What’s worse than getting what you want? Getting exactly what you want and then having it taken away from you suddenly.
I was nineteen years old. Tales of Eternia (Tales of Destiny 2 in the US) had just been released and was writing a FAQ for it. It was just another day in the neighbourhood until one day I got an email from a certain Jeremy Blaustein, saying that my FAQ showed that I knew what I was doing and that he wanted to hire me to help him translate the game.
Oh My God. Would. I. Ever! Here I was, playing Japanese video games day after day and then someone actually wanted to PAY me for it. I wrote back in a flash saying that yeah, I would love to. It was my first ever job and I was raring to go. I loved Japanese and I loved games – what more did I want from a job?
My first few attempts didn’t go over so well (they hewed too close to the source material) and when I got a little less literal they began to flow a lot better. I did all the spoken dialogue of the game in under a month and he was pretty happy about it. He even CCed me a mail from the Japanese branch office congratulating his company (and by proxy, me) on a job well done. To a young boy whose self-esteem was in the pits it was like manna from heaven.
It was almost too good to be true. I had gone from being a high school dropout with no qualifications to a professional translator in the space of a day. And I was good at it! I was actually earning money from something that I was good at and that I enjoyed! It was all a little too much to take. My boss called a few times to clarify matters and chat a bit (he couldn’t believe I was nineteen for one) and I was literally trembling on the phone as I answered his questions. I plucked up my courage to ask him some questions about game localization (which he answered in a forthright and brusque manner) and maybe possibly if this job went well we could perhaps work together again? He answered in the affirmative and I went to bed that night wondering at the world.
The job wasn’t easy by any means. I knew the material well enough but there were a lot of things to get used to after the initial dialogue had been taken care of – correspondence software, a new technology I knew nothing about and had to get used to. A list of terms that the head office wanted translated a certain way and no other – I made a call to check on something that was already in the list and felt like a total idiot for a while. Having to work with other translators and cross-reference the new words with the ones already translated. My conduct was probably not as professional as it could have been but hey, I was only a nineteen year old with tons of internal issues. It was hard work but I did the best I could.
Apparently it wasn’t enough.
I received an email one day about not editing (or re-editing, I can’t remember) certain parts of the script. My computer had broken down the day or so before and I didn’t see any reason to stop working, so I didn’t. I went over to a friend’s house and then a cousin’s house and kept on banging away while it was being repaired. I have no idea if that caused the mix-up at his end but from where I was, I worked until 6am in some cases to get things done. I sent back an email apologizing and asking maybe he could show me what I had done wrong so I could correct it?
I was fired the next day.
I woke up, read my mail and there it was, the termination letter. No ifs ands or buts, no explanations, no second chances or reviews. It was curt and tersely worded, along the lines of “I have no choice but to let you go if you can’t follow simple instructions.” He said he would wire me the remaining funds (he did) and that was that.
To say I was crushed would have been the understatement of the decade, if not the century. I was totally devastated. I can remember going to my mother who was putting out the laundry (only lazy people hire domestic workers!) and pulling at her shirt sleeve and saying “Mummy, I got fired.” I cried. Who wouldn’t?
To her credit she tried her best to help. She took my hand and helped me write a mail to the “nice man” so that he would rehire me. In retrospect that really might not have been the best approach to take but my mother had little to no experience with these matters. I tried to be as polite and professional as a nineteen-year old depressed teenager could be (I think I did fairly well, all things considered) but there was no reply at all.
I would hate him for the better part of a decade. But at the same time I continued to respect him. I knew he was a good translator – the credits. The brusque, take-no-prisoners attitude on the phone. We could have made such a team.
At the same time I was totally torn up. I knew of no other way to break into the industry. Did they require a JLPT? (which I was unable to procure at that time) Should I go to the States and get a Japanese degree? (which seemed the sane path to pursue) How DID one get into games localization with no degree or contacts?
In the end all those questions were moot. I send out a few resumes and cold calls but got no reply. I was confused – did that mean I wasn’t good enough? Or that I really DID need a degree after all? What should I do? I don’t need to tell you at this point that my parents had absolutely no clue. Which made sense (their professional backgrounds were completely different than my intended field) but they didn’t offer any emotional support either. As always, par for the course at that time.
I was out in the cold with no means to get back into the field. I was pretty sure I would have made an awesome video game translator – I mean, most of my waking moments were spent playing Japanese video games and studying Japanese. But how to get my foot into the door? The same person whom I felt had fired me unfairly seemed to also be the only way I could start living my dream. It was a pretty painful situation to be in.
After a few years other issues started piling up (like having to take care of Meimei and manage my illness) and the dream got swept away by other things. But it never really died. I would stare at game after game that I loved and know that somewhere, someone else would get the contract and not me. I would push it down but it would tear me apart and I never told anyone about it except Meimei (who could sort of tell due to her closeness to me) I nursed those hopes for so long that they grew stale and painful. I was too ashamed to admit to anyone that I didn’t do half the translations that they thought I did. And I never brought it up in therapy either because something else always took precedence and it hurt too much to even think about for many years.
But amazingly sometimes despite all this heartache, there would emerge translations that were so incredible that they shattered all my pain and envy and ego. Off the cuff I can only name Ys 6 (actually every Ys game has had fantastic localization) FF11, Ghost Trick (which was done by Lucia Ishii, an awesome translator whom I actually met while doing Tales of Eternia) and Bravely Default. I sometimes played games in English just to see how the rest of the world was translating things. I think that my love of games and Japanese somehow overpowered all the pain that I was pushing down.
I tried my best to move forwards. I went onto the Honyaku ML (an excellent resource for translators by the way) and asked a few questions about translation in general. They were all answered quite well but I was in such total awe of these people that I might not have been in the right frame of mind to accept any advice.
It was like being in the presence of gods and goddesses! I was pretty proud of my skills in both languages back then but it was everyone else put me to shame. I agonized over each post I made – was it professional enough? Did I write the right thing? I hope I’m not pissing anyone off…now I know of course they are just normal people like you and I, often amazing at their chosen field but definitely human.
I made some very unprofessional posts to the ML over the years (I cringe at the thought of them even now…don’t search the archives please!) but I was a young, scared child with perhaps the linguistic ability but not the maturity and presence of mind of a professional translator. Minna-san, mijuku-na watashi wo yurushite kudasai. (Everyone, please forgive my inexperience.)
Even with the advice from Honyaku I didn”t know what to do. It was hard, so hard. I had absolutely no advice from any parties. I had no idea how to move forwards with my career – did I even have a career? I think that my mother told all her relatives how good I was at this Japanese translation thing but she never once told me that she was impressed or proud. In fact I think it was only ten years later that she could accept that her son was actually fluent in the language…passing the five-figure mark in income earned from translation didn’t seem to faze her in the slightest. It must have been that ages-old Asian mindgame – it doesn’t matter what my children do, only my neighbours and friends matter.
How did I get to the five-figure mark without any translation work? I didn’t say there wasn’t any, just not what I wanted. I rallied gamely after my brutal termination (which is to say I repressed it big time) and tried to find other work. There wasn’t much in Singapore by way of freelance translation but for a time I did manage to work for a Singaporean anime company, Odex. I think they basically hired me only to impress their American contacts because my translation quality was so much higher than the average fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore. I did a few series for them (one of which aired on national TV, Super Yoyo/Spinner) and they were ok to work with (if a bit unprofessional) but they eventually stopped approaching me because they thought my fees were too high. Their loss! Or that was what I thought at that time – I think I just didn’t fit their business model.
I also taught Japanese at SMU (Singapore Management University) for a while. That was fun. I was younger than all the students and I kept on saying “in the last episode” (which led to more than a few Great Teacher Onizuka jokes from the class) My lessons were basically self-made material that I cribbed from my Japanese for Busy People textbooks.
The students were all very nice and friendly. They shared their food with me and I only needed to quiet them one time when they were getting rowdy in the back – I just said look, you’re paying for these lessons, if you don’t want to listen I can just go home and collect my pay no problem. That shut them up. Though now that I look back at it I guess they were just having fun.
I got to do what I always wanted to do in school – give voluntary homework. As in I passed out homework and I told them – if you want to do it I’ll mark it, but if you don’t want to it’s cool. It’s your money! Guess who wanted to do the homework? (no points for the right answer, it’s pretty obvious)
The three best students were these two Iranian guys and a pretty Chinese girl who spent most of each lesson flirting with each other. They somehow managed to learn faster than all the rest and answered all my questions perfectly. The power of love, I guess?
Exams loomed at one point and everyone opted out of the last four lessons or so. I offered to give a remedial class which three Malay girls attended. They were really keen and asked a whole bunch of questions which I did my best to answer.
I’m only mentioning this last part here because of what happened during the class. I was writing something down on the whiteboard when I heard someone say something about sexual frustration. So obviously I turned around and asked “so you want to do how to say that in Japanese?”
Stares all around. Then heads nodded vigorously. After defining that (by the way it’s youkyuufuman if you’re curious) I asked if they had any more questions. Boy did they ever! They asked for a lot of other words I can’t print here. At least they got their money’s worth!
The classes were fun but they were also very VERY tiring and draining. It was the goddamn issues again. All that pent-up stress and dealing with the strain at home. I can remember one day going to class early and practically FORCING myself to start lessons. I was so afraid that I would one day break down in front of everyone and relapse in class. Of course that never happened and we all had a grand old time, but I was worried about it at the back of my mind.
Fast-forwards a few years and still no work. I was still shackled by my (justified) hatred of qualifications and tests. I think I was asked a hundred times by various people to do the JLPT but I was like NO I’m going to make it on my own. It was tough. I envied all those folk who seemed to have the perfect normal life – go to school, get a degree, go out and start working. Not exactly winning the lottery, but to me it was like a dream come true (even as I denied to myself that I even wanted that dream)
I dabbled in fan translation for a while, but there was really very little money in it and so I stopped. Yeah I know, I should have just said screw the degree and just go get work in whatever way was possible. But the next few chapters should show you why I was lucky to be alive, and not just translating.
The only other job I did in those years was to work for this Japanese startup company which went nowhere fast. That was horrible and I wasn’t even paid most of my salary because they went bankrupt. I did learn a lot though, and met some good people I stay in touch with even till today.
It’s such a relief to be able to put this all down on paper! I used to be so, so, so terribly ASHAMED of the lack of work I did. Every time people asked me about work or school for years it was a dagger aimed directly at my heart. I mean, I did do freelance translation (I wasn’t exactly lying) but I did very little of it. I know I had the talent and the means and the ability to do more but it just wasn’t happening.
So that’s it for jobs. Working is an essential part of everyone’s life and we all hope that it’s fun and enjoyable as well as fulfilling. I used to have SO MANY ISSUES about jobs (just like I had about everything) but they are largely cleared up now.
The Holy Grail…how it eluded me all these years. As the world moved on and things changed around me I think some part of me was still stuck in the distant past, that young teenager on the cusp of adulthood who was going to become a Pokemon Master I mean, Japanese translator. And because of the constant issues I never really had time to grieve through the initial loss and move on from it.
I dabbled in other things as well which were interesting enough over the years, but never really paid enough to get my feet off the ground – some copywriting, article research for an uncle of mine and some voice acting here and there. Even being paid for working on my mother’s goddamned PhD. They were all good experiences (except the last) but never touched that unfulfilled dream at the back of my mind.
Yes, if I had been able to get a job I might have been able to move out and move on with my life and…but you see, that whole chain of events starts with an if that never moved on from a possibility.
I’m not quite sure what to feel as I end this chapter. I feel sad for the past, yes. But my mature self also knows that my real job was actually to take care of my family and make sure things were running smoothly at home while dealing with a host of mental and emotional issues. Raising four kids – my parents, my sister, and myself – was a huge responsibility and one that I should never have had to take on, but did. I would much rather have lived life on my own terms like a normal fucking human being. But that option was never given to me.