“What I Learned From Being a Japanese Porn Translator”

“Ben” has been studying Japanese for more than 10 years now, both privately and academically. A few years back, he successfully passed the highest level of the JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test), and since then has, on occasion, been teaching Japanese to other foreigners residing in Tokyo. However, his primary job nowadays is using his knowledge about the language to help strangers watch porn in public.

“At least,” he says, “I hope that’s all they’re doing with it in public.”

That is to say that Ben works as a translator of smartphone-exclusive erotic comic books, or hentai manga, which his publishers then sell abroad. Before that, though, he also used to translate printed porn comics. We reached out to Ben to find out more about his job and the Japanese erotic comic book business in general, and here’s what we learned…

Porn Comic Publishers Are Often Ashamed of What They’re Doing

“When I was offered my first translation job of a porn comic,” Ben recalls, “the company representatives bought me lunch and took close to 15 minutes to get to the topic at hand. Initially, they’d beat around the bush, asking me if I’ve ever read ‘romance’ comic books, or comics for older audiences. By the time they started asking about my familiarity with ‘adult romance’ stories, I had an idea of what they were trying to say, but the word ‘porn’ never actually escaped their mouths. And it really should have because the comic I ended up translating for them was the dictionary definition of porn.”

The reason for that was because the company that recruited Ben wasn’t a porn company. They were a “respectable” publisher of regular books, comics etc., but some years back they decided to expand into the world of pornography as a side venture; a kind of portfolio diversification they wouldn’t want their moms to knows about.

“They were two stereotypical white-collar office workers who were suddenly told by their boss to publish porn, and they were completely not okay with that. Most of the time during our subsequent meetings and discussions of future projects, they would always turn red and could barely look me in the eyes … I felt kind of bad for them, but it was, hands down, one of the funniest things I ever encountered in my job as a translator.”

Porn Translators Rarely Work With “Weird” Stuff

“When you hear the words ‘Japanese porn comic books’ you probably instantly think ‘tentacle sex’ and so on, but I’ve never worked with anything like that. In fact, nearly every comic I translated was all about heterosexual sex in the missionary position with the lights on. It was all very vanilla: a loving couple having daytime sex, two single teachers doing it in a school and so on.”

The thing is, “specialty” porn full of fetishes you didn’t even know existed doesn’t really require translation because the visuals alone are usually enough to attract the – for lack of a better word – “readers,” and make them shell out real money for the comic. Only very basic stories with mass appeal ended up translated and sold by Ben’s company. It was all very “by the numbers.”

Literally, from what Ben says: “One company that I used to work for hired college kids to draw [the porn comics] according to a very specific formula … [My bosses] weren’t artists. They were businessmen, and they analyzed what their customers liked and gave them just that: slender faces and long hair only, at least one sex scene (or a character getting naked) by page three, and penetration by page 10. I counted. It all checked out.”

Japanese Porn Comic Books Are an Important Part of the Country’s Gay Culture

LGBT is a complicated topic in Japan. Trans people, for example, seem widely accepted, with many of them appearing on TV and even becoming celebrities known throughout the country. Gay people, on the other hand, still haven’t really entered the Japanese mainstream. There is little prejudice or violence against gay people in Japan, but most of the country’s homosexual culture remains underground. Erotic gay comic books seem to be trying to change that.

“Some of my past translations included two to three gay comics, which, from what I understand, are the only source of variety when it comes to Japanese homosexual porn. There are a few live-action gay studios and publishers in Japan, but almost all of them fall into the ‘feminine pretty boy variety.’ Gay manga on other hand has all sorts of subgenres, including bearded macho men, romance, fantasy adventure, alien gay sex, and, yes, I have translated stories that fall within that last category. That one was wild.”

From what Ben gathered from other people at his company, the translated gay comics were very popular with Japanese businessmen abroad, who might not have easy access to this sort of material back home where they are forced to stay in the closet. So, in a way, Ben’s work has helped some people be true to themselves. But he says he has no illusions about his job being a form of public service.

“I help deliver smut to people. What they do with it later is no business of mine. I really would rather not hear about what they do with it later.”

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