Anyone who is a true fan of SQU/\RESOFT products, knows the name Ted Woolsey. For many years he was the head japanese-to-english game translator at the original SQUARE USA in Redmond, Washington. If you have played any of the following games, then you are already familiar with his work:
Final Fantasy Legend III
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
Final Fantasy III
Breath of Fire
Secret of Mana
Super Mario RPG (sold by NOA)
Some time ago, that branch of SQUARE was dissolved and moved to Los Angeles. Ted found himself out of a job. Instead of giving up, he, along with several others from the SQUARE USA team, created BigRain Software (currently no webpage online). BigRain will be revealing their first game, a RPG/Adventure hybrid for the Sony Playstation, at this summer's E3 in Atlanta.
When I asked Ted if I could do an interview with him, I was afraid he would be too busy (hey, trying to run a new company ain't easy ya know!), but much to my delight, he agreed. Not only did he agree but he was honored (which boosted my ego a few points as well). Well without further adieu.....
Bob Rork: When and how did you get hired to work at Square USA?
Ted Woolsey: I got hired to work at SSI in the Fall of 1991. I had finished a MA in Japanese, and was working on a dissertation, when my first kid came along. I decided I wanted to spend some time with him (and out of the stacks at the U), and that's when I heard about SSI and the position they had open there.
BR: What other interests/hobbies do you have aside from reading Japanese novels and such?
TW: I like traveling, play keyboards and guitars, have done martial arts for years, but these days I like to spend time with my wife and 2 young boys!
BR: Many people do not know that Big Rain software exists. Some have heard about it but don't understand. So, to clarify once and for all, could you please give a run down of the events that transpired from the time you first were informed that Square was moving to LA and the formation of Big Rain?
TW: I really can't talk about the move to LA, other than to say Square is a savvy company, and has a definite business direction, goals and strategies. I think all of us admired many of the Square board members, and we dreamed of building and managing a company of our own.
BR: When you were asked to translate a game, what did that involve exactly? What were you given (Japanese version?, script?) and what were you expected to do? Did you need to go to Japan and work with the writers of the script?
TW: I almost always went to Japan for at least 2-3 weeks to finalize a job. I'd receive a computer file (sometimes a game wasn't available yet) and would just start in. Obviously, when you can't see what it is you are translating it leads to trouble down the line, and a lot of extra work. But that is the nature of the beast in this business.
For one game I actually rented an apartment for a month or so. My (pregnant) wife and I and our 3 year old son stayed near Shinjuku in the middle of summer. It was a lot of work, but I remember that time quite fondly (Secret of Mana). I liked the staff at Square in Japan, and had some great times with them both during and after work. Yes, I had access to the people writing the script, and asked as many questions as I needed to get the job done.
To be honest, I wish I had had twice the time to work on each game, simply to polish the text and get things as I would have wanted them to be, but as in all software companies, deadlines (because of media buys, advertising and seasonality) were quite strict.
BR: What guides you when changing a name of a character or place in a game? For example, in FF3, Stragos became Strago because of the 6-letter limit, but why did Tina become Terra and Mash become Sabin? This was especially important with the Espers, some of whose names lost their (interesting) original meanings, such as Lakshmi, Valigarmanda, and Cait Sith.
TW: Sometimes it was legal issues or concerns (as in having characters with the same names as those in, let's say a well-known movie or something), often it was because of comments from play testers. Before we released a product, dozens of people had played it. They were never hesitant to mention their likes and dislikes. They "hated" the name Tina, almost to a person! (I was surprised as well...). In Mario RPG I wanted to name a character "James Bomb" (i.e. The name's Bomb, James Bomb...) but that was nixed.
You also have to remember that transliterated names have a variety of connotations and meanings in Japan, and sound quite different--sometimes better... (something like Masshu, not Mash). Also, since a player in the US might actually be named Tina (and in retrospect, Terra!), we tried to change the default characters so that there wouldn't be disappointment or confusion. Imagine if we had had a sub-character named Scott, and the purchaser of the game had gone and named the hero of the game Scott...two Scotts!
I know some people got furious that the names were changed, but to be honest, the games were meant for a broader audience than the one which buys and plays Japanese imports. In fact, I don't understand why someone who reads enough Japanese would buy the US port! It's like buying a translation of a novel when you can read the original.
BR: What guides you when dealing with something that's interesting and funny only in Japanese? Would you say it's more important to preserve the meaning of the actual expression... or would you change it outright if it sounded strange?
TW: Because with carts there was so very little memory for the English, a TON of stuff never got put into the English/European versions of the games. It was always tough to throw stuff out, but I had no choice. I tried to preserve some of the humor of the game, and some of the expressions, but the bottom line is that if a few dozen play testers didn't get it, and we had so little room anyway, I just dumped it so at least the skeleton of the story could be laid in. (In some ways I would never again wish that kind of frustration on any other person!)
BR: What do you think about the different dialects used by different characters? SD3 had a lot of that... and while different speakers of English have different accents, the words are pretty much the same, unlike, say, the differences between Tokyo-ben and Kansai-ben in Japanese. What do you think is a good way to preserve these differences without exaggerating the English speech too much?
TW: In some ways it is impossible to translate, for non-Japanese individuals, the difference between say, arimasen and arimahen (Kanto vs. Kansai). It really isn't the same as putting a southern drawl on an English passage. Word play was very much a part of the Japanese original. Again, I wish the games had been on a CD-ROM, as we could have done a ton of stuff differently, and more effectively.
BR: What were the easiest/hardest games for you to translate? Why?
TW: Mystic Quest was probably the easiest, due to the memory configuration. Chrono Trigger was probably the hardest, owing to time constraints and multiple characters that said slightly different things. Try translating a couple of thousand pages in a month or so (then having to go back and toss out 50% due to memory limitations)...it isn't all its cracked up to be!
BR: Does Big Rain eventually want to publish games themselves? And if so, is Big Rain considering translating games from Japan or only developing them?
TW: Yes, in the near future we will be publishing our own games. And yes again, we are considering translating games from Japan!
BR: Since FF: Mystic Quest was originally made with the purpose of being released in the U.S. to promote RPGs, why didn't SQUARE work with you initially on the game text instead of writing it all in Japanese for you to then translate?
TW: I'm not certain! That just wasn't the way things were done.
BR: What advice would you give to an aspiring video game translator? :)
TW: Read tons of popular literature (such as novels by Murakami Haruki, comics by Mizuki Shigeru (ge ge ge no kitaro, etc.) and live in Japan for as long as you can ( I was there for around 5 years studying, working as a translator, etc.) Prepare yourself for translating a document that is more like a telephone book of shuffled, random pages than a nice, clean, linear novel...
BR: Did you have any kind of involvment with Secret of Evermore?
TW: None, other than to market the game.
BR: What kind of deal does Big Rain have going with Ascii Ent.? Has there been some kind of company merge? Contract? Have they ordered a certain number of games or just agreed to publish them?
TW: News will be released at E3! (At the time this interview was conducted, E3 was still some time away but since it took so long, due to my laziness, to put this online, E3 is now only a few weeks away and Big Rain may have released more information by the time you read this.)
BR: Now that you no longer have to deal with Square Co. Ltd., and are now your own company, do you feel that there are options now available for you to explore & pursue that you couldn't have done under Square? If so, why?
TW: As in any changes like this, there are upsides and downsides. I respect the folks at Square, but am excited about having more control over what happens at Big Rain. The people at Square were good teachers, and, for the most part, quite gifted.
BR:Now looking back at that last question, are you infact totally separate from SQUARE or is there still some kind of relationship?
TW: Nope, we're totally separate.
BR: How many games are you currently working on and what is your role in them?
TW: We hope to have a major announcement at E3 regarding our business. I'll send you some PR stuff as soon as I am able. (Thanks!:)
BR: Do you plan to develop for: N64, Saturn, M2?
TW: Any platform that makes sense!
BR: Will Big Rain explore other genres besides RPGs? Is there a sequel to SoE being considered?
TW: Actually, Big Rain isn't composed of ex-SOE people. We have an entirely new staff, including our art director/CG director who has tons of Hollywood experience and movie credits, etc. The stuff we are working on now is in no way similar to SOE.
BR: Do you think that Big Rain games will be on the same caliber as the stuff SQUARE is currently putting out? Now or in the future?
TW: I think people will be excited by the products we're working on, and quite surprised as well. We have a ton of high-end rendering equipment, and many, many talented people making things happen. To be honest, we hope Square's products continue to grow the market in the US. It will make it easier for us to sell our games here if there are more RPG users!