first installment of The Brews Brothers, we interview
game translator Neill Corlett. Corlett is best known for
his work on Seiken Densetsu 3, the Secret of Mana sequel that
was kept a secret from American players for years. That
came to an end when Corlett released a patch for the game
which translated its dialogue to English, finally
giving gamers in the West a chance to experience the
sequel they were denied for so long.
How does Corlett work his
magic? What tools and talents are needed to bring a
video game translation to life? What are the challenges
that a translator must overcome to finish his work?
We'll discover the answers to all these questions
and more in this interview.
What tools are used to translate video games
like Seiken Densetsu 3?
CORLETT: Most of the tools I use are
custom-written for a specific purpose. Tools to dump and
reinsert text and graphics almost always have to be written
specifically for each game. I also use generic tools such as
cross-assemblers, disassemblers, hexeditors and graphical
viewers such as my own Nana.
GRB: How have you been able to
address copyright protection issues when distributing video
CORLETT: We protect the game
companies' copyrights by only distributing the patch, which
does not contain any of the original game content. However, a
typical patch has a lot of newly-created custom code, and I've
found it practically impossible to protect the copyright on
that. My license says that the use is unrestricted as long as
it's not for profit, yet the selling of patched game
cartridges is a cottage industry.
GRB: What is your motivation for
translating Japanese video games?
CORLETT: I enjoy
these games a lot, and for story-driven RPG games, you can
only truly appreciate them in your native language. When you
play a game as awesome as Seiken Densetsu 3 and come to the
realization that nobody else is going to translate it for you,
it's a call to action.
CORLETT: Part of it is also a basic
creative thrill. Being able to punch in text, and then watch
the characters on the screen act it out, was unexpectedly fun
GRB: How much Japanese do you
need to know, and how much technical experience is necessary,
before you can begin a video game translation?
CORLETT: Generally, the most
successful translators are the ones who study Japanese at the
college level, and have a very serious interest in Japan and
On the technical side, knowing assembly language is a must.
The big challenge is being able to examine an assembly
function and see what it's doing at a macro level. I'd
estimate this comes after 3-4 years of school or hobbyist
Of course, this varies widely from game to game. Seiken
Densetsu 3 was particularly ambitious because of the complex,
idiomatic use of language, and its obscure and unusual code.
But other games have been successfully translated by casual
GRB: What is your opinion of the
video game hacks (ie Wilfred Brimley Battle, Mike Tyson's Nude
Punch-Out!, Pink Floyd's The Wall, etc.) that appeared in the
late 1990's as a result of the graphic editing tools in
NESticle and other early emulators?
CORLETT: Those hacks never really
came up on my radar. I'm fine with people doing that, and it
sounds like they're having fun, but I don't think it adds a
lot of value to the game.
GRB: What is the most difficult
part of translating video games?
CORLETT: The most difficult part is
organizing a team to do it! Most games that are worth
translating require a lot of expertise in both the language
and the technical side, and people who are experts at both are
exceptionally rare. You have to find frothing-at-the-mouth
fans of the game in both disciplines.
GRB: How faithful are your
translations to the original dialogue in Japanese
CORLETT: Seiken Densetsu 3 was
probably a bit too faithful. It's almost a
sentence-by-sentence translation, and there are a few awkward
moments as a result. Probably the biggest successes of SD3 are
where we strayed from the original. Each character has a
voice/dialect which I largely credit to SoM2Freak. We also
added some fun anachronisms, like the character Mataro who is
an "expert on paranormal phenomena."
GRB: Is it
acceptable for a translator to stray from the Japanese script,
and if so, why? How loose can a translation be before it
begins to lose credibility?
CORLETT: I think as long as the
translated game captures the same spirit as the original, it's
credible... even if the details are completely different. The
Seiken Densetsu 3 project has given me a new appreciation for
the art of localization versus literal translation. It's not a
machine where you put the Japanese game in one end and get the
English game out the other. It's not a 1-to-1 mapping. It's a
very creative process.
GRB: Describe the most memorable
letters (either letters of appreciation or complaints) you've
received as a result of translating Japanese video games. How
passionate are the fans about these translations?
CORLETT: The fan response has been
overwhelmingly positive. And it's not just the letters... fans
have made web sites about, and written FAQs based on, the
English version of Seiken Densetsu III. That's always a huge
ego stroke whenever I see that. Unfortunately I also get a lot
of requests for help in translating SD3 to another language,
or help translating a different game, or help with programming
in general, and I don't really have the time to accomodate
Check out my 1UP article, Singin'
The Brews, to learn more about the homebrew