[Editorial] The Big Problem Behind Unpaid Interpreters: Why anime fans should value their skills

This week Anime Expo, the biggest anime convention in the English speaking world, put a call out for volunteer interpreters. Anime Expo is far from a new event, and had over 100,000 attendees last year. How did they fail to account for the cost of professional interpreters when budgeting? If they can’t afford to pay interpreters, what hope do any of the smaller cons have?

Let’s be real: they didn’t fail to account for it, and they can afford it. AX is a big enough event in the fandom calendar that they could have bumped ticket prices up by under a dollar each to bring in the necessary funds. If for some reason that wasn’t an option, they’re a big enough name that they could even have crowdfunded it. There’s no good reason not to pay every single interpreter for their work. There are, however, a couple of bad ones.

The most generous reading of their actions is that not a single person on the entire AX staff understands what interpreting involves. More likely  is that they considered it an unnecessary cost, knowing they could get enthusiastic amateurs to work for free without putting a value on their time. Ours is a culture of scanlators and fansubbers working for the love of it, right? Why not give these lucky worker bees a chance to meet some cool people and see behind the scenes of a big event?

Translation and interpreting are different skills

While translation and interpreting rely on the same knowledge base of the Japanese language, understanding what words mean is just one part of each job. Translation involves many more research skills, looking up obscure terms, phrases or cultural references and evaluating how best to adapt them for an audience without the cultural context. It’s more important for you to have strong command of the English language than of Japanese, especially in an age when you can identify words in seconds with search engines, online dictionaries and apps. The skill of the translator is not so much in understanding basic meaning, but in selecting exactly the right English word to convey the nuance, tone and voice of the original author.

Contrast to interpreting, where you would probably rather have a broader Japanese vocabulary in order to communicate on the speaker’s behalf as quickly and responsibly as possible. Interpreting happens for live events, which means listeners will usually have access to the original speaker’s tone of voice and body language. As such, the interpreter’s job is to communicate the content of the speaker’s words in a manner that is in line with their intentions, quickly enough that their conversation with someone else can flow as smoothly as possible. It involves intense focus, fast reflexes and good social awareness in both languages.

Each discipline is difficult in a different way. Both require professional respect and decent compensation at any level. Fluency in Japanese is not in itself enough to qualify you as an interpreter. And AX, despite asking for “fluent Japanese speakers”, revealed in a later tweet that they considered JLPT N2 level sufficient.

‘Fluent’ =/= ‘Fluent enough to interpret’

‘Fluency’ is of course a nebulous concept, but there’s a bit of a leap between N2 level and the kind of fluency you need for professional interpreting. Taking myself as an example, I was above N2 standard when I lived in Japan. I translated contemporary and/or classical Japanese for most weeks of my specialised four-year degree. I spent a year working as live-in help for a Japanese family and many more years communicating bilingually with Japanese housemates. I’ve even given bilingual speeches at Japanese social and academic events… but there’s no way I could have worked as an interpreter at any point in my life.

When I’ve had to interpret for friends in social situations, I’ve generally found it draining, and eventually find myself translating only the bare minimum possible to enable them to follow conversations. And I’m a native English speaker, which is something the AX staff has also stated is not a requirement. I would trust a professional interpreter who is native in neither language, but an amateur is probably not up to the task. (If they actually are, fantastic! But if they’re doing a skilled job to a professional standard, they deserve to be paid.)

When you attend an event as enormous and established as Anime Expo, you should feel comfortable that you’re at least being communicated with properly. The worst-case scenario is that the guest is badly misrepresented through an inaccurate or misleading translation, or that they feel disrespected or disdainful of the con by the time they leave and decide not to return. These are outcomes worth paying to avoid.

Exploitation is a natural part of capitalism

AX is far from the first anime or manga-related organisation to be accused of exploiting its workers – it’s just being unusually shameless about it. Every now and again, tweets circulate about various companies in this space treating their workers poorly in some way. A general lack of transparency around such companies makes it hard to work out which reports represent a genuine problem and which would seem perfectly reasonable in context – but this same lack of transparency makes it very easy to believe the former.

To be clear, I have no idea what anyone at any anime or manga company is paid. I’m just cynical enough to believe that it’s in most companies’ interests to pay workers a little as they can get away with before they risk increasing employee churn. We live in a time when people will jump at the chance to take unpaid internships in prestigious companies for the name recognition alone. In anime fandom, where the supply of people passionate enough to make their hobby into their job far outweighs demand, it’s absolutely plausible that those who land this work choose to quietly accept unfavourable working conditions and/or low pay. (See also: animators in Japan.)

However, this is just what profit-focused companies do. As soon as a company gets big enough, its obligations are to its shareholders. If serving employees and customers will help them meet shareholders’ expectations, then they will serve employees and customers. If it does not, they generally will not. No matter how close you feel to a company through its branding or customer-facing individuals, elsewhere are people whose job it is to make the numbers work for the shareholders, by any means necessary. We would all benefit from expecting less of the for-profit organisations in our space – and more of the non-profit organisations.

Culture of entitlement –> Culture of support

When I first saw the tweet from AX, it made me viscerally angry. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to the point that I’ve written this post. What possible justification is there for this decision? What on earth made them think it would be acceptable? Were interpreters even discussed at the budgeting stage (and if not, why not)? Will they get their stable of unpaid amateur interpreters anyway, or will the outcry their tweet sparked make capable people steer clear? If they don’t get enough sufficiently capable volunteers, will they fork out for professionals or settle for people with a lower level of Japanese? What are their priorities in this situation? What were their priorities when they drew up this year’s budget?

Earlier I mentioned that we are a culture of scanlators and fansubbers. To rephrase, we have a culture of expectation that we will create skilled work for free, and entitlement to consume the outcome of someone’s skilled work for free, rooted in a time when we had no easy way to pay creators of any kind. But that is changing, as Crunchyroll’s subscription numbers and the successful crowdfunding of fans and their projects indicate. One of the most common questions fans ask of Amazon’s Anime Strike is about how much profit makes it back to Japan. People are more determined to financially support creators than they have been for years. The culture of entitlement is slowly transforming into a culture of valuing content and supporting creators – and all of us can and should help to make that happen.

Taking action as creators

I structured Anime Feminist around the basic idea that everyone would receive a fair wage for their work as soon as possible. It’s taking time, but with each new milestone someone else gets paid; at $800 it was contributing writers, at $900 it was our audio editor, at $1140 it will be our text editors, a.k.a. “Those People Who Have Consistently Kept AniFem From Crashing and Burning”. Once we have enough funding that everyone gets paid the sums we agreed are ‘fair’, we will start increasing pay to reflect our increased income. This is the difference between paying fairly (as much as you can reasonably justify) and competitively (as little as you can reasonably justify). Larger anime and manga companies will generally do the latter, because their shareholders require them to. From my perspective, smaller companies and non-profit organisations can and should do the former.

If you have no income at all, then of course you can’t pay anyone anything, but if you’re treating your content creation like a job and putting up new work regularly, then why would you not try to monetise it? It’s not noble or virtuous to work for love instead of money; better to get paid and enable yourself to do even more of that work without distraction or stress. Even if not a single person sends a dollar your way, it’s still a public statement that you place a value on your time and effort and that it is appropriate for other people to do the same.

Taking action as consumers

It goes without saying that we also have an obligation to pay where possible for the creations we enjoy. If everyone who reads AniFem and can afford it gave us $1 a month, we’d be able to pay people at double or triple the rates we’re offering now, and have enough left over to afford to do some of the projects we’re internally very excited about but simply can’t justify yet. That said, I know I don’t yet financially support all the fans creating work I consume regularly. I need to make a conscious effort to shape our fandom culture – not just through AniFem, but as an individual making decisions on how to spend my money.

Here’s my contribution: on payday this month I’ll set up a $1 patronage to a creator whose work I enjoy, and add a new creator for another $1 every month until I hit my affordability ceiling. (Patreon tip: every single dollar is deeply appreciated, and the predictability of recurring income is more valuable to us than one-off larger payments. Signing up to be a $1 patron is more valuable to any creator than you may realise!) I will of course be looking for marginalised creators to support – if you have recommendations for creators I should give my dollar too, put those in a comment!

Promoting creators along with links to their Patreon is one way to contribute to this culture change, even if you aren’t in a position to contribute financially yourself. The more people set the expectation that skilled work should receive fair pay, the more our culture of entitlement will shift to one of support – and the less likely you are to have organisations as big as Anime Expo assuming they can round up skilled, knowledgeable workers to work full time on multiple days for free. If you think that’s a fannish future worth working towards, I’d love to hear from you in comments on what you and other fans can do to help make it happen.


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At this stage, we have raised enough money to be able to pay for contributed posts, behind the scenes admin, and audio editing for weekly podcasts. Our next goal is to pay the editors who have worked on AniFem as volunteers since before launch, making enormous contributions for no pay. Help us pay them for their work at a rate of $15 an hour by becoming a patron for as little as $1 a month! 

  • Co-signed. I felt the same way you did. It makes sense for me and my buddies running a con, when a con has a board and a budget, it needs to stop pretending that it’s a shoestring “hey kids let’s build a con.”

  • Peter Kovalsky

    There’s this funny dimension here that I’m having a bit of trouble articulating, but I think part of the reason they and others have such an easy time getting away with this is that the *fans* are super afraid of allowing events to fail. Like, nerd culture is increasingly chic these days, but most of us came up during a time when being into anime meant desperately searching for, and clinging to, some sense of legitimacy… so every aspect of public nerd culture becomes our baby, and we feel compelled to prop it up and make sure that everything looks legit and like it’s working well from the outside.

    But maybe we need to be capitalists about this, too. We’re consumers of these events and experiences, and *we* don’t owe *them* anything, and those that offer a substandard or unethically-produced product probably *should* be allowed to fail. There’s enough legitimacy in nerdery now that we don’t have to cling to *every* representative of that culture.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see more artisanal, free-range, hand-crafted, cruelty-free nerd events happening.

    • I think this is a really important point, and I’m glad you made it.

  • Tsuga

    This story doesn’t surprise me at all. Honestly, AX has been becoming more exploitative as it has grown year after year.

    Here’s a kind of related story regarding Artist Alley last year:

    From my perspective working as a vendor in the artist alley last year, it seems to me that AX really just does NOT care about anybody who is not a vendor in the main hall. They made the decision to put Artist Alley down into the basement of the convention center, added hundreds of extra tables, and did not do us the courtesy of even keeping the room air conditioned. People at the back of the room were FAINTING because of the heat, and lack of air. This was so that they could provide more space for vendors in the main hall (vendor booths are more expensive, so more valuable to AX).

    On top of that they had volunteers policing our booths CONSTANTLY to ensure that we had artist badges, and that our products were all under our table (I get it, fire hazards, but honestly we had TONS of room around and behind us), or that our booth met the height restrictions, and when they weren’t addressing us directly they were silently walking by with clipboards and taking notes about us and our neighbors (we asked, they said it was in regards to meeting their artist guidelines but were not telling people what they were writing down). I had worked AX twice before that, when the artist alley shared space with the vendors in the main hall, and it did not feel this heavily enforced, or neglected.

    In spite of the shared misery that was Artist Alley last year, the tables sold out instantly again for this year’s show. This convention’s staff has no incentive to change because it IS the biggest con in North America, and people will keep paying to be there because some people rely on it. The SPJA may be non-profit, but that’s no excuse. They can do better, with what they charge. They CAN afford to pay people, and treat them right.

  • Gorion

    As you say, it’s the expectation in place that fans will do it for free and for love of the hobby, so why pay them? It’s the same reason that cons generally rely on significant support from unpaid volunteers. I would hazard a guess that one reason that AX doesn’t pay interpreters is because it never did in the past when it was a smaller, poorer con, and nobody at the organization ever stopped and said, “Wait, why are we still doing things like we did 15 years ago?”

    On the upside, there are probably a few up-and-coming interpreters who will be glad to have the opportunity to add this experience to their resumes.

    • There’s a chance that there are some Japanese speakers out there with the requisite N1 level Japanese but struggling to get their foot in the door as interpreters, sure. They should still be paid for their work. I wouldn’t consider it an upside myself, I think it’s likely to be offset by the number of people who assume they can handle it because they like translation, only to struggle when they find themselves out of their depth.

      • Gorion

        Yeah, I’ve done some limited interpretation at work (I am N2 level) and there is absolutely no way I would feel qualified to interpret for a panel without several weeks to prep with the speaker’s materials or similar presentations. Even then I would probably do a poor job. As you say it rewards very different skillsets from translation which can lead to false confidence in some cases.

  • AsteriskCGY

    Hell, IIRC AX is worse because I believe they’re still set up as a private non profit. Most of their staff are volunteers. I spoke with a friend that worked AX for years and saw that if they were audited all kinds of shit would stir up. And really the con staff might be the same people that staff the many other cons that come up in this region.

  • Hm, interpreting, translating. Yes, both skills take a lot of time and effort to develop when you want to keep on delivering on a professional level. I’d say roughly 10 years for every language that is not your native one.
    Still, people pay translators and interpreters rather lowish sums of money since like .. ah well, say since a long, long time. The reason is rather simple. Many volunteers, motivated and sure of themselves, try to do the professionals job. And often enough, they manage somehow, sometimes even in a very impressive manner.
    However, this is, and will, not be the rule. So whenever people organize big events, they should really be mindful about the personnel they choose. Not only is it rather disrespectful towards your foreign guests when your interpreters are not capable of relaying ones words and intentions in the correct way, it reflects poorly towards your audience, that will catch on rather swiftly. They needn’t even be language pro’s to realize things are going awry.

    Nevertheless. When, in the end, one is really skilled at these areas, he is going to advance into rather nice pay at some point. Not saying interpreters or translators are rich people. But the more successful ones can still enjoy a rather nice lifestyle. Taking such a convention as a stepping stone might not be the worst of decisions.
    Because – and that is something we need to face – we can protest, we can to point our fingers and hope to influence change – but we can not brute force it. So, specially when starting out in an area like this, you are at the whims of your employees. And those – as described nicely – more often then not try to maximize profits. So no room for extra spending.

    Anyways, you did a nice job on pointing these things out. The field of translation and interpreting is harsh one today. One, that many people would like to tread upon. But only very few will prosper doing so.

  • I’m really finding it a bit hard to believe that this call is for volunteer interpreters *in place of* – rather than in addition to – the professional/paid ones that AX will be retaining to interact with their Japanese guests. In the same way that the SPJA has a professional, full-time staff – but still relies quite heavily on volunteers for a lot of the at-convention work!

    • My understanding is that panel interpreters are paid, guest liaison interpreters are volunteers. From my perspective, it makes not one bit of difference. Interpreting is skilled work, and most con volunteer work is unskilled. Skilled work at least should be paid. If they were offering behind the scenes interpreting spots for a token fee plus free entrance, accommodation etc. that would be different, but no money at all should be unacceptable.

      • jenrose

        Having been on volunteer concoms for a decade and a half, lots of the positions a science fiction con gets people for on a volunteer level are in fact very skilled.

        But yes, interpreters need to be paid, or at least treated on par with any other heavily scheduled panelist–expecting them to translate for free instead of attending the panels of their choice is pretty much bullshit.

        I have more experience on the ASL side of things, where I’ve been pushing for NW cons to invite a performer who loves interpreting music to interpret major music events at the convention, but even that is only a fraction of what would be ideal for a Deaf attendee.

        But the huge conventions are usually NOT profit-less. The ones I go to, everything gets rolled back into covering panelists costs and no one is getting paid much if anything except the childcare staff and we have to go to the mat every year to keep childcare at all.

  • Something else I wanted to note: People have been using the term “nonprofit” in conjunction with Anime Expo, which can leave the impression that it’s some sort of charity. This is not the case. As classified by the US Internal Revenue Service, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, the organization that puts on Anime Expo, is *not* a 501(c)(3) entity (organized for charitable, educational, etc., purposes). It is instead classified as a 501(c)(6) entity, a category that includes trade associations, chambers of commerce, etc. There is no essential difference between the SPJA and (say) the Motion Picture Association of America or the National Association of Broadcasters, except that the SPJA has about a tenth the budget of the MPAA or NAB.

  • SC

    Interpreters and translators are female majority occupations (in where I live at least) and that partly explains why these jobs are so undervalued in general.

  • That does suck… I think it might also happen with artists too? It’s one reason I don’t bother to pursue art as a career, even if I have the talent for it. I wasted my youth chasing that dream only to realize it doesn’t work as a stable paying job in this world. I’d rather stock shelves than draw for a living and have to charge $5 for a drawing that takes me a whole day or 5 days to finish.

    Translators in particular are hard to find for something like obscure manga or doujinshi… Like you can suggest it to a ton of doujinshi translators, and many will refuse it because they simply don’t feel like it, because they only do it as a hobby (I am one of these).

    That’s why the few who would translate any manga/doujinshi on commission are the ones who charge fees, but they are very valuable and deserving of the money because they are the only ones willing to take on such a job. They not only have to translate, but they also are doing editing of the speech bubbles and SFX.
    In my own experience translating a doujinshi from a series I am highly familiar with, even then I had to research about things in it, about every few speech bubbles. No matter how many Japanese classes you take, you won’t learn things like slang, historical terms, jokes, pop-culture, and fan-specific terms in those classes, and you have to research it on your own… and often you will not find any information about certain terms or slang used in the doujinshi, so you will be SOL and have to leave that part untranslated to the disappointment of the readers. I sadly had to leave the “Uiyatsume” line untranslated, because I could not find ANY information about what that word means, and I googled it in both English and Japanese… no luck at all.

    Also, there are certain riddles(meant to be solvable as a way to prevent English people from accessing the password) that could be written in Japanese, but even a native fluent Japanese person will not understand it!
    I once showed my mother who is born and raised in Japan and totally fluent, a Japanese puzzle that I wanted to solve. She had NO idea what it could have meant. She would have to be very deep into the fandom to know what it was, probably.

  • Blusocket

    I’m a little embarrassed to be writing this, but I just want to express what an enormous relief it is to see someone defend scanlation on principled, ethical grounds. I do firmly believe that as long as we live in this terrible capitalist society where people need money to survive that fans should make an effort to support the artists whose work we enjoy, but sometimes it feels like the conversation we have around fan entitlement and the lack of support for original content creators edges very close to conflating ‘behaving ethically’ with ‘respecting the law.’ Stealing from people with little influence or power in an industry who struggle to make a living and whose work is devalued is terrible (and something I’m certain companies do as well as fans, at the very least in a radical sense of ‘profit is theft’) but rather than a world with a ‘thriving anime industry’ where many different artists and distribution services compete for consumer attention and anime-related companies have great profit margins, I’d like to see one where artists can create works that excite and interest them with more concern for other, more vulnerable people and less concern for if it will sell. I would love to see artists be able to take their time with their work, to be able to share what brings them joy with very, very small, niche audiences without sacrificing their ability to survive as an artist and just as a human (e.g. still being able to eat, sleep, the works.) I would love to see anything resembling an ‘industry’ be fully artist-owned! And even though the whole idea of intellectual property makes me uncomfortable in a lot of ways, until there’s real, material economic justice and social support for creatives, especially ones from marginalized communities, I do think it’s something of a necessity. Idk, I genuinely don’t know much about economics or the practical functionings of social systems, but in a conversation about ethics and values, these are mine.