Nintendojo Interview: Clyde Mandelin

We chat with the writer of Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda about his book, game localization, and more!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 02/16/2016 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

We rather loved Clyde Mandelin’s Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda, so we just knew that we had to get in touch with him and delve deeper into its creation. We did just that, and also got even more insight into Mandelin’s thoughts on localization, video games, and the future of Legends of Localization!

Nintendojo: What made you decide to feature The Legend of Zelda as the first game to focus on in your Legends of Localization series of books?

Clyde Mandelin: I’d always wanted to write a Legends of Localization book, but I feared that nobody would be interested– after all, games are meant to be played, not read about, you know? So for years I kept Legends of Localization as an online-only project.

Eventually, the opportunity arose for me to write an EarthBound localization book with my friends at Fangamer. But since I’d never written a book before, I thought I should write a smaller one first, to work out the kinks. This smaller book was going to be about Zelda 1 and 2, but as we progressed we realized it was going well past the 500 page mark, so we then decided to dial it back to just Zelda 1 and pour all our energy into making it as info-rich as possible.

But more than anything, Zelda 1 has so much going for it that it felt like the perfect game to start off with. It’s an iconic classic, it has some unusual text changes, and it had a second, lesser-known translation years later. The localization featured different gameplay mechanics due to hardware differences. Those hardware differences even meant the audio was different. Even graphics were changed. Basically, Zelda’s localization features a little bit of the best of everything, so it felt like the perfect choice!

Even better, the localization efforts put into each Zelda game changed over time. By looking at each individual game you can actually see how game localization evolved over time, and I’m hoping to chronicle that evolution with future Zelda books. So this first Legends of Localization book will set the foundation for this long-term project.

ND: Was there a particular difference between the Japanese version of the game and the English one that really shocked you or stuck out to you?

CM: I think like most people, the first thing that shocked me was the different audio. The original Japanese release sounds quite a bit different from the NES release most of us know and love.

But beyond that, I think the gameplay differences stand out the most for me. For example, in the NES release, using arrows will kill Pols Voice enemies in one shot. In the Japanese release, you instead need to yell into the microphone in Controller 2. This is sort of common knowledge nowadays, but where it gets even more interesting is how this mechanic is handled in later ports of the Japanese game. Not every system had a microphone to use, so Nintendo came up with a variety of solutions for ports to later systems.

There are also little gameplay tricks and such that work in one version of the game but not others. Researching and compiling all this info was a ton of fun!

ND: Compared to the work produced in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, what do you think is the biggest difference between how video games are translated now versus then?

CM: Hiring native English speakers is the biggest difference now, without a doubt. Most games in the early days were translated by Japanese speakers who knew a little English. That’s why we got things like “A winner is you!” and “All your base are belong to us.”

It took many years, but gradually the game industry matured and began to treat game translation and localization more seriously.

ND: What role do you believe a translator should play when localizing a game from one country to another?

CM: Well, the translator is only one part of the localization process, but in most cases the project’s translator should strive to convey the same information in the same way as the original text. When possible, nuances should be retained and as little as possible should be lost. That’s the ideal, of course, but in reality every project and every line of text presents its own unique challenge. For example, it’s often very tough to juggle between “sticking super-close to the original” and “sounding like well-written, natural text.”

ND: What is one of the most creative or challenging translations you’ve ever had to make in your professional career?

CM: The easy answer would be a One Piece game I translated many years ago for the Wii. It was handed to me last-minute, full of mistakes and problems, and I had to fix those and translate the rest of the game in about 2 days’ time. Without ever seeing the game! A lot of the text was voiced too, and I wasn’t sure when everything would be said or how often. I managed to finish on time, but it was a real challenge and not an ideal situation at all.

Creatively, I find translating songs especially challenging. Sometimes songs are meant to be sung, sometimes they’re just meant to act as subtitles, and sometimes they’re used for something between the two. Japanese songs often lack important features like sentence subjects or key verbs, so there’s a whole lot of interpretation that takes place. It’s tough sometimes!

ND: Have you ever had to translate a game from English to Japanese? If yes, what game, and what were the challenges you faced? If no, would you be interested in attempting to do that?

CM: Not professionally, although I have dabbled with fan-translating the StarTropics games into Japanese. They were a big part of my childhood and I’d love to share those classics with Japanese retro gamers someday!

In general, though, most respectable, professional translators only translate into their native language. Otherwise you end up with things like “A winner is you” again, you know? Even though I know Japanese, I wouldn’t feel very confident that my translations into Japanese would feel natural enough. They’d at least need to be edited by a native Japanese speaker, which is an arrangement I do see sometimes.

ND: When can we expect the next installment of Legends of Localization?

CM: I’m currently hard at work on the EarthBound Legends of Localization book, and we’re aiming for the middle of 2016 for it. We might release some small side-books alongside it, similar to what we did with the Zelda localization book and the “Zelda Passport” we put together.

I’m super-excited to be working on the EarthBound book, and we’ve only just begun. There’s so much to dig into and share that I’m actually starting to worry about the book’s weight!

We haven’t decided what to do after EarthBound. The current Zelda localization book comes with a postcard survey that you can fill out and send in. We’ll probably choose the next game based on that feedback. Right now Zelda II is on top (but not by much!)… and I’d love to do a Zelda II book! Its localization is absolutely fascinating, maybe even more so than the first game’s. You can definitely see Nintendo’s localization process evolve between the first and second game too.

ND: What do you hope to accomplish by continuing to work on Legends of Localization?

CM: You know how when a crowd watches a sports game, a bunch of regular people get angry and yell how a player should’ve done this or that, like they’re experts? Or how whenever the news talks about the Internet, games, science, or whatnot, they almost always get things completely wrong? The same thing happens when people talk about translation and localization. So my goal for Legends of Localization is to clear the air and explain entertainment localization from my professional perspective. In the future, I also hope to bring in other professionals who can talk about how English games were localized into other languages, often with hilarious results.

On a more personal level, Legends of Localization is also a way for me to share my love of games with others, in my own unique way. I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends just by sharing my experiences with games and my insight into the Japanese versions of games. Everything I’ve done with Legends of Localization has shown me that games are much more than just mindless entertainment, and I’d like to keep following that path.

ND: Time to predict the future: Will we see Mother 3 come westward within the next few years? Why do you think Nintendo is so reluctant to acquiesce to fan demand for the game?

CM: I definitely feel it’ll come eventually, and I feel very hopeful that it’ll be in the near future. I can’t think of a better time for the game to finally be released outside of Japan. Of course, EarthBound fans have had their hopes crushed countless times over the past 15-plus years, so maybe it’s just more wishful thinking.

I honestly feel that localization costs are THE only reason the game hasn’t been released in other languages. That’s why I made my offer to Nintendo a good while back, that they could use our work– for free– as a base for an official release. That way the costs and risks would be greatly reduced. There’d still be other costs, but that big chunk of it would be gone. I’m not crazy enough to think the offer will ever be accepted, but I thought I’d put it out there in the .00001 percent chance it could help.

I feel that Mother 3 will be translated some year, though, which is cool with me. An official release is all most of us have ever really wanted. I feel an official localization would shine in comparison to the fan translation as well.

Nintendojo would like to thank Clyde Mandelin for sharing his time with all of us, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about this interview and Legends of Localization in the comments!

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