Why Seven Seas Altered Its Light Novels

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Back in January, light novel fans on Reddit pointed out something disquieting about Seven Seas Entertainment's English version of Classroom of the Elite volume 7: Entire paragraphs from the original Japanese book appeared to have been omitted from the English version. What should have been a big emotional climax came across as muted due to the sparse prose throughout the book. When fans cross-referenced the Seven Seas version with an English fan translation, the differences they listed were substantial enough to fill dozens of pages.

In the following months, similarly heavy-handed changes across various other series came to light. Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation and I'm in Love with the Villainess drew particular scrutiny because the omitted text included sections dealing with controversial issues, such as sexual assault and homophobia. It also quickly became clear that they were made without consultation with the original authors. I'm in Love with the Villainess author Inori expressed her surprise and disappointment after fans pointed out to her that entire paragraphs dealing with the protagonist's reflections on internalized homophobia had been removed from the English version of volume 1.

Mushoku Tensei's case was especially concerning because it wasn't just a case of missing text but of certain plot points being rewritten altogether. It didn't help Seven Seas' image when the TV anime adapted some of the cut content, like Rudeus groping Eris in her sleep and attempting to pull off her panties. (In the first print of the English volume 2, Rudeus simply observes her and tries to pull her shirt over stomach to prevent her from catching a cold.) In other words, some of the changes seemed to have been carried out with censorious intent.

If there's one thing anime fans hate, it's censorship in localization, whether self-imposed or prompted by external pressure. Anime has had a long history of egregious localization changes, with infamous examples like 4Kids censorship occupying a large seat in U.S. fandom memory. It makes sense to fixate on changes that deal with sensitive subjects because they clearly step outside the bounds of what a translation should accomplish.

At the same time, it's worth taking a more nuanced and holistic view of localization to understand the context in which these sensitive changes happen. It is short-sighted to tar all localization professionals across different mediums and publishing contexts under the same brush, and there are many important factors that go overlooked when it comes to these discussions.

Let's take a closer look at the backlash around the Seven Seas light novel localizations in particular, because the most interesting thing about it… is how it took years for the changes to even get noticed by the readers in the first place.

The Business of Altering Books

Generally speaking, novels aren't subject to content classification the way that television shows, films, and video games are. This means that there's less incentive among publishers of translated novels to alter content in order to meet a specific rating.

Nevertheless, novels do sometimes undergo content changes in translation if publishers think they'll sell more copies that way. Famously, this was the case with Haruki Murakami's novels when they were first being published for U.S. audiences, as David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami documents. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World lost around 100 pages in translation, while The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle lost around 25,000 words, to name just a few examples.

The reasoning behind the cuts, Murakami's collaborators explained, is that they “refined” the original work by cutting repetition and non-sequiturs, so that the books could more easily hold the attention of American readers. It wasn't simply a case of changing some wording choices and sentence structures to sound more natural in the target language, but condensing and rewriting the text altogether as if it were a book originally submitted to the editor in English.

Although not nearly as stark as the above examples, Seven Seas acknowledged that its own translations are different from the original Japanese text on the sentence and paragraph levels: “The process of creating smooth and readable English language prose often involves condensing or rearranging text, so line-by-line translation comparisons are not always 1:1,” the publisher wrote in a statement regarding the Classroom of the Elite and Mushoku Tensei changes. “Seven Seas' goal is to provide accurate translations that reflect the author's intent, yet at the same time, we pride ourselves on providing polished English versions that are commercially viable and enjoyable to read.”

Abridgement in translated books is a more common phenomenon than we may like to admit. It extends to many language pairs besides Japanese → English, or even translations into the English language (e.g. there are prominent examples of French literature being abridged in Japanese). This heavy-handed approach tends to be more common among early translations that serve to introduce a literary culture to an audience completely unfamiliar with it.

You might read that and think, “But the target audience is familiar with light novels,” and you'd have a point. Light novel readers tend to be anime fans, and anime has been widely available internationally for decades. In the English market, there were some early attempts to coax the broader Young Adult literature audience into light novels by replacing the anime-style cover art (some of you may recall the backlash over Yen Press' original volume 1 cover for Spice & Wolf back in 2009), but those days are firmly over now. For the past half-decade, hundreds of light novel volumes have been getting published in English every year. At this point, the market has matured enough that the core audience doesn't need content alterations or hand-holding from publishers in order to pick up a translated light novel.

That is what makes the Seven Seas case a particular oddity, in a way. The publisher entered the light novel market in earnest in around 2017, when contemporaries like Yen Press and J-Novel Club were also ramping up their output. On top of that, the website has been running a monthly reader survey asking for feedback and licensing suggestions for at least as long. Seven Seas is clearly responsive to what its audience is looking for, and so the fact that it took readers four years to start calling out the translation practices must have come as an extra shock.

The truth of the matter is that the bulk of what Seven Seas was changing was “invisible” to the audience. Most people would only read a translated novel because they can't read the original language, after all. Even a reader who is deeply familiar with light novels and Japanese culture will not notice if the translated text has been extensively edited for brevity and flow unless they read it alongside the original text or an alternate translation. If those readers enjoyed the prose, and the plot wasn't noticeably different from what was advertised, then you could say that Seven Seas succeeded in what it was trying to accomplish.

And they might have continued “getting away with it,” if there weren't any fan translations to compare their work to.

Fan Translations and Fidelity

Localization professionals tend to express mixed feelings about fan translations. Even beyond the issues with legality (which is its own can of worms), fan translations have played a significant role in shaping audience expectations, to a degree that professional translators sometimes find overbearing.

“Official translations need to be faithful. Don't erase Japanese cultural references and don't insert American ones. Keep the honorific suffixes (“-san,” “-kun,” “-chan,” etc.) and other names/terms that were used in the fan translation.”

Light novel fans tend to be very particular about that last point. Most light novels with a fan translation have a vocal fanbase that swears by the fan translation over the official one. For example, fans of The Irregular at Magic High School were aghast that the Yen Press translation doesn't keep "Onii-sama" (Miyuki's adoring way of referring to her older brother Tatsuya). Similarly, Overlord fans have a laundry list of complaints regarding terminology translation choices that differ from the fan translation.

Generally, these sorts of nitpicks can be put down to personal preferences rather than a serious objection to content changes. Nevertheless, fan translations can give the average consumer the tools to hold companies accountable for egregious translation errors and other issues.

This is where the Seven Seas case becomes particularly relevant. Classroom of the Elite is a somewhat unique case among Seven Seas' light novel lineup: Its fan translations were based directly on the published book release in Japan. In today's environment, where web novels are freely accessible and easy to plug into an online dictionary or machine translation, it's more common for web novels to get fan translations than light novels. However, published light novels in Japan can differ quite significantly from their web novel counterparts, so the discrepancies in the Seven Seas English versions went unremarked upon until recently.

In Classroom of the Elite's case, there was no web novel to begin with. Any significant differences between Classroom of the Elite's English and Japanese versions had to be an issue with the translation itself. Even then, this didn't become a major issue until volume 7, when the editing choices actively undermined the story.

All of this explains why it took so long for Seven Seas to receive backlash for its editing choices, and why it started a snowball effect. After the discrepancies in Classroom of the Elite came to light, fans were prompted to scrutinize the translations in other Seven Seas novels more closely. Some editing choices in Mushoku Tensei's light novel version that were once thought to be decisions on the Japanese end were revealed to be unique to the English version. From there, more and more examples from various series came to light.

When a once invisible process becomes visible, it opens itself up to criticism. In isolation, the edits were perhaps not the biggest deals, but cumulatively, they pointed to a pattern of disagreeable content changes. When a wealth of changes are made seemingly in the name of improving the technical quality of the prose, it can be easy to mask censorship among them. And if an editing choice can be perceived as censorship, then it ultimately doesn't matter what the rationalization for it was.

From I'm in Love with the Villainess volume 1


The Translator's Position

As concerning as this incident is, I want to emphasize that it does not necessarily reflect a broader trend of censorship within the light novel publishing sector. Seven Seas is primarily a manga publisher, and this case stood out because it's relatively rare these days for manga and light novels to get altered to such a degree. This is because the localization process among manga publishers tends to take the path of least resistance; despite the large number of books they publish, they tend to be small teams, so they'd rather not go through an extended back-and-forth for each title.

Seven Seas did not respond to my request for comment on this article, so I was not able to obtain a deeper understanding of how its editing pipeline works. However, based on my own translation experience and conversations with other professionals in the industry, the translator (almost always a contractor) does the heavy lifting of producing the English manuscript draft. Notably, they do not consult directly with the author or the original publisher. This is one of the reasons why translators in this sphere tend to play it safe. They won't make significant content changes because they have no direct line of communication with the creators, and as contractors they don't possess the authority anyway.

After the draft is handed to the editor, the amount of feedback the translators receive will vary depending on the publisher and the editor in charge of the title. In the case of Mushoku Tensei, the translators have stated that they were unaware of the controversial changes until after the fact. In other words, they weren't consulted during the editing process.

For what it's worth, I was completely blindsided by the changes to the MT LN. I knew about volume 2's issue and was under the impression it was a layout issue, not an editorial change. It seems that was not the case.

— Alyssa Niioka | 新岡ありさ (@henyome) February 19, 2021

FWIW I view it as my job as a translator to convey the author's intent as best I can, warts and all. But as freelancers and one person in a multi-step process we often don't have that much control over the end result.

— koestl (@koestl) February 17, 2021

Seven Seas novels differ from those of its competitors by crediting editors under the role of “Adaptation.” The people credited for this role tend to be published YA authors, and it appears that their role is to rewrite the text they receive from the translators into smoother, more colloquial English. Not all translators are good at fiction writing, which means that the quality of the prose in English light novels tends to vary significantly depending on the translator's ability. By bringing experienced authors on board, Seven Seas could maintain consistency in its releases.

The problem in this case was not the process in and of itself, but the lack of communication between the creators, the various people involved in the translating and editing process, and the audience. It is by no means inevitable that the involvement of an adaptation writer means that entire paragraphs will get cut. Nor is it necessarily a problem if things do get changed, as long as these changes are communicated to the licensor and the readers. For example, English light novel publisher Cross Infinite World has stated that it works directly with web novel authors to edit the prose and content in a way that both satisfies the authors and meets professional publishing standards. But the Seven Seas case was a perfect storm of bad PR and lack of transparency.

After the I'm in Love with the Villainess controversy, the publisher insisted that the process has been changed to ensure that similar problems won't show up in future publications. I have no reason to disbelieve this – it is relatively simple to caution editors against the removal or alteration of story content – but it does mean that a shadow of doubt remains across the novels published up to this point. Despite the fact that instances of omitted text have been discovered across other volumes of Classroom of the Elite and Mushoku Tensei, only the 7th volume of Classroom of the Elite and the first two volumes of Mushoku Tensei have gotten a reissue. Those volumes were not “one-off” problems, and it's important for consumers to be aware of that.

See here for a translation comparison of an excerpt from Mushoku Tensei volume 8.

From my own perspective as a translator, I have a strong distaste for the practice of altering content. It's a betrayal of the original creator to make changes without their knowledge and deliver a message that they did not intend. The fickle winds of capitalism can justify all kinds of content changes – including censorship – but in an ideal world without those considerations, translators would strive for faithfulness to the spirit of the original work above all else.

Incidents like these stand out to anime fans because of our evolving expectations for translations. Compared to other examples of book alterations, the Seven Seas case is relatively mild, but it received backlash because it's a betrayal of the audience's trust. Ultimately, I think it's a good thing that readers are speaking up against content changes, because it brings us closer to a market where fewer content changes are made on the reader's behalf.

If you are among those protesting content changes, I hope you can maintain respect for localization professionals. Don't harass them, and don't belittle the work involved in distributing a product to an international audience. You don't need to resort to childish behavior to make your displeasure noticed. Nevertheless, your voice is important, because at the end of the day the industry exists for consumers like you. Speak up, communicate with publishers and distributors, and don't be afraid to hold them accountable if you think they've made a mistake.

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