What Makes a Good Japanese Translator? Japanese translation advice from the guy who worked on Vagrant Story, Phoenix Wright, and multiple Final Fantasies.

    Translation is a tough job, no matter how you slice it. Slogging through mountains of Japanese and turning it into English is no picnic. But hard work is just the beginning. How does someone get good (or even great) at translation?

    To answer that, we talked with a great translator, Alex O. Smith. He's the guy who translated a ton of your favorite video games like: Vagrant Story, Phoenix Wright, and multiple Final Fantasies.

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    With 20+ years of translation under his belt, Alex knows a thing or two about how to do it right (and wrong). If you're thinking about becoming a translator in the future, especially a translator of story-driven media like video games, listen to this interview and drink large from the wisdom goblet of Alex Smith. By the end, you'll have a much better idea of how to become the translator you want to be. Hint: it takes more than just Japanese fluency.

    Video Game Translation in the 90s

    Up until that point, [translation] had just been one aspect of IT. So not just administratively, but also, I think conceptually, localization was really a black box to the Japanese parent company. And by black box, I mean some system whereby they take text that's in Japanese and they plug it into the black box, and then it spits out in English. And they don't know what goes on inside the box, and they don't really care.

    Start listening at 00:34

    Alex studied Japanese in high school and college. After years in academia, he started translating, which led him to a job at Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) in California.

    By his own admission, it was "easier" to get a job in video game translation back when he did. "We were only a couple of years out of Zero Wing territory at that point," said Alex. The infamous "All Your Base" Zero Wing came out in 1992 so we're talking late 90s when Alex started his work on Final Fantasy VIII.

    The previous game in the series, Final Fantasy VII, was an unexpected hit internationally, so Squaresoft decided to give more attention to their games' translations into other languages. Alex was part of this push for better "localization," which is the larger process of adapting a product to a specific local market.

    In the interview, Alex told us that when he started at Square, localization was just part of IT and the only expectation was to turn the Japanese into English (Alex called this the "black box" approach). Square Japan didn't care how it happened, as long as it happened.

    That said, it was a slow transition. In the interview, Alex told us that when he started at Square, localization was just part of IT and the only expectation was to turn the Japanese into English (Alex called this the "black box" approach). Square Japan didn't care how it happened, as long as it happened.

    It would be four more years until Square had a proper localization department.

    Though no longer the standard at big game companies like Square-Enix and Nintendo, many small to mid-size companies still take this "black box" approach to translation.

    According to Alex, companies still do this because of cost and schedule. Though both are important, it keeps translators from using creative freedom to make the translation better. As Alex said, "You may not feel like you have the right to change things, even though things need to be changed."

    This is great information for aspiring translators. Before you get to work at a larger game company, you'll likely work at a smaller one. And that smaller company may put you in a black box. It's good to know there are better situations out there if the black box isn't where you want to be.

    Localization Team Roles

    video game translator at a localization meeting

    It's a real collaborative process. And I think in localization departments you get that happening on a slightly larger scale with three or four people involved in localization. You'll usually have one lead translator, so everyone knows where the buck stops. But beyond that, there's a lot of sharing of responsibility and back and forth. So lots of different roles to do.

    Start listening at 09:20

    Here we got to pull back the curtain and see the roles people take on in a typical localization team. Alex broke it down like this:

    • Lead Translator
    • Localization Specialists/Translators
    • Project Coordinators
    • Quality Assurance (QA)

    In a localization department at a big company like Square-Enix, there's a lead translator so everyone knows who makes final decisions. But among the team of three or four translators, there's constant communication and cross-checking.

    Quality Assurance (QA) on the translation is done once the localization team has more or less finished their work. It's like one last check before the translations are finalized. But Alex told us recently QA is done in conjunction with the localization team, especially for things like mobile games that have constant updates.

    In Alex's current situation, he runs his own localization company, Kajiya Productions, with a colleague he met at Square, Joe Reeder. As partners, they get to divvy up projects and choose how to tackle them. Alex is faster with things like dialogue, while Joe (a former accountant) is faster with things like menu items. So they each do a first pass on their given tasks, then pass their finished work to the other person for a cross-check. They leave comments and have long discussions; a collaborative process you should strive for in your own translation career.

    The important takeaway here is that you don't have to be great at every part of the translation process. You can be amazing at dialogue and just okay at menu items, and still do well as a translator. Everyone is going to have strengths and weaknesses. What's important is that you convey those to your team, so that you're being used to the best of your abilities.

    Taking Creative Liberties as a Translator

    Actually a lot of the dirty secrets of game localization, is that sometimes you're translating things—or many times you're translating things that aren't very well-written in the original, or aren't very well-told as a story. And so a big burden of the job becomes, "Gee, what do I try to fix? What do I try to make work better narratively?" And that can actually detract a lot from the final translation, because you just spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to say things better.

    Start listening at 12:02

    From here, Alex started to really tell us what it takes to become a great translator, beyond just knowing Japanese well. It may surprise you to hear that great translation usually comes down to one thing: writing ability.

    Every kind of writing, whether for games, television, or books, has something it's going for: a specific style and voice. For example, if you're translating a biology textbook, it shouldn't read like a fantasy novel.

    This is where the translator goes beyond literally translating words and starts translating feelings, ideas, and atmosphere.

    And when it comes to games, you have to be able to write consistently for all kinds of things: dialogue, menus, road signs, everything.

    Who can do this kind of translating? Alex gave us some specific criteria:

    You really want somebody who could write those menu items in English originally. Who could design a game, and write the menus, and make a good UI, and understand how text messages need to get across certain information fast and dirty? What needs to be immediately obvious? Where is a good place to throw in a little flavor? And where you should just be as terse as possible? That sort of awareness of the genre is really, really important.

    The executive decisions you have to make get even more nuanced when you consider the differences between in-game worlds. Alex gave us two specific examples of games he translated: Final Fantasy XII and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

    It may surprise you to hear that great translation comes down to one thing: writing ability.

    With Final Fantasy, the 3D environment clearly portrays character lip movements. So English translations have to roughly match the mouth animations. Also, the setting is medieval fantasy, so there's a certain way people speak that has to be infused into the dialogue. That's a lot of constraints for one game.

    Then take Ace Attorney, which doesn't have any of those Final Fantasy problems to worry about. It's a modern setting and there are no lip movements to match. But! There are a lot of jokes and puns. You have to understand humor in both cultures in order to understand the jokes in Japanese and write something just as funny in English.

    Not every joke or pun or reference will translate well into another language. This means it's the localization team's job to determine what fits, what doesn't, and what has an English equivalent.

    Bottom line: a lot of translation is deciding what to keep and what to change. That's a lot of creative choice to place on one team (or one person).

    What Makes a Bad Translation?

    If they're going to dump [the project] in my lap and … let me have my way with it. That's certainly, at this point in my career, I'm very happy to do that because it's efficient. That would be terrifying and a disaster if it was somebody new in the industry, because … you do have to wear lots of different hats, and oftentimes you have to wear them all at the same time. And if you hadn't done [translation] several times before, I think that could be really daunting and probably disastrous.

    Start listening at 19:04

    Boring translations often come from a good writer who didn't have freedom to make creative decisions on the project.

    After talking a little about what makes a good translation, Alex told us the flip side; what makes a translation bad and how to fix it.

    It's easy to point out explicitly wrong translations like, "All your base are belong to us." But in Alex's opinion, it's harder to find and fix the literal, mediocre translations. They're technically correct, but not really engaging.

    What causes these kinds of "blah" translations? Sometimes it's just because the translator is a bad writer. But according to Alex, boring translations often come from a good writer who didn't have the freedom to make creative decisions on the project. Sometimes this is because of the political relationship between the translator and the dev team, or because the company doesn't see creativity as part of the "black box" of translation.

    Writing Skills are Translation Skills

    japanese translator writing at a laptop

    It can be hard. And there's a lot of people, honestly—not to impugn anyone out there—but there are a lot of people that are not great writers who translate. And I think it shows, and a lot of them will move on to different things or different fields of translation. Because just because someone is a good writer in a particular genre, it doesn't mean that they're going to knock it out of the park in another genre.

    Start listening at 22:48

    How do you prove your writing skills to a hiring manager? Alex's advice: start writing and put it online. It doesn't matter what it is, just do it.

    Translation is a technical skill, but translation for games also requires strong writing ability.

    When Alex worked at Square and was part of the interview team hiring new translators, he would ask one question that would determine the candidate's level of success at the company: "Say we put you in a room and we said, 'We'd like you to write a novel.' What kind of novel would you write?"

    If a candidate had a good reaction, showed excitement, and gave a solid answer, he knew they would be able to write the kind of content needed for the job. Candidates who couldn't answer were simply not prepared, or maybe not aware, of the work that the job would require: the ability to write, and write well.

    If you don't have the skills to write a novel, there's good news: there are other places you can use your Japanese skills. There's technical translation. Alex also mentioned getting into the business side of translation. So just because someone isn't great at game localization doesn't mean they can't use their translation skills.

    But what if you are a good writer? How do you prove your writing skills to a hiring manager?

    Alex's advice: start writing and put it online. It doesn't matter what it is, just do it.

    When Alex is hiring someone for a translation project, he looks at their Japanese credentials (a degree in Japanese or something similar), then he looks to see if they have any writing samples.

    If you say, "Hey, I haven't published anything, but I've been writing fan fiction on this blog for the last three years. Here's a link." And I go and I look at it and it's well-written, you're fine. That's like you've already passed that test.

    Fan fiction, or any other kind of writing, shows the hiring manager a few things:

    1. You know how to write: assuming it's good quality writing, they'll know you'll be able to translate.
    2. You're proactive: a good skill no matter what the job is.
    3. You're confident: in Alex's own words, "If you don't feel confident writing fan fiction, you probably shouldn't be applying for a translation job."

    Formal Education and Training for Translation?

    That's definitely been my experience … that most people in the industry didn't go through a specific translation course. And I think part of that is just because there weren't that many translation courses offered, and there wasn't maybe that much interest in it.

    Start listening at 34:00

    There are a few questions that aspiring translators ask (and we get these in the Tofugu email inbox often). Questions like:

    • What translation school can I go to?
    • What do I major in to become a translator?

    And there's no clear answer we can give. As both Kristen and Alex attest from their experiences, you don't get into translation by getting a degree. You get into it by learning Japanese and doing whatever you can to get that first job.

    Working in the video game industry, you get little feedback besides "you screwed up." So learning translation and getting constructive feedback is very valuable.

    There are a few (very few) translation courses, and one is at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Alex met the head of that course and asked him, "Why should anyone attend a translation school?" Alex didn't know any professional translators who had studied translation formally, so this is a valid question.

    The professor had a great answer: feedback.

    Working in the industry (any industry, really) you get little feedback besides "you screwed up." So learning translation and getting constructive feedback is very valuable.

    If you're interested in these translation courses, you can learn more at the University of Hawaii's website.

    The Invisible Presence

    the terminator sinking into lava

    It can't be the original Japanese, because it's in Japanese. Which not to be totally obvious about it, but there's a difference between translating from Japanese or Chinese or Korean into English, and translating from German into English, or French into English. And it's a difference of degrees, but what passes for literary style or dialogue in Japanese is very different than the standards in English. And so in order to make something that is equally as successful in English as it was in Japanese, you're going to have to change a lot of it, just by necessity.

    Start listening at 38:14

    There's this myth that the translator is an "invisible presence," something that does work you can't recognize because it's so "delicate."

    But is this even possible when you're translating something from Japanese to a very different language like English?

    The answer, Alex told us, is absolutely not.

    To make something as successful in English as it was in Japanese, you'll have to change a lot of it. And to do that, you need a literary voice. And not just one. Translators are almost like chameleons—able to change their literary voice depending on the project.

    So to be a translator, not only do you have to be a great writer, but you've got to be a distinct and flexible writer.

    Translators are almost like chameleons, able to change their literary voice depending on the project. So to be a translator, not only do you have to be a great writer, but you've got to be a distinct and flexible writer.

    And those strong, flexible, and distinct writing skills will be put to the test when you're given something to translate that, frankly, is not well-written.

    Alex gave us this example: Japanese dramatic dialogue often has a character spout someone's name in place of anything that creates real drama.

    I'm sure you've seen this in anime and games before. At a dramatic moment, the hero says, "Mother…" or "Satoshi…" or whatever.

    You don't see this in great stories, like one of Alex's favorite movies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When the Terminator is (spoiler alert) about to destroy himself for the good of humanity, it would be terrible if John Connor just said, "Terminator…"

    Because that doesn't mean anything.

    Instead, John says, "I order you not to go," calling back to an earlier point in the film when John first learned he could control his robot. This line reminds the audience about the beginning of their relationship.

    If you're translating great writing like this, then you're in good shape. But if you've got characters saying things like, 母さん… over and over, then you have an extra burden on your shoulders and your writing skills will be put to the test.

    Video Games You Should Play to Test Your Japanese

    Boy, it's so much easier these days to get access to material. I read a lot of manga, which was really the best place to see dialogue written down. And it's still a good resource, I think. But now that there's YouTube clips of everything, and Netflix has Japanese shows with Japanese subtitles…

    Start listening at 47:02

    Before we finished the podcast, we asked Alex what games he recommends for practicing Japanese.

    His main recommendation: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. As Alex mentioned throughout the interview, this game has excellent writing, not to mention hilarious jokes that only work in Japanese. So playing through Ace Attorney will not only test your reading comprehension, but your culture and humor knowledge as well.

    You can grab the trilogy on Nintendo 3DS or iOS, which has Japanese/English language options you can change at will!

    Kristen jumped in and suggested the Animal Crossing series for its puns and easy-to-understand language. She also mentioned the Netflix series Terrace House (which is not a game, but still good for listening comprehension).

    The Wrap-up

    Overall Alex gives aspiring translators a ton of great advice in this episode. If you listen to the interview from start to finish, you'll get a lot more wisdom morsels that will propel you further on your quest to become a professional translator.

    To hear the full interview and get more advice on how to become an excellent translator, listen to the full episode here: