Behind the Looking Glass: An Interview with a Localisation Legend

‘All your base are belong to us’ – many of you may remember these timeless words embedded in the classic Sega Mega Drive title Zero Wing. I doubt many would call this a shining example of localisation in Japanese media, but it demonstrates quite plainly the concessions translators have to make to fit the much longer English phrases into the confines of space reserved for text in Japanese Video Games.

Transation and localisation is a booming industry with Anime and Japanese Video Games remaining increasingly popular as the years go by. We’ve interviewed one of the key participants in this industry, that’s translated both Anime and Video games, both officially and unofficially and worked on some of the most popular shows licensed in the west – Clyde Mandelin.

I know Clyde, or Tomato as he’s known by online, from his work on the unofficial translation of Mother 3 – a Gameboy Advance sequel to the Japanese RPG EarthBound, which gained a huge cult following following its limited release in the US. Due to the lack of official interest by Nintendo in bringing any future games in this series to the West, Clyde along with a handful of other people set about to translate this title themselves, and they succeded. The resulting translation was extremely professional, and had a charm and quirkiness that perfectly complemented its predeccessor – EarthBound.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in Hawaii when I was very little, and although I don’t remember it, it apparently sparked an interest in all sorts of Asian things when I was growing up. At some point in high school I decided, almost on a lark, to start studying Japanese. Eventually, I was able to put what I learned to use translating things like video games, anime, movies, and more for a living!

What made you want to get into the translation business?

When I was in college, I was like a lot of other students my age – I didn’t REALLY know what I wanted to do with my life; I was just sort of “coasting”. I was lost for a while, but one day while I was in Japan, I decided to help some folks with an unofficial game translation. I found it so challenging and fun that I almost immediately decided, “THIS is what I’m going to do!”

After that, I had a goal in mind – to translate video games for a living! Having an actual goal was so liberating, and I was able to focus all my efforts on it.

As fate would have it though, I had a hard time finding video game translation work immediately after graduating – it was the age-old problem of “no one will hire me because I don’t have real-world experience, but how am I supposed to get experience if no one will hire me?”

So, instead of games, I somehow wound up translating Japanese anime and films for a living instead!

What’s been your favorite title to work on?

I’ve worked on so many projects that it’s almost impossible to choose a favorite one. As of this very moment, I think I’d say either Steins;Gate or Summer Wars. I absolutely LOVE time travel sci-fi, and Steins;Gate is right up there with some of the best time travel stuff ever. Summer Wars’ unusual balance of virtual life on the Internet and down-to-earth real life in Japan really struck a chord with me too.

What’s it like working for Funimation?

I basically work from home, so there isn’t much to say. I wake up, eat breakfast, exercise, and all that good stuff. Then I spend the day translating and timing whatever I happen to be working on the time, usually an individual episode of an anime. I’ll also talk with people at the office whenever necessary. And then that’s pretty much it.

It doesn’t sound like anything special, but when I stop to think that I’m basically translating movies and cartoons and comics, I’m actually like, “Whoa, this is basically kid me’s dream job!” Or probably any kid’s dream job, at that!

You’ve also had experience translating games both officially and unofficially. How does this compare to working on anime?

I haven’t translated too many games professionally; the ones I did were mostly just small side pro-jects to test the waters. In my own experience, I’ve actually found translating anime to be more re-warding than games. With anime, you actually get to see what I’m working on, but with games, you basically just translate from a lifeless, never-ending Excel spreadsheet without any context and without any access to the game, the cut scenes, or anything else.

Anime also has a much quicker turnaround time, which feels more rewarding. In some cases, things I translate get released online the same day, and the DVD/Blu-ray versions can come out just a few months later. This quicker pace also means I can experience and enjoy many more pro-jects and genres in a shorter amount of time.

My professional game translation work was almost always done through an agency or through several layers of go-betweens, which can be frustrating as a translator. My anime work is pretty much the exact opposite, to the point that I almost couldn’t ask for more.

As for unofficial game translation, a big perk of unofficial projects is that I don’t need to worry about deadlines or bureaucracy. That sense of freedom takes a lot of the stress away. Of course, there’s the fact that it’s not an official translation and that there’s no pay involved, so it has its cons too.

How far do you usually go when translating scripts? Do you localize them or just do a literal translation into English?

My anime translations get used for the DVD/Blu-ray/online subtitle tracks AND as the basis for the dub scripts. Basically, the dub writers take my work and adapt the text in their own way, some writ-ers more than others. This dual purpose of my translations means that I tend to stay pretty close to the Japanese text, adapting phrases and references when necessary. But for the most part I stick to the original text and let it speak for itself.

There’s been a lot of reports recently of translators being required to use translation memory tools like Trados. Have you ever been asked to do this? What’s your opinion on them?

I’ve actually never needed to use translation memory tools; the only time it ever came up was when I was applying to an agency some years back. I asked them if I really needed to know how to use Trados or whatever else was big at the time, and they said something like, “Oh, oops, that transla-tion tool requirement is for other languages; we don’t use it for our Japanese stuff.”

In my particular line of work, if there’s any written material, it’s almost always handwritten anyway, so there’d be no easy way to automate it without adding in an extra transcription step, which would possibly defeat the purpose of automation.

I’m sure translation memory tools are really helpful for some lines of Japanese translation work, but I don’t really know anyone personally who uses them.

What was it like living in Japan for a year? Was Japan what you thought it would be? Would you ever go back?

I’d absolutely love to go back. In a way, I almost feel like a fraud, knowing Japanese and listening to Japanese and translating Japanese every day, but not actually being there to soak in all the new stuff as it happens, you know?

As for what I thought Japan would be like, I can’t really remember what I was expecting – at the time I just knew I needed to go there and study the language more. I do recall being surprised by the contrast between the gray, dingy, wire-filled, cement-filled cities and the vibrant colors of nature outside of the cities.

What’s your favorite thing about Japan?

It sounds super-clich√©, but two things: the people and the food. I really like the positive, upbeat, “let’s do this together” attitude that abounds in Japanese society. And I really like Japanese food. Well, not all of it, I’m not much of a natto guy even after all these years. But many of my fondest memories from Japan involve food in some way!

Check out Clyde Mandelin on his website – Legends of Localization, and on Twitter at@ClydeMandelin.