It’s fair to say that a lot of the games we love wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t for this man. As you all know, a bad translation to English has ruined many an Asian game that reached our shores. On the eve of our Silent Hill 2 podcast we welcome key translator and retrogaming legend Jeremy Blaustein to Arcade Attack…
Jeremy, great to have you here at AA! How did you enter the video game industry?
I first started in the industry with the US division of a (now defunct) Japanese game company called “Jaleco” around 1990. I had studied Japanese in college and was hired by them as an associate producer. My time with them was very short though as a result of learning my first lesson in a Japanese company, namely “never argue with your boss!” I was fired after about three months for “insubordination” (lol) and didn’t work in the industry again until I went to work for Konami in Tokyo in 1993. But before I left, I got Jaleco to hire my twin brother Michael (more on that later!).
When did you first realise you wanted to become a games translator and was Japan always the country you wished to work in?
After two years at Konami, I had a child and decided to leave the company and return to America where I could spend more time with my family and new baby girl. Translation was what I chose since a) It allowed me to be make my own hours and b) I had done some translation and V.O. direction while at Konami so I felt experienced enough to make the leap.
How did the opportunity to work in Japan first come about?
Well, to continue the story of my twin brother Michael, in 1991-1992 I had returned to Japan and worked for one year as an English teacher. After one year doing that, I decided I wanted to go back to my real interest in video games. My brother Mike was working at Konami US in Chicago. He arranged for me to get an interview in Tokyo with a Konami Japan executive. I nailed the interview and was hired to work in the International Business Department in the Consumer Games Division.
How easy is it to translate a game from Japanese to English? I assume it is no way as easy as simple as just changing the words?
Ha. It is easy to do poorly and hard to do well! You’re quite right that it is not as simple as changing the words. The job of a translator is to create a version of the game in the new language. It has to be a translation of the original and it also has to be entertaining. Both tasks are challenging and often clash with each other. There is an old quote about translations that goes like this: “A translation is like a wife. If she is faithful, she is probably not beautiful and if she is beautiful, she is probably not faithful.” There is more than a little truth to that.
Can you run through a typical day’s work as a games translator?
Things have changed a lot with the internet. In the old days, the work was done laboriously using actual dictionaries, looking up difficult kanji (Chinese characters) in a physical kanji dictionary. These days, work is done usually in Excel or in a CAT (computer assisted translation) tool. This is both a blessing and a curse since it increases consistency, but also tends to reduce the originality and “quirkiness” of a translated text that can give it some flavour. Being on the internet means that translators can now just copy and paste unknown Japanese into a browser and do a quick search. Similarly, they can do some googling to find all sorts of necessary information such as world myths that may pop up in the game, weapon and armour types, etc. But in the old days I had to buy actual books on weapons, armour, myths, demon names, etc. For Metal Gear Solid for example, I had to purchase a number of military novels so that I could copy the type of speech used in the military, slang and such. These days, some googling would do the same thing.
You have helped bring so many classic games to the Western market. How does it feel that you have played such a huge part in the western gaming market?
It is a constant source of pride for me to have had a chance to do that. I don’t think it is possible now due to the changes in the industry. For example, there are so many translators these days and the time demands are so severe that it is very rare for a single translator to be responsible for a whole game. Furthermore, as a I said before, the very same CAT tools that improve consistency also tend to suck the flavour out of a translation because when multiple people work on a project using CAT tools they have to do much more direct translations; they have to be somewhat bland in their dialogue so that they don’t create inconsistencies in speech patterns; and they are overseen by editors who do not encourage “colouring outside the lines” so to speak. These days, translations are in effect “done by committee” and are often bland in my view. As in all creative work, a single fingerprint is a better way to get a good end product.
Do you feel a lot of pressure when translating a game and do you get any say on how certain sentences and words should be phrased?
Well yes, I do. Of course it is up to me to provide the translation I want, but for the reasons I gave above there is a lot of pressure to provide a translation that won’t create consistency issues. Also, editors do not always know or even want to know why you may have decided to (even slightly) alter a sentence to make it sound better or more interesting to your ear.
What was it like working at Konami?
Oddly, I was in a very formal business department handling things like shipping. I worked in a tie with a company pin – not the environment I imagined. I actually wanted to make games but for much of the time I did things like track shipments, present sales figures and the like. Of course I also had to communicate with US and Europe about issues ranging from ROM shipments to requested game changes. It was fun because my twin brother, Mike, worked at Konami Chicago and we would embed secret messages in the “daily faxes” (pre-internet!) that only we would understand – movie lines, inside jokes, etc. The best part of the job was getting increasingly called on by R&D to provide support for overseas versions of games (my translations, my opinions on what would be enjoyed by Westerners, etc.) But Konami was a very formal company with things such as daily morning stretching (“Asaren”), company vacations, etc. Proper business etiquette and behaviour was important. The only time you could really talk freely and openly was during a smoke break and I found out that that was where the real communication between departments was done (like in Friends? – Ed)!
You have worked for some of the biggest Japanese developers in the world. Where did you must enjoy working and which game gave you the most fulfilment?
Silent Hill 2 probably gave me my greatest feeling of enjoyment and accomplishment. Unlike other game projects, I was very much a member of the dev team and they asked my opinion about many things before the game even entered deep development. Also, in addition to the translation, I directed the voice over and motion capture production so it was a very big role for me. Other games that I really enjoyed and were deeply involved in include Metal Gear Solid, a game that took me six months to translate and which I sat in at the recording sessions for (giving a great deal of voice direction as an “uncredited assistant director”.) There was also Shadowhearts Covenant which I was very proud of – a game I also assisted in the direction of with the King of Anime, Richard Epcar (legend! – Ed).
Was it a difficult job to translate what were some pretty complex and dark ideas into English for the Silent Hill games?
The most difficult translations for the Silent Hill series were the poems and the riddles. For a translator, poems and game riddles are a real unique challenge as you might expect since you have to consider not just the meaning, but also things like rhyme, tempo, atmosphere – all the while having to “translate” the riddle so that it works in English too. But on Silent Hill, I was in direct contact with the dev team so any time I had questions, I was always able to hash them out directly.
Could you instantly tell while working on them what a huge impact Metal Gear Solid and the Silent Hill games would have on the gaming industry?
Hmmm… no. For Metal Gear Solid, Kojima was not yet known to Westerners and he was not really anything special in the industry. But when I first saw the game, I of course recognized how amazing it was. Also, I knew Kojima from Snatcher, my first localization project and I knew what he was capable of. Similarly, for Silent Hill 2, there wasn’t any reason to believe it would be a game that people would still be interested in nearly 20 years after its creation. By the time I got to SH3 though, it was becoming more clear that it was a very impactful game.
Hideo Kojima is rightly regarded as a gaming legend. Did you have the opportunity to work with him directly?
Well, I had met him when I was working at Konami a few times when he would come to the main office. I even submitted a game plan to him for a game I wanted to make (it didn’t happen). Before I left Konami, I worked on the English version of Snatcher but he was actually working in Kobe and he was completely uninvolved and really not yet very interested in the overseas market. When I worked on Metal Gear, I was not with Konami but was a freelance translator working in Massachusetts and I travelled to Japan to meet with him and briefly discuss the project (he was using Legos and a mini-camera to “imagine” how the game would look). Even at that time, though, many would be surprised to hear that he really didn’t much consider himself the impact the game would have overseas and he was personally not involved at all in the translation or even in the recording session because I think the idea of the overseas market was still not that important to him as it is now. Hard to believe, I’m sure, but true.
We are huge fans of Silent Hill on Arcade Attack, with the sequel being our personal favourite. Do you have a favourite game in the Silent Hill series?
Silent Hill 2 without a doubt. Best story in a video game ever.
Do you get the opportunity to play all the games you help translate for, and if so which video game is your personal favourite?
No, not all the games by a stretch! It is the exception rather than the rule. My personal favourite as a game is probably Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. For my kids, the answer would be Dark Cloud 2. They’ve put in probably four hundred hours playing it over and over again over the last 10 years.
Japanese game developers are regarded by many as the best in the business. Why do you think so many iconic and classic games are produced within this small country?
I think it works sort of like evolution. When you have a small, isolated area that is cut off from the rest of the world, you begin to develop unique characteristics. This is what makes Japan interesting. But on top of that, you also have a population that knows and understands each other very well, so they know how to “tweak” each other’s buttons. For a long time, and during the “Golden Years” of Japanese game development, they were thinking only of their own Japanese market and that allowed their quirkiness and uniqueness to come out. Think of a game like “Parodius” as just one of many examples. This was a group of Japanese developers making what amused them and that they knew would amuse other Japanese. When the West saw that, they fell in love with it for its “foreign-ness”. I think, sadly, Japan has become too self-conscious now and have pushed the “Japan Cool” thing beyond the breaking point. It has become too self-referential. The only way to really be cool, I think, is to be so while being unaware of being called “cool”. It’s a Catch-22.
If Konami makes a new Silent Hill game, which direction do you think they should take?
Horror and fear are products of the mind, not the result of graphics or “jump scares”. I would like to see a game where the player has to confront the prospect of their own body turning against you. For example, the horror of one’s body decaying, rotting, falling apart… Now that is horror. I think it would be psychologically effective.
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Mika Slayton because I always had a crush on her.