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Interview: Bill Trinen Of Nintendo

  10/10/2003  6:07 PM 

ame Informer: What exactly is your position at Nintendo, because I’ve noticed you’ve had quite a few different roles lately?

 

Bill Trinen: My official title is Associate Localization Producer.  And my side gig is the translation work that I do for Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Iwata and other people in interviews at E3 and DICE and things like that.  And then my actual day job is translating the games.  So even like down here at the Gamers Summit, this stuff is on top of what I actually do.

 

GI:  So why did Nintendo want you involved with this Gamers Summit?

 

BT: For a long time at the Gamers Summit, we’ve just pretty much had the Team Nintendo guys who know the games, and have played the games a little bit, and  they obviously play the games long enough to get familiar with them in time for the Gamers Summits.  But we’ve really kind of just come to the decision that the guys in the Treehouse (Research and Development at Nintendo of America) - especially the localization team - who’ve basically, months before the game has ever even come out in the US, have played games all the way until the end in the Japanese version to figure out the storyline, how the game works and what the best part of it really is. [They] are really people who know the game the best and are probably the best people to go to the press.

 

Actually, I think the first Gamers Summit I went to was on Animal Crossing.  After all the effort we put into getting the press excited about that game, and having people who knew the game at E3 demoing it for people the year it was there, we thought contributed to some of the success of Animal Crossing.

 

GI:  How long have you been at Nintendo?

 

BT: Five years.  The first thing I ever did there was translate bug reports on Ocarina of Time.  That was actually kind of funny because I had just come back from Japan, and I just had gotten married, and I was looking for a job and I wanted to go to work in web design, which is what I had been doing in Japan for a while and it was right around the time where things were slowing down in the online world. There wasn’t a whole lot of web design work out there.  In applying for this job at a web design company they were like, “we’re not hiring anyone for what you want to do but sometimes we farm people out to companies – kind of basically acting like an employment agency - and there’s this job at this video game maker in the Seattle area for some translation work.  Would you be interested?” I was like, “Yeah, I don’t have a job, sure, why not, I’ll try it out.” And that’s how I ended up at Nintendo.  So I was on contract to translate debug reports on Ocarina of Time, and then right after that I got hired on full time in the localization group.  So the first game that I ever actually really worked on was the original Mario Party.

 

GI: So you translated the Japanese version over to the American version?

 

BT: Yeah, and it used to be that the localization team translated the text, translated the manuals, took all of the screenshots for the manuals and all the screenshots for the packaging, and took the footage for the commercials. Now we actually have guys that do all the footage and screenshots themselves, and kind of support us in getting all the manuals and whatnot done.

 

We also help explain to people at Nintendo what the cool new features of the games are and points to focus on in PR and marking and things like that.

 

GI:  Were you into videogames before working at Nintendo?

 

BT: Yeah, I actually had Pong when I was a kid, and we actually had this weird – I think it was a Coleco Pong game that had like 15 different Pong games on it back in the 70’s.  But I never had a home system myself, but we did have a TSR-80 and I played games on that but kids in my neighborhood had systems.  So I grew up playing a lot of NES games at friends’ houses and Genesis games at friends’ houses and we go to the arcades and play. I remember going to the arcades and playing Super Mario Bros. there and then hearing about this friend who supposedly had Super Mario playing on his TV at home, and I was like, “No way!” I went there and saw it and was like, “That’s so cool!”  But the actual first Nintendo product I ever had was this table-top Popeye game which was really funny because when I went back to Japan a year or so ago, and we were meeting with R&D 1 talking to them about Wario Ware for Game Boy Advance, and I was talking with one of the guys from R&D 1 and he was saying he used to work on the Game and Watch games way back when, and I was like, “I had Game And Watch Popeye when I was like ten!”  And he was like, “Oh god. I feel so old,” and I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

 

GI: So since you are primarily Mr. Miyamoto’s main translator when he’s here in the US, how’d you get involved in the Japanese language?  Did you live over in Japan, did you study Japanese culture?

 

BT: I started studying Japanese in high school, and the reason was in my high school you had to study a foreign language.  I’ve got two older brothers and an older sister and my oldest brother studied Spanish, and my older sister studied French, and my other brother studied German, and I got to high school and it was the first year that my high school was going to offer Japanese, and I was like, well, everybody else studied something different, and I didn’t really know anything about Japan, and it seems kind of cool maybe I’ll give it a try.  I had a really good teacher in high school and she made it a lot of fun, and so we were the first class to study Japanese and from that class I think I’m the only person who still speaks Japanese. I figured if I’m going to go to college I wanted to study something that I wanted to study, and Japanese was fun so I went to the University of Oregon for their Japanese program, and I graduated from there. But, during the process I went for a year overseas to study in Tokyo and lived in Shibuya.  It’s a great place to live and I ended up having a lot of fun.

 

Before going to Japan I had actually studied Japanese for like six years, and I got there and my roommate was Japanese but he was from the Osaka area, and I of course when studying Japanese learned your standard Japanese.  I get to Japan after studying Japanese for six years and I sit down in my room and there’s this guy there and he starts speaking to me in Japanese and I couldn’t understand him because the dialects in Japan are so strong, and in the US we’ve got southern dialects and for the most part you can understand what they’re saying, but in Japan it’s like people from the deep north can’t understand what people from the Osaka area are saying and visa versa.  So after studying the language for six years there’s this guy speaking to me and I can’t understand what he’s saying and I sat down and said to myself, “what am I thinking?” So for like two weeks I was all bummed out because I had studied for six years and my Japanese is so bad and I couldn’t understand this guy and then finally he told me he was from Osaka and I was like, “You jerk. Why didn’t you tell me that before?” I had been all depressed because I thought my Japanese was terrible.  Living there for a year was really a huge help and then after graduating I went back and lived there for two years working in the city hall translating and building web pages which was pretty helpful.

 

GI:  So how’d did you end up translating for Mr. Miyamoto?

 

BT:  It’s actually pretty funny.  I had only been at the company for six months.  The GDC (Game Developers Conference) Speech was coming up – I started basically in October of 99 and it was in March of 2000, and actually I hadn’t even been there that long.  I was there for about 3 months when Jim Merrick (formerly NOA’s Software Engineering Manager) comes up to me and taught me a very important lesson that I’ve carried with me ever since in my days at Nintendo, and he walks up to me and says, “You speak Japanese don’t you?”  And, unknowingly I said, “Yeah, I do.”  And now whenever anyone asks me a question, I always say, “Why do you ask?”  (laughs)

 

So Jim says, “Would you be interested in translating a speech for Mr. Miyamoto in front of about 3000 people?”  And I was like, “You know, I’ve never really done anything like that before.” So he says, “You got to try it sometime, don’t you?”  And he kind of got my boss to convince me to do this speech.  I had never met Mr. Miyamoto before so we go down to San Jose on a Monday and I meet him, and the speech is on Wednesday night and I was really nervous meeting him, and he was really nervous because he had his first speech in front of a large US audience and we go the night of the speech and rehearse and people had been standing in line for a very long time to get into this arena in San Jose to hear him speak and we’re trying to sneak in these back doors and there’s a line of people waiting to get in, and we get back stage and we’re all nervous and the thing filled up almost instantaneously will about 3000 plus people and it was standing room only and he was really worried because he had to go out and speak in English at first without me, and I felt really uncomfortable because I was just this translator guy and he’s going to go out and speak in English and then he’s going to introduce me,  and I’m like, “I shouldn’t be introduced by Shigeru Miyamoto!”  I kept trying to convince Jim Merrick, I’m like “Jim, can we reverse?” and he said, “No, no. It’s got to be this way.” So Miyamoto goes out and he gets this standing ovation and it just about moves him to tears because he wasn’t really expecting that, and people were like screaming, cheering, and clapping for like five minutes.  And finally he says his bit in English and calls me out and he’s still really nervous and I walk out on stage and he had kind of written into his speech in Japanese a few jokes at the beginning to lighten things up.  So he starts in Japanese and – really so nervous and tense – says the jokes in Japanese and I translate the jokes and the whole place just starts cracking up. At that moment it was like – whew!  The weight was lifted and we both started having fun and ever since then we’ve gotten along really well and it was funny, because I thought it was going to be a one time deal and just be that great experience but then, I think it was at E3 where he was going to be in the press conference and Perrin Kaplan (NOA’s Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Affairs) comes to be and says, “Hey Bill how you doing?” And I’m like “Oh hi, Perrin. How are you?” and she says, “Guess what?”  And I’m like, “What?” And she’s says, “Well, Mr. Miyamoto is going to be in the press conference at E3 this year.” And I’m like, “Oh really?” And she says, “Yeah, and when we asked him and talked to NCL and asked if Mr. Miyamoto will be in the press conference, and they said, ‘Yes, and Bill will translate.’” (Laughs)

 



So that’s how it all got started.  And now it’s like, a few times of the year I get to go hang out with him and translate.  It’s really fun because translating for him in interviews I’ve learned so much about game development and his philosophies, and the way that they do things at EAD (NCL’s Entertainment, Analysis, and Development), and of course being the localization group I get to go to Japan sometimes and we got to see Zelda before it launched in Japan and they showed it to us, and we get to see little windows into their development cycle. So it’s really, really interesting and a lot of fun.

 

GI:  So you’ve obviously been behind the very secure locked doors in Kyoto then?

 

BT: Yeah, I have and it’s funny.  EAD is really secretive and they even, a lot of times, won’t let many people from Nintendo of America in there.  Every time I go over there, they always start us off in these separate meeting rooms outside of the EAD room, and somehow we always manage to find an excuse for them to be like, “Uuuuh – okay we can take you in there.”  (Laughs)  So yeah, I’ve actually been in there, and it’s an impressive place.

 

GI: So what’s it like working with Mr. Miyamoto?

 

BT: It’s a lot of fun. It’s funny because he understands a lot more English than people suspect.  And even when he’s talking with Will Wright, who he’s really good friends with – which people didn’t realize which was why Will Wright was at the E3 press conference this year, not because Mr. Miyamoto is developing The Sims with Will Wright, but because Will and Miyamoto talk pretty frequently.  Will was like, “Yeah, I’m making The Sims for GameCube and Game Boy Advance.” And Miyamoto was like, “Hey why don’t you link them up and see what you can do?”  So they exchanged some ideas, and then once they started hammering things out, Miyamoto was like, “Hey, why don’t you come to our press conference?”  So whenever they sit down and talk they talk in English and at E3 or GDC I’ll be standing at the side feeling kind of silly because he’s just talking with Will Wright, and I’m kind of just eaves dropping on their conversation, sort of - only because if Miyamoto needs me to translate, I’ll translate.

 

At first I was really nervous the first time I worked with him because I knew he understood some English and I had heard that he had corrected translators when they translated something wrong.  So there’s always a little bit of pressure there. 

 

GI:  Has he ever corrected you?

 

BT: Yeah, sometimes – especially towards the end of the day at E3, when we’ve been translating all day, and I’ll get tired and he’ll say, “I also said this, but you forgot to translate it.” (Laughs)

 

GI: So what’s the process of translation, for example Wind Waker, there’s a lot of differences between Japanese culture and American culture, and European, what’s that like?

 

BT: The process of what we actually do is, EAD has some pretty tight standards.  A lot of times they won’t even send us text until we’ve written them back and told them we finished the game, because they want us to go through the Japanese game and understand everything before we start translating everything.  It was on Majora’s Mask actually, and they sent us the game, and they said, “Bill we need you to play through the game and finish it, and then we’ll send you text and if you have any problems or get stuck, just e-mail us, and let us know.”  And I was like, “uh, okay.” And so I started playing through the game, and I got to a point where I got stuck, and I was like, I, uuuhh, I can’t e-mail them and ask them!  You know, I don’t want them to think I can’t get through the game. (Laughs) So I struggled through it.  So we play through the games first and then we get the text in and we work concurrently so that we – well on the Wind Waker it was Nate (Nate Bilhdorf – Treehouse member), but on any game we’ll have a translator or multiple translators, in the case of Animal Crossing, and a writer.  So the translator will start, and then the writer will pick up a week or two later and kind of work in parallel.  Then we exchange information back and forth, and if there happens to be a message that we haven’t seen in the game yet, or the translator hasn’t seen we’ll have to check context because Japanese is a very subject free language where everything is kind of implied so if you don’t have context it’s hard to pick out what the meaning might actually be.  So we go through that, and then the guys at EAD – the writers tend to be very fond of puns in Japanese, and so that’s where a lot of the challenge is.  A lot of times it’s not so much translating their puns as it is finding, okay, this where they’re cracking a joke and we need to figure out a joke that’s somewhat relevant here and we need to find a way to make this funny too.  Also looking for some of the subtle meaning of some of the stuff they’re doing. Like in the Wind Waker, where the guy who’s running the trophy shop – he has some funny text in there, I think a lot of people picked up on when people ran into him.  We don’t really do a lot of yanking content just because we’re not really about being the censorship police, so as just trying to make sure the content is applicable to the US market so it’s something Americans can relate to.  With something like Animal Crossing, from the get-go they said, you know we developed this game thinking it wasn’t going to be released outside Japan, so everything in it was very Japan-centric, so we don’t want you guys to translate this game, we want you guys to rewrite it completely, which was basically what we did.  It’ll vary with games to the degree that we do that. We like to add a lot of humor to the games, which you’ll see in Mario and Luigi.

GI: So do you do a lot of the writing?

 

BT: It depends.  We all do a lot of the writing.  In Animal Crossing the April Fools joke was my doing.  It was actually longer and we shortened it up a bit, it was like this multi-layered joke – of like horribly cruel levels.  (Laughs)  But we toned it back a little.  So, Tim O’Leary (Localization team member) who was the translator on Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, he was responsible for all of Resetti’s text.  He was really funny, and Tim had a lot of fun with him.

 

GI:  He was a really funny character, but then how was he in Japanese?

 

BT: Basically what Tim did actually was – well Tim lived in the Osaka area for a long time - and in Japanese Resetti had this very, very gruff Osaka accent and Tim took that and basically wrote it, so as he was writing it he was saying the lines out loud in the thickest Bronx accent you could think of.  We do that a lot, and it kind of depends on the game.  But if we’re under a really tight deadline a lot of times the translator won’t have any choice and will just translate the content really fast and really dirty and then hand it off to the writers for them to get to work on.

 

On Pikmin I was, in the translation, able to do a lot of the writing and try to put a lot of the voice in the game, so when Nate went through it and rewrote it he’d get to a large chunk and go right past it and tell me, “Oh god, that was so good, I didn’t change anything.”

 

GI:  What do you think the toughest game you had to translate was?

 

BT: Boy, that’s tough.  I’ll tell you, I’m glad I didn’t have to translate Fire Emblem.  Because Fire Emblem had a lot of really difficult language in it, in Japanese.  Just because the style of game that it is – Fantasy strategy/RPG – that had a lot of difficult phrasing and some interesting Kanji characters they were using in that game.  Animal Crossing was probably the most fun. Majora’s Mask was not so much hard, but all the relationships with the characters in the game and all the different times of day and all that and trying to keep everything straight mentally as you’re going through the translation was a pretty big challenge.  That was also in an extremely difficult and tight deadline – I missed E3 that year because I had to stay back at NOA and translate Majora’s Mask.  But we ended up getting done early and launching on the same day as the PS2 launch, which was like – nobody was even paying attention – everybody always pays attention when Nintendo delays a game but Majora’s Mask we moved the launch date up a month.  A few people noticed that.

 

GI:  So what do you think your biggest challenges are working at Nintendo?

 

BT:  One thing has been, up until recently, there hasn’t been a whole lot of continuity.  If you were to go back and look at the original Zelda game, I think originally on the NES Ganon’s name was spelled with two N’s.  We’ve actually been going back and trying to solidify and define all the terminology and the names of all the franchises.  So there’s been a lot of research.  Smash Bros. was a big help going back and looking at all that stuff.  So now that I’ve finished translating Mario and Luigi, we’ve got some down time so we’re putting together these, basically huge franchise bibles of character names, with the Japanese name, the English names, and other ways they’ve appeared in games and in various materials in the past that deviate from what they should actually be.  Drawing out these huge notes on the huge franchises to basically establish groundwork so that going forward anyone can come in and pick these up and be able to go to work on a game and have a sort of frame of reference for characterization and things like that. 

 

It’s kind of funny because I’ve never really had a job for more than two or three years, and I tend to get really bored with things pretty quickly - if I have to do something over and over again, I won’t want to do the same thing again and try to find something new.  But the fact that we’re always getting new games in, even if you look at the overall process, it’s pretty similar from game to game, but the fact that what you’re working on is so different.  Mario and Luigi is a funny and hilarious RPG, or Fire Emblem a more serious fantasy literary style epic adventure, Zelda and Link and their adventures – the content is so different that it keeps it fresh and exciting.  Working with the guys at EAD is just incredible.  They’re guys who slave away for hours and hours and yet when you sit down and you’re playing their game and they’re watching you – they could have been working for 72 hours straight and all of a sudden they’re like beaming with pride.  They just get so excited.  They’re just guys that really care about what they’re working on.

 

GI:  What’s your favorite part about your job?

 

BT: My favorite part about my job is being able to play and complete Zelda games before anyone else in North America (laughs).  You know, sitting down and getting to play Mario Kart: Double Dash back in July.  And working with guys like Aonuma and obviously Mr. Miyamoto and the guys at R&D 1 – those are some wacky guys.

 

GI: Any good stories?

 

BT:  None that I can really share. (Laughs)

 

GI:  There are a lot of people that are really big into video games and Japanese culture. If someone wanted to learn Japanese, how would you suggest someone should go about it?

 

BT: I think what’s really important is - when I started learning Japanese I never really had an end goal in mind.  I wasn’t thinking, well I want to start learning Japanese so I can do this in life.  I was just studying Japanese for the heck of it.  So kind of that attitude that there wasn’t anything I was working towards, it was I just wanted to learn more.  I think that really helped me out.  A lot of people will be like, “Oh, I’m going to go to Italy in nine months so I want to study Italian so I can navigate my way” And they may get to where they want to go, and learn a few phrases and then they’ll stop and that’s it.  Japanese is a kind of a language that between all of the characters and all the different ways of conjugating your verbs and all the different levels of politeness there’s so much to the language that it’s the kind of thing where even now seventeen years after I started learning Japanese, I still learn new things.  It’s really that attitude that there’s always something more to learn – it’s really important.  Just as long as it’s something you like to do, you’re going to enjoy doing it.  I started studying Japanese because I thought it would be interesting and I kept studying Japanese because I liked it, and now I have a job where I get to use the Japanese, which I still like, and still like learning more Japanese.   So it’s really finding whatever that one thing is that you like and kind of keeping that in mind and focusing on that.  Who wants to go to work and do things that they hate for like 40-50 percent of their life? So basically keep studying and have fun with it, and don’t think that I’ve learned enough now and I can stop.

 

 



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