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Tom Lipschultz is Xseed’s resident translator for the Japanese developer Falcom, makers of the Ys RPG series, and the newest addition to their localization team. I had a chance to chat with him about what it’s like to localize niche role-playing games, how to get a career in making sure a video game never has a line of text that reads “All your base are belong to us,” and more.
Louis Garcia: What do you do at Xseed?
Tom Lipschultz: I’m a localization specialist. As Xseed is a fairly small company, I tend to do a bit of everything. We all sort of pitch in and help out with each other’s jobs. You never know what each day is going to be here. My primary job is translation and editing.
LG: What is the localization process like?
TL: One of the things I think a lot of people don’t understand is that Xseed is a localization house; we’re not a programming house. So we don’t actually do the programming side ourselves, we actually work with the developers of the original game for that.
The first step is to secure the game, get the licensing and get in touch with the developers. Then it’s a matter of getting a text dump. For a lot of them it’s an Excel file…it depends.
Once we have a hold of the text dump, usually one person will translate and one person will edit. Sometimes there will be multiple translators or multiple editors. Sometimes it will just be one person doing both. It depends on the project and the complexity of the dialogue.
Once that’s edited, we send it back to the developer and it’s put into the game by their own programmers, and we receive an English ROM that we then get to test and run through QA process to fix up typos and things.
LG: How large is the localization team at Xseed?
TL: (Laughs) Pretty small. We’re a company that’s barely in the double digits as far as the number of people here. Officially the localization team is three people, but we do often get outside contractors to assist us. We have a few trusted outside contractors and freelance translators that we like to work with.
When three people are not enough — which is often the case — we will get some outside assistance from trusted sources.
LG: What is the importance of localization?
TL: The big importance — especially when it comes from Japanese to English — is that Japanese and English are not…they’re kind of mutually exclusively as far as nuance goes and natural speak.
If you take a line of Japanese and translate it 100 percent directly into English, it’s going to sound stilted, it’s going to sound awkward, and it might not even make sense. You really need to know the nuances of the language, and you really need to be able to take something that’s in Japanese and translate the meaning rather than translating the words. You need to basically figure out what is being said in the Japanese and figure out how to express that same idea in English rather than translating it word for word.
If you don’t do that, you’re going to have a game that’s kind of difficult to get into because you’re constantly breaking the fourth wall. You’re constantly aware that your reading something that is translated instead of something that might have originally been in the language.
LG: What makes a good localization: staying true to the source material or putting in your own pop culture references?
TL: It depends on the source material. The Ys games — I’ve been working on the Ys games since I’ve been here — are a really great example.
For instance, Ys Seven does have a few pop culture references, and they’re subtle ones, but we tried to put a few in there. The game also has a certain tongue-in-cheek kind of humor, and it’s because the game lends itself to that; in the original Japanese the text was very simplistic with a few goofy, almost breaking the fourth wall things on purpose. It leant itself to that kind of translation, whereas Ys: The Oath in Felghana — the game which we will be releasing by the end of this year — is very much like a stage drama the way the dialogue is done.
It’s very melodramatic and soap opera-esque. As a result, yeah there are a couple humorous interludes in the game, and I do actually have a couple of references I put in the humorous parts of the game, but they’re kind of few and far between. For the most part it’s a very soap opera thing, so I tried to stick to that sort of general feel.
LG: How do you guys go the extra mile to make sure the localization is up the quality you’d like it to be? Do you guys do a lot of research?
TL: If we’re not experts, we try to become experts before we work on the title. We’ll play through the game. We’ll research it. We’ll find out about previous iterations.
For instance, with the Ys series, everybody kind of enjoyed the games, but very few of them knew much about the series, and that’s part of why I was hired, actually. I’m kind of Xseed’s resident Falcom expert. I don’t know if I can call myself that; I kind of feel weird saying that.
Xseed has a partnership with Falcom as of right now. [Xseed] wanted to make sure they had someone on staff that really knew the material. Part of my job is to go over any advertising material they come up with, any trailers to help out with footage, and look over them and just make sure everything is consistent with the series legacy.
To go back to one of Xseed’s earlier releases, Brave Story: New Traveler, was a game based off of a novel in Japan. The novel was also translated separately from Xseed, but we wanted to make sure all the terms in the game and all of the names of locations and such matched what was in the novel. We worked with the novel’s translator to ensure there was that sense of continuity between them.
From left: Translator Tom Lipschultz, taskmaster (localization manager) Kenji Hosoi,
and editor Jessica Chavez are totally metal.
LG: What are some of the most difficult things you encounter when localizing a game?
TL: The biggest challenge is if you’re not 100 percent sure where a line of dialogue is spoken — context isn’t always there to help you. Japanese can be a very vague language.
You may have heard that Japanese is a language that doesn't really use pronouns, and if you don’t know where a line is spoken and there are no pronouns, it’s kind of hard to figure out who is being talked about and who is doing the talking. One of the biggest challenges is tracking down the source of those stray lines where you just have no idea what is going on.
LG: What would you tell someone who wants to be a localization writer or editor?
TL: That’s actually a really good question. I kind of feel like I lucked into the role, but I think part of what did it for me was I have a degree in English and East Asian Studies, which is a good combination for localization. I knew English literature quite well, and I’ve studied Japanese quite extensively.
I’ve also done quite a bit of freelance translation and fan translation in the many, many years before looking into a job at Xseed.
I had a bit of experience I pursued on my own, which I think really helped. It looked good on my resume and to be able to say, Yeah, I’ve done freelance translating, and I’ve done fan translating, and here’s my portfolio" — it looks good to show that you take initiative like that.
I think if anyone else is looking to become a localization specialist, they should probably start picking out a game or an anime or manga or something and just try translating it. Send a text file around to people; let them see what you’re doing. Try to get on some websites like Translator Cafe where you can register to become a freelance translator and have people pick you out and hire you for things. It helps.