Interview with the wolfgirl - Agness Kaku
Although this article started by mentioning MGS2, Agness was also responsible for Metal Gear Solid Ghost Babel on the GBC. I ask if she was aware of the series prior to starting work, "Yes, of course. But, and I'm sure this will just be used to beat me with, I had never played the games. I grew up without even much TV, you know, let alone videogames. I didn't see Star Wars until I was 14. I'm kind of a wolfgirl *laughs*. But yes, I was aware of it."
Having not played the prior games certainly didn't harm her work, since as far as I can tell Ghost Babel has received little if any criticism. In fact, whenever there are votes for the top 10 games on GBC, it is always included, beaten perhaps only by Nintendo's own Zelda titles. Agness recalls, "It's kinda weird because I remembered MGS2 coming first, but obviously I went through the files and it's like, oh no, Ghost Babel came around first. And that I really enjoyed, actually. It's nice to know that's still out there, in somebody's little GameBoy."
Her write up on Hibernium says it all, "It remains my favourite game project by the virtue of the radio drama (Codec Entertainment Program) that was conceived as a bonus feature. I've never been able to establish why this excellent faux-60's parody didn't garner more attention. It's easily the only decent piece of writing in the Metal Gear franchise. Forget government-disavowed ex-commandos: Novelty inventions are the real enemy. The main storyline is more-o'-the-same, but the 'IdeaSpy 2.5' serial radio program that can be tuned into for Snake's sneaking pleasure is actually funny and provided hours of pastiche-making fun for this translator. The adventures of Agent Two-point-five and his heroic crusade against J.E. Inc., 'The Catalogue of Conspiracies' is one localisation job I will never disavow, mostly because no one at the client end bothered to mess too much with my final draft for a change."
Ghost Babel is interesting because of the as yet unexplained work done by outsourcing company TOSE. I ask if she could shed any light on this or noticed anything pertaining to TOSE. "No, I wish I could. And that's actually one of the reasons I did that file dump on you, just in case. I certainly didn't notice anything. It was just another kind of: here you go, this is the stuff, these are the character limits, this is the deadline, go to it! That was pretty much how we worked."
Agness elaborated further on the radio play in Ghost Babel, and how it compares to other jobs, "It was fun because I couldn't really translate a lot of it, due to product names, so I had to rewrite it. I never had a formal training in translation, but I'm a good writer, at least in English, so I really think of it as rewriting. Obviously some clients demand that I have a very close adherence to the original, so that they could see that this word became that word, and so forth. But if I don't have this restriction I just look at the intent and the context and rewrite it in English."
As stated her favourite part was the radio drama, which was placed in-game without any cuts or changes. I ask Agness if it felt like Konami didn't care about that section, "Well, I kind of got that feeling for most of the stuff I got. So I'm not sure if that means anything. And it had a sense of humour, which is BIZARRE in Metal Gear, you know? Most of the games I got from Konami seemed to have had their sense of humour surgically removed. That's why it was so easy to work with - it was original and funny. It was good!"
We pause briefly, Agness perhaps concerned about fans unable to accept criticism about their favourite developer.
"Sorry did I just... I think I just insulted Konami's entire writing canon, didn't I?"
Not necessarily I assure her, Konami have put out some really bad writing over the years.
I also ask regarding the use of the word 'Merde' in Ghost Babel, "It was there in the original - it's not considered a big deal in Japan to swear, there's so few swear words anyway. So (the original Japanese word, 'kuso'), it's literally just, can I say this on Skype? Literally it's just 'shit!' But I knew I couldn't put that in, in English. I'm glad it made it in *laughs*. OK, so that's two things that made it in, that's good."
Another change was the word Fogger, which many fans assume was due to a Nintendo policy on smoking in its games. Actually this change took place during development. Load up the Japanese Ghost Babel and instead of Snake's signature cigarettes is the Japanese word for "smoke flair" or ハツエントウ in Katakana. This was likely shortened to fogger due to space. As Agness explained, "I think some things got changed because of character count. Who knows? Once it got to Konami, and they sent it to Konami US, maybe they were the ones that said we need a G-rating, and we need to cut this. Because years later, when I was working on Katamari Damacy, I was a little bemused, because they were the opposite of Konami. They were very involved, and talked to me often. And a great deal. They said: We can't have the king get drunk and destroy everything. So I was like, well! That was literally the first time anybody had ever mentioned ratings to me. Nothing like that came from Konami, Sony, or Nintendo on Metal Gear."
The biggest change Agness made to Ghost Babel though was with Mei Ling. In the original MGS a lot has been said about Jeremy changing Mei Ling's Chinese proverbs to more Westernised philosophical equivalents, including Shakespeare quotes. There have been some rumours that Kojima was displeased with these changes, and with Mei Ling again quoting Shakespeare for Ghost Babel, it raises the question of whether the development team followed the precedent set by the original MGS localisation, or if Mei Ling had originally again only quoted Chinese proverbs. Agness revealed, "It was the latter. She spouted a lot of proverbs, which doesn't... You know, it starts sounding like a fortune cookie, a really bad fortune cookie if you just translate it. So I think I used a lot of Shakespeare, and I think there's Duc de La Rochefoucauld, all kinds of things in there."
This is an incredible revelation because Jeremy did pretty much the same thing, quoting western philosophers to make it more relevant to its intended audience. When Jeremy was told about the similarities taking place unbeknownst to each localiser, he was both surprised and happy to discover the coincidence, "No way... That's really remarkable... Did you share that information with Agness as well? I can think of a few reasons why I would have wanted to do it. One is that the translations of the Chinese proverbs were going to be very 'translation sounding'. To a Japanese person, reading proverbs with Chinese characters has a certain echo to it which is more familiar, because the Japanese can read Chinese characters, so there is a familiarity to it. There isn't that distance as there obviously is between Western cultures and China, so I wanted to bridge the gap to some degree while retaining the same sense, the same feeling, and it seemed to me that was the best way."
I made sure to mention it to Agness, and she too was pleased "Well that's interesting, because I had no idea that Jeremy had done that. That's nice. It's sort of a case of people working separately, many years apart actually, coming to a kind of, you know... If you use the same standard you do tend to have a good match. Well that's really nice, thanks for telling me that."
This raises the subject of retaining the 'echo' of a translation in another language, something Jeremy has commented on in our previous interviews. It's not simply a case of converting words like a machine, the new audience should receive a similar experience as a native Japanese speaker would when hearing the original. Agness agrees that echo is important, "Exactly. I absolutely agree with that, but that echo is hard to explain to people; or rather explain to clients. It's odd what you find. Until recently I was working at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of Japan (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). So dealing with all the post-Fukushima accident stuff. So definitely solid technical translation. And I actually found the people working there were much more, you know, open about the 'echo' of language. And a lot of the stuff I was writing was in some ways much more moving than the videogames that I worked on, whose intent was to move in some ways."
SONS OF LIBERTY
Which leads us on to MGS2, the translation of which was extremely difficult, for several reasons. As was explained, "Pretty much all of MGS2's screenplay translation and localization was my handiwork, save for the screen navigation commands that had to be farmed out due to time constraints. The writing had to be cut down due to screen space concerns and Konami insisted on editing the product extensively; however, from what I understand, much of the errata corrections I performed on the original screenplay did survive. Many, many in-game terms/words were written in stone and non-negotiable. I remember making a case for how stupid 'sneak' sounded; I've no idea whether the agent even took these concerns to the clients. There were extremely restrictive character limits. For those not familiar with Japanese writing systems, you can pack in a lot more content in Japanese than English. This meant that it was usually impossible to keep the original meaning/nuance/flavour and stay under the count. I'd translate a line, then painfully slash and burn until I got it under the count. Take into consideration the fact that Konami was paying me by the final word count, and the process took on a Kafkaesque air."
It was further complicated by the fact that duplications could not be removed. While trying to balance a limited word count, Agness at the same time was not allowed to remove anything, and the English on a micro scale had to match the Japanese original, "I remember thinking this is kind of an impossible situation, where there is something I can cut, without losing anything, but I'm not supposed to cut that, because then it would deviate. After a while you got in the rhythm and it seemed to go well, but you had to be able to look at the Japanese original, look at the English, and see a 1-to-1 correspondence." As Agness explained this was a strange enforcement by Konami, and the kind of thing you'd be more likely to see in translations of legal documents, or scientific translations. It's not the kind of thing that should happen in entertainment products like videogames.
Interestingly the character counts had nothing to do with space on the DVD, as they were with cartridge games and limited ROM, rather it was to do with how much text could be displayed at any time on screen. This forced Agness to use a rather low-tech method of creating a ruler and - using a monotype font - making sure every sentence was longer than the allotted number of English characters. It was a nightmare, but there was no alternative - word counts were dictated by Konami and had to be adhered to. As Agness explained, "I could put in requests or questions, but without any guarantee they would even be read by them. So I could make suggestions all I wanted, and sometimes the stuff would get changed by the checker, I guess, at INTAC, and sometimes it would get changed on the Konami end."
Finally having an inside source on the matter, I ask about the Nerd/Node piece of dialogue in the game. Looking over the original Japanese file shows that 'nerd' was written in Romaji (English letters), while above it, in smaller Katakana-based Furigana (which is usually written in Hiragana and placed above difficult to pronounce Kanji), was the phonetic Japanese word for nerd, and then besides this in brackets were the Japanese equivalents, including the word 'otaku'. Even as a non-native Japanese speaker, the original set-up for this one line seemed awkward. Agness explained, "Regarding node vs. nerd, I do not remember that particularly. However, I do remember a general pattern of attempts to kick it American-style in the original. I felt it was essentially juvenile name-dropping, whether it was 'hey, I speak English, look!' puns like this one, or knowing references to mushers and the NSA. The saddest joke is that Japanese nationals who actually know about this stuff - SDF officers, war journalists, sketchy wanderers - would have been amazing sources for an actual writer."
AMERICAN MILITARISM AND JAPANESE SOLDIERS
Raising the subject of Japanese nationals who could have been a source of information for Kojima lead us on to an even more interesting discussion, the slight obsession Kojima has with American militarism. As Agness succinctly put it, "Why is Mr Kojima writing about a country he's not a part of, and frankly doesn't know that much about? Watching a bunch of Michael Bay movies does not... I mean, it teaches you about America, in that we let a guy like this direct a lot of movies, but why doesn't he write a Japanese game? You know, same kind of action, same kind of stealth. There is darkness in Japan as well, and there's of course the potential for a lot more in the future, in any country which happens to be peaceful. There are a lot Japanese mercenaries. If you remember there was one killed in Iraq a few years ago."
I point out that Kojima actually hired Japanese former-mercenary Motosada Mori, as his main military consultant. Agness went on, "But it's still this idea that if you're Japanese, or a game is Japanese, it's not cool, and I have come to loathe that attitude, with a passion. And I can go on a big rant, about how it's a product of internalising cultural imperialism from the West, or a kind of self-loathing, or desire to forget the past. It's not very long ago that a bunch of Japanese people sprayed an Israeli airport with machine-gun fire."
Ultimately, as Agness explains, there's a lack of authenticity when you focus on a country not your own, especially when there's plenty of material in Kojima's native Japan to draw upon, "I think it's a bad form of playfulness to play at being another country's soldiers. It's inauthentic, and ultimately makes a fool of you, I think. I mean, yeah, it's just a game. But you know, if it's just a game, then why not try something creative? A lot of the Japanese guys that join the French Foreign Legion, or go on to become guns for hire in places like Iraq, they do so because there is no place for them in society. Most of them join the [Japanese] Self Defence Force, but it's not enough for them. They actually are soldiers at heart, for better or for worse, so they leave the country because they're, you know...I think it's good, speaking as a civilian, because there is no place for stone killers in this country right now. And that's an interesting thing, as well, that because of what you are, you have to sort of wander the Earth, looking to fight in other people's wars, for money. To try to find whatever meaning you can. That to me is a good starting point, I think."
I ask her, does she feel Kojima should work on something closer to home? "Yeah, something he can actually understand. I know that sounds really, really harsh, but I was really disturbed that a lot of the... Some of the earlier scene stuff I got, literally had references to Hollywood blockbusters, in the margins saying: 'Like in this movie!' But none of them were rare films, I mean it wasn't talking about Dr Strangelove, it was all just kind of bone-headed, you know, Bruckheimer kind-of... And I like some bone-headed stuff just fine. If Predator is on, I will always watch it. Same thing with Universal Soldier, believe it or not. But you can't then base your supposedly new fiction on that stuff. It's just a patchwork of Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsythe, Bruckheimer... It's a Frankenbaby, and not a very pretty one, not a very effective one I think."
Wow, film references in the margin? It's well known Kojima loves film, but that's incredible. Agness elaborated, "Yeah, but only in the opening demo, or opening scenes. The rest of it, the dialogues, didn't really, and they were all kind of chopped up, so it was difficult to tell which dialogue went where. So yeah, the big cut-scenes in the beginning, had a lot of direct movie references."
JAPANESE TO ENGLISH INTRICACIES
Agness then elaborated on the challenges inherent in converting Japanese to English, "Japanese is much more efficient a language than English, in many ways, not every way obviously. But in a very simple comment it can load in gender, age, the social status of the person speaker, as opposed to the listener, whether the person is urbane or hick, and you know, basic emotions. It's very easy, so it's like a very well-done sketch. It's always been. I think maybe that's one of the reasons Japan had a very big head start in games with big story arcs and lots of talking. Because you can do it quite efficiently: Oh, it's a boy, it's a girl, she's in love, he's in love. All these things you can just do with one single character change."
Because of these limitations, she had to focus her energies on mood building with all the dialogue in MGS2, "You end up having to rewrite the whole thing, and you have to decide OK, you can't load in all the stuff in one speaker's dialogue, so you have to do it with the scene. What is the ultimate mood? And on games like Metal Gear most of it, the mood was just this kind of, manly tense thing. So it was easier than most, but all the endless dialogue about 'there is a conspiracy' and this is actually that, and references to some political intrigue. Well, the mood is one of, sort of world weariness, and slight paranoia, pleasant paranoia, and kind of a Frederick Forsythe type of cigar chompy, slight hawkishness. And it can be done, over the course of a scene, just not in individual lines of dialogue."
Additionally there were factual errors which needed correcting, "When a story has a plethora of cliches ('the-government-made-me-a-killer-then-abandoned-me' comes painfully to the mind) AND takes itself seriously, all one can do is lay on a good coat of noir and make it stick. That, and eliminate glaring factual inaccuracies. I wish I could remember specific instances, but I know that they were mostly if not all to do with the government and military stuff. Maybe Mr Kojima would dispute that, or whoever actually wrote the game. Does he actually write these things?"
I explain that yes, according to an interview in GamesTM issue 27, conducted by Tim Rogers, Kojima writes the majority of the MGS games, with the exception of some codec dialogue. The article in question is fascinating because, if Tim is to believed, Kojima doesn't have much of a high regard for MGS2 himself, describing it merely as a jumble of things inspired by current events with characters taken from his favourite movies. The interview, dripping with Tim's trademark Gonzo style, is well worth reading, and can be found here. (Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
WHAT IF AGNESS HAD MAGIC POWERS?
Next I ask Agness, if she had magic powers and time travel, what kind of changes she would have made to MGS2, since famously Jeremy has commented on originally wanting to change the names of boss characters, "I actually had the same thought. I wanted it to be a little fun, as in more camp overall. Because I thought: OK, these are Bond villain names. But Bond works because it's always had a sense of humour about it. It's tongue in cheek. But that wasn't a part of the rules here. I mean take Revolver Ocelot... It's kind of cute, I guess. But it sort of sounds like a casino game."
Agness went on, "One possible change, one change I think would have been very good, is to have made it funny. You know? The same kind of action, but... I thought him sneaking, hiding in a box, on occasion moving around, was really funny - in a good way! It was thrilling, it made you feel like a child, and it was fun stealth. I love over the top names, and the girlfriend haranguing, the girlfriend who turns out to be a fembot or an AI, haranguing him, all that stuff is actually funny, so you know, go for it! Make it funny. So that would be one good change I would have liked to have seen."
I asked about any other changes she might have liked. "Don't make the women act stupid *laughs*. I mean, the men act stupid, but at least in a kind of way that at least makes sense. They have a mission, they're doing it, and they're very square jawed, or they betray because that's what they're supposed to do. They're at least doing something that's useful. But except for that Russian analyst, and I suppose she's allowed to be competent because she's Russian, even Mei Ling, is sort of... I actually did graduate from an Ivy League University, but even the sort of cute bubbly girls don't act like Mei Ling. If you know you've gone through countless rounds of competition to end up where you are, you don't act like that. It's just sort of: 'Hi! I'm your friendly fembot!' It's just bizarre! And maybe it's a small thing, but then if it's a small thing why not do it well? She's all giddy and chirpy. I mean why exactly did they hire her? So she could be giddy and chirpy? Same thing with that girl that turns out... At least with that other girl she turned out to be an AI. It's kinda like, hey, some man programmed her, check! So that's a small quibble, but yeah, anyone who writes that is not a genius."
FREE COPIES, AUTHOR CREDITS, AND FAN CHAUVENISM
Another interesting point is receiving a complimentary copy of the game, "Yeah, they finally did, but that was only because of a really nice guy that was INTAC. He actually, really, twisted their arm - either that or he snuck me out a copy that was meant for INTAC. It's odd, because when I started working for Namco they even sent me a test PS2 in addition to copies of the Katamari games. I was like 'Wow! What a difference!' I think I was living in Japan when the job started. But you know by the time I got that free copy, I'd already been working on the game for quite a while, so it wasn't as useful as it should have been."
Ironically despite the low pay, quantity of work and difficulties placed upon her, Agness wasn't even credited in MGS2. Though she doesn't mind too much, "No, at the time, like a lot of people, I thought that I would possibly get into the game industry through this. And to all the boys and girls listening, no, that just doesn't happen. But since then one of the things I've done, is I've become a ghost. And I'm not being all metaphysical. I've been a ghost writer as well, so I don't mind [lack of credit] as long as the understanding is there from the beginning."
Even worse was the unfair fan criticism she received, as mentioned earlier. "Yeah, it happens. I think part of it is, I think, because I'm a woman. And because I've been outspoken about the fact that I do not think this stuff is well written. So it's a bit of: 'What the hell does that girl know?' kind of thing. And perhaps the criticism about Kojima not knowing a lot of women, perhaps hit home with some of the fans? Obviously these games wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't have had work if there weren't that many fans, but sometimes you just kind of wanna go: 'It's just a game! I mean it's got characters named Liquid and Solid, go outside for a second!''
So I ask, would there have been less criticism if she were a man, or perhaps worked under a male pseudonym? "I think it's possible. But you know, I have been surprised at the number of assumptions made about me, as a translator, and a writer, over the years. Like because I have a Japanese last name, people have said well, you know, you're clearly not a native speaker of English, so you don't understand this. Or I've been told: well, you're clearly an American, so you don't understand the original Japanese. And of course there's the whole, well, you must not know about weapons, because you're a girl. Well, in fact I was on the rifle team in College too. So yeah, you have to get used to it."