– Discussions with people in the
Japanese media localization industry –
Can you tell us about yourself?
I can! I’m Stephen Meyerink, and I’m a J to E translator, writer, game development learner, and a lover of video game music.
Much of my professional work and creative output is tied to one or more of the things on that list. Hobby-wise I also love to cook, play video games, and, er, come up with better ways to organize my life.
How did you get into localization?
I struggled with what I wanted to do in college, especially in the first year (which I tanked hard).
As I was figuring out what to do with myself, I played the PSP port of one of my all-time favorite games, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. Seeing how much the new localization vastly redefined an already-seminal experience made me passionate about game writing and taught me that there’s as much art as there is linguistic aptitude involved in translation. And from that point on, my goal was pretty singular: become a video game translator.
I finished college, worked a desk job that I absolutely despised (data clerking bills of lading for brutally capitalist container shipping companies is not my passion.) Then I eventually went to graduate school for East Asian Studies, where I focused on Japanese history and language.
I still didn’t feel that my language skills were up to snuff, though—so I applied to the Inter-University Center (IUC) for Japanese Language Studies. I was accepted, but didn’t receive funding, which made going impossible.
So I stuck around at my graduate school for a year and thankfully was able to work full time at the teaching center, and then when I applied to the IUC the following year. I was accepted and received substantial funding.
The Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies
While attending the IUC I made some great friends, including the wonderful Liz Bushouse. Thanks to her, I managed to get in touch with my first-ever client for a game translation job.
That job (plus generous folks I had met while writing for RPGFan.com throughout college and grad school) led to a chance to work on Akiba’s Beat with XSEED Games. And with that [and a bunch of other lucky breaks and fortuitous meetings I was fortunate enough to have], I had become a game translator!
It only took about ten years and a lifetime of student loan debt!
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge was figuring out “where to start.” Also, getting good enough at Japanese to be able to translate comfortably and quickly enough. And finding a community of people with similar professional interests. And also, figuring out how to get paid enough for it to be a remotely viable long-term career option (WORK IN PROGRESS).
What did you wish you had done differently?
It’s hard for me to consider what I might’ve done differently, because it’s nearly impossible to say conclusively “this is the correct path into the video game industry” or “this is the correct path into localization.”
Having been able to pick up Japanese faster might’ve saved me the trip to graduate school and the IUC (and a bunch of money I’ll be paying back until I’m dead.) But I met my best friend AND my partner through those places and had an amazing (if exhausting) time doing them, so I wouldn’t want to have bypassed them.
I think the only thing I wish I had done differently would be to have started reaching out to peers and building a professional network sooner.
To this day I still feel like an “outsider” to the game industry. But in a way, I sometimes think the industry makes everyone feel like that for all but a select few big names. That said, on the subject of “feeling like an outsider,” I do have to acknowledge the privilege I experience as a cis white man in this space—I’ve seen on many occasions the kinds of opportunities I’ve been afforded sight-unseen that some of my peers have struggled for.
You live in California but work with teams based in Japan a lot of the time. Does this impact your work at all?
Not especially, beyond needing to wait an extra day for emails—though most of my communication with Japan-side clients is done via Slack, so it’s always there (*sweats, sighs, laughs nervously*).
Many of the editors for my projects are actually based in the US as well, so it’s a bit easier for us to schedule and collaborate. I do work for some clients based in Europe, and with those I can sometimes run into “hey it’s midnight PST but first thing in the morning for us, can you answer some questions?” To get around that, I’ll usually try to anticipate questions or say “hey, I’ll be available at [x time], you can ask whatever you need then!”
My general belief is that there’s no such thing as a “localization emergency” though, no matter how much someone thinks there is. As such, I’ve mostly stopped responding to after-hours messages unless I’m getting paid extra for it or if I’m specifically working an evening “shift.”
How do you manage your time and balance work with everyday life? Do you still have time to play video games in your spare time?
I’ve struggled with that, because like many folks in the field I am torn between a creative passion for what I’m working on, especially when it’s something like a Final Fantasy book or a Nintendo game, and my body’s desire to give me panic attacks and anxiety as a result of working too much, too late, and too intensely.
The answer to that quandary is usually “get paid more so you can take on less text” as a freelancer. But even then, there’s often the temptation to say yes to something because you’re excited about it.
I am extremely, extremely fortunate in that I’ve been able to raise my rates every single year and they’re now starting to approach being where they need to be for me to work a normal 8-hour workday. Sort of.
“I’m not going to erode my health or be unable to live my own life to work on them.”
More broadly, I know that as a creative person and a person who loves to spend time with my partner and do things with friends. I absolutely need time where I’m not working. So I’ve made it more and more of a point every year (especially since I started having panic attacks in mid-2020) to prioritize my time.
I love video games to bits, but I’m not going to erode my health or be unable to live my own life to work on them. I bristle against what I see as a very prevalent mindset among a lot of freelancers of “tee-hee, we work all the time *wink nudge*.”
There are many people trying to break into this field, and I don’t want to normalize, even innocently, destroying yourself to do it if you’re privileged enough to be able to afford to do so. To be clear, I don’t mean people shouldn’t joke around to cope with stress, but I think we need to be careful what kinds of behaviors we model and what kind of image we present to aspiring localization folks.
That all being said, I definitely still play games, some weeks more than others. When I play less, it’s usually because there are lots of other things I want to do, be it creative endeavors, reading, watching shows or movies, and so forth.
What do you enjoy working on most?
Final Fantasy stuff. I want to work on a Final Fantasy game, particularly in the specific flavors of Tactics, XII, and XIV. I think my natural inclination is to want to write in that style, and the kind of worldbuilding it accomplishes is exciting to me.
That said, I think for me, what I enjoy most, more than any specific project, is collaborating with other people as part of a team. I am decidedly not the kind of translator who gets precious about their own words—I’m proud of them, but I view localization as a team exercise and the editor as a close collaborator who will take my tiny word babies and raise them into radiant word adults.
Finally, I love working on voice-over, and I’ve had more and more opportunities to do so in the last few years.
VO to me is kind of the ultimate expression of that team notion I mentioned above—a whole bunch of people have to work really hard to get it right.
What have you been most proud of?
That’s hard to say. I think being able to work on the Final Fantasy VII Remake World Preview book and the Heavensward: Stone & Steel art book are up there for sure, because those are two worlds that are so near and dear to me.
I just try to keep learning (another thing I find easier to do with a team) and improving with every project, so I’m often “most proud” of whatever the most recent thing I’ve done is!
You translate games but also books and interviews related to games. How does video game translation and book/interview translation differ? And how do they overlap?
I think one of the biggest differences is that with some of my game projects, especially with ongoing or live service games, I often don’t have the “full story” right in front of me. Because of that, I (and the team) have to do my best to keep writing styles, character voices, and lore consistent even as things are constantly growing and evolving.
In another example, I’m working on an in-development game as an editor now, and I might write a joke or a character’s line of dialogue based a story event that two weeks later gets written out of the game entirely!
Books—at least the ones I’ve worked on—are finished objects, so I can look at the entirety and ask myself, “what’s the best way to format this particular thing? Can I adopt a universal phrasing for this here?” and so forth.
In the case of the Heavensward book, I’ve played the game, so I know how things get stylized and can work to keep my writing in line with that.
In terms of overlap, I think you always have to be conscious of concision and brevity—in games because you might have a line limit or a voice over length limit, and in books because you can only fit so much on a page, especially in cases where it has already been laid out and formatted.
You’re also a script and game writer. How does writing differ from translating?
If you ask me, they don’t differ all that much. Translating is writing, it’s just that you have the framework of the original language serving as a guide and a constraint.
Even if you know the ideas a character is conveying in Japanese, there’s a way they convey those ideas, through their voice, through their cadence, and through their personality, that is separate from the raw concepts being communicated.
It’s up to the translator (and the editor) to make sure the person speaking sounds like themselves. In that way, if you stick too literally to the syntax or word choice of the Japanese, you’re actually being LESS faithful to the original, because in the original they may not sound wooden and stilted.
“The more I work on games in translation, the more excited I am about my own original writing.”
The perk (or limitation) of translation of course is that you’re not thinking as much about how a character’s overall arc is developed over time or the pacing of cutscenes versus gameplay and so forth, since those are things that the original team has already sorted and locked in. They’ve given you the lines, but it’s up to you how you color inside them.
With original game writing, those things CAN be up to you—either a terrifying or an empowering notion, depending on how you feel about it. That’s a more general statement, of course—it doesn’t take into consideration the interplay between the different disciplines involved in making a game happen, which can sometimes take some choices out of the writer’s hands.
The more I work on games in translation, the more excited I am about my own original writing. That’s because the things you learn localizing games can help you hone your original writing and teach you about the many, many constraints that game developers have to work with that go beyond just “did you write it good?”
Is there something you worked hard on that you think no one noticed?
Hmm. Strictly speaking, if I’m getting paid fairly and people enjoy the end product, I’m fine if certain individual things don’t get noticed.
The process is collaborative, and often it’s some big game publisher’s property that they have oversight on anyway, so it’s really the overall reception that I’m most interested in.
That being said, it’s not that I don’t get a thrill when I see something I wrote come up in a fan’s tweet or an excited Reddit thread—plus, I’m writing my own game now, and uh, I sure hope people notice it a little. But not too much.
If you could do anything what would you love to do or try out?
As I said above, one of the more Ivalice or Eorzea-flavored Final Fantasies would be lovely, as would any kind of strategy RPG. Beyond that, I’ve been teaching myself programming and game development and writing my own things, and I’m doing so because I really want to work on a team to develop an original game.
– Study and Inspiration –
What tools/resources do you use (or have used) to learn new things and improve your skills?
For me, other people are the best resource you can possibly have, especially more experienced ones.
It’s hard to be critiqued, especially when you make a mistake, but I believe that being a translator isn’t about knowing every single little bit of Japanese and getting it all right from memory. It’s about knowing how to learn and find the answer you need, or in some cases, be taught by someone else.
Most of my clients have a layered editing process, so I can go back and see how the editor/checker adjusted things and try to learn from that, especially if it’s a case where I might’ve made a mistake (which I absolutely do from time to time).
I also run my own 8-years-and-growing flashcard deck for vocabulary and kanji, and I try to play at least one game in Japanese every month or two.
I’m not as into apps like WaniKani since I tend to learn best when I am the one directing exactly what it is I’m trying to memorize.
Beyond that, reading in English and playing games in English is essential, because you can learn and get a sense for what other great writers in those fields are doing, which makes for a better end result when you sit down to do your own work.
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
I have some extremely talented peers whose work energizes me. But to spare them the embarrassment of me fawning over them, I’ll just say THEY KNOW WHO THEY ARE.
My partner (who shall not be spared my fawning) is also a stunning stylist and her own creative work deals with concepts and themes at a depth I wish I could achieve but am massively inspired by.
Also, like it is for many folks in the field, the work of Alex Smith is a huge inspiration to me (check out his novel translations!) as well.
Kindness also inspires me, which is something all the people I’ve mentioned above (by name or otherwise) have in common. Being friendly and supportive, especially when the game and media industries can be such toxic, destructive social spaces, is awesome, and that’s the kind of vibe I want to cultivate for myself.
– The Industry in General –
What do you think people don’t know about localization that you wish would?
I have a low opinion of and even lower tolerance for armchair translators who can’t speak a word of Japanese but are Online And Loud About It every time some trained professional dares to remove a -san suffix from a subtitle.
A lot of thought goes into decisions that get made, and I think as an industry we really struggle with inculcating that particular understanding into the audience.
Moreover, I think a lot of people don’t realize just how many cooks there are in a localization (or game dev in general) kitchen. One person is so rarely responsible for “the way it is,” yet because of how we tend to hold up individual voices or famous team members, people can sometimes see it that way.
What is your vision for the future of localization?
Everyone getting paid more money and having more time off. Also, current localization pros actively working to diversify and make more welcoming our corner of the media industries.