Chain of Memories: A Conversation with Amanda Katsurada
|Amanda Jun Katsurada has contributed to the production of such Square games as Legend of Mana, Vagrant Story, and Kingdom Hearts as a localization specialist. Born in Gunma, Japan and graduating from Penn State University, she has studied archeology in Athens, and covered motor sports events for Japanese rally magazines. We caught up with Amanda to learn about her background in translation and interpretation, and to discuss her experiences in the videogame industry.|
Square Haven: Hello, Amanda. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us about your experiences as a writer and translator.
Amanda Katsurada: My pleasure! I've been looking forward to this, because your interview articles always seem to illustrate the history of the person you're speaking to, going beyond the obvious topics related to Square.
Haven: We do try to do our homework. Speaking of which, we read online that your parents came from different cultural backgrounds. Did you grow up in Japan listening to both languages around the house?
Amanda: My mom didn't know how to speak Japanese when she came to Japan, and I was born a year or two later. She would speak to me in English, but I would speak back to her in Japanese, because everyone: my neighbors, kids, my dad, would speak to me in Japanese. I do remember saying "Goodnight," at night. And when my mom said, "Sweet dreams!" I would say, "You too!"
Haven: Can you tell me a little about growing up in your hometown of Ota, Japan?
Amanda: Ota is a Subaru factory town in Gunma that was occupied by the Americans during the war, because there was a huge factory there making bombers. The local economy is all about Subaru--all electronics, lots of electrical engineering going on. Me and my sister were the only non-Japanese looking people in the entire town, so I grew used to being looked on as kind of an outsider. Up to middle school people were still calling me a gaijin. I thought, How can I be a gaijin? I grew up with you, I was born in the same hospital you were. That was a big part of growing up in Ota: to be called gaijin all the time. And being teased. They would say, "Hallo!" I was like, I don't speak English.
Haven: How did you end up in the States?
Amanda: I sort of went alone. At sixteen I was doing ballet and I was training to be a professional, but I wanted to try a different ballet school. When I consulted my mother she suggested, "Why not stay with your aunt in Pennsylvania?'" I had no idea where Pennsylvania was, but after she told me it's a historic part of the country, I said "I'm going!" My aunt welcomed me with open arms, and that was a real blessing. It was only meant for the summer, but I ended up staying there another six years.
Haven: What made you decide to turn a summer in Philadelphia into a more permanent change of residence?
Amanda: In Japan there is a problem with preparing for the college entrance exam. I was putting so many hours into ballet, at the end of the summer I said, Why don't I just stay here. And that's what I did. I went to a local high school. For the first year I had some problems communicating with kids because everyone was speaking slang, and I was like, I don't know what they're talking about. This is a different language, I'm not used to this. I can't do it. I was used to speaking very clear and slowly, and everyone was slurring everything. But it all worked out. After graduating high school I went to Penn State. It was the perfect choice for me.
Haven: Was it difficult adapting to the English language?
Amanda: By the time I was done with high school, two years into my stay in Pennsylvania, I could communicate quite well with other Americans. I mean I learned about American history, the anthem, all that. And I was American. I became a real American in that way.
Haven: How much deliberation went into the decision to move to America?
Amanda: I had nothing planned. I just went with the flow and everything turned out alright. Things easily could have taken a different course, and maybe I would have wound up as an elite at some top class corporation using my linguistic abilities for PR. But, I like cultures. I like people and history. I wanted to enjoy and absorb everything that was coming my way. Maybe that's why I like translating. I have the understanding of different cultures, which helps in approaching those loony Japanese character voices: how do you translate that into English?
Haven: How did it come about that you first heard of Square?
Amanda: I think I was a junior at Penn state and there was this job fair hosted by DISCO for Japanese-English bilinguals. Most of the companies there were Japanese companies who have their branch offices in the States. My main aim was to go to this publishing house, and since my background was archeology and anthropology, I thought Iím perfect for that. It turns out they didn't want anybody in liberal arts because they had enough writers and translators already. They only wanted IT people. The friends with me were Poli Sci or business majors so they had other places to go to, but I looked around and the booths all had these signs that said, "Masters in engineering only." And here I was a total liberal arts person who did not even qualify to visit these booths.
I felt really rejected. I looked at the list of the companies and I didn't recognize any of them, except for one, which was Square. I didn't know anything about their games, really. I knew Final Fantasy because my sister was hooked on IV, V, VI and had the Amano Yoshitaka art book. I wondered what they could be looking for. Would they be interested in someone like me? I went and checked out their booth and there were all these people who were dressed casually. They were smiling, so much more laid-back than all other corporate people. I think they were really enjoying themselves and I thought, I think I like these people.
Haven: What led to your being employed at Square Japan?
Amanda: As soon as I got back to Japan, I went through the regular application procedure at Square using a hand-written resume, and they took me in. Back in '98 when I took the interview with Square Japan, after I was accepted I heard that the company almost never takes anyone without experience outside of college. But they said they liked my character, so I got the job.
Haven: What were your initial impressions of the company?
Amanda: What I felt after joining Square was that it wasn't a normal company. I almost never saw anyone wearing a suit. I heard there was this Japanese guy who would commute to work wearing a General Macarthur-type outfit, with a pipe in his mouth. That's what he wanted to wear, and he wore it. Some people did not leave the workplace. That's probably the same with other game companies. Once I saw a TV report that someone at another game company had a rice cooker by his desk. That was something you don't expect from corporations, really. It was like college. You didn't have to dress a certain way, because what was important was the end product. You could go to the office in your pajamas, or you could stay there for a week, so long as the product comes out on the market in one piece. I'm only mentioning the most extreme incidences, but that kind of thing was surprising.
Haven: Your first project for Square was working with Richard Mark Honeywood on Chocobo Racing. How was that experience as an introduction to localization?
Amanda: We had more time than necessary for it, which allowed for Richard to teach me things, so I could get used to the process. It didn't have too much dialog and we were done with the translation way ahead of time, as he predicted. So what we did was, since the text was supposed to be natural spoken dialog, he said, "Why not read it out loud?" So, day after day, we would go over the dialog. You know, "You be the goblin and I'll be the chocobo," and just read it out loud. I think people were laughing at us, but it was fun, and I think we did a good job.
Haven: The next game you worked on, Legend of Mana, was a departure for the series in terms of the non-sequential chronology of the plot line. How was it localizing such an idiosyncratic title?
Amanda: Legend of Mana was the kind of game I really enjoyed translating because of the way the story was told. The characters were cute, but very imaginative. The design and the music were also very good. Just last week I downloaded a ringtone of the Gato theme: it's on my cell phone. My sister knew how much I liked the music and told me about it. On that project I was responsible for translating the character names: Lady Black Pearl, and, I don't know if you remember this, but in the jewel tribes there's a guy named "Ruri" in Japanese, which is Lapis Lazuli in Japanese. In English I named him Elazul. Being an anthropology undergraduate, I wanted to utilize my knowledge of cultures unrelated to the traditional Western fantasy world that these RPG's are normally based on, so I could give a fresher feel to the language involved.
Haven: How was it working with localizers Alexander O. Smith and Rich Amtower on Vagrant Story?
Amanda: On Vagrant, I was in charge of the non-dialog: the menu screen, help, text, item names. Rich Amtower was based in LA and came to visit us a couple times in Square's office in Meguro. We almost never saw him, but we emailed back and forth. Alex was always studying, and he and Rich were two literature buffs. This storyline had such a special character to it, where the whole heart of the game was its atmosphere, and they were able to keep the quality of writing consistently high.
Haven: On Kingdom Hearts you were involved both in localization and acting as a sort of intermediary between Square and Disney in Japan and abroad. Can you tell us about that experience?
Amanda: I will be honest with you, that project was a challenge up until it came out. Having two strong companies with firm ideas on what they want to achieve trying to produce a product together could get quite complicated. And, this being the first attempt at a collaborative project on this scale, there were some difficulties. I believe Kingdom Hearts was the first Disney project written in Japanese first and later translated into English. The properties are all American, so up to this point everything was done in English, then localized for other languages. So you can imagine how challenging this project was for them, as well as for Square. Nevertheless, the coordinators both on Square and Disney's sides worked closely together to achieve the highest possible quality for the game. As for the localization staff, including myself, fellow translator Ryo Taketomi, and the super editor Jennifer Mukai, we spent much time reworking the translation and debugging text until the very last moment. Let's just say, we all slept for a few days straight after the project was finally completed!
Haven: Recently you have written for magazines on the subject of the World Rally Championship and traveled to various countries to cover rally events. What does this form of journalism entail?
Amanda: I write about rally culture. I've done two magazine articles for WRC: it's a type of motor sport that's as popular as F1 in Europe. Rally is not done in a circuit, itís done on public or private roads, such as farmland, through forests, on mountain ridges, deserts. People who are used to circuit races get bored with it, because it's more of a time trial. Nor is it obvious at a glance to tell who's winning. At my first rally, Rally Great Britain 2001, there were lots of people standing around, lining the road, speaking different languages I'd never heard of. It was raining, people hardly had umbrellas, and they were standing around in this horrible weather, enjoying the cars zooming by every minute or two, screaming cheers. They were enjoying everything: the drive out to the stages, the terrible weather, chatting with friends and family while waiting for the cars, and, finally, the actual rally cars themselves. I got hooked on that. I thought, if they like it that much, maybe I'll come back some time. If it was just a race at a safe circuit and everything was comfortable, I probably wouldn't be interested in it. There's less challenge to that.
Haven: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Amanda. It's been a pleasure hearing about your experiences in Japan and the United States.
Amanda: It was a great experience for me, too. I ended up talking about my whole life today, but my time as an in-house translator at Square was one of the most eventful, memorable periods of my life, and I'm happy to be able to share that with the readers of Square Haven.
Interview conducted by jeriaska.
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