Visions From the Other Side: Mentor's Debriefing

During al|together 2006, I had the honor of serving in a mentorship role to five different translators, all of whom are affiliated in one way or another to my amateur visual novel localization circle, insani. Each translator came to me from a different walk of life — there was not a single common factor to be found among any of them save for the fact that they were attempting, in one way or another, to translate a piece to be presented at festival’s end.

In the next few days, some of them may be presenting their debriefings for their individual projects on our development journal; indeed, Edward has started us off strong with his very insightful analysis of what happened over the course of his project. I will be attempting to do something very similar in this five-part series of Mentor’s Debriefings, but with a somewhat different focus. As Edward has led us off quite well, I have chosen to start with his project first.

Theory and Praxis

The target piece that we chose for Edward was 向日の夢, a short visual novel that was released in 2002 by Treasures. At first it seemed like a good fit, as it met the following criteria:

  • Engine Familiarity: this piece was based on NScripter, which is a visual novel scripting engine that is intimately familiar to us. All the tools we required to effectively localize this game were already available to us — indeed, we were the ones who had created some of said tools in the past. This made this piece an immediately-attractive target. It should come as no surprise that this was one of the two criteria that I did not end up gravely misjudging.
  • Length: this piece’s script weighed in at 15KB, about a fourth of which consisted of scripting commands. In my perspective, this is a very short script — it is one that, at average speed, I could have translated and translated well in no more than an hour. Fortunately, it is true that in the grand scheme of things, a 15KB script is on the rather small side of things. Unfortunately, it turned out that my usage of my own translation speed and accuracy as a metric for those I was a fundamentally bad idea, and that depending on how those 15KB were written, a translator might have a very hard time indeed with them.
  • Written Complexity: length aside, during my preapproval read of this script, I found that it had a relatively simple narrative voices that switched off at the beginning of every new chapter of the story. Furthermore, I found that while there was a moderate level of slang and street language in the piece, there was enough context established in the various narrative flows that a beginning translator might have some difficulties, but he should in the end be able to grasp at where, so to speak, the narrator is going. Therefore I initially chose to take a more hands-off approach, to see what he would come up with on his own. This ended up being a complete miscalculation on my part — not only did Edward struggle with many of the words that I had written off as simple, he also ended up having a very difficult time establishing what, exactly, the narrative flows were doing at any given time. As a result, and because I initially refused to intervene deeply, he found himself reading a story that was qualitatively very different from the one that was actually being told.
  • Production Value: this visual novel boasts particularly high production value in graphical content, especially for a free amateur visual novel built in 2002. I distinctly recall that this particular criterion drew a lot of attention during the preliminary phases of al|together 2006 — at one point, no fewer than three translators including Edward himself wanted to do this piece. It will probably come as no surprise that this was the other of the two criteria that I did not end up gravely misjudging.
  • Lines of Communication: while not a facet of the piece itself, this is still an important criterion to bring up. Edward and I have worked together for two years now, executing project after project successfully. Our lines of communication are strong and open at any time, and of all people he would not feel embarrassed to come to me for help if need be. This gave me confidence that he would ask a lot of questions, and that he would listen intently to what I had to say. And while he did ask a lot of questions — and I gave a lot of answers — there arose some misunderstandings in our discourse that would come back to haunt us in the final days of this project.

What Went Right

  • The preproduction phase went very smoothly. Edward did jump right into the script, and asked questions at what I felt were a pretty good clip. The questions he asked were mainly of a technical nature — how does this phrase work, what is this word, what is this extra sound doing here.
  • The release engineering phase was both fast and efficient, a product of our long association with each other.
  • The final product was well-done, and both the accuracy and the artistry of the translation meet our internal standards.

What Went Wrong

  • I severely misjudged Edward’s abilities as a translator, and thus I left him to figure things out when I probably should have not. As a result, there grew to be many inaccuracies in his initial translation that I probably could have helped avoid by checking up on him more regularly.
  • This piece was actually a lot more technically difficult than I had thought. It has no less than four different narrators, all of whom use the first-person voice — this in and of itself gives ample reason for a novice translator to become easily confused. Furthermore, while the language used does tend toward the simple, this simplicity is deceptive — there are many subtle contextual clues that, if missed out, could have — and did — lead to disastrously incorrect readings of sentences, paragraphs, and even entire chapters of the work.
  • I waited until Edward had a completely translated script before I began looking through it. This resulted in a wastage of about four days that I could have spent looking through and commenting on his translation — and this possibly could have helped us nip many of the above problems in the bud.

Object Lessons

  • The mentor needs to take a far more active role in the translator’s work.
  • In conjunction with the above, the translator must confer with the mentor far more often than he wishes to. Do not take our silence as approval! It is best to nip problems in the bud before they grow into a script that needs to be entirely retranslated by the mentor two days before the final deadline.
  • If you have a mentor, ask questions about everything. This means submitting every single line you translate if that is necessary.
  • Err on the side of absolute caution. Submit even lines that you think you have absolutely nailed down for approval.
  • The only thing worse than a translator who asks for only a little help is a translator who asks for no help at all.
  • Treat the piece as a unified whole, not as individual paragraphs and sentences. Each word only makes sense within its parent sentence. Each sentence only makes sense within its parent paragraph. Each paragraph only makes sense within its parent chapter. Each chapter only makes sense within its parent work. If you, as a translator, ignore this at any point in time, you have already failed.
  • If you do not understand the comment blocks the original author has written, translate them first, before anything else. This will give you much-needed insight as to what the author was thinking, and how the author chose to organize his or her script.
  • As a translator, it is not your duty to write the piece that you think the author should have written. It is your duty to translate the piece that the author actually wrote. This means making sure that you have as close a bond — direct or indirect — to the author as you can. Read the original words. Contact the original author if you can. Try as best you can to understand not only what the author did write, but the way that the author would write if he were a native speaker of English.


Was this project worth it? From my perspective, it most definitely was. Both Edward and I learned a lot, I think, about both the nature of translation and the nature of mentorship. And while it was not always a pleasant experience, it was interesting work, and our final localization stands on its own merits. Should Edward attempt another localization in the future, I would be honored to serve as his mentor again, and we will most certainly remember the insights and the hard lessons we have been taught by this project.

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