A translation of this memoir by translator Keiko Fukuichi regarding her experience working on the Japanese translation of tobyfox game UNDERTALE, posted on December 19, 2021 for the “Games and Words Advent Calendar 2021” essay event.
Around five years ago, I translated a certain game.
That incident would change my entire life from there on.
Looking back on that period of time when we were working on the localization, I have no sense of reality about the fact it actually happened. I know I’m the one who did it, but somehow it feels like I’d done it in an alternate universe or something…No, it was a whole five years ago, so maybe my memories of it are fading?…Yeah, maybe it’s that.
But a lot of things happened, things that really do make me doubt my grip on reality.
Or that time I got to translate the text on a video that would be played with Kenny Omega’s3 entrance, and was invited to Wrestle Kingdom 13 to watch his decisive match on January 4.
No, seriously, I don’t get it.
How did a pathetic freelance game translator glued to the computer screen from morning to evening get to experience such an incredible event? What on earth happened here?
Well, before my memory completely fades to the point where nothing can be salvaged from it, I’ll write about what it was like to translate this terrifying “one certain game”.
I say this, but talking about the behind-the-scenes of the actual localization work would go against my NDA, so I’m keeping this as a personal story of “what happened with the translator at the time”. I hope you understand.
(*The contents of this article have been approved by 8-4, Ltd.)
[How it all started] When 8-4 requested I do the translation for them (the part where I had no idea what I was about to get into)
As this article says, John from 8-4 requested me to translate UNDERTALE in late January 2016.
John: Have you heard of a game named UNDERTALE?
Fukuichi: Of course I have!!!!!!!!!! Everyone’s talking about it right now!
…I remember it basically happening like that.
By the time I’d been asked “have you heard of this?” I already knew they were going to request me to translate, so I remember responding with sheer excitement. “They’re having me translate this! Whoa, whoa! I’m so happy! I’ve really made it!”
I’d played it in its original language and thought “how could I fall this hard in love with a game?!”, and I was incredibly happy to be involved from everything from the kick-off meetings to the full-on machine tests. I was so happy I was about to jump for joy. I even sang an improvised “joy song” and danced an improvised “joy dance”.
At the time, I’d just finished translating Enter the Gungeon at the request of Kakehashi Games, and it was around that time I was really coming to understand the joy of “being able to translate an entire indie game by myself and getting full credit for it”.
Incidentally, I often did work as a lead translator for AAA games prior to that. It was a very rewarding and fun job. However, in many cases, the bigger impact the game had, the smaller of a portion I was assigned to be personally responsible for. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, and working in a team has a treasure trove of valuable experiences that would be impossible through pure solo activities. I’d love to do it again if I get a chance.
However, once I’d encountered having a job assignment that involved “getting to work on a small enough game to the point I can handle translating the entire thing by myself”, I realized, “this is my ideal. I’m super happy. I love it. I’m a total scrub here, but I hope I can keep doing this forever…”
Nowadays, around 99% of my work is in localization of this kind of indie game, but at the time I was just standing at the entrance of this territory.
But…at this time, I had no idea…
What it would mean to undertake the translation of this monstrous game called UNDERTALE…
[Let’s start translating!] Completely and utterly focused on translation (but also starting to notice what was happening little by little)
I’m the kind of person who’s unable to concentrate on my work if I have any kind of “distractions”. So when I’m deep in a heavy amount of work, I try not to look at anything besides what I need for translation. Otherwise, I’ll never meet my daily quota. For freelance translators, “reaching the daily quota” is an absolute mission that must be prioritized over everything else. This isn’t the time to go to a drinking party and sleep in late from a hangover. Hurry up and meet your quota! Or die!!!!
I have a tendency to leave Twitter unattended all the time. Even if a friend tries to get in touch with me through DM, if I miss it the first time, I’ll never see it. I won’t even realize it’s there until you send me a message on LINE4 telling me “check your DMs!” Wait, but then why don’t you just talk to me on LINE?
(No, I’m the one at fault for not checking my DMs, I’m really sorry.)
So because of that, when I was working on the translation for UNDERTALE, I deliberately shut out any information that might confuse me and translated it free of any obstructive thoughts.
But the sheer act of using the Internet naturally leads to some information leaking in, regardless of whether I wanted it to or not. At this point, I slowly started to learn the sentiment that “this game seems to have popularity on a completely different level from that of most other indie games…”
It seemed like overseas game press was covering this game quite a lot.
“…Let’s not think too hard about it.”
I had to finish today’s quota. Oh, it’s already past 3 AM, and I’m not even halfway done. Why am I cursed with this cheap, clunky brain?
I tried to shake off all of those thoughts and continued translating.
When the Japanese announcement trailer was revealed
And so, the days passed by, and they finally revealed the announcement trailer for the Japanese version of UNDERTALE.
I vividly remember feeling pain for a short second, like I’d just been stabbed with a needle, but I can’t remember much of anything else about it.
We were finishing up the localization, so I had to spend every day with 100% focus on my work.
And yet, I kept having this nagging feeling bothering me…but in all honesty, I was almost being completely consumed with the feeling “oh no, I’m scared, ah, I’m terrified, what should I do…”
I had to focus on the work right in front of me, and nothing else.
I was going to make this into something good. I was sure of it.
I tried to shut out every other thought.
…But that was easier said than done.
At that time, I couldn’t even bring myself to open Twitter.
Even thinking back on it now makes me feel a bit of the harshness.
Right before the release
I was scared. I was really scared. I couldn’t even imagine what my world was going to be like once the Japanese version finally released. I was starting to half-seriously think that I might need to go move to the mountains or something once it released.
One day, I was talking with John from 8-4, either at a meeting or on LINE, and I told him, “man, it’s finally gonna be released soon…ah, seriously, I’m scared. Ah, it’s suuuuuuuper scary.” Seeing how scared I was, John made a suggestion.
“This project is very likely to go down in all of localization history, and that alone is going to create a huge amount of response. Of course, we’d like to credit you for the translation, but if you’re worried about using your real name, we can use a pseudonym. Which would you prefer?”
It only took one second for me to respond.
“Please use my real name. I want to take proper responsibility for my work.”
The moment I saw John’s reply of “I like that answer!”, it was like a switch had been flipped, and I’d resigned myself to my fate.
After the release
Now that the Japanese version’s been released, I think everyone who’s read the translation knows about it more than well enough, so I’ll refrain from writing too much about it here.
The only thing I can really say about it is this:
“This game was translated by a translator named Keiko Fukuichi, and that’s fine.”
That’s something that’s tied very deeply to UNDERTALE‘s themes.
I encountered this game at a specific time of my life and got to translate it, and that was for the best.
What “translating” means to me
“To translate means to save yourself.”
…I’m sorry, that probably sounds really distasteful, doesn’t it?
But it really does feel that way.
I believe “translation” is this:
“To read the original text, to go deeper and deeper and deeper into what is inside yourself, and finding the perfect way to put it into words.”
All of the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life, all of the regrets I’ve had, all of the things I’m embarrassed about…All of the dregs that have accumulated deeply inside me. Taking all of that and finding words and feelings to describe them with. I’m the one who puts those words into the characters’ mouths, and when I see them come out, I feel “I feel like my own helpless life has been saved.”
I’m sure I’ll still be staggering around, tumbling over, and falling flat on my face from here on out. Despite all this time, I still haven’t grown up at all since middle school.
But looking on it, somehow, for some reason, everything I’ve done so far seems to have happened at the perfect timing to always make me think “this is the perfect thing for me!”, and I was requested to translate a game that made me think “I’m glad to have this come into my life right now.”
Even the game I’m working on right now (I can’t say what it is yet) is like that, too. I’ve been saved by having this game in my life and being able to translate it right now.
“Despite everything, it’s still you”
This message appears in UNDERTALE, and can be translated many different ways depending on context.5
I believe one of those possible interpretations is this: “Being alive has made you go through many things, but the one who was able to endure and take all of that in = you.”
I’m sure those who make games “put their lives into it” when doing so.
And so I translate “putting my life into it”.
And so, when everyone else plays it…?
If I can put such a positive phrase in “…” somehow, it will be able to save my own life, and those of the players who played it.
- Yuji Horii = A game designer known for his work on the Dragon Quest series of video games.
- Eiji Aonuma = A project manager for the Legend of Zelda series of video games.
- Kenny Omega = A Canadian-born professional wrestler who became famous for his tenure in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Fukuichi is referring to an incident during which he made an entrance at Wrestle Kingdom 13 with an UNDERTALE-themed video, which was produced with the assistance of the developers themselves and localization company 8-4.
- LINE = A popular messaging app created by the Japanese subsidiary of the Korean company Naver, which is to this day still the dominant personal texting/messaging app in Japan.
- In the official Japanese translation of UNDERTALE, the line “Despite everything, it’s still you” is translated as “いろいろあったけど じぶんは やっぱり じぶんだ。” In terms of sentiment, it is very similar to the original English sentence’s degrees of implication and ambiguity. A more strictly literal back-translation of the Japanese text would be “So many things have happened, but in the end, you’re still yourself.”