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An interview with Neill Corlett, translator of such games as Seiken Densetsu 3 and Final Fantasy III.

In the 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.

GRB:  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 game translations?

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 for me.

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 its culture.

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 programming experience.

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 fans.

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 games?

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 that.

Check out my 1UP article, Singin' The Brews, to learn more about the homebrew gaming community! 

part 1: neill corlett

part 2: kirk israel

part 3: nathan lazur

part 4: ron lloyd