Clyde Mandelin, better known to the video game community as “Mato”, is the co-founder of Starmen.net and the man behind the Mother 3 Fan Translation. Clyde professionally translates Japanese anime into English, and has had plenty of experience working in the video game industry. He answered a few questions about his life, gaming, and translation as a career and hobby.
On your own past/how you entered the industry:
What drove you to become a game translator? Did any distinctly Japanese games inspire you to look into Japanese culture? Did any game’s translation inspire you, or helped you to realize that people actually translate games?
I’d been studying computer science in college, but after a few years I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was also studying Japanese at the time so I decided to spend a year studying in Japan. During my time there, I did some simple translation work and found that games were fun to translate. I remember very clearly when I decided, “THIS is what I want to do.”
I first started getting into the Japanese language around the time EarthBound had been released in America. It was also around this time that I learned that there were entire Final Fantasy games that were never released outside of Japan. The idea of playing these games someday helped drive me to keep learning the language, although they weren’t the main reason for studying it.
I was a HUGE fan of Final Fantasy II for the Super NES back in the early 90s. The text was a little weird and clearly not written by a native speaker, but that was considered normal back then. So when the sequel came out and its text WAS written by a native English speaker, I was in absolute awe. I think that helped me realize that video game writing could be artistic and full of life.
After college, I wanted to get into professional game translation but eventually found myself working mainly on films and anime instead, with some game work on the side.
On translating in general:
How many people are involved in the translation process? What role does everyone take? What are the big problems a team has to face when first starting out on a game?
In the professional world it’s very hard to say – all my professional game work has been through agencies, and they tend to compartmentalize everything. In general, translations done through agencies probably go through a different process than in-house translations. In that sense, I can’t say much about in-house translations; with agency translations you’re basically given the text to translate and hopefully some supporting materials to use as references – if you’re lucky.
What's an average day like when you're translating a game?
If you’re working through an agency as a freelance translator, you essentially just sit at your computer for most of the day, working through lots of different document files. I assume in-house translators or more top-tier agencies might allow the translators to play through the games as they translate. I’ve even heard of in-house translation teams that let translators edit text on the fly so they can see their changes on the screen as they work!
What are the most important things to consider when translating Japanese to English? Anything that an average gamer wouldn't think about? Any common missteps that a translator can make?
Probably the most important thing is that it’s important for a native speaker of the target language to work on the translation at some point. Even if it’s just the final editing phase, you need that native ability. This is why so many old games have such strange-sounding text in them – they didn’t have native speakers to fix things later on.
There are lots of mistakes a translator can make – everything from genuine mistranslations to accidentally leaving things out. It’s also easy to miss cultural references if you aren’t a native speaker of the source language. In these cases, supporting documents and reference materials made by the game’s creators are very handy to have.
How does a translator handle a joke/reference that would only be understood by the original culture?
There are probably three main options here:
1. Keep it in and do nothing about it
2. Write around it somehow
3. Try to replace it with a different joke or reference that WOULD be understood by the translation’s target audience.
Option #1 is common among fan translations and poor professional translations from years ago. Options #2 and #3 are usually the better way to go, with #3 being ideal if it’s possible. Sometimes it isn’t always possible to insert a completely new joke or reference into a game. Either way, you need to get those creative juices flowing whenever working with jokes and references.
On your own experiences with translating:
Having the experience you have, do you think you've got translating figured out? Or does the situation change every time you tackle a new game?
This is how I pretty much feel about both the Japanese language AND translating. It feels like no matter how much experience I gain, there’s always a big, new challenge that seems impossible at first, but once I get past it, it feels as if I’ve “leveled up”. But then there’s yet another big challenge to tackle, and the process repeats.
Every new project brings its own new challenges – one project might have a bunch of people talking in old, archaic Japanese that hasn’t been used for centuries, while the next project might be filled with Japanese pop culture references. There’s almost always something new in every project.
What's the most grueling part of translating? Any grisly stories to tell?
Deadlines can be tough – I was once asked to translate an entire Wii game that I’d never even played in just a day or two.
Sometimes there are companies that are very restrictive and want things worded in a certain way or done in a certain way. This can be pretty stressful, but it’s just part of the job.
It’s also not uncommon for companies to take a translator’s work and accidentally mess things up with it. Everything from accidentally introducing typos to “fixing” translations in ways that actually make them worse. That’s always painful to see or hear about.
Is there any difference between officially translating a game and fan-translating a game (other than a paycheck)? Does fan-translating require more hacking than the other?
The best thing about fan-translating is the freedom you have. No deadlines (unless you for some reason give yourself one), no red tape to go through… It can be very nice.
On the other hand, with official translation you sometimes have access to official documents and reference materials, and in some rare cases you can even communicate with the developers and creators. For a translator, that’s almost like finding the Holy Grail.
In terms of reprogramming, it depends mainly on the game involved and the team involved, regardless of whether it’s an official translation or a fan translation. From a purely translation standpoint, the translator doesn’t need to worry about these things – it’s up to the developers or the game hackers to deal with the technical issues involved with inserting the translated text into the game.
What's the worst translation you've ever seen in a video game? Do you have a favorite translation slip-up? ("You spoony bard!", etc.)
Off the top of my head, Breath of Fire II for the Super NES is probably the best worst-translated game I can think of. It was very clearly done by a non-native English speaker who probably had no experience working with games prior.
I think one of my favorite weird translations is “Welcome to die!” from the old X-Men arcade game. But there are so many other memorably bad translations out there that I can’t pick just one. I’m especially fond of Chaos Wars and its terrible dub localization.
Do you translate exclusively from Japanese to English? If you do translate text from English to Japanese, what are some factors of the English language that can get lost in translation?
I think the unwritten rule in translation is that, unless you’re truly gifted or something like that, you should only translate into your native language. You’re going to lose a LOT going the other direction – this is why so many game translations from the 80s and 90s were so strange.
Your Mother 3 translation was an immense undertaking. What kept you going month after month? What inspired you to translate the original Mother as well? Were the two experiences similar? How do you feel about Nintendo's EarthBound translation? Would you say you were trying to hold your Mother 3 translation to the same level of quality, or to surpass it?
I found that it was actually the development blog that kept me going while working on Mother 3. Knowing that there were thousands of people watching and waiting for regular progress updates pushed everyone on the team to keep working on the project, even during the especially difficult parts.
I worked on Mother 1 with a slightly different mindset – I was never really able to get into the first game or really appreciate it before, so I wanted the final product to be something that could fix that. There was already an official (albeit unofficially released) translation available, so the expectation of consistent progress wasn’t as high. This let me take a more relaxed attitude toward the project.
EarthBound’s localization was stunning for the time, it’s hard to even explain it in just a few words. I always wondered how Nintendo solved certain problems with EarthBound’s localization, and the Mother 3 project was the perfect opportunity for me to find out. My goal was to make the final product as good as EarthBound’s localization or better.
On many technical levels we surpassed what Nintendo did with EarthBound. In terms of the translated text itself, there are some things I know we did that would’ve surpassed an official translation (such as recognizing and keeping really, really obscure connections to the other games), but in other cases an official Nintendo translation would’ve done better. I think an official Nintendo localization would’ve had much smoother, polished text, for example.
On your side projects:
Your blog Earthbound Central dissects every different aspect of the game Earthbound. You've had this site up for years, and still post nonstop information about that game! Do you think that there's enough surrounding the MOTHER series that your work will never be done, so to speak?
I feel like most of the real “meat” of what’s to be found and discovered has already been gone through, but there’s certainly a lot more out there still. We still haven’t even started to delve into Mother 3’s data, for example. I KNOW there’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff in there. That said, I think I enjoy finding and sharing the really small things – it’s always been the small stuff that makes the Mother series shine!
Your Legends of Localization series is immensely detailed. Is the reason because you focus on the NES/SNES era because localization was still mainly unregulated? Is the industry a lot more regulated today, or are there still a lot of problems with translating games?
Haha, well the simple answer is that the older games are a lot shorter and a lot easier to dissect. But, yes, more modern games have much better localizations – I’d say that game companies started taking localization more seriously starting in the second half of the 1990s. I do intend to look at some more modern games at some point, though, if just to show how much things have improved since the old days.
Do you have any other big projects you're thinking about doing other than Legends of Localization? Any games you’d love to see translated, by yourself or others?
What I find is that if I find a Japanese game I like – almost any game at all – I get the urge to fan translate it for people. Then I realize these fan translation projects can span many years, and then have to accept that I don’t have the time for it. I’d actually love to start a small publishing company that localizes niche games like this, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin.
As far as other projects, I’d love to translate Retro Game Challenge 2, but it sounds like someone’s already working on that. I’ve also been toying with making simple, retro-style games lately too – sometimes it’s nice to be able to create entirely new things rather than translate already-existing things, you know?
On translations’ effect on the industry:
As the world becomes more and more connected, do you think we'll be seeing more and more games being released worldwide on the same date, or will countries always have to wait several months before a game makes it overseas?
I can certainly see this happening, especially as international markets become more and more important to game companies’ budgets. It might still be a while until this becomes more common, though.
The industry seems unsure of how to handle region-locking games. What's your take on the whole situation? Is it good business or just old-fashioned thinking? Will the video game industry lean more towards region-free gaming, or shut it down completely?
This is a very tough question, but ultimately I feel that it’s up to the companies to satisfy the consumers and not the other way around. Placing obstacles between your products and your audience seems pretty silly, whatever the reasoning. I think the final result far, far down the road is that region-free gaming will become more prevalent and that simultaneous releases will become more common.
We'd like to thank Clyde for his time. You can check out his main blog at matotree.com.