For all of the games – including its own sequels – that have come since, the opening moments of 1998’s Metal Gear Solid still loom large. After years of terrible pre-recorded ‘interactive movies’, here, at last, was a game that understood that having live actors on screen wasn’t the key ingredient in giving something a cinematic edge. Metal Gear Solid, if nothing else, understood how to create mood, even if the camera was panning around low-polygon character models. It aimed to feel like a movie, not look like one.
It focused on the small flourishes that mattered: moody music, precise camera angles. As players guided Snake around the frigid location, actor and staff credits played. And then, notably, just after the scripting credits: Translated by Jeremy Blaustein.
It must be a cool feeling, to see your name in one of gaming’s iconic scenes.
“It is,” Jeremy tells me from across an aggressively nondescript table, his hands nursing a bottle of tea that he would not recommend to anyone. “That was pretty sweet.”
His name has the honour of being one of those during this sequence that stands alone. All of the translation work for Metal Gear Solid was done by him, and to this day, despite the behemoth that the gaming industry had ballooned into, Jeremy still sees this as the ideal approach.
“I’ve found that it’s much better to just have one person handle the translation,” he says, quite matter-of-factly. “If one person is doing it, they’re able to… put their fingerprint on it, in the same way a writer or novelist might on their work.”
Things have changed quite a bit from when Jeremy was younger; from when his New York Knicks baseball cap was the source of less emotional pain. It was 1993 when he first got started… give or take. “I could probably push it back a little more,” he says, before deciding to keep things simple. “But let’s just say 1993.”
Now, almost 30 years later, as games have continued to grow, localisation has likewise become a larger undertaking. We are joined at our table by Sam Burton, the global head of localisation at Dragonbaby, a Tokyo-based localisation company that Jeremy founded a couple of years ago. “Usually, these days, we have a lot of people on these kinds of large projects, especially because if you only have one single person handling hundreds of thousands of words, it’s just going to take so long,” he says.
“The reason we have such large teams is because of the development schedule,” Jeremy adds. “It isn’t really because the result that is yielded with four people is necessarily better than one.”
As Dragonbaby still being in its infancy, Sam and Jeremy aren’t yet able to talk about any larger projects they’re working on. Their teams have still straddled some interesting titles, however, including games such as World’s End Club for Kotaro Uchikoshi and Kazutaka Kodaka – of Zero Escape and Danganronpa fame, respectively. Then there’s Needy Streamer Overload: a game about a Japanese VTuber which they helped translate not just into English, but into Chinese and Korean as well.
While Sam notes that it was an honour to work with “such renowned Japanese talent” for World’s End Club, it is Needy Streamer Overload that may be the more enlightening of Dragonbaby’s output to date. Its focus on location-specific VTubing meant that, according to Jeremy, “it was an incredibly difficult game to localise because it’s so culturally bound.” The key, was to “allow linguists to flourish, creatively.”
Excuse Me. Who are You?
The work and creative freedom required to do proper justice to such a game serves as a handy reminder as to why rushed or, worse, automated translation processes can lose so much of the original intent.
An easy, recent example in popular culture is the English subtitle track for Korean mega-hit Squid Game, for which Netflix came under fire when it became apparent just how poor a translation it really was. As word got around, it became increasingly obvious that not only was the English version sprinkled with errors like hundreds and thousands on a plate of fairy bread, but that the scripting also seemed to lack cultural understanding. The result was a heavily compromised experience for anyone who wasn’t a Korean speaker. Or, as Jeremy quite succinctly puts it, “if you race to the bottom, you get bottom stuff.”
There are other significant concerns within the world of localisation, too. “People trade off the fact that there’s passion and love involved in games,” Jeremy says. “The less scrupulous, more morally-challenged people will use that and go ‘oh, you love games? How about you translate this for half-a-cent per word?’. And it works.”
“Just because you love something doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to get paid for it,” Sam adds. “We all live in this world, we all need to, say, buy things. Especially now, as things are getting more and more expensive; you can’t go to a shop and pick up a loaf of bread in exchange for the love of gaming.”
It’s a familiar tale: fresh-faced, excitable youth having their passion exploited by work that offers to reward labour with the pervasive fairy-dust known as ‘exposure’. “People joke about getting paid in exposure,” Sam says. “But with problems even just getting included in the credits, some people don’t even get that in a lot of places.”
Very few people actually sit through a full credit roll, but inclusion there can provide a sense of validation for those who are involved, to say nothing of helping flesh out a CV. “At the moment, it’s kind of about visibility, and demanding that you should have what you believe you should have, and that’s why the hashtag Translators in the Credits is important,” he continues. “It allows others outside the industry to see that linguists struggle with being uncredited. There has actually been change, and I think that over the last year things have definitely gotten better, especially through Twitter. There’s even an account that posts about games that don’t include translation staff in the credits, so that people can be aware that the team is not there.”
“It doesn’t cost anything to put the translators in the credits,” Jeremy adds, but at the same time, there’s more going on here. “One of the biggest problems with the people being denied their names in the credits,” he continues, “often isn’t actually the game companies or the development studios, but rather the huge translation companies trying to hide their freelance resources, not only by not letting them put their names on the games, but also by using NDAs that basically forbid linguists from publicly mentioning their participation in a title even decades after the game is released.”
Being very much in the thick of it, it’s of little surprise that Dragonbaby has aspirations of doing better by the people it works with, from promoting a crunch-free culture that facilitates the living of actual lives, to making sure that somebody else might get to experience the feeling that Jeremy likely did when first playing Metal Gear Solid in English. “Getting the people who actually sit down and create the product able to see their names in the credits is something that I care about a lot,” Sam says. “That’s one of the things that we do. At Dragonbaby, we credit everybody, because we don’t feel like we need to hide our team behind anything.”
Aside from the basic fact that denying credit keeps active linguists from being able to properly develop their portfolios, lack of recognition further dehumanises the localisation process and promotes a sense of consequence-free interchangeability. “By not showcasing individuality, it implies that all translators will give you essentially the same thing,” Jeremy says, boring further into the crux of the issue. “But that’s really not the case.”
“What we’re advocating for is simply some recognition of the fact that translation is not a process that can be mechanically replicated,” Jeremy says. “It’s not a very controversial statement to simply say that there’s creativity involved. We’re not saying that we’re the creators. But we are, in a very real sense, a kind of co-creator in our own language, at least.”
Good localisation takes time, talent and at least a degree of trust and creative freedom. Having already made it quite clear that there is no singular, correct way to localise something, Jeremy is keen to point out that letting people take risks can reap rewards. “To be creative, sometimes you need to do that,” he says. “I think one of the biggest obstacles that you find in good writing – and when I say this, I’m not talking about translation; I’m talking about writing, fundamentally, and the biggest misconception that exists today is that translation is kind of a mechanical process. It’s a creative process where you need to understand – to capture something in the origin’s language – and understand it.”
To be fair, at least some things have improved since 1993, when Jeremy was still a fledgling, forced to beat his own path in a kind of Wild West. “I’m self-trained because there was nothing at the time,” he says, and then gestures towards his colleague. “But then you take someone like Sam, who’s much younger than I am, and he’s just so incredibly well-trained and professional. It’s like I can kind of patch up a car with gum and some packing tape… but Sam’s an actual mechanic.”
It also helps that, while the level of involvement in a project changes on a case-by-case basis, translators can at least hope for some degree of access to the actual developers. “It’s very much the case that, in the old days, the Japanese team would finish up the game and then you’d just receive a text dump and then be left to your own devices,” Jeremy reveals. “But now, localisation, I think, is more widely-recognised as being an important process. And the professionalism that young translators have now with regards to their skill in using tools and their understanding of the process is way better than it used to be.”
And this, perhaps, is why we didn’t have to worry about the remake of Final Fantasy 7 telling us to do the exact wrong thing during a boss fight. It’s also worth noting that, while there are some nightmare scenarios out there, there are also places that understand and respect this work. Dragonbaby’s efforts on Needy Streamer Overload garnered considerable praise not just from English speakers, but also in the Chinese and Korean markets, and the teams were able to hit the standard that they did because they were working with people who understood that the localisations would be better if the actual localisers could be involved.
“Credit also goes to the people in the chain who actually understood the importance of localisation and gave us the opportunity to freely communicate with the developers,” Jeremy says, as we start to wrap up. “In fact, the game’s publisher, WSS Playground, requested that we do so. We jumped at the chance. We go above and beyond to give the best localisation we can, and all we need are partners that understand this working with us. It’s not rocket science.”
Tim Henderson is an Australian games journalist who is based in Osaka and can, thereby, attest that properly understanding Japanese is very hard. Being a white thirty-something male, he of course also semi-regularly hosts a podcast about videogames.