segagaga_howell.jpgJames Howell is the head editor and business manager of the recently-formed DELTAHEAD Translation Group. The group have recently worked on translating Konami's ShowMaybe? Magazine/pamphlet for E3 2006, and the continuing translation of Hideo Kojima’s official HIDEOBLOG.

Even more recently, Howell has announced on his own blog that DELTAHEAD have started work on a translation patch for Sega’s SegaGaga - a cult title that regular readers of GameSetWatch will no doubt be more than familiar with. For those who came in late, however, the 2001 Dreamcast swan song was a “Sega simulator” that referenced not only Sega’s own financial trouble, but also hundreds of their own characters. Unfortunately, since the game never made it to Western markets the only hope til now has been translation FAQs for anyone wanting to play the game. So DELTAHEAD’s translation is like a public service, really – though it’s certainly not aimed at the emulation kids. “The idea is that you'd make a backup copy of your Japanese copy of SegaGaga, add our patch to the backup, burn the patched backup on a CD-ROM disc, and play the English language version on your Dreamcast,” explains Howell.

GameSetWatch contacted Howell via email to talk about DELTAHEAD, and working on the SegaGaga translation.

What was the thought behind starting DELTAHEAD?

DELTAHEAD attained its status as an LLC (a Limited Liability Company) after a string of chance meetings, fortuitous circumstances, and hard work. I had met our Redactor, Jerel Smith, several years earlier through our mutual interest in the Metal Gear Solid series. I later met our Head Translator, Yoshiko Hayashida, while I wrote my plot analysis of the Capcom game killer7. She had contacted me to offer her translation of a companion book to the game, Hand-in-killer7.
We started working together and decided to make the translation into good quality public domain material. She sent me her translations, and I edited them for clarity. Jerel started helping both of us, and we figured that we had a good thing going. After our public domain translation of Hand-in-killer7, we kept with it, got an offer we couldn’t refuse, and later registered as an LLC with the state of South Carolina.
I realized that—with a few exceptions—the videogames industry has matured in most ways except in its attention to sophisticated language. I’m not even talking about bad translations that actually mislead players, like Final Fantasy VII’s gem, “Attack while the tail is up!” A reviewer might downgrade a game because it has polygon clipping, but bad English can get brushed aside or even coddled for its novelty.
DELTAHEAD’s ideals respond to this problem. We want to encourage a proportionate maturity in the videogames industry; we want the quality of English writing to become as important as the integrity of a game’s physics engine. I think that the task needs writers with an eye for originality, along with a classical grounding in the English language—its novels, plays, and (most importantly) poems. The Japanese games industry really needs to see translators who want to do more than “get the point across.” It needs people who love English as a literary language.
Recent games (like killer7 and Katamari Damacy) show a greater attention to these qualities. Players can see the games’ characters reflected in the language. DELTAHEAD recognizes that unless the games industry seriously invests in better English writing, we’re going to have exposition that reads like episode summaries from TV Guide, along with characters as well-written as Final Fantasy VII’s Barrett, who was one mohawk shy of a Mr. T clone. That sort of work becomes nothing short of embarrassing alongside graphics as stunning as we’ve seen in store for the next-gen consoles.

Are any games that you think handled their translations particularly well?

I'm glad you asked this. I don't want to appear as though we overlook the really good localization work in the industry.
Atlus does really solid work. Jerel vouches for the quality of the Shin Megami Tensei games. I've played their versions of Nippon Ichi's games, and those are great. Lesser talents might have fallen back upon tongue-in-cheek Engrish to make the dialogue funny, but they smoothly conveyed the charm of Disgaea. Comedy's hard to write, and it's doubly hard to translate. They deserve praise for doing that well.
Ben Judd of Capcom and Ryan Payton of Kojima Productions do excellent work. They're native English speakers who know how to run a professional show, and their hard work markedly improves their studios' games. I also respect the work of Scott Dolph, Hideo Kojima's international manager prior to the formation of Kojima Productions.
Proof of the quality of their work lies in how memorable characters from the Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry games are. English language players understand what's exciting about those games as well as Japanese players do. These guys have fresh perspectives on localization that more inward-gazing factions of the Japanese game industry desperately need. They know good writing when they see it, and they hunt that strong, final product.
Mediocre localization makes a game technically playable; good localization makes a game pleasurable; excellent localization makes a game pleasurable and conveys its original personality to its second audience. Payton, Judd, and Atlus have great results to show for their hard work, and those results make their attitudes worth emulating.

What level of understanding do you have of Japanese?

I recognize the phonetic alphabets—hiragana and katakana—and I can pick up very basic sentence structures. Beyond that, I’m wholly dependent upon the talents and skills of Jerel and Yoshiko. I have spent much time familiarizing myself with Japanese culture and history, however, which improves my comprehension of more idiosyncratic Japanese meanings.
I’d like to add a bit more about my associates’ skills to assure everyone that we’re no ramshackle group. Yoshiko was born and raised in Japan’s Kansai region. She left for America as a young woman and later moved to France (where she presently lives). She’s fluent in Japanese, English, and French. Her global experience, native intimacy with Japan, and enviable work ethic make her an ideal Head Translator. Jerel is bilingual and lives in California. He has both concrete and abstract linguistic interests, and—to be frank—he’s goddamn brilliant.
I’d probably shoot anyone who tried to steal these folks from me, or at least load the firing chamber slowly to give them time to run. I couldn’t ask for a better crew.

How many people are working with you?

In addition to DELTAHEAD’s usual staff, we have had the programming talents of Mr. Patrick Smith for our current public domain SegaGaga translation patch.
Patrick has been wonderful to work with. He’s currently in college, so his available time for work on SegaGaga has slimmed. Nonetheless, he still always gives a quick answer if I’m confused by some Dreamcast code nestled in the text. He’s been patient and considerate in light of our absent programming skills, and we’re grateful for his time. The SegaGaga translation project isn’t possible without his curiosity and enthusiasm.

What projects are DELTAHEAD working on now?

We’re handling the English translation patch for SegaGaga as well as revising our public domain translation of Hand-in-killer7. We’ve had one year of professional experience since we touched it, so we’re revisiting it to improve its accuracy, clarity, and writing quality.

How far do you see the company going? Would you like the company to move into games translation on a full-time basis?

During the most recent session of DELTAHEAD’s corporate minutes, we agreed to invest funds into the world’s first bilingual dog. Market analysis suggests that our best decision will be a large, sable Labrador retriever named Furaipan—Japanese for “Skillet.” I am using all my cut-throat jockeying skills to ensure that Jerel and Yoshiko take full possession of Furaipan’s fore and hindquarters, thereby leaving me wholly in charge of company petting without handling either (1) feeding or (2) the regrettable consequences of feeding.
We’d also like to get work localizing console games. It’s a tough field to break into, especially since we’re not physically in Japan. Large corporations like INTAC have a pretty strong presence with people in charge of translation outsourcing, so smaller companies have to work harder to get attention from Japanese studios looking for an NTSC market.
None of this deters us, though. Most success depends upon proving your worth when the opportunity arises. Providence is nothing if not coquettish, and work like SegaGaga keeps us flirting. We’ll meet the moment when serious attention comes our way.

Why have you decided to translate SegaGaga?

Beyond the fact that it helps raise awareness of our work within the videogames community, we wanted to give something useful to the English language audience. We see nothing wrong with occasional pro bono work, so long as we think it satisfies a real need. Rational self-interest and philanthropy don’t live too far apart in my mind, since the same level of passion drives each.

Where do you think the fascination with the game comes from?

SegaGaga has a strong appeal as an industry inside joke. It may be one of the few games that work as a satire of the videogames industry. I’ve even heard that Sega had to recall the initial release of SegaGaga because both the logo and corporate head of Dogma (Sega’s rival in the game) bore too much resemblance to the PSX logo and the head of Sony.
It’s also a one-of-a-kind piece of videogame history. Sega was one of the first companies forcing Nintendo to compete for the early console market. They’ve got a long-standing presence in the industry, and the brand name alone evokes a horde of memories for veterans on the scene. The Dreamcast’s demise broke a lot of hearts, and SegaGaga strikes me as Sega’s way to bid farewell to their old heft in the business—at least for now.

How did you first encounter it?

An old friend introduced me to the game a long time ago. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, and I only encountered it again when Patrick posted about SegaGaga’s final boss fight on InsertCredit’s forums.

Do you think it's something that you could recommend to someone not well versed in Sega history? To someone who hasn't played it - like me - it seems like something that might go over the heads of a lot of gamers - particularly Western ones.

SegaGaga definitely belongs in the hands of industry vets and Sega fanatics, though I don’t think it stands well as a game without its references. It’s not bad by any means—it just doesn’t do much original in the terms of the genres featured in it. In fact, it’s ironic that the game addresses a futuristic, fictional stagnation in Sega’s creative output, and it also features unremarkable gameplay in its RPG and shooter segments. Maybe the irony is intentional, but the game succeeds precisely because it takes full advantage of Sega’s presence in the industry.
With that said, the references are executed well enough to please Sega acolytes as well as folks who only read about Alex Kidd in magazines while they played the NES at home. A lightweight Sega fan may not understand that SegaGaga’s CEO, Hitomajiri, alludes to the actual Sega executive Shoichiro Iramajiri, but that material is there for the faithful.
The real test for players’ attention will come from the business sim portion of the game. Besides the fact that the genre doesn’t properly exist in the West (outside of perhaps some of the early Sim- games), the main rewards come through Sega references. If a player doesn’t see the comedy in spending half his budget to develop Super Wonderboy in the year 2025—resulting in a net gain of 5% of the market—he’ll likely need to get through the business sim on curiosity alone.

What problems are you running into?

Our main obstacles have been the lack of a half-width font and the difficulty of getting the Japanese text into readable scripts without the Dreamcast code. I have to go through each file and manually format them into legibility. That means hours of zombifying text highlighting, deletion, inserting carriage returns, and so on. I try to make the best of the work and use it to improve my recognition of kana syllables.