Hello, friends! I come to you today with a tale of professional video game translating gone oh, my God, what a fiasco. I cannot name names in this narrative, so the significance and timing of this tale will have to be divined by you. Why am I posting this? Why now? Mysteries for you to solve, dear reader. Consider it the interactive portion of the entertainment.
The saga begins with a game-translation company contacting me through my profile on a recruiting website, claiming they were looking to expand their translation teams for upcoming projects. They wanted a reduction in my standard rate, to which I agreed for the time being; they gave me a short sample from the game to translate as a test, which is standard practice in the industry, and professed to be pleased with the quality. I then did not hear anything from them about this project.
A month later, I was contacted again by the company to join a completely different project, a licensed game on which they said they were looking to replace a translator. The project manager asked me to start with a small batch of text. I agreed; I completed the small batch; I started watching the program on which the title was based so I could be familiar with the property. As with the first game, I subsequently never heard from them about the project. I figured that I just didn't meet their needs or something, though professional firms will usually provide notification to that effect. Given they had ghosted me twice now, I wrote them off as flakes.
Six months later, I was contacted about a third game, a hot upcoming title whose release date was, let us say, very imminent and on which they professed to need extra translators ASAP. Now, in recounting this, you, Normal, Reasonable Person, might ask: "Hey, friendo. These people have cut out on you twice. Perhaps the 'fool you once, shame on them; fool you twice, shame on you' rule should come into consideration here?". The answer here - and it's kind of hard to appreciate in an account where I'm pulling together all my interactions with them on one page for appraisal - is they were such a minor, occasional presence in my professional life (three interactions over six months) and that I wasn't counting on them for any income. I hadn't ponied up any big investment in these projects on which they pulled out, and the attempts to get me on board a project were so intermittent that anger just couldn't be sustained. They were just these oddballs in the background who kept flitting in and out of my inbox, offering bits of extra work and trying to line up things but ultimately backing out - they seemed to be very new and inexperienced in the translation space and came across as well-meaning but incompetent, not malicious.
Again, I submitted a batch of text - and the company actually responded and paid me this time, like a real company! Where the big-boy behavior ends, and serious problems begin, was when the head translator reviewing my work elected to provide feedback in the form of a comedy routine on a public reply-all email that evidently included the other people working on the project. Being generous where no generosity is due, he might have thought he was lessening the blow by trying to be funny. In practice, however - and, I believe, in intent, particularly given subsequent behavior - it was a very transparent attempt at hazing. Furthermore, the guy was having a fit exclusively over extremely minor punctuation stuff: he didn't like my use of em dashes*; he used a couple accidental lapses in conformance to the publisher's style guide (the style guide I was not intially provided; the style guide for which I had to ask explicitly) to claim I was disregarding it altogether, despite literally dozens of examples to the contrary; he complained I was using the wrong type of quotation marks (straight, not curly; yes, this is a thing), a preference of which I was never informed.
(*Incidentally: I know that my use of hyphens with spaces instead of em dashes here and elsewhere is incorrect. I use them in my casual writing as a substitute for em dashes because I don't feel like typing Alt+0151 constantly for a basic character. Please don't use a casual habit to start any "UM, ACTUALLY, YOU ARE BAD AT ENGLISH, AND THIS IS WHY" hyphen shit.)
Now, in translation, particularly when you're Replying All to your mutual supervisor, catastrophizing extremely minor garbage like this is usually a tactic to make someone appear incompetent and get them replaced in favor of someone else - typically a friend you'd like to have the job instead. (With real translation companies, if you're doing something that's a problem, they send you a one-on-one email saying, "hey, don't do this," upon which you subsequently Don't Do That.) How neatly this dovetails with the "hazing" theory is up for debate, but I'm absolutely not going to stand for the latter, and if you let the former go, it can lead to very bad problems in very short order. I sent out a Reply All of my own, calling out the editor on the apparent attempt to discredit me to the supervisor; noting that his response was completely disproportionate for what were extremely minor objections and that broadcasting it on a public channel was deeply unprofessional and nonstandard for industry; and stating that if this is how the company handled feedback and treated its translators, we didn't have a future together.
The response was mixed and confused. The supervisor, the guy who had headhunted me, initially claimed it unreasonable for me to find ill intent in the editor's message - no one who knew him, after all, could ever believe that to be the case! (As I pointed out in a subsequent message, I didn't know this guy - this was my first interaction with him - so how could I gauge his intent by anything but that email? In retrospect, though, this was a sign, as this is not the first time the high-school "he can't be wrong 'cause he's my friend!" idea is going to rear its head.) He also tried to explain away the editor's attitude by claiming he ran a more "laid-back" (meaning "less-professional," I guess) company than other firms. Much of the defense, however, revolved around a soft type of professional negging: their only concern, it was claimed, was that I, a fledgling newbie in the field with naught but dreams and heady ideas under my tender wings, reach my full potential so I could work in the industry someday - you know, like a real translator! He tried to impress me with the editor's alleged expertise, chalking up his attitude to fatigue after how he - wow! - has just worked two 12-hour days back-to-back. (Not to take the "acceptance of tough working conditions is proof of expertise" angle, but I'd worked double 16s several times by this point in my career. I took them on voluntarily due to scheduling issues on my end, but I was no stranger to even-more-intense working conditions.)
Now, at this point, it becomes obvious that the supervisor is counting heavily on me being naive about actual standard practices in the industry and so starstruck at the prospect of working in video games that I'd accept any treatment, presuming my professional ego and self-assessment of my skills wholly dependent on his approval. I don't know why he thought that I was a wide-eyed 22-year-old just out of university with no experience; when he recruited me, I provided him with previous examples on other gaming projects on which I'd worked, as you would with any such employer. He might have forgotten, as a bit of time had passed since we'd talked initially. Particularly given subsequent interactions, though, I think this is just his method of dealing with his translators.
I stood my ground, and in the interest of moving past the incident given our allegedly-tight deadline (hey, maybe the guy was tired; maybe it was a culture clash; that they didn't know how to run a company wouldn't be a surprise given previous events - much of my ill-advised forbearance here could be chalked up to my impression that they were just really dumb), I asked just to be flatly told what I was doing wrong in subsequent interactions. I did receive an apology, and the supervisor subsequently reviewed the initial feedback and claimed to see from where I was coming. It didn't matter, at least here, as after this objection, I was not contacted again for the project.
This brings us to two months later and an offer to work on the project at the heart of this story, Game #4: a retranslation of a repackaging of a couple famous games from a storied franchise. The franchise wasn't one with which I myself had had a personal history, but it's held in high regard and much-cherished by many; I felt honored to have the chance to work on it and agreed despite our past history. The other project team members consisted of the supervisor from before, a project manager, an editor, and another translator besides me.
First, a bit of procedural context. If the game you're translating hasn't yet been released anywhere, you're typically not going to get to play a prelease build of it or anything. You just get the script, some text-based contextual info, and best wishes; head translators or editors closer to the project will turn the team's piecemeal work into a more coherent whole and mop up any misunderstandings or errors produced through not being able to access the game itself. If a Japanese version has been released, however, you'll frequently be paid to familiarize yourself with the property, typically by playing the game. This happened here, though playing wasn't expressly required, probably because the games weren't commercially-accessible on any modern platforms at the time. We were, however, supposed to familiarize ourselves with the franchise, particularly the games being brushed up, through Let's Plays and other resources and were expressly paid to do so. This is, as they say, Important Later.
Now: the first game in this package had a remake. The tone of it was slightly different: the original was storybook in tone, while the remake was a little bit more of a mascot game. The English in the remake script was more polished, though, so the project manager announced that, obviously, we all agreed it would be better just to scrap the original script and plug the remake script in there, and we were therefore invited to think up arguments to submit to the publisher to get them to agree to do this. There had been no discussion or solicitation of opinions beforehand; we were considered, without asking, to be all on board with this. (It wasn't "hey, we've decided as a company for reasons x and y that this is the direction we want to pursue with this project; as members of our project team, we're asking you to help make a case here"; it was "hey, this is what I think, and we're all friends, and friends don't disagree with each other, so we all think this, right?! Right!!")
OK, look. As my websites and projects will attest, I am far from a perfect human being and do not mean to depict myself here as the Sainted Heroine of the Story, the Only One Blessed with Sight Undimmed, but I did not stand around and just be a yes-woman here: I cited what discussions there were on boards and whatnot debating the original vs. the remake (as we were asked to do to get support for "our" position; I was the only one who did any of this research); I delineated how these illustrated that the remake was not as beloved as the original and brought up the possibility that, particularly given the high regard in which the original game was held, switching the scripts might not be seen as a positive move by fans; and I mentioned that there was a bit of a difference in tone between the original and the remake. (The other translator, who came across as one of those people who think everyone is stupid except him and believes himself to be an expert on any subject after five minutes' interaction with it, scoffed that he didn't see any storybook influence and we therefore shouldn't be concerned at all, despite that the narrative ends with a literal storybook being closed on-screen.) After tossing the dilemma around in my head a little, I did follow up with a suggestion that since the approach to the scripts markedly affected the game's tone and that the tone of the upcoming product was a creative decision that the publishers should make, that maybe the issue should be brought up to and explained to the publishers and the decision left up to them. Eventually, it was indeed decided by the higher-ups in Japan, evidently independent of any input or opinions from the translation team, that the original scripts be kept as much as possible, with just a touch-up to remove some (not all) stiltedness and comply with the company's style guide performed.
After this, we set about the actual brushing-up of the translation, so far as we were allowed: a bit of formatting revision to conform with the publisher's style guide, correction of any errors in the original text, etc. It is at this point that we get to the Big Problem at the heart of our tale. The platform we were using to touch up the script divided it up line-by-line and included the tags used for formatting - in some cases, represented by icons (as is often the case on this platform); in others, just written out. At several points, the markup text had been garbled: the angle brackets had been omitted, and the tag contents had been smooshed together with the in-game dialogue - like, FONTCOLOR=BLACKIt's-a me!/FONT. Furthermore, these all concerned a "t" attribute paired with a number: t=360, etc.
In checking the script against cutscene videos, I found that these tags always coincided with pauses in the text readout in the dialogue boxes that were meant to emulate natural pauses in speech (like, "As you know (pause), Bob (pause"); the greater the number, the longer the pauses. It therefore seemed self-evident that the t stood for the amount of time the pauses were meant to take. I also discovered a couple new issues. A: In a few cases (like, a handful out of a couple hundred), the t-tags had been apparently misplaced due to the formatting snafus. B: In a few more cases, where the Japanese lines were significantly longer than the English equivalent, the Japanese line would have t-tags for apparent pauses, but the English equivalent as presented in the game would have no pause; in the script, though, the evidently-useless t-tags were still hanging around.
We were instructed not to fool around with the tags (as is standard practice; tags are important, as screwing with them can screw up text display or the game itself), but since a number of the tags were malformed or apparently misplaced, and since there had been a couple other formatting issues with the script that needed special care, I was wondering if I needed to fix the tags or if I needed to remain hands-off. I sent a brief description of the problem and request for a ruling over the IM system the team was using to communicate by this time. I didn't expect this to be a huge problem at all - I expected to get a quick decision of "oh, do this or that."
No one had any clue what I was talking about. I thought I might have been wording the issue poorly, but after rephrasing myself, it became clear that, no, everyone was just completely unfamiliar with how, exactly, the text appeared in the boxes in-game. This was very strange. The only way you couldn't know how that happened is if you hadn't looked at the game at all. We had been paid, remember, to familiarize ourselves with the games. And nobody knew what the hell was going on. Which meant that, evidently, I was the only one who had ever looked at the games we were retranslating.
At this point, the other translator snarked that I sounded like I was wasting my time and trying to make work for everyone that he'd rather not do. (This was not a jokey comment; it was offered in his default man-you're-stupid tone.) I responded that looking at the script in motion, in-game, was the only way to make sure the tags were placed correctly, as was part of my job duties. Other Translator countered that, essentially, what the clients didn't know wouldn't hurt them and that maybe that part of the script would end up cut out or something anyway, so we shouldn't worry about it. He also claimed that I was completely out of line to be looking at the original game, as in doing so, I was, again, threatening to create more work for the company. At this point, the project manager piped in to agree cheerfully with Other Translator's point of view, suggesting, as OT originally stated, that my identification of this problem was not "constructive" and that I needed to stop talking about it.
A few comments here. One: This was not a work-intensive job, let us say. The first game's text was a bit stilted but accurate; the second game's text sounded natural, and mistranslations were minimal for both titles. We were doing a very light brush-up job. The job was gravy, in other words, and if this guy had any translation prowess at all, he would not have been exactly pressed for time. (Checking the t-tags' placement didn't take me much time, anyhow; a cutscene compilation for the game in question runs like 1:20, and the text was split between a pair of translators.) Two: It is, as should be apparent to anyone with a functioning brain stem, absolutely not true that what the client didn't know wouldn't hurt them vis-a-vis script & formatting errors, as errors don't simply stop screwing things up if you turn a blind eye to them. Three: The "hey, maybe the client just won't use that part of the script? I dunno" defense is ridiculous. The client could decide to "just not use" any part of the script; we could decide to just not translate the entire script given that reasoning. You don't pick & choose what you translate and edit of a given script; you handle what you've been hired to handle.
By far the worst of this, though, is the utter shock and distaste that greeted the idea that I had actually looked at the games we were translating. Even if you don't work in language, you've probably heard some tiresome person natter on re: some gaming issue about how JAPANESE IS A CONTEXT-HEAVY LANGUAGE and that WHEN IN DOUBT, YOU NEED TO LOOK AT THE SOURCE MATERIAL, ALWAYS, ALWAYS. This was the first time I had ever, ever been told that referencing the source material was undesirable. As discussed above, no, you don't always have access to the game you're translating. When you do, though, you look at it - and the other team members' refusal to do so here would not only impact their work but also blinded them to an important problem that we needed to address. I know "I was shocked - shocked!" is a cliche in accounts like this - but I was shocked, honestly. The idea that checking the source material is wrong because it has the potential to create more work by uncovering problems was just so juvenile and irresponsible.
(Also: I don't work professionally in the gaming space primarily. My bread-and-butter is the scientific & medical field. See how far refusing to reference the source material gets you there. The attempts to advance such a ludicrous argument just betrayed how limited everyone's experience in the industry was.)
I hadn't actually been talking about the issue much beyond a short description and brief rebuttals of the other translator's claims (the "stop talking about it" wasn't "you are talking about this at too great a length" but "we don't want to hear about this, period"). I politely but firmly, though, noted I had never been instructed by any other client to dismiss tags and formatting, that the idea that referencing the source material was unconstructive and undesirable was completely foreign to any firm with which I'd worked, and that (in the one area that I got a little pointed) if I were the only person on our team referencing the game, then it wasn't surprising that I was the only one who identified this issue.
At this point, everyone fell silent for a few minutes. Well, that's not exactly true: the IM system was constantly registering "Other Translator/Project Manager/Editor Who Has Otherwise Been Silent is typing..." messages - literally dozens of them. It's just that none of the messages were reaching me. Everyone had decided to hang out without me in a manner that let me know they were hanging out without me, evidently talking about the nasty girl in the lunchroom who couldn't sit with them.
It was here that I had kind of had it with the childish behavior. We were supposed to be addressing a problem together, not passing notes in homeroom. I commented that there was a lot of typing for very little on the screen, prompting a limp "oh, we're just trying to compose our thoughts, tee hee" cover story. A few other messages eventually popped onscreen, and it became evident that a strange turnaround had taken place: everyone now agreed the t-tag thing was a serious problem about which the highers-up needed to know. Whereas before I was The Problem for pointing out this issue, however, I was now The Problem for, allegedly, not wanting a ruling from the company - because, the tortured logic went, I had made a suggestion, based on literally hundreds of instances, as to what the t-tags could represent, so I clearly was looking to usurp the publisher's decision-making power, despite being the one to uncover the problem, ask for a ruling, and persist in the face of universal not-giving-a-shit.
This is typical teenage groupthink, with Who's Right depending on Who's My Friend or Who's Popular. Just as the editor from Game #3 couldn't be doing anything wrong because he was the supervisor's friend, I couldn't be doing anything right here, because I was the one harshing the vibe of the room and making work for everyone by not covering up something that might break the game. I cannot overemphasize how grown-up translation firms don't work like this.
There were a few brief exchanges after that of me briefly pointing out the obvious problems and the others responding "lol OK whatever :)" and posting snarky emojis on the main chat, "x is typing" messages flying all the while. I did a good job, I must say, of holding my ground in the face of universal asshattery. (At one point, Other Translator piped up to say that he considered everything that was happening "unprofessional," like a kid trying out the sound of a big word he'd just heard. I responded that, yes, it was unprofessional to gossip about a colleague during what was supposed to be a team conversation.) Eventually, the supervisor got on to agree that while my insistence on, like, looking at what we were translating was weird but well-intended, yes, I was at fault for everything from every perspective and needed to stop making work for everyone and not mention this again. At this point, I considered the project unsalvageable and didn't want to go down for what was promising to be a fiasco, so despite the grand interdiction not to speak, I stood my ground and posted that there was too deep a clash in work styles between us and that I wasn't comfortable with how this project was being handled. I offered to help if they got in a tight spot but said it would be best if we parted ways. That was the last I heard about the project from them.
I have no idea how this compilation turned out, though I note the release is way, way, way past when the translation work, at least, should have been done. If it did turn out OK, it's wholly despite that team's efforts, not because of them.
I did, I am sad to say, accept an invitation to try to collaborate with them a year after this fiasco. I thought they had to be hard-up if they were coming to me after how we parted and, like an idiot, even entertained the thought that maybe they had learned something. This illusion lasted as long as the first batch of in-game text, whereupon the editor again tried the Reply All trick, this time sending everyone a litany (it was in a separate Word doc and everything!) about how I was Everything That Was Wrong with Translation Today. (He didn't use my name, just my work. I think this was an attempt at subtlety.) My own Reply All was swift: I stated, in the only language this company evidently understood, what I thought of his attempts to charm translators by negging, his attempts to waste my time with stupid practical jokes, his determination to waste his clients' time, the supervisor's pay rates and his workplace demeanor versus those of his competitors in the professional translation space, his mental capacity, and his determination to never, ever move past a high-school mindset. I also gave an NDA-compliant account of the previous job's follies as a warning to the other translators. He messaged me back. I didn't read it. I shot back a reply stating he couldn't sit with me.
The moral of our story is: a) if you are a professional translator and are approached by someone claiming to head a laid-back company that'd be very interested in your work provided you, y'know, lose 3 cents off your per-chara rate, girl, run very, very far in the other direction, and b) the next time some histrionic translator on Twitter posts a screed about how all gaming translators Always, Always Do Their Best and treat every script with the greatest of care and always know better than you or anyone else, remember that no, they fucking don't. Translation is like any other profession: some practitioners of the craft are conscientious, and some are lazy, incompetent assholes who are completely full of shit.