the actors a little leeway in improvising, and they can make their own grunts and groans and effort noises. Whatever the actors say or do, the animators will draw stuff to match.

A lot of the Japanese animation scripts I've seen have blank spots simply marked with the phrase "ad lib." The Japanese love it when that happens, because they can do whatever they want. Many voice actors are typecast in a particular kind of role - hot-headed hero, timid love-interest, cackling Rose Queen - so they normally have an excellent idea of what they should be saying. Many anime are also road-tested with a series of radio or CD dramas, so that by the time an actor walks into the studio to lay down the tracks for the cartoon, he or she has already got a good grasp of his or her character through playing them several times in advance.

None of this is guaranteed in the Western anime business. Whereas most anime are fixed up around whatever was recorded with the animatics, when the time comes to do the dub, you're going to be stuck with whatever visuals are there. Get the picture? The animators have made their images to match the original sound. Now you, your translator and your English voice actors are going to have to come up with sound that matches those pictures.

And those scenes marked "ad lib"? You have to decide either to translate the writer's open-ended intention, or whatever it was the Japanese actors came up with on the day. In attempting to be faithful to the original, you already have to choose between two mutually exclusive possibilities! And whichever you decide, somewhere on an Internet forum, is someone who is going to hate you for it.

Today, however, it was the actors who hated me. I had foolishly assumed they would have seen a subtitled version first. You might get that in your fancy anime distributors, but not at The Company That Shall Remain Nameless. They were already paying the actors so little, they didn't dare ask them to spend an extra half-hour preparing.

They didn't know their roles, they hadn't read the story, and they certainly hadn't watched the tape. Which was fine if you were just reading out a script, but embarrassing if your director wants you to do anything else. By expecting them to know anything beyond the location of the toilets, I had unwittingly caught them out.

"Who wrote this script!?" yelled one of the actors in exasperation.

"I don't know," I lied. "What's the problem?"

" 'Ad lib'!? Ad lib!? You want me to write my own dialogue, as well! I'm not being paid enough for that!"

"Er… right," I said, belatedly realising that they weren't as keen as their Japanese counterparts on making stuff up on the spot. This was my first translated script. It was also the last time I would ever let the words "ad lib" get through. From now on, I would simply translate whatever the Japanese had said on the day, and never tell the actors they were simply repeating a stranger's improvisation.

"Okay," I said. "Stay there and I'll come in and write some dialogue based on what the Japanese are saying."

"Whatever, dude. I'll just wing it," he said.

Which made two of us.

Jonathan Clements