Sabrina Heep is a professional manga letterer and retoucher. The 85 books she’s worked on include volumes of Captive Hearts, Claymore, Honey & Clover, Nana, Naruto, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Skip Beat!, Tuxedo Gin, and Wanted. Sabrina answered Dan Copulsky’s questions by email in January 2010.
How did you get a job lettering manga? Did you find a job listing for that? What kind of background did you have?
My background is pure fandom. I started learning Japanese for fun in my spare time in art school, as I wanted to read all the great manga titles that seemed unlikely to be licensed for official English release. This was back in 1999, before the Pokémon craze and Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block hit and propelled anime and manga into the North American mainstream. I started translating unlicensed manga both to practice my skills and to actually read it myself. I knew others would want to read these titles too, so I scanned the pages, replaced the Japanese with my English translation using Photoshop, and posted them online as free “scanlations” for fellow fans. I’d been doing this on my own for about three years when a friend told me about a job listing he had seen at Viz.com for manga letters and retouch artists. He knew about my scanlation hobby and figured I might be interested. He was right! I applied–including examples of my scanlation pages in my portfolio–and after two sets of official sample page lettering submissions, I was hired in January 2005.
What’s an average work day like? Do you go to an office or studio to work or do you work from home? What kind of pace do you work at?
I freelance, and I chose to work from home. I work seven days a week, seven to thirteen hours each day depending on how many simultaneous titles I have at a given time. My regular day begins at 9 AM. I relax until 10, go jogging for an hour, shower and eat breakfast, and start work usually around noon. I work through the day, taking breaks for a snack, lunch, and dinner, until anywhere between 9 PM to 1 AM, depending on my current work load. Then I unwind and fall into bed no later than 2 AM. Each day I finish an average of 12 total pages from my various different titles. I am very fortunate that for me, lettering manga is a labor of love. This is not a job for the unmotivated!
What kind of communication do you have with editors, bosses, or other people in charge?
The editor is the only person in charge that I communicate with outside of emergencies, as they are the ones who oversee a manga’s production both in-house and freelance. Each of my manga titles has a dedicated editor, though I do have three titles with the same editor. Communication between us is rather minimal. We’ll let each other know when the various files are ready, talk deadlines if needed, or ask and answer the occasional question. I exchange emails with one or two of them a week, on average. It’s rare for them to actually call me. In fact, I’ve never spoken over the phone with one editor in particular, and I’ve been working with her for four years! The apparent lack of communication might be surprising, but I’ve been lettering long enough that I know what my editors want, and they know they don’t have to hover over me to get it. That makes everyone happy!
Does someone else handle the translation?
I can read Japanese, but Viz always hires a professional translator. That person reads the original Japanese manga and creates an English script. My job is using that script to letter dialogue, captions, sound effects, and random items like background signs and props. If you open to a page of story in one of my books, everything in English on that page is my work. Sometimes the creator, or mangaka, will include English in the original artwork, but 99% of the time, if it’s in English, it’s mine.
Is your job just lettering? Is retouching work an integral part of lettering words that overlap other parts of the image?
Retouching is something definitely required in translated comics. For example, a character might blush in a romantic moment. The Japanese sound effect for that is “kaaaah”. The script tells me to change that FX into the English equivalent of “bluuuuush”. I write the English sound effect over the top of Japanese one, matching the original style and placement, but it’s almost impossible to completely cover the Japanese with the English. Those bits of Japanese that are still visible must be hidden by recreating the background over them. If the background is plain white, it’s simple to just cover up the Japanese with white and move on. However, if the background is tone, or drawn art, or both, then it becomes tricky.
It isn’t just FX that require retouch. Those aforementioned background signs and various props also require it. I’ve retouched ATM machines, graffiti, store displays, love letters, cold medicine boxes, and more junk food snack bags than I care to remember. (My personal favorite of those: “Octo-Yums”.) Mangaka also often print a character’s thoughts floating directly over the background—no bubble—or even use transparent or clear word bubbles. Any Japanese visible after the English is applied must be retouched.
To sum up successful retouching: if a manga letterer is doing their job well, a reader will never be able to tell the page wasn’t originally English in the first place.
Could you also describe the technical process a little bit? What programs and tools and do you use to work?
I use Photoshop for all my lettering and retouch. I open a page, white out the Japanese, copy and paste the English script as type in the appropriate spaces, draw my FX, and complete any retouch. I make extensive use of Photoshop’s layers. For example, the original Japanese page is my Background layer and remains completely unaltered by me. The next layer up is the white out layer, and all layers above that contain my English changes and any needed retouch artwork. Each page is saved twice: once as the layered Photoshop file, and once as a flattened English tiff.
I have talked shop with other letterers and we all work basically the same way–except for FX. I am rather unusual among manga letterers because my FX are hand-drawn using a Wacom tablet rather than manipulating type. I do sometimes use type for FX if the situation calls for it or if that is a manga’s established English style, but when given a choice I always hand-draw my FX. Come to find out I’ve even been hired a few times for that express reason. I do enjoy hand-drawing FX, and it’s really fun to open one of my books and see my handwriting and artwork inside.
How do you send and receive the projects?
Everything on my end is digital. My editor emails me the script as a Word document, and I download a manga book from Viz via FTP. Each page is an individual tiff image file.
To turn in my pages for proofing, I create a multi-page PDF of my English tiffs and upload that via FTP to Viz. My editor and various others check the pages, then send me corrections by either marking them on the PDF or emailing me a text list. I make the changes on the Photoshop files, save the new flattened tiffs, and upload a second PDF back to Viz. My editor checks it. If everything’s golden, I am emailed the okay, and I upload the final English tiffs to Viz. After the final pages are turned in, it’s time to start the next volume!
You’re also working on your own original manga. Has your job as a letterer been inspiring and encouraging for that work or does it ever make you feel intimated?
My lettering work has been very encouraging for my original comics. I’ve lettered for eight different mangaka. I’ve studied their various styles and observed what works well in English and what does not. For example, breaking out of the rectangle grid page layouts works well in any language. Narrow vertical word bubbles, however, are best left to Japanese. One aspect of manga I particularly admire is how word bubbles are included in a page’s art from the first sketch, and are thus part of the overall design. Not only does that create an easier reading flow and cut down on required background art, it forces me to have my script (mostly…) finished before I start drawing.
By far the most inspiring aspect of my job has been the sheer scope of the stories I’ve been fortunate to letter. When I began lettering manga in 2005, I started three series with volume 1. As of today, Claymore is at volume 15, and Nana and Skip Beat! are both at volume 20. Watching these three very different epics develop over five years, being a part of it myself, is an amazing feeling. It makes me long to dive into a gripping epic of my own!
Could you describe the project you’re working on?
I am still very new to the idea of drawing my own manga, and I know starting with an epic would be rather foolish. Thus, my first comic is a short horror story about a woman who sells her soul in return for achieving her biggest dream. She doesn’t regret the decision in the slightest. The demon holding her contract finds this amusing. My favorite aspect of this story is the relationship between the main character and the demon. They have a twisted friendship that is fun to portray.