Achieving my Dream as a Video Game Translator in Japan

I’m kreebilicus, or kreeb for short. I’ve lived in Japan for almost six years, and I translate video games, working in-house at a Tokyo-based company. I had never studied a language since high school, and my degree is in something completely unrelated to either languages or video games.

Masters In The Making #7

My reason for learning

I came to Japan with no long-term goals to speak of and my Japanese language skills amounted to being able to awkwardly read the kana; nothing out of the ordinary for an English teacher fresh off the boat. I started learning simply to improve my conversation skills to try and make daily life run a little more smoothly. I soon found this to be an unsatisfactory goal, and have been constantly reassessing my targets as I’ve progressed and achieved what I set out to do.

My method

My methods will be no surprise to those familiar with the advice and techniques laid out at Jalup, so I’ll keep it brief – RTK concurrently with some J-E (6 months, around 1,000 sentences that I eventually deleted), 400 J-E from novels and online resources, straight to J-J sentences immediately after. I’ve been J-J for close to 4 years and have about 12,000 sentences, all made by myself using sentences found from every book, manga, game, and article I’ve enjoyed or thought useful, and branch from new words in the definitions.

I did use a textbook, not a major one, but I binned it midway through RTK because it was all in romaji and dull as dishwater. I’ve never use Genki or any other structured, unit-based textbook. I do take sentences from JLPT grammar prep books, typing out the all-Japanese explanations. If I come across a tricky pattern or expression in a sentence, I can then search Anki for a grammar definition and use that in my new card. I find the Kanzen Master series is very useful because, at least for the N1 and N2 level books, it’s written 100% in Japanese.

Content milestones

My progress timeline would look something like this:

  • RTK – 6 months to finish, with J-E sentences
  • J-J – from 6 months up to now, and counting (including some J-E)
  • JLPT N2 – after 2 years 9 months
  • JLPT N1 – after 3 years 3 months
  • Translation job – after 4 years exactly

Confusing stuff

Implementing cloze deletions in Anki in a way that worked for me was something that took me a while to figure out. After a year of experimentation, adjustments, and no shortage of frustration, I developed a system I liked. My criteria for adding a sentence to Anki is only that it must contain at least one new word, two max, or a grammar structure or expression that isn’t new, but that I want to understand better.

I then cloze delete the grammar or new word, or two new words to make two new cards, add the readings for every word (familiar and new), and definitions for the new ones. I very occasionally add definitions for words I already “know”, but only if I feel I need the reminder.

Using cloze deletions pushes my memory and contextual understanding to the absolute limit – I have to recall kanji writings, readings, vocabulary and context, all for one small cloze deletion. I sometimes fail a lot of cards, perhaps not as many as some of you might think, but I’m fairly strict on vocab recall and readings. I try to be more lenient when it comes to using synonyms or forgetting kanji.

Something I learned was that you don’t need a partner to practice speaking. When I’m at home, I like to read my Anki cards out loud, but I don’t stop there. I also speak to myself and try to define target words or explain grammar rules, basically paraphrasing definitions, which has an impact on how I rate myself. Essentially I’m trying to define words in Japanese, give synonyms, or rephrase the sentence entirely. This takes some time and it’s not easy, but it’s also fantastic practice of linguistic gymnastics.

Worst moments

My worst moment was probably during the early stages of my studies, before RTK, when absolutely nothing was sinking in. I was only studying a couple of hours of a week, copying out of a text book like I did in school because it was the only way I knew how. I also got pretty down during my teaching days because I was so desperate not to be an English teacher any more, but was extremely worried that that was all I would ever get to do in Japan. No offense to English teachers, but it wasn’t a career path I was prepared to follow.

Best moments

Passing JLPT N1 through self-study and using non-standard methods is justification of the efficacy of Anki and the Jalup method, and for that reason is one of my proudest moments. Achieving my major goal by securing my current job, however, blows that out of the water, as does translating for AAA titles and working with world-renowned Japanese franchises.

Advice

Maintain your momentum – you should do everything in you power to not let reps build up. If you can finish all your reps every day, even if it’s just 10 reps, you must do something at the very least.

Match your new cards to the time you have available – It’s very easy to get overexcited and start studying lots of new cards, especially when you’re just starting out, or have come back to Anki after a break. This is the quick route to getting in over your head and quitting, perhaps not for the first time. Depending on how strict you are, Experiment with the time you have available and find the right balance.

When I had 6 weeks summer holiday as a teacher, I would do 30 new cards per day and up to 150 reviews, and spend a couple of hours making new cards for the coming days. Now I do 5 new cards a day, have about 80 or so reviews which I do during my commute, and spend 30 minutes every day making cards because I don’t have the time to do any more – I want to read, play games, and watch TV! Managing my time in this way has meant I’ve not missed a day of Anki in well over 2 years, and I finish my reps 95% of the time.

Have a purpose – For me, the desperation not to be an English teacher was the pack of baying wolves behind me that ensured I never slacked off. That and getting good at Japanese was my chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of working in the games industry. When I came to Japan, I soon decided that before I reached a certain age, I had to be doing something here other than teaching English. I just failed, but only by 4 months. I hope you can let me off there.

The difference Japanese has made to my life

I think it’s fairly clear from all I’ve written here what a difference Japanese has made to my life. To summarize, Japanese has allowed me to achieve a dream and my job is a combination of two things I used to do in my free time. So much of what I’ve done can be attributed to Adam, his amazing website, and the example he sets for all of us. Thanks!

Have your own story to tell?

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Achieving my Dream as a Video Game Translator in Japan — 10 Comments

  1. Wow. Very inspiring, as usual for this series! That was a nice jump from the N2 to the N1 in just six months, for one. And landing your dream job just a year later: perfect.

    • I really wasn’t ready for the N1 and only scraped a pass. I’m thinking of taking it again this December, but I swear it will be the last time!

      It was hard to focus on the end goal at times, especially when it was one that was years down the line, but the perseverance was worth it. The posts here and the reader comments often gave me that little push I needed to finish my reviews.

  2. Such a great story!! Game translating is something I’ve always been interested in. I’m a pretty high level and play plenty of Japanese video games, but I have no idea how to get started in a translation career. How did you get started in your career? I’d love to talk to you some time about that.

    • You’re in luck then! I’m planning to write something in the near future that goes into more detail about the steps I took to finally get my current job.

      I will expand on this, but to give you a brief answer now: I started blogging about game localization, started hanging out with translators, attended some local J-E and E-J game translation events (living in Tokyo helps there), basically did everything in my power to show I was focused and to make acquaintances in the industry. Soon enough I had a few leads for in-house positions, to which I applied, one fell through at the last minute and the other I got. It was a combination of hard work and timing. As well as a killer tip off from an experienced colleague!

      • There are game translation events here o.o? (I live just south of Shinagawa). I am more interested in book translation, but being a life-time gamer I certainly wouldn’t mind at least sitting in on something like that for the knowledge!

        • You should try attending a few of the Japan Association of Translators meetings and chatting to a few people. The events are pretty regular, the people very nice, you definitely learn something, and there are casual networking events after the presentations. You don’t even have to be a member to go along.

          The subject matter for the seminars is varied, mostly on the technical and legal side, and geared towards freelancers, but I attended one given by manga and game translation duo Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda. I met some amazing people there who really helped me over the final hurdle and into a job. You really never know who you’ll meet at these events and I really recommend you go along.

          http://jat.org/
          http://www.altjapan.com/

    • Short answer: Only J>E. I would never be allowed to do E>J and I wouldn’t trust an employer who expected me do that for video games. Internal documents, and perhaps more technical and formulaic documents aside, games are expected to contain so many colloquial turns of phrase, accents, and cultural references that a non-native speaker just wouldn’t be able to do it quick enough or well enough. I’ve reviewed a couple of J>E translations by non-natives and they were bad. Really bad.

      I think there’s a reluctance to use even true bilinguals in game translation going in both directions. Someone might be bilingual in speaking, but being bilingual in writing as well is rarer, I think. If someone is learning Japanese at home and English at school, then there’s going to big disparity in the language they’re using in both environments and hence a tendency to excel in one language in certain areas. Who would you rather translate your Gundam game into English – someone who grew up watching it in English or Japanese?

      • I’m surprised to hear you say that. I was under the impression that it was normal to have native speakers of both languages collaborating on a single translation project.

        For the Gundam example, I think “growing up with it” would be a valuable trait in terms of passion for the project, but wouldn’t necessarily lead to quality or consistency on its own. That I’d expect to come from the translator being highly organized and doing lots of contemporary research, and ultimately benefiting from the presence of a skilled editor who wields Ye Almighty Style Guide XD

        Anyway, it’s also fair to say that every studio works differently, and really this is only my personal take based on limited interaction with game loc teams. I guess my point is I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that you have no value to an E>J project =)

        • Like you say, I’m sure each studio operates differently, so my comment may have been a bit too sweeping a generalization. If a company has stupendously talented bilingual translators then they should use them and treasure them. Certainly, I work with native Japanese speakers, some of whom are translators, but our collaboration only goes so far – we would never translate game text the other way, but do regularly ask questions about nuance and meaning, or technical questions relating to glossaries, software, style guides and terminology.

          Your point about research is absolutely spot on. Determined and thorough research skills are essential for a translator in any field, but there’s only so much research you can do before you need to actually start translating. After all, if outsourced, a standard translation project is generally charged by source character for J>E, source word for E>J, not by the hour.

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