The bizarre, true story of Metal Gear Solid’s English translation

The last time I saw Hideo Kojima, we were both naked.

It was at a traditional Japanese ryokan’s rotenburo (outdoor bath), on a Konami company vacation near Mount Fuji. He was a lot thinner then, before he started pumping iron. He looked more like Psycho Mantis at the time. He’s going for a Snake thing these days. Good for him.

Although it’s hard to believe now, Hideo Kojima was unknown in the West at that point in the early to mid-’90s. I first met him when I worked at Konami’s HQ in Toranomon, Tokyo, from about September 1993 to March 1995. That one-and-a-half-year span felt like at least five years due to the high-pressure environment of being the only foreigner in the office, and the horrible Tokyo rush-hour train commute. I would later translate Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation, a job that might have been much too big for one person.

This is how it all happened.

Background briefing

I worked in the international business department at Konami Japan, a group of about 15 or so employees who sat uncomfortably between the sales division and the law division in neat rows in a single well-lit, bustling office room. These were the 16-bit days, before the use of email was common. So we shuffled papers all day, passing them down the line to be stamped by our bosses in starched shirts. We did this while watching the clock, killing time by smoking cigarettes in the lounge.

I had come to Konami after a one-year stint as a teacher at a mass-produced eikaiwa (English-language school) called Aeon. After that, I was lucky enough to get an interview with Konami, courtesy of my twin brother who was working at Konami Chicago at the time. I nailed the interview due to my skill at both Japanese and English, along with my fond memories of playing Contra. Those brought a tear to the eyes of Mr. Arakawa, who was then the head of the international business department.

But the smoking lounge at Konami was where the real work was done, because that was when you’d meet people from different departments and could actually talk to your superiors. This was a cultural quirk of working in Japan, where members of each department sit in their own area. It’s an unspoken rule that you don’t just go chatting people up at their desks unless you have some kind of directive to do so, or a specific task.

As a result, there was no synergy in the office itself. Breakthroughs happened while relaxing over a cigarette, where everyone felt more or less equal and let their guard down. We would also sometimes be asked to play some of the company’s games and give our thoughts on them.

Mostly what we did was send two daily faxes to the U.S. and Europe, communicating with them about shipping numbers and their wishes for how games could be tweaked to suit their respective markets. It was a boring job, but the research and development division began to ask me to offer opinions on games, and to translate or even write original text for a few titles, since I was the only foreigner in the department.

I wrote all the text for Animaniacs, Batman and Robin, and Sparkster for the Sega Genesis. I translated things like Biker Mice From Mars and Tiny Toon Adventures, and I directed the primitive voice-overs for Contra: Hard Corps. But things got real when I was called into the R&D 6 (Sega) building in Jinbocho and asked what I thought of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher.

I ended up working on the Sega CD version of Snatcher for two months, and it was some of my favorite work. I supervised the translation done by Scott Hards, added some of my own stuff, and went to Chicago to direct the voice-over sessions.

Kojima wasn’t involved in that port, but my work on it was how he and I became connected before I quit Konami to become a dedicated dad.

Learning what Metal Gear Solid would be

In March 1997, I was living in a rented house in the snowy hills of western Massachusetts with a wife and two small children. We had a wood stove and not much money. I had already translated Vandal Hearts and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that was it.

Seeing all the memes and jokes that have since come out of the English translation of Symphony of the Night was strange for me, but it also taught me an important lesson: Translation is writing. It’s an artistic process as much as a mechanical one, and no two people are ever likely to translate the same work the same way. We’ll get to that idea, and how it blew it up in my face, later in this story.

But at the time, I heard that Hideo Kojima had a project he wanted me to translate. with the weird title of Metal Gear Solid.

I flew to Tokyo to meet with him and discuss it. In his office, he talked to me about the game for a bit, and showed me a table where he had an enormous Lego version of some of the game’s environments, and how he used a tiny camera to move through the Lego tunnels to get a sense of the game’s environments in 3D. You can actually see how some of those camera movements he tried made it into the final game in the clip below.

This was exciting; 3D games were not yet common at the time. It was clear that Metal Gear Solid was something very, very special, and a big departure from both Snatcher and Policenauts. I left with three massive blue three-ring binders containing the script, art materials, and other supplemental notes.

We also reminisced about our families a bit. His wife shares a name with mine, and he asked about my daughter, Zoe, who had been born shortly after that trip to Mount Fuji, when I was still working for Konami. I believe he got the name of Z.O.E. (Zone of the Enders) from this conversation. It was an uncommon name at the time, and where else would he have gotten it? I had told everyone in the company about my new baby.

Back in Massachusetts, I was faced with the daunting task of translating Metal Gear Solid’s huge script. The first thing that was obvious to me was the massive amount of research Kojima did before building this world. There was all this military tech throughout the game, including specific gun names and details about how U.S. nuclear weapons are locked down, background on the Cold War, Alaskan Native tribes, special ops, psy-ops, you name it. And these were things that I knew nothing about when I started work on the translation.

An overwhelming job

I had six months to finish the job, the clock was ticking, and I didn’t know where to begin. I also knew that I couldn’t just jump into a translation without first getting a deep look into the world that Kojima had been swimming in for years while conceiving Metal Gear Solid.

People may have a hard time really appreciating the fact that, at the time, the internet was not the thing you know now. There was no YouTube, no Wikipedia, no Reddit, and there were no other translations of similar work to reference. The word “localization” barely existed in the business in 1997. I was all on my own, and no one was looking over my shoulder.

I ordered every book I could by an ex-Navy SEAL named Richard Marcinko, who wrote the autobiographical book Rogue Warrior along with a collection of novels. I had the sense that that’s what Kojima was going for: a gritty feeling of realism, with touches of James Bond’s gadgets and inventiveness.

So I read, re-read, and breathed those books for weeks, savoring the feel of that world and the flow of the soldiers’ conversations with each other, including the sarcastic machismo.

It was exhilarating. I was terrified.

Mission execute

I spent my time going to libraries and bookstores for research, while also watching war and spy movies to make sure I had the lingo down. I looked at the provided art from the game and imagined the characters speaking in their own voices as I breathed my English words into the script, trying to look past the Japanese words to capture the essence of each conversation. I was desperately trying to keep the feeling that Kojima was himself trying to inspire in players.

I translated the work in the linear order of the story, so the very first thing I worked on was the opening scene, as Snake swims underwater into the docking bay of the nuclear weapons disposal facility. I had a VHS copy of the Japanese cutscenes, and I knew I had to absolutely nail the translation to set up the mood of the game.

I loved what I was seeing, and I was already geeking out about what the game was doing, even in those initial scenes. I felt like I had been given a serious responsibility, and I had the sense early that I was working on something special.

There was so much to consider: The tempo of the voices was tricky, as the overall length of the dialogue had to match the length of the scene. But what was much, much worse was that Japanese word order is reversed when compared to English. I had to play with the dialogue quite a bit to match the words to the cuts and dissolves of a camera that was much more cinematic and active than in other games of the time. It’s not like I could just change how a scene was edited to make it easier to translate.

Imagine trying to rewrite dialogue in another language with completely different syntax while keeping the feeling of what was being said, without being able to change how long each line could be while spoken.

I read my script over and over as I watched that VHS, teasing it into a dramatic, seamless presentation that worked with the visuals. In the end, I was convinced I’d done good — maybe great — work on the translation.

I continued along in this manner through all the cutscenes: watching the video and imagining the voices, the emotions, the motivations, and the style of the characters. I lived and breathed it all, and the excitement of doing the cutscenes gave me the power to slog through the hundreds of pages of less exciting codec conversations. It was a massive job, the sort of thing that would be the work of an entire team today. But back then, it was just one guy in the U.S., doing his best.

Deep background

I had never taken on a job of this size before. Vandal Hearts and Castlevania were tiny compared to Metal Gear Solid, and I was not experienced enough yet to know that I should have arranged a payment schedule with Konami so that I would get paid each month for hitting certain deadlines. Instead, I had no income for seven to eight months; I was to be paid the full amount when the entire job was finished.

And so we were starving poor as I worked full-time on Metal Gear Solid. The days became shorter in the Massachusetts winter, there was no money at all, and the stress was off the charts. I worked in a tiny “office” the size of a small bathroom as the two kids played and cried outside the door, three feet away. The job had me on edge to the point that I was taking diazepam — commonly known as Valium — to handle the stress.

Ironically, that’s the same drug that Snake takes in the game to keep his shooting hand from shaking. I was also smoking heavily like Snake, which is why lines like “you don’t know how good a cigarette tastes in the morning” ended up in the American release, even though it wasn’t based on text from the Japanese version of the game. It was just something that was getting me through the experience, and I imagined Snake was dealing with stress in a similar way.

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

This is a good time to talk for a minute about translation and the idea of originality. Many people misunderstand this topic, and it’s not surprising; there’s not much solid information about how this process works, and there definitely wasn’t during the time period I was working on Metal Gear Solid.

Translation is not a science; it is an art. One must take liberties with the text to capture the essence of the words, in an attempt to recreate the feeling of the original for a very different audience with a very different cultural background. That essence is found less in the words themselves than in the spaces between the words. It is a tone, an ever-present, unspoken attitude, and in this case it was a very confident tone. It is the mark of a single hand that often gives a work integrity and power, and I didn’t want to put my fingerprint on Metal Gear Solid. I wanted to imitate what I thought Kojima desired from the text.

I felt like I was inside his head during the project, not unlike one of those FBI guys who track serial killers. And yet it became clear that Japanese culture is not as precise, brutal, or jaded about war as we’re used to in the United States. This was true even in the years before our culture was shaken up by 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. Reading Rogue Warrior and other books helped me understand how the military speaks to itself, and I wanted to show that Snake and Col. Campbell were professional soldiers. That had to come from how they spoke to each other, and the other characters in the game.

That meant that I, too, had to learn to talk like a professional soldier.

What this meant for the script was that I had to come up with jargon to “sell” the image. I did my best. Kojima didn’t use the term “HALO” when he described jumping from high in the air and opening the chute at a low altitude to enter the site. (This was also years before the Halo series debuted.) But I found the term for a high-altitude, low-opening jump in my reading, so it went into the game.

When I read that Snake’s earpiece was just called a 無線機 (“wireless”), I tried to come up with something better for American players. I researched the problem for a significant amount of time before coming across something called a “codec” that I thought sounded cool. I had never heard the term before, but it sounded pretty official.

When Campbell told Snake that he would have to do 現地調達 (“acquire locally”) for his weapons, I knew I needed something that sounded like military jargon. The only problem is that no one in real life would ever put themselves in that situation if they could help it, so I coined the term OSP, or “on-site procurement,” which is still used to this day.

In addition to jargon, I used this opportunity to flesh out characters every chance I had. Too often, in translation, the meaning is kept but all feeling is lost. It must be added back in by the translator. So I gave Snake amusing quips that were not in the original text.

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

One example would be when Campbell said, “I’m not a colonel anymore,” in Japanese. I changed it to “I’m not a colonel anymore, just a retired old warhorse.”

Why did I add that last bit when it wasn’t in the original? All I can say is that it felt right. It added flavor. We have a kind of shorthand to flesh out character archetypes in our culture, which are drawn from our shared memory of movies, TV, literature, and other forms of pop culture. That line matched what I could sense Kojima was doing in the creation of the character. It was right for the archetype, and American players would understand a bit more about who Campbell was, and how he acted. I was looking to enhance what Kojima was trying to do for the audience that would be playing his game in English, and adding these small flourishes was a good way to do so.

Here’s another example, this time from Snake. Let me ask you which option sounds better:

You can probably guess that B is mine, and A is how my translation was “improved” for Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.

Here’s another from Snake (to Vulcan Raven, regarding the Alaskan Olympics):

In this example, I threw away the line that did nothing except inform the reader of two more events that exist in the Alaskan Olympics. Instead, I gave Snake a funnier line that establishes his character. Good choice, or unfaithful and worthy of condemnation? It’s ultimately your call, but I stand by what I did with the game.

And one more, from Psycho Mantis:

Naturally, B is mine; I removed the word “nostalgic,” a direct translation from the Japanese, because people who are feeling nostalgic don’t normally say they are feeling nostalgic when they describe their emotions. We interpret other people as feeling nostalgic, but it’s rarely how we describe ourselves.

But both lines mean the same thing, more or less. Does it seem like I was being less faithful to the original by trying to find words that felt more natural to Western audiences?

Mission failure?

I’ve tried to explain where my mind was when I started the project, my level of enthusiasm, my efforts, and, ultimately, the decisions that led to me pissing off Kojima and not translating another game in the series.

Here’s what happened, as best I can piece it together. The voice-over work was done in Los Angeles, and, as script writer, I sat next to the director and had one of the three microphones that let us speak to the actors. The director and the sound tech had the other two.

I went home when the recording was finished, and the audio went to Japan, where Kojima heard it. It was my understanding that he loved it. He enjoyed it so much that he decided he wanted to create a release called Metal Gear Solid: Integral so players could play the Japanese audio with English subtitles, or vice versa.

That’s not a small job. Every single English line had to be “aligned” with the Japanese dialogue so everything flowed smoothly while it was being played. Whoever was assigned this job began to see the differences between the original Japanese writing and dialogue, and the work I had turned in.

I should mention how rare it is for the texts for two markets to ever be in the same game, especially at that time. Until then, North American releases were for North America, Japan’s voice acting and writing was for Japan, and so on. There was never a feeling that they needed to line up exactly, only that each had to offer a good experience for its particular market.

From what I heard at the time, Kojima began to hear that his work had been “tinkered” with. I’d argue there might have been a lack of appreciation for the needs of localization due to his not being bilingual, but he was not happy. As a result, all future Metal Gear games would be closely monitored for fidelity to the original Japanese script.

[Ed. note: Konami declined to comment when contacted about this story.]

This approach resulted in lines like: “I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”

Some players find this sort of dialogue endearing, but I’d argue that it could have been massaged a bit more for English-speaking players. That’s not up to me, although I’m very proud of the work I put into Metal Gear Solid. The reviews were very positive at the time, and many mentioned the quality of the translation and voice-over work in the game.

Though the decisions I made cost me future work, I stand by my efforts and am glad that I followed what I thought to be, ultimately, the most sincere form of flattery and respect for the original — namely, to emulate the original feelings in reassembly rather than to leave them as broken bits, drained of the color that was so clear in the original Japanese writing.

Some might say that it was ego or conceit behind my choices — and yes, I did the same thing with the “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!” line in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, by the way.

You can now see “what is a man?” referenced as a meme all over the internet, on T-shirts, and even in other games. Naturally, this delights me for egotistical reasons. It’s ridiculous to see that my reference of an obscure line by a man named André Malraux has come to be much more well-known than the original. But I also think it illuminates a larger issue: the role (and power) of the translator.

“Fidelity to meaning alone in translation is a kind of betrayal.” —Paul Valéry

Before Twitter and its legions of armchair quarterbacks with the luxury of spending much more time reviewing translations than the original translators had in doing them, our main concern was an honest desire to make a fun and entertaining game for a local audience. To this day, I believe the best translators are writers, who take on what is an impossible task and do their best to satisfy several masters: the audience, the original author, and the marketplace.

Looking back on the whole thing, yes, there were mistakes, and bad choices as well as successful ones. But that’s art. Translation isn’t science, and after 20 years of Metal Gear Solid’s success, I think I must have done a pretty good job.

If nothing else, I was able to be at least a small part of gaming history, and how many people are able to say that?

Jeremy Blaustein is a Japanese-English game translator, Goju-ryu practitioner, and pizza aficionado living in Japan. His worked on games such Metal Gear Solid, the Silent Hill series, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Suikoden 2, Ape Escape 2, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, Dragon Warrior 7, Valkyrie Profile, Dark Cloud 2, Lost Sphear, and many more.

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