Letters to a Young Translator, Part II: Tacticians and Strategists

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Part II: Tacticians and Strategists

Dear X,

It has been some time since our last correspondence, and I hope this letter finds you well. You say that you have spent a good deal of time reading through the piece that you hope to translate, and for this I applaud you. All the time you spend in this lonely task, straining to see and hear all that which is most unseeable and unhearable about a piece, will prove its own reward. For there is no art save that which is found in solitude, no goodness in translation save that which you find in yourself. I know you will smile at this, and say to yourself, knowingly, condescendingly, that there is a target audience, and that translations are made for the purpose of being read.

In a sense, you are right.

I trust that it is in this sense that you have sent me some of your preliminary translations. I thank you for this faith — I enjoyed reading them over, and indeed the words of explanation you sent highlight very well for me some of the inadequacies in your current translation style. I cannot give you specific criticism, not at this time, but if you want my opinion, if you were not speaking in jest when you asked me to be as harsh as I could, I can tell you this: at the moment, you have no style and no form. You argue stubbornly, to the death, that “this is what the author wrote” without knowing, really knowing, whether that is a true statement or not. You speak to others about being “literal” as opposed to being “loose”, when you have not the wisdom or the right to offer up such criticisms. And I beg of you, for your own good and for the good of everyone else, to stop. You cannot help anyone. And likewise, no one can help you. No one. For in this art, we are all equally wrong — and we are none of us right. Not the bountiful polyglot, not the astute English major, not the silver-tongued native speaker of Japanese, not the illustrious professor of linguistics, not me, and certainly not you. All we have are our words, and when we use those words to vivisect the works of other people instead of to strengthen them, we do them — and more importantly, ourselves — a grave disservice.

Then why should you listen to me? Why, indeed, do you write me letters, and why do you say you await a reply? At the simplest level, you come to me seeking my advice — and that is something I am willing to give you, in abundance. Am I right? Am I wrong? I do not know. All I know is that these are the lessons I have learned, and this is the way my translation circle works. Perhaps, when you have successfully released as many translations as we have, you might have a significantly different opinion of what it is to be a translator. I do not doubt that. And I do not seek to question the validity of the conclusions that your future self will no doubt come to about the nature of these production processes, about the nature of translation, and even about what happens to both you and the piece you are translating as you translate. All of us change; all of us have footfalls that whisper on the concrete bones of the cities to which we are given only to forget that we might ever have existed at all. But here and now, I am me and you are you — and so I beseech you to listen.

So you have completed your initial read, and you are getting down to the often-unpleasant business of assigning your team members their tasks. This, then, is as good a time as any to talk about the makeup of your team. As I wrote before, insani is in essence a two-man team: one translator and one hacker. Edward is, in fact, writing an excellent series of articles about the mechanics of eroge hacking that your programming staff may wish to read at some point. However, the roles we play are diverse, and I will list them here (other than the programming role — I shall leave Edward to cover that) in somewhat greater detail than I did the last time around:

  • The Coordinator: On many translation teams I have seen, this person is not a translator at all; in fact, in the romhacking circles, this person is almost invariably a hacker. In the anime fansub circles, this person might not actually do anything at all. Regardless, there is one property — and only one property — that a good coordinator must have. That is: he must understand the role of every single person on the team, including himself. And in order to be truly respected, he must be willing to lead from the front, charging into the fray before everyone else, blazing a path for others to follow. That is why, in the amateur visual novel localization community, the coordinator should usually be the lead translator. The coordinator has the final say on all team decisions, makes the timetables for milestones and releases, works intensively with all members of the team in order to ensure that they are making their deadlines. Furthermore, it falls to him to arbitrate and resolve team disputes, and to make sure that troublesome members of the team are either dealt with or shown the door if necessary. Should anything in the production process or the final release go wrong, it ultimately falls on him to shoulder the blame. Should anything in the production process or the final release go right, he cannot take any of the praise at all. This is a serious job, it may not be taken lightly, and the ideal coordinator must out of all members of the team know the most about the nature of both translation and the production process. Which means that: if you have no knowledge of Japanese other than what you “learned” from anime, if you have no knowledge of translation other than your derision at the much-maligned introduction to Zero Wing, if you have no ability other than that of an “editor” (read: a glorified cheerleader), then you have no business in this position.
  • The Translator(s): It goes without saying that any translation project that exists should have at least one translator. However, if there is more than one, then there are additional issues of differing skill levels and translation consistency to deal with. Fortunately or unfortunately, just as in any other field, it is very difficult to put a number or a logical measure to the “skill” of any given translator. I have worked with translators, for instance, who might be brilliant when they are made to translate legal contracts from one language to another, but fail miserably when asked to translate literature. I know of others who can translate medical documents well enough even given the fact that they have no M.D. at the end of their names, and I know of M.D.’s who might know more than one language, and yet who make miserable translators altogether. But ideally, in your team your translators will be of fairly clear-cut skill levels. In this case, the translator of the greatest skill and experience should become the lead, and on his shoulders should rest the final creative control over the resultant translation. Practice the art and craft of pair translation — when there is one proficient translator and one who is still in the stages of learning, every single line translated should become a teaching point. And practice the art and craft of working under strict deadlines as set by the coordinator — for this, too, is an integral part of any production process.
  • The Graphics Staff: These people are recruited to do what is essentially grunt work, and they most likely know this. If they do not, your coordinator needs to disabuse these people of their illusions. Graphics editing is hard, monotonous work, and it is most often a thankless job. The volume and difficulty of graphics to edit will vary per project, but in some projects we’ve tackled (see Majipuri) the configuration menus alone were enough to give our graphics editor (see Edward Keyes) grand mal tonic-clonic seizures. People who make good web graphics, by the way, do not always make good graphics editors for our purposes; ideally, you want someone who can make every single deadline you throw at him, someone who can faithfully duplicate sometimes-garish visual effects that appear in the original Japanese game — not someone who can build a pretty webpage.
  • The Editors: These people are among the most unimportant components of a translation team. If they are among the most important, or if they play a major role in how your final translation reads, then your translators are at best clueless, and at worst dangerously flawed. The problem I have seen is this: most “editors” are drawn from English majors, self-described masters of English, creative writers who have only ever “published” in obscure blogs, and the list just goes on. Their one defining characteristic is that they do not understand Japanese very well (if you are lucky, not at all — then they cannot argue with you) and they understand English only slightly better. If that is the case, it becomes very difficult for an editor to truly “edit” a translation without introducing at best blatant — for in that case it can be easily fixed — or at worst insidious — for in that case it may hide undetected even by the time of release — amounts of meaning skew. No, a truly good editor must be at least as or even more skilled at Japanese than the original translators in order to be any good — and if that is the case, then that editor should probably have been translating the piece from the very beginning. I am aware that there are some people who advocate the practice of a translator and an editor working in close cooperation with each other — while this is well and good in theory, in practice I have not seen it working so well. If the translator has a hard time expressing the concepts and the wordings of the original work into English, then adding an editor into the mix — even one who goes over every single line with this translator — will not help you one bit. I only list this category of team members because most translation teams seem to have editors; insani does not work with any.
  • The Quality Control Team: These hardy souls are as important as editors are unimportant. Prospective Quality Control staff should have the willingness to play a piece over and over and over, and should have an obsession over documentation, a keen eye for grammar and for that mysterious quality that we call “rightness”, and a willingness to write up their findings early and often. They will no doubt dislike the piece by the time release time comes around — if they do not, they are probably not doing their jobs, or they are far more tolerant of tedium than I am. Something perhaps unique to our circle is the fact that most of our quality control staff are well-qualified translators themselves — and so we sometimes term our QC period a “peer review” period as well. Truly, we seek the judgment of those we consider our peers — and there are not many of those we are willing to accord this title in this community. The reason is simple: your Quality Control staff are the last people to lay eyes on your translation before it hits the general public. Make sure that they are people you respect. Make them count.
  • The Release Engineers: These people are responsible for packaging the finalized translations into installer builds for each of the operating systems you are planning on supporting, and have final say over the final deadline for release. The release engineer may call a complete halt to the release process if he believes that there are sufficient flaws in the process, or he may choose to delay release for a set period of time. For this reason, your release engineers above all must have a high degree of professionalism and integrity, and must be willing to face down the rest of the team if that is what is required for a good release. This is why, most often, the coordinator has a high amount of contact with — or even is — the release engineering team.
  • The Fans: Do not forget these people. They constitute the silent member of your team, whether you like it or not.

In any team, you will find “tacticians”, and you will find “strategists”. While this is a gross overgeneralization, in brief, “tacticians” are adept in the achievement of self-contained, goal-driven objectives, and “strategists” are those who see the big picture, and assign these objectives to the tacticians under their command. Having one without the other is potentially fatal — a pure tactician is akin to a one-centimeter-squared 1200dpi display, and a pure strategist is akin to a 30-inch LCD that has a display resolution of 320×240. You must have both — and as the leader of your translation group, you must be both.

I leave you with this: in the game of go, it is generally not possible for there to be a tie game. However, in some cases — usually, ones where black is given a handicap to start — there is no komi that makes a tie game impossible. This has to do with the fact that usually, black (which is the first to move) is given a 4.5 stone penalty in order to theoretically make up for the advantage it has by going first; if black is weaker, and has to be given a handicap, then it makes no sense then to have a komi against it. In any case, let us imagine the case where players of equivalent skill are playing, have agreed to no handicap, and have also agreed to no komi (that is to say, black is at an effective 4.5 stone advantage). Certainly, in this case, if white should win, then white is probably the better player. If white should win all the time, then white is more than likely the better player.

But if white should force a tie all the time, then white is beyond the shadow of a doubt the better player.

The original author is playing black.

You are playing white.

You have no right to win or lose.

That leaves you with one choice.

Until next time, I remain


Seung Park
Lead Translator


Haeleth @ May 31st, 2006 | 8:31 am

If I had a penny for every time some bright spark had come up to me and said “I wanna start a translation group, I’ll do the website, will you translate and hack and test everything for me?”, I’d have… uh… at least 3p.

krzyhikaki @ June 2nd, 2006 | 1:29 pm

If I had a penny for every time some bright spark had come up to me and said “I wanna start a translation group, I’ll do the website, will you translate and hack and test everything for me?”, I’d have… uh… at least 3p.

hahaha, I’m amused there are actually people like that.

these articles are really helpful and informative… :D good stuff.

emperor @ June 4th, 2006 | 1:59 pm

They are cheaters, 4.5 komi has been judged with quite some certainity to be not enough. Poor white…

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