Localis(z)ing Fiction – The Metal Gear Solid story

I recently wrote about translation and some of the challenges that comes with it.

It’s difficult to exactly describe the artistry required to truly localise a text. To characterise the skill and finesse of translation as an art isn’t just puffery – as described in this excellent account of the localisation of the classic video game Metal Gear Solid, featured on Polygon.com this week.

In this fascinating narrative, Jeremy Blaustein describes the “overwhelming job” of translating and localising the 1998 game, which is heavy in plot and dialogue. He writes, “The word “localization” barely existed in the business in 1997”:

I also knew that I couldn’t just jump into a translation without first getting a deep look into the world that [game creator Hideo Kojima] had been swimming in for years while conceiving Metal Gear Solid.

Metal Gear Solid 2

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

Metal Gear Solid 1

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami


Interestingly, Blaustein relays his intent during the extended – and isolating – challenge of bringing the philosophical military espionage thriller to a Western audience. It was necessary not just to transpose Japanese words into English, but to convey the correct tone, the subtle characterisation, and even the relationship between characters:

[I tried] to look past the Japanese words to capture the essence of each conversation. I was desperately trying to keep the feeling that Kojima was himself trying to inspire in player.

[…] Translation is not a science; it is an art. One must take liberties with the text to capture the essence of the words, in an attempt to recreate the feeling of the original for a very different audience with a very different cultural background. That essence is found less in the words themselves than in the spaces between the words. It is a tone, an ever-present, unspoken attitude, and in this case it was a very confident tone. It is the mark of a single hand that often gives a work integrity and power, and I didn’t want to put my fingerprint on Metal Gear Solid. I wanted to imitate what I thought Kojima desired from the text.

I recommend reading the engaging full article on Polygon.com. There’s also an interesting take on the need for over-emphasised dialogue and voice acting in PlayStation One-era games in this article from Levelskip.


Tips – Writing Translations


What makes a good translation? As talented as my translator clients are, they still sometimes have questions about how they can improve.

So you’ve already read through your text to get a full understanding of its content and style. You’ve taken out your bi-lingual dictionary and style guide. Google is open on-screen, waiting to assist. And you’re ready to begin.

What can you keep in mind as you go about your translation task? Here are a few simple tips.

1. Read around the subject
If you’re lucky enough to have a regular client, you will develop an understanding of their main topics as you work with them. But when you are introduced to a new field it helps to read about the subject in books or online. This will help you to learn the terminology and understand your audience. Be sure to refer to reputable sources, and don’t assume their spelling or grammar is up to scratch – check for yourself.

2. Give yourself plenty of time
Your job is difficult enough without putting yourself under unnecessary time pressure. Sometimes it can’t be helped if you’re working to tight time constraints, but if you have the luxury of starting a few days earlier than your deadline, give yourself that flexibility. It will give you more time to read around the subject (point 1); to find that succinct, clearest word or phrase (points 4, 5 & 6); and to proofread your latest draft (point 8).

3. Take advantage of your client’s glossary
If your client has included a glossary with your project details, this will help you with terminology and phrasing. Of course, you won’t be given a glossary for every task, which is where reading around the subject will help you – especially your client’s website or previous publications.

4. Be consistent and clear with terminology
You might find that there four or five words you could use to refer to the same thing. That doesn’t mean you should use them all! Whereas some people preach that variety makes for a more interesting text, you could also risk losing your reader if they mistakenly think you’re talking about two or more different things. Maintain clarity in your text by using the same term or phrase every time.

5. Use clear nouns/pronouns
In the same way, it’s better to say “Harriet said” / “Harriet did” then ambiguously refer to “she”. You can always remove any unnecessary repetition later.

6. Keep sentences brief
Short sentences are very clear. They are harder to misinterpret. Longer sentences like this, full of sub-clauses or long lists of nouns, verbs or other terms, which may or may not cover more than one topic – such as your client’s approach to computer technology in addition to their human resource policy – may technically be grammatically correct, but they will strain the focus of your reader and leave more room for error or misunderstanding.

7. Translate meaning, not words
The website Anglocom says, “Be the reader’s advocate … make the effort to understand the content and purpose of your text, then translate it as simply as possible.” This is especially important when translating idioms, which rarely translate literally. You will have a deeper understanding of the meaning in your text if you read around the subject (point 1) and take advantage of your client’s glossary (point 2).

8. Run it through a free grammar checker
Microsoft Word, or a website like Grammarly, can give you a quick check on your spelling, punctuation and grammar. They are far from perfect and can’t be relied on, but they might help you catch some stray typos. It will get your text in better shape to pass to your editor, client or supervisor even if it’s not the final draft.

9. Add notes for your editor or client
If a sentence was particularly challenging, add a comment to your text to explain what you’re trying to say. This may be impractical if you’re writing back to your client (who expects flawless work), but if you work with a proofreader or editor then they may find this invaluable, and it may possibly avoid errors due to misinterpretation, and save you time on back-and-forth questions.

10. Learn about translation itself
Whenever you aren’t translating, do some reading about translation itself. Translatorthoughts is a specialised website that provides translators with tips and some very helpful tools, including techniques and a translator’s glossary of terms. The advice to writers is: when you’re not writing, read. The same applies to translators – the more reading you do of the language you’re translating into, the more you will improve your skills.

Is there any advice you’d like on translating? If you have a question or comment, let me know!