This is surely going to be tl;dr for most people. If you never plan to be involved in and have no interest in the workings of a translation group, skip it.
This isn’t about you. You are a small part of a much greater problem. You are a product of the community, so while I may not respect that, I really don’t put the blame on any individual. But if you think a particular comment is directed at you, it probably is. If you recognize that you’re part of the problem, you can join me in searching for the solution. I’m not posting this to tear you down. I wouldn’t waste my time like that. I want all of us to strive for a higher standard. I want all of us to be better. So before anyone jumps on me for what I’ve said here, I hope you’ll bear in mind that we all should be after the same thing.
People are probably wondering why I think I have any right to write this. I don’t, really. I’m still very new to the scene with only about five years under my belt. I started out at ROMhacking.net before creating my own blog. I certainly don’t consider myself to be some kind of source of emulation (no pun intended). Still, I’m not sure any translator has been as blessed as I have when it comes to partners. I’ve been spoiled rotten having worked with Gemini and now Kingcom. Both of them made life so easy on me as a translator. My only limit was my imagination. They really let me dream big with the projects I’ve worked on and I’m truly thankful for that. With such a high standard set by the hacking, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to provide a translation that could do it justice. I don’t know if I accomplished that goal, but I learned a lot from my experiences up until now to be sure. I just want to share some of that perspective today.
I really love romhacking and I really love the people I’ve met doing it. But lately, I’ve been a bit frustrated by what has become of the community. We live in a world where translators can’t translate, editors don’t know what real English sounds like, and programmers don’t know their hex from their Tales. And you know what? We’re all to blame for it. Translators, editors, programmers, and even fans have made this community what it is today. That’s why we’re the only ones who can fix it.
The same thing has happened in other communities. New technology has paved the way for more people than ever before to participate in subtitling anime, scanning manga, and patching games. What was once a closed community of elites who possessed the skill and knowledge to get things done has become a public effort. But we have to ask ourselves what we sacrificed in getting here.
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is excellence. Modern fans don’t just tolerate mediocrity, they demand it and laud it. It used to be that when we released a 1.0, it meant everything in the game was complete. Now when we release a 1.0, it means that we’ve released a 1.0. This feels more like the Tautology Club than the ROMhacking community. In this world, speed is king and quality often has to take a back seat. “I don’t care if it’s good as long as I have it now!” is the battle cry. Anime has speedsubs, manga has speedscans, and now games have these ridiculous patches thrown together with DSlazy and Google Translate. I’m not talking about people who work quickly and do good work, I’m talking about people who are willing to sacrifice quality for speed. Is that really the kind of legacy we want to leave behind?
As long as we hold ourselves to a lower standard, the community will never improve. To quote the great king Mufasa, we are more than what we have become. I always believed that more accessibility would open up the door for us to do more in the fan translation community. I refuse to believe that there’s less talent out there today than there once was, but by lowering the barrier to entry, we’ve effectively removed the test that ensured quality. Years ago, there weren’t many people who had the skills to hack the games, so it made sense that they wanted to pair up with proven translators. These days, there are exponentially more “hackers” who believe that premade programs and tools are the ultimate solution and possess little programming knowledge themselves. With easy access to so many games (particularly NDS games), they’ll take most any “translator” they can find. The quality of patches has significantly dropped. Often, patches are released long before they should be with many destined to die before reaching completion. And unfortunately, without discerning fans, there’s no separating the wheat from the chaff. What is the incentive for a team to go to great lengths to provide a quality translation when an average one will get them equal recognition? I’m reminded of the rather apt commercial:
You shouldn’t announce a translation project with the motivation of learning how to translate, hack, or program. Before I ever started translating for a real project, I worked on a text translation of Tales of Phantasia. It was awful! Thank goodness that text never made it into a game, but still, the things I learned from it were to my benefit when I started my first project. My point is that it’s very easy to gain experience without getting people’s hopes up with a formal announcement. By prematurely announcing a project, you’re only setting the stage for potential disappointment and frustration if you fail to see it through. It’s important to have the experience before you begin. You have to be sure that you’re capable of handling everything the game will require. Hacking is much more than just dumping and inserting text and graphics. If you rely too heavily on programs made by others, you have an uphill battle to fight. Most translations incorporate hundreds if not thousands of changes, most of which will go unnoticed by all but the most observant. Still, each and every one is an important part of making the final product feel as natural in the target language as it did in the original one. If you want a great translation, you have to make the game work your way, not the other way around. You can only accomplish so much if you restrict yourself to the limitations of the original game. That’s true in terms of both the text and the code. You have to have patience. Some things might take hours, days, or even weeks of work. You have to properly plan and execute them. It’s essential that you are able to organize and plan ahead if you want to succeed.
I want to help this community grow. Even now, I still believe in its potential. So I’m going to offer some unsolicited advice.
Let’s go through translation one step at a time. We’ve got some Japanese text. What should we be asking ourselves? I’ve boiled it down to four fundamental questions.
- What does it say?
- What is it trying to say?
- What would I say?
- What am I trying to say?
1) What does it say?
Do you understand what it says? Yes? Great! Go on to step 2. No? Okay, stop right there. Don’t put it into Google Translate. Don’t slap one word after another into a dictionary. Don’t guess. Don’t say you’re just using the project to “practice” or that “it doesn’t matter that I’m not fluent in Japanese” or “it’s better than nothing.” If you don’t know Japanese, it’s not time to translate yet. Go study up and come back when you’re confident in your skills. A good translator will always be able to find work online.
2) What is it trying to say?
This isn’t the same question as the first. We have to look at multiple things here – nuance, tone, and character personality just to name a few. Most translators won’t be surprised when I say that this question is far more important than the first. We’re not only trying to pick up on the subtle details of the text, we’re trying to understand their implications. Context, my friends, is king. If translation were a simple equation of X Japanese = Y English, we wouldn’t spend so much time laughing at Google Translate.
3) What would I say?
A great man once posed the question, “ENGLISH, MOTHERF*CKER: DO YOU SPEAK IT!?” My point is that too often, translators, even good ones, get stuck in Japanese mode and forget what real English sounds like. Don’t let it happen. Re-read your translation and ask yourself if you can imagine a real human being saying it out loud. If you can’t, it’s time to rethink that translation. This is where we separate the men from the boys, the would-be translations from the localizations. Have you ever seen a translation note slapped in an official localization? Games don’t get the privilege of writing off certain phrases or jokes as impossible to translate. We are here to entertain and we only get one shot at it. Don’t just translate jokes literally, make them work. If you can’t make them work, you’re probably not cut out for translation. I don’t mean you need to make with the funny in the exact same spot as the original text, but if you’re not capturing the feel of it, you’re not localizing. Also, remember that you’re writing in English, not Japanese. If your translation mirrors the sentence order and punctuation of the Japanese text, you’re probably doing it wrong.
4) What am I trying to say?
This is the last question I ask and it’s probably the most important. Read your dialogue. Don’t look at the Japanese. At this point, it no longer matters what the Japanese said. It doesn’t matter if your translation was right, not that it shouldn’t be. We, as translators, have to release our death-grip on the Japanese text and learn to walk on our own. As of this moment, your translation is the gospel truth when it comes to this game. Does it read like a real conversation? Does it read like the conversation that you want it to? Say what you will about DeJap or Ted Woolsey, but there is a reason that they’re remembered. Their scripts might not have been the most accurate translations ever produced, but they were vibrant, living creations. We should all be so lucky to produce such memorable translations. But while we’re at it, why don’t we make them memorable for quality rather than quirks?
No doubt I am perfect and always produce a translation that would make even the original author weep at its beauty, right? Of course I don’t. I do the best I can, but there are times when I fall short. That’s the proof that I’m still learning. We can never stop learning as translators. I won’t lie to you – localization is not easy. But honestly, what do we have to lose by striving for excellence in everything we do?
Few things frustrate me more than seeing the term localization used by people who clearly aren’t localizing. It is an insult, quite frankly, to those of us who are striving for true localizations. I understand that new groups have a need to promote themselves, but I beg you not to do it at the expense of the community. I’m not trying to claim I have any rights to the phrase (certainly Cless of Phantasian Productions has been using it far longer than I have), I just ask that you respect it. Find a localization that inspires you. I’m talking about something that really makes you step back and appreciate what it did. I was talking to Tom (of Persona 2: Innocent Sin fame) about localization at one point. When it came to the topic of favorite localization, we both named the same game – Odin Sphere. That localization left me in awe and changed the way that I looked at my job as a translator. It made me want to strive for more. At the same time, I suggest you find a translation that you want to surpass. It might be a game off the shelf or it might be an old translation of yours. Either way, set goals. Reach for the stars.
Most players will never understand everything that goes into a patch. And that’s fine. It’s really easy to make most people happy with a translation, but I encourage you not to settle for less than your very best. Create a great translation, not a good one. As impossible as it is, try to give players an experience that everyone can enjoy. Remember that at the end of the day, our job is to make a game fun in English (assuming you’re translating into English). A stupid line in Japanese doesn’t have to be stupid in English. A game-breaking bug in the Japanese version doesn’t have to stay game-breaking. There is no reason that we can’t improve upon the raw materials we’re working with. I’m not advocating making things up or altering the fundamental elements of the game, but don’t be afraid to bring the game to life. The truth is that we have the advantage over localization companies. We don’t have to worry about time or budget constraints. We don’t have to worry about any kind of censorship. Don’t just live up to the original text, surpass it! We truly have the freedom to produce anything that we dream of if we’re just willing to make the effort.
Anyone who has ever asked me about hacking knows that I don’t know the first thing about it. I’m certainly not any kind of authority, so I asked Kingcom to share his thoughts on the state of the community from his point of view. He laid out the following process when it comes to hacking:
1. Be able to program both in a high level language and assembly of the specific system. It is often a necessity and always to your benefit. The complexity varies from game to game, but there’s nothing as big a waste of time as inserting or dumping text manually, and formatting it on the fly can save a lot of time as well.
2. Take a look at the game. Do you like it? Well, be prepared to be sick of it before the project’s over. Analyze all of the data. Are there compressions? Reverse engineer the format. Text embedded into scripts? Reverse engineer the format. Any other obstacles, weird protection schemes, encryption, whatever? Reverse engineer. Create any programs that you need to handle the basics. There will certainly be more obstacles down the line, but you have to start somewhere. Are there any issues in the code? Is each text box limited to 3 lines of 16 characters? Reprogram it. Does it lack a VWF? Add one. Don’t rely on other people to do the work for you. It doesn’t help you learn and it leaves you at their mercy if any problems arise down the line and they aren’t there to help.
3. Once you have cleared any major hurdles, have dumped the text, and are really certain that you can pull it off, start thinking about getting other people involved. Take quality over quantity. A single qualified individual will produce a much better translation than a group of weeaboos. Multiple hackers are almost always a bigger burden than gain. As with translators, it is unlikely that multiple hackers would have the same level of skill and have the same vision of how things should be done. Coordinating a group becomes exponentially more difficult the more people are involved and creating a piecemeal patch can often be more work than creating one from scratch. One person should take the lead, preferably the main hacker. It’s very difficult to run a project when you aren’t contributing an equal share of the work. Unless you can play a role in directly shaping how the game will come together, it’s unlikely to turn out. In the end, someone barking orders will only slow a project down and make it more complicated and difficult than necessary.
4. When the translator is willing and able to translate the game (and, preferably, you are convinced that he is capable of the job), it’s time to start planning out the rest of the project. What does the translator need? Will the game need new control codes because the Japanese language often doesn’t differentiate genders or plurals? What are his preferences? Does he want to worship the holy Japanese script without changing a thing? Then better return to step 3. You have to trust each other and you have to work towards the same goal. You have to push each other as you both strive for excellence. The translator shouldn’t have to work around artificial borders just because the hacker doesn’t feel like redesigning the menus or rewriting part of the game.
5. Now… and only now might be a good point to start thinking about announcing it. Don’t announce it too early, unless you know what you are doing. Clear any major problems and have something to impress people. Be prepared that not everyone will like it. A big part of the job at this point is public relations. Don’t lose your temper. If every little comment online is going to bother you, you might want to rethink announcing the project. You could always release it when it’s complete to avoid having to deal with ongoing commentary.
6. Start the finer parts of hacking. Change menus when needed, fix any problems that the translated text will cause, and if the text doesn’t fit in the space provided, compress it. This step will likely go on until long after the translation is finished. You never know when problems might arise and you have to be ready to deal with them.
7. Stay in close contact to your translator and continue fixing problems. When everything is done, test it. Test, test, and test again. If you think everything is ready, test it again. A game can’t ever have enough testing.
Fans, the only thing I ask of you is that you demand more of fan translations. If the fan translations that you’re playing aren’t as good as what you’d find in a store, we have failed you. As long as you accept and praise mediocrity, we will never get any better. We are capable of producing work that is on par with official localizations and we have no excuse not to. The world isn’t going to change overnight, but it’s time for you to expect more.