As webtoons go global, translations prove crucial

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As webtoons go global, translations prove crucial

Jang Bo-ram, who has been appointed as the head of YLAB's new translation unit YLAB Earth, poses for photos before an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's office in Hongdae, western Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Jang Bo-ram, who has been appointed as the head of YLAB's new translation unit YLAB Earth, poses for photos before an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's office in Hongdae, western Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

As webtoons gain more traction in the global market, good quality translations are becoming more important to ensure international readers can enjoy popular works just as much as locals do.
One company that has been at the forefront of this endeavor is YLAB, a content company specializing in the production, distribution and translations of webtoons.
Founded in 2010, YLAB has been acting as both an agency for webtoon artists to sign with major platforms and also as a distributor to take their works to readers of diverse linguistic backgrounds, especially those using English, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.
The company has translated over 1,000 works as of this year, including some of the most popular Naver series “Lookism” (2014-), “True Beauty” (2018-), “Tower of God” (2010-) and “The Remarried Empress” (2018-).
It jumped into the webtoon translation business in the early stages of the industry and is now one of the biggest companies in the market.
The company recently upgraded its translation team into what it dubs company-in-company, which means the unit is operated almost like a separate company but still technically exists within the YLAB umbrella.
It is called YLAB Earth and was established on April 19. There are currently 13 members of the team, but the company plans to hire more.
The logo of YLAB Earth [YLAB]

The logo of YLAB Earth [YLAB]

“Translating comics goes beyond simply delivering the meaning of the words,” said Jang Bo-ram, who has been appointed the head of YLAB Earth.
“It requires us to figure out what the author wants to deliver and then deliver that message to readers outside of Korea. To make sure that we do that, we hire people who like and are familiar with comics.”
Jang is one of the founding members of YLAB and has been overseeing the translation projects within the company since joining. She started her career in translations because she loves comics, but knew that she couldn’t create them herself.
“Translators need an eye to see the context,” she said. “We’re also the directors of the work in a way.”
Jang sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk more about her new job. The following are edited excerpts.
The image of Naver Webtoon series ″Jungle Juice″ translated by YLAB [YLAB]

The image of Naver Webtoon series ″Jungle Juice″ translated by YLAB [YLAB]

Q. Tell us more about YLAB Earth. What will it focus on and what makes its translations different from others?
A. YLAB Earth has two main pillars — one is to translate and localize webtoons and the other is to find good comic works from overseas, import them and then publish them digitally.
Our goal is to take the content we have and then utilize it as intellectual properties (IP) with our linguistic capabilities to expand our presence on the global stage.
We have a special three-step translation system that makes our system of working meticulous.
Firstly, we always hire a native speaker of a language. We’ve found that if they’re not native, then inevitably there are some limitations when it comes to expressions or usage of words. It’s especially difficult with webtoons because they use a lot of newly-coined words or slang used in the local culture that cannot be found in dictionaries.
Then we have a Korean translator who’s knowledgeable in the language to review the first draft by the native to add cultural details. Finally, we have it checked for the third time by the native translator to make sure the expressions flow.

What are some difficulties that arise with webtoon translations?
The limitation of the speech bubble is one. People who read webtoons usually do so when they’re on their way to work or school, during the brief few minutes they spend on public transportation.
So it’s essential that we make it precise and short enough that people don’t have to think much to figure out what a character is saying. Even if the original line is longer and there’s more being said, sometimes we just have to take the risk and then cut the bits that we think aren’t crucial.
In a way, webtoon translation is much like video translation. It has to be concise but done by people who have an understanding of the work so that the lines contain what they need to story-wise.
The cultural context is important. It has to fit in with the comic’s vibe but also be something that people would actually say in real life.
Jang Bo-ram, leader of YLAB Earth [PARK SANG-MOON]

Jang Bo-ram, leader of YLAB Earth [PARK SANG-MOON]

How do you manage quality control?
We test our translators on both their translation skills as well as their general understanding of comics.
Plus, we have a book that we all fall back on.
It’s particularly important that they have a whole lot of background history for the fantasy genre which also has its own hierarchy and social themes. We make a list of the words that we’ve used for specific situations and then share that with everyone so that there is cohesiveness.
We also meet regularly to share new words, especially newly-coined vocabulary, and study them.
At the end of the day, we have to be better than Google translation or Papago, which are both getting so good. Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting smarter, but I believe that there will always be something that only people can bring. It’s important for us to stay in the game to make sure that we use AI as a tool for us, not the other way around. 
An image from Naver Webtoon series ″Get Schooled″ translated by YLAB [YLAB]

An image from Naver Webtoon series ″Get Schooled″ translated by YLAB [YLAB]

Is there a difference between readers in Korea and those outside the country?
I wouldn’t say that there’s a big difference. What does well in Korea tends to do well overseas, but foreign readers tend to like the fantasy genre more than Koreans. School action works aren’t at the top of the charts, but still high up.
Webtoons are just starting to be accepted in many countries around the world, so the market is roughly 10 years behind us. So the professional, segmented market environment we have here isn’t quite as well developed overseas.
For instance, Korean webtoons now have someone who just works on the background, someone who colors and so on. That ensures very high quality for the works that are created in Korea. But since that’s not the case elsewhere, I would say that the market and the works are reminiscent of what it was like for us around five years ago.

What would you say is the reason Korean webtoons are gaining popularity worldwide?
Korean webtoons are top-notch because competition is so fierce and people are spending more money on consumption. They are making money on their own, even without video adaptations. The tough competition here ensures quality, which means they have to do well overseas.
Just 10 years ago when I started working here, there weren’t a lot of people reading comics or webtoons. But now, people are talking about what webtoons they’ve read and what they liked. We have so much more potential.

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