By John Szczepaniak, March 2012
Jeremy Blaustein reflects on 25 years of the Snake
The first Metal Gear for the MSX2 was released in mid-1987, which brings us very close to the 25th Anniversary of the entire series. To commemorate this I spoke with Metal Gear Solid localiser Jeremy Blaustein, since it was his tireless work which allowed the series to reach critical mass in the West, back in 1998. As discussed previously, Jeremy has been involved with numerous projects over the years, from his early days at Jaleco through to writing dialogue for Konami SNES games, right up to arranging the voice actors for Shenmue and more recent localisation work. With such a diverse portfolio, I admit that I feel bad for asking only about MGS on this occasion. Indeed looking over Jeremy's many interviews, with us and various podcasts, even Play magazine in the UK, it's often always his work on MGS which is focused on.
A quarter of a century after the series started, you have now been inextricably woven into its complex tapestry - how do you feel about it being a focal point for your career?
Well put... But I'll tell you why I don't feel bad about it - because the degree to which it's gained notoriety reflects the amount of effort I put into it. Of all the games I've worked on, before and since, I never had as much time to concentrate my efforts on the translation as I did on Metal Gear. And thanks to that, I was able to do it all by myself with plenty of time to do it well. That would never happen now. These days, no one ever gives you that much time and space. More likely than not, you would be forced to hire three or four translators and a couple of proof-readers to get it done in time and, since it would be done by multiple people, it would lose some of its strength and vitality. When one person does a translation it always bears that person's mark more strongly in terms of stylistic consistency. It retains more flavour, if you will.
Otherwise how are things currently, working on any interesting projects?
Things are good. I am currently just wrapping up a very large localisation project for the Sony Vita in the Silent Hill series. It's called Book of Memories. We are doing that in seven languages.
Wow, you're obviously the right man for the job, given your experience with previous titles.
I think they knew that I would be passionate about doing it and I think at the same time they were trying to sort of send the message to their old fan base that they want to bring Silent Hill back to the same level of quality that it was in the past. So, you see, it's not just Metal Gear - there are really two games that people seem to focus on from my list of projects; Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid.
Yes, and Symphony of the Night.
Yeah... To a humorous degree. You know it's become an internet meme, right?
Ah yes, the "what is a man!" dialogue. But you know, I liked the original script, it became a part of how I remember SotN, and I was a little disappointed when changed it for the PSP retranslation. Though I notice they kept in the Cube of Zoe, which was your creation, naming it after your daughter.
Really? I am so happy to hear that. I've got to tell Zoe. My son asked me, he said: "Dad did you put my name in the game?" And I said yeah, yeah I did... But looking back now, I don't think I did... After all, I was already sort of pushing my luck by putting Zoe's name in there.
Don't worry, your secret's safe with me (until I put this in the internet).
I think actually Zoe made another game as well, Snatcher I think... No that was my wife, Chie, and my cat. But speaking of Zoe, I always wondered if Mr. Kojima chose the name Zone of Enders (ZOE) because of my daughter's name. She was born when he and I were talking fairly frequently, and both our wives share the same name.
You played the original Metal Gear in high school, is that right?
Yeah I did. What year was the original Metal Gear?
The original was 1987 for the MSX2 and the NES version was 1988.
Yeah so I would have been like... So I would have been in college... I remember [Colonel Vermon CaTaffy]. It was really ridiculous, it's so funny how far we've come.
The funny thing is, it was not like that in the Japanese version.
Yes, back then it was like the marketing guys would just write whatever they want.
Did you ever play the NES sequel, Snake's Revenge?
Hmm... Might have rented it, yeah I might have, I'm not sure if I remember.
When you started on MGS, what kind of materials did Konami provide, if any?
As for materials, I had three HUGE hard-cased 3-ring binders from R&D. One of them was filled with original R&D drawings by Shinkawa of the characters in various clothes and using various apparati/weapons. One of them was the script and one of them included deep bios, info about all sorts of places and weapons.
Awesome. Regarding the script, Agness Kaku mentioned in MGS2 that there were film references in the margin, saying for example: "make it like this movie." Was this the same for you?
That was absolutely the case in my material as well. I never even thought to mention it, because well, it was so "atarimae", so expected, and not surprising in the Japanese. [Kojima] never tried to hide it and, I think that in Japan there's a lack of embarrassment about that. Maybe a Westerner would be embarrassed to admit that, but in Japan I think because of the extra level of insulation between Japan and the west, it doesn't feel... What would be a good way to explain it? Let's say you were an artist. And you felt inspired by the great works of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who did the famous wave, the one that everyone knows. The wood block print of the wave. And you decided to incorporate those elements into your own art style, and you admitted it, because it's unique for a western artist to be trying to incorporate Hokusai. It's sort of like that, in that you can admit it because it's far enough removed from you. I think the same is true with a Japanese person being inspired by Western movies. It's a foreign enough culture that it's not like you're copying it, you're admitting to being inspired it.
Yes, exactly. In interviews Kojima is always keen to discuss his movie influences. Those binders sound really cool, were you allowed to keep them?
I did, but when I moved away from America a couple of years ago, I probably put them in storage. And I have a definite, definite memory at one point breaking them open and handing out loose sheafs of artwork to some kids at a birthday party. Yeah, like Zoe's friends. Yeah, I thought they would think it was cool. And they were just collecting dust in my...Part of me was thinking, hmm, maybe someone will want these some day, but another part of me was thinking...
[While we're on Skype Jeremy's daughter speaks up to make a humorous comment on the subject]
What's that? Mottainai... Zoe says it was a terrible waste.
Perhaps, but I also like to think that somewhere, some kid has original Yoji Shinkawa artwork on his wall. Which is pretty cool. And you met with Kojima too. He showed his lego models for the game design, correct?
Yeah that was for MGS. We met in his office and we walked through the R&D group, took me into his office, and there he had on a table a big bunch of lego that he had built into tunnels and whatnot, and he told me that this was how he did level design. He built the lego things and he would take a little mini camera and run it through the lego tunnel and so on, and this was how he was doing it. But 3D was new to him. He'd never had to work on multiple heights and stuff like this in a three-dimensional sense, so you can see from the level design of MGS how that probably worked out. He was clearly excited by it. We got along well back then... I saw him on a company vacation, we hung around a little bit. In fact, when I was in Konami, I even submitted a gameplan for a game I wanted to make to him. It never went anywhere because I wasn't in R&D though.
That's a pity, I would have been curious to see that. You mentioned earlier leaving a mark on a piece of work. What kind of influence do you feel you've had on the Metal Gear series?
That's a great question and I do have a few things to say about that. I'm not sure people appreciate how much original work I did on the English script for the game and I'll give you a couple of examples. I wanted the script overall to have an authentic-sounding military feel to it and I wanted the characters to sound convincingly real - like military people speaking about military operations authentically. So right away my first task was learning how to write dialogue that would be military-style, and this was before the internet so it wasn't like you could just go online and find everything. So I started reading books by this guy Richard Marcinko, who is famous for being the founder of SEAL Team Six, he's got dozens of books about his adventures and I had to read them all in order to eke out little bits of dialogue and terms. You know, back then, a regular person didn't know the term "HALO jump" - a high altitude low opening. At one point Snake mentions this. Kojima had done a tremendous amount of work in finding out about nuclear unlocking, you know how nuclear weapons are capped and unlocked. He had done huge, huge amounts of research. Everything from a nuclear situation to Cold War to references to, you know, this, that and the other. Also for different weapons, and all these things are written in Japanese, and yet I know that they're actually things that come from English originally - so everything had to be researched to catch up on what he had exhaustively researched and to find the correct English terms. But then, for the dialogue, I had to go beyond that and try to create an English script that would not sound as if it was translated, but that would sound like it was the original.
Not many would go to the trouble of reading fiction books just for authentic dialogue. You were more than just a localiser.
Exactly, so this was not a case of translating words as much as it was original writing. I could have simply translated things and said I don't really care how the English sounds - it would have been a lot easier, but it would also have been a lot less good. Take the opening sequence for example. Snake asks "is this OSP?" Meaning "On Site Procurement". I totally made that up, you know. That's not a real term. But if you look online now, you will see it's popped up in other games, so I guess you could say that I permanently added a new military term to the lexicon. The Japanese was "genchi choutatsu" which, written in just 4 kanji, has a very concise, military feel to it, but I couldn't think of any way to transmit that same feeling to the English. A direct translation would have been something like "SNAKE: Will I be getting my weapons and equipment at the mission site?", but it had to sound like something Snake and the Colonel had been through before, something part of the plan. So I came up with that "OSP" thing and I think it really worked.
There was a huge amount of back-story to everything in MGS, so you had your work cut out.
Right, right... And I did heavy research into Alaskan Olympics and into, you know, when Vulcan Raven talks about his religion or he talks about what snakes are in Eskimo religions. All these things I researched. I researched the nature of their languages, every specific word in there would have been written in Japanese, or in Japanese katakana script, so it had to be found out what it really was. All those things are not simple translator's jobs.
If you hadn't done the extra research the meaning would have been lost with a generic translation.
Yes and also the feeling of genuineness - that it was real. You would quickly lose the illusion. You know just like a movie, getting people to suspend their disbelief depends upon your projection of strength and confidence in your own voice. So I wanted to project a strong voice. If you do a translation by committee you get something very drab. I wanted to do what Kojima had done, which was something strong. Whatever else you may say about Kojima, you have to admit he puts stuff out there with a remarkably strong and clear vision.
Did you spot any factual inaccuracies during your research? For example with military ranks or something?
That's a good question... Hmm... I can't think of anything particular right now. No, I can't recall anything specific. Generally he was pretty sound with his facts. Some of his genetics stuff might have been a little bit weird, but not terribly so. I don't know how he found out some of the stuff he found out, you know like the nuclear unlock codes and shape-changing metal and things like that. It was so much of a headache, so much work because I wanted it to be realistic, you know? And Japanese terms, when you're translating a Japanese term like "kaijo", which means to cancel something, it could also mean to disarm (a weapon). You know it's just one example of the vagueness of Japanese terms. But he had the liberty to be vague since he was translating American stuff into Japanese. So he can be forgiven for using Japanese terms that are not strictly correct, because Japanese people wouldn't be expected necessarily to know them. But putting it back into English is a little bit more problematic, because in a sense it's from your own culture and you're held to a higher standard. It was true for the military ranks, it was true for the weaponry. I felt a tremendous pressure since it was portraying a Western world, and I could not allow this thing to look like a translation.
Well, reaction from the press and consumers attests to the quality of it - everyone loved it. Personally I can't understand why there was a need to retranslate everything for Twin Snakes on the GameCube.
I still can't understand how he could have liked aspects of my translation so much, liked the voice work, seen the popularity of it, seen how well it was reviewed, keeps the same voice actors, keeps everything, but replaces me. I can only think that he regards translation as a kind of mechanical process, one which does not involve any degree of skill or creativity. I think what tells the real story is that if you look at the small retranslations that they did for the re-release of on the GameCube, they made some very minor changes, and if you examine the nature of the things they changed... One of them is so funny, it's like... I think Otacon is talking about Metal Gear's design, and I had translated it as: "I don't think of them as weak points, I think of them as character flaws." Or something like that. But the original Japanese probably used two different words for weak point, or something like this. So they retranslated it and they didn't like the fact that I called them "character flaws" because it doesn't really say that in the original. Sometimes in Japanese they play with the fact that they can use an English word and use the Japanese word. And they know that the audience will know both words, so if you translate it, it'll sound like he's saying: "It's not a dog, it's a dog." In Japanese they'll say: "It's not an inu, it's a doggu." So a Japanese person will use both words, and it was probably something like that. In the retranslation for the GameCube, I think you can look it up on Wikipedia or something, Otacon says: "It's not a weak point, I prefer to think of it as a weakness." (laughs) Or something like that. Yeah, so the point was that they had bent over so far to be "accurate" that they really didn't care how the English sounded.
It seems like the same old story of not appreciating the work needed to transition a piece of creative work not just from one set of words to another, but really an entire culture and way of processing the language.
It does, I mean it's very strange that someone could write something in Japanese where you are trying to reach an audience of... I don't know, let's say a million, whatever, and then have it translated into six or seven languages which represents an audience of another five or more million, and yet you'll spend two years writing the text for these million people and you'll expect the translation to be done in three months to reach the other five million. It's pretty close to insane. And the same thing, by the way, is true for the voice recording. You know these days the budgets are pretty high for voice recordings, it's true. Still, Japan is a little bit special in terms of how much respect they give to voice actors. Voice actors in Japan are really, really treated like celebrities, and I don't think that's true anywhere else.
Yes, very few players would recognize the names.
The hardcore know, the hardcore know them pretty well, but in Japan these voice actors, they'll be on TV, and I'm talking not about actors who have become voice actors, I'm talking about people who are just voice actors.
You were there for the voice recording too, right? Do you have any cool photos like the one you took for the Snatcher recording? That was great.
I know, but it's funny, you never think about it at the time. You're in the middle of it and you think: well, this will last forever, I don't need a photo. So you don't take one. Also, you know you're trying to be a professional so you don't want to look like you're a tourist in Florida, asking "can I take a photo?" Doing the voices, doing the recording, the way it basically works is, it's very, very fast. It's a very fast rush and the only time you really have that's not rushing through with recording is in the beginning, when you establish the style that the actor is going to be doing the voice in. That's the one time you get to sort of have your creative input to establish the voice that you think will fit the character. In fact I don't even think that we had necessarily set every actor to play every character. Probably, we still could have switched around at some point when I first got in there.
Wow, so some actors could have ended up in different roles?
Oh yeah! Like, I don't think that Dave had to be Snake, because it wasn't like Kris Zimmerman had determined how the voices were going to sound. When we got into the studio, I was the representing the client and since I had written the script, I was really in the best position to have an idea for what he/she should sound like since I had basically had a version of each character's voice in my head when I wrote the lines. Anyway, when you have your actors there, the first thing you do is you say: well, let me hear this character, he's like this, he's a gunslinger, he's about 55 years old, let me hear what voices you think you can do. And they try something, and you say: ahh, can you do something closer to James Mason for example? Put a little James Mason in there.
JB doing James Mason: "Ehh, James Mason, like this?"
JB as himself: "So I say: OK, take away 20% of the James Mason, and make it a little more gravelly."
JB as a gravely James Mason: "K, James Mason!"
JB as himself: But you say, keep the accent, keep this, and you work on it until you get something, and then that's how they have to do every single line, from that point on. They can't change it. You only have one chance at establishing the voice. It could have turned out very differently. Like Dave Hayter, for example. I remember, very clearly, working hard to get that voice with him. He didn't come in and say: "I've got an idea, I wanna do it like Clint Eastwood." I was going over it with him to work within this natural vocal range. OK, let's play it in the Japanese, let's listen and maybe we'll get some ideas. And you'll listen to the Japanese, and it's this super melodic sounding "Oh, Suneikku!" It doesn't sound like the Snake we know. So we tried different things out. Now don't get me wrong, Kris was the director. She was the one that kept it all together and on-schedule and organized so we got everything done. She was the one overseeing the whole thing, but when you talk about the fine-tuning of the voices, and when you talk about directing the actors for how a scene should sound, I think I was as vocal with the actors as she was - so in that regard I was very much like an assistant director.
It took a while to lay the foundation then? And it's worth mentioning that voice style has been kept throughout the series.
Anyway, so yeah, we got Dave to his Clint Eastwood voice through a process. And when we did Revolver Ocelot, it was Kris' husband I think, or ex-husband, if I'm not wrong. We arrived at that through a process. And when we decided that Mei Ling should have a Chinese accent, it wasn't because we mistakenly thought she was from China. We knew that she was raised in the US. But we said: problem is, she's got a young voice, and we've got these static visuals, she's going to sound a lot like Naomi, who sounds a lot like this, who sounds... You know, we need some different kind of feature to make her voice stand out.
But some fans weren't happy with that?
I think the first thing that I heard, was on a website someone mentioned: "Why does she speak in a Chinese accent when she was born in the US?"
My assumption was that her parents were Chinese, and so she would have picked some form of accent from them?
Well, now, I don't actually agree with that. I think it's true, she wouldn't have had a Chinese accent. It was just something we decided to do. You make a lot of decisions, and you only have one shot at it, and that's ultimately how you have to judge a translation, and a voice recording. You're given one shot, it's not like you have a two year development schedule and you can go back and fix things. You have one shot at it.
You also feel it's important to make the best of the first take, right?
It just seems to me, pretty obvious that you often get the best performance on the first take. Sometimes you don't, and you always have the option of retaking it after that, but if you lose the first take in a practise of something, like in a rehearsal... A lot of actors do best on their first take, then afterwards it's like remembering a memory. It's not your original memory, it's a memory of a memory of a memory, and so when you listen to voice actors on Twin Snakes they are doing an impression of themselves and [lose that spontaneity].
Can you recall any interesting anecdotes from the recording?
I talked with David Hayter probably the most out of the cast and we were even in touch for a short time afterwards. I was and am a big comic book fan like him, so we talked about that. Doing the Snake voice was a real stretch for him and far outside his natural voice range. It really strained and hurt his voice, so he was always swigging water and it was a challenge. We had to make sure all his yelling lines came at the end because we knew it would ruin him for the rest of the day. One thing I just randomly remembered, the voice actress who played Sniper Wolf was Tasia Valenza who I had watched on TV a lot back in 1983 or so when she was a regular on All My Children. I was a fan and I always thought she was beautiful. I was so surprised when she showed up in the studio and I recognized her right away! She was an award nominated actress, I think, and she showed it with her performance.
Generally speaking the dialogue was a success, a high water mark for games. You did a great job.
I only deserve credit for what I was involved in, but I certainly held up my end, you know. It was a great game, the team did a great job, Kojima led bravely with a bold game, and I didn't let him down. I think the screenplay, the script, it held up against anything that had been done before, was better than anything that had been done.
There was nothing else quite like it.
No! And that's why we're still here all these years later still talking about it. So you can say I'm not tired of talking about it at all. Quite the contrary, I'm absolutely thrilled that people like you, and fans, give some credit to the job that game translators do. Because we work in our homes, like little cavemen, doing an important job in the industry. Because a game can die, a good game can really die on a translation. Especially with something with all those cut-scenes, which requires the story to move it forward.
Even though the end results of the project were viewed positively by the public, you have mentioned thoughts on how you would have done things differently. Let's say with the benefit of hindsight you had both time travel and magic powers, to change anything on the project as you wanted. What would you do?
If I could change anything, I would make sure that I responded to Kojima's issues about the translations point by point, to make sure he understood all of my reasons for making any changes. He simply didn't understand the nature of game translations and the need to make adjustments for cross-cultural reasons. Definitely hard to explain, but it would have been smart for me to have done so. I also would have worked harder to make Otacon less cartoonish. This cartoonishness got even worse, in my opinion, in the later games. In fact, in general, I would say that all the characters and the story itself went from reality to cartoon-land. It had started as a down-to-earth spy story and transformed into a weird kind of world where Snake could somersault off missiles and stuff. I didn't care for that very much.
Yes, there has developed a strange dichotomy between the story, which has grown increasingly batshit insane over the years I feel, and the gameplay which strives for realism.
If you take away the story, and the text, what you have is some really remarkable - for the time - some really remarkable accomplishments on the part of the development team. The first level is the best level and the only one, other than the VR Missions I think, that has really strong gameplay. Where you can fully utilise the sneaking. And the other things are sort of like: here's a missile launcher, here's how you use a missile launcher, shoot it here. In terms of gameplay, I would say that if you have confidence in the game system, they should have made multiple levels, different variations, on what the opening level was like. So they should have fleshed out the VR missions with the fully rendered backgrounds, instead of having them as VR. Which was kind of a cheap way of having good level design, but not fleshing it out.
Yes, and they later released a disc containing a hundred VR missions.
Well, I mean in my opinion, that's what I think of when I think of a real videogame - level design and all that. You know what I mean? If you believe in the gameplay, then put the gameplay into the game. I also personally think MGS should have had a lot less text, A LOT. We really didn't need all the talking about the history of the Cold War and I don't think that many people would disagree with that.
You would have also changed some of the names, as you've said in the past.
I know I said Kojima was right, but that's only because it came out and it was successful, and so now people can't imagine any other name than Revolver Ocelot, but if they take a step back... The truth is I would have liked to change the names. If it had been up to me. Something less cartoony sounding.
Yes, definitely, it sticks now only because we're used to it. I recall magazines from 1998, before MGS was released, commenting on how they thought Solid Snake sounded stupid, like a character for a Viagra commercial. Also Agness Kaku, translator for MGS2, has said how Revolver Ocelot sounded a bit like a casino game.
And Big Boss... I mean, is it the real world or isn't it? I think the answer to that question has all sorts of implications with regards to how you proceed. If it's real, if it's a real world, and people can't do summersaults off missiles... If it's a real world, and a criminal mastermind takes over a paramilitary organisation, his name is not going to be Big Boss. If it's a real world, a spy isn't going to be named Decoy Octopus. My only point was that to a Japanese audience you can say Decoy Octopus, because you can find a 100 Japanese people, and 100 of them won't know what Decoy is. They'll know the word Octopus, but to them they'll translate it into their own Japanese word for octopus, and they'll say: "Oh, it means tako," but it sounds cool because it's a foreign word. In English, since you're keeping it in the original English, it doesn't sound cool anymore, because it sounds like you're combining two random things. My point was that it should have been only semi-transparent in meaning to the Western audience. It shouldn't have been "Decoy Octopus", it should have been something a little more removed from direct meaning. Kojima is a man with great big ideas, but I think sometimes his lack of subtlety is one strike against him. Sometimes it's a little like killing mosquitos with a sledgehammer.
I've heard that exact same sentiment from Agness, other journalists, and also many disenchanted fans. Kojima had no idea the blockbuster he was making with the first MGS, and after it became an international best-seller - and this is my opinion - he became drunk on the success. But a lot of people are afraid to speak out about this, so I appreciate the honesty.
Oh, people will hate me, John, if you print this. People already hate me...
I don't think that's true. Honesty from someone in the games industry is rare and audiences appreciate it. If what you said was true, then fans wouldn't have all these years been asking for your return to the MGS series. From my experience Konami uses and discards localisers, with different Gaijin being brought on board for each subsequent instalment... But over a decade later people are still commenting on your absence from the series.
Well, that brings me to my last thing that I would change, which completely flies in the face of my criticisms. I would have liked to be involved, and exerted an influence on MGS2 and 3 and 4. I would have liked to, but maybe that's just impossible given the types of critical views I might have brought to it. I guess if you want to continue to work for someone that's leading the show, you don't criticise them. But then again, some people welcome criticism, they feel strengthened by it so they can make the best product possible, while others don't appreciate it at all. It just depends. So, what would I change? Let's pretend I have magic powers and could go back and work on MGS2. What would I do if I was given the choice between working on it - but without the freedom of doing the extra work I did on MGS? What if I had to just keep my mouth shut and sort of robotically translate everything in there, but with no ability to add my own flourishes to achieve what I consider a "true localisation?"
Yes, it would be a trade off between shaping it into something you felt happy with, or quietly toeing the line, which might have adhered to Kojima's belief for a 1-to-1 translation, but honestly wouldn't have resulted in something as good.
Would I do it? I can't even answer that question. Because I'm too much in conflict, you know? It's a question of artistic desire to do the best you can do, versus the realities of having to feed a family and be successful. So it's a choice that a lot of people face in all sorts of different careers. Do I have some integrity and do the best I can, even if it means not continuing on? I am going to have to answer that I am glad I chose to do things the way I did. Otherwise, I don't think I would feel the kind of pride of accomplishment that I do.
So where would you like to go from here?
The direction I want to go in, with my career at this point, is I think I want to become more of an advocate for the game translator community. I'd like to see proper credit and proper understanding going to this side of things. We don't work in the game companies, but we work on the games. It's about sharing a game with the whole world, taking them into different languages. Seven languages Zpang is doing Book of Memories in: Japanese, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Castilian Spanish. And that's a tremendous job to be doing - all these different languages, and each one of them has to be inspired to feel that they're part of the game creation effort. And communicating the voice of the game creators, these people that they'll never meet, but who had the original vision. This Japanese creator or this American creator, or this creator from Czechoslovakia... His voice is going to be amplified into all these different languages. And it's a hugely important thing.
If the translator doesn't share the goal and have a vision, then it's never going to be anything other than an absolutely bland translation. So setting the translator on fire with the feeling that they're creating something, is absolutely important. And this relates to MGS because I felt completely passionate about what I was doing. So I want to speak more in defence of game translators, as I go forward. Hopefully we can improve things. I feel right now there's an awful lot of pressure that's being placed on the translation side, and not enough time and resources given - it's not enough just to translate the stuff.