Video game translation is its own game, an industry as self-contained and self-referential as the tiny universes they produce assembly-line style just like the old Hollywood Studios. And it’s a big business, bigger than Hollywood nowadays. When there’s lots of money at stake, time gets tight and passions rise just as high in production as they do for fans gripping their joysticks with white knuckles.
Whenever we work in the game space, our go-to guy is Jeremy Blaustein, one of the best known game localizers in the business. Since I noticed he was getting a lot of digital ink on the gaming blogs, I figured I should hop on the bandwagon and talk to him about his work. I video-Skyped him at his old farmhouse digs on a remote island in Japan’s Inland Sea, where Yoda-like he has retreated with his family from the hurly-burly Stateside, so that amidst the rustling bamboo and the gentle slap of waves on shore, he can concentrate his full attention on the translation of virtual mayhem.
Like all the translators I know, Jeremy needs more time. “The development schedule of a game is like two years, right? Let’s say it’s made in Japan, 130 million people. You spend two years making a game for the Japanese market version and some idiot decides that they need the thing done for the US in a month.
“You know, you’re talking about five, six times the potential of the original market and they’re spending five, six times less on localization. If you accept the purpose of localization is to make the product appear to be seamlessly created for that local market, it’s supposed to not appear to be translated.
“There’s 500,000 words and they want it done in a month, so, we’re gonna need 10 translators, or 20 translators. What the fuck do they think they’re gonna get?
“The translation is coming off the line and going straight to the studio. I’ve done enough games to know that what you wind up with is the safe translations. So you get these translations that are just boring at best. Because in order to make a character have a personality you have to use tricks like, a southern accent or a Brooklyn accent, and it’s gotta be put in there at the time of the translation or when it goes to the voice actors they’re not gonna know what they’re doing and the director doesn’t know what’s going on and you don’t have time to fix all this stuff. I mean, who’s the guy who says, ‘Wait a second, this is Joey. He’s gotta have a New York accent.’
“So, you know, it’s just madness to, to do it the way they do it, to not give it the proper time, because essentially ― especially from Japanese to English, you’re completely recreating ― you know, you’re not even translating it. You’re ― it’s almost a process of breaking it down and recreating it because you have to recreate it for the audience. It’s not just translation. It’s understanding what the experience meant to the original audience and then rebuilding that experience ― not translating those words, but making it into what the equivalent for that audience.”
Now I’ll bet Edith Grossman didn’t translate 940 pages of Don Quixote in four weeks (check out the NYT review of her book, “Why Translation Matters”), but game translators are required to do so regularly. Am I a Philistine to compare Cervantes to Metal Gear Solid? As both a gamer and a reader of Cervantes (in translation), the experiences are quite similar for me: the suspension disbelief, the suspension of time itself, as a skilled storyteller immerses his audience in his imagination, sweeping us along to share the passions of heroes ― the very same experience of our ancestors sitting in the firelight, hypnotized by the long cadences of blind Homer. The same old story, just a different channel.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my pal George Risner’s tank is idling just outside of Saint-Côme-du-Mont, and I want to make sure his flank is covered before we move out.
Thanks to Jeremy for some great insights into our craft and trade. More on his work at Game Set Watch.