Interview: Translator Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin talks Legends of Localization
by on September 15, 2016

Following our review of Legends of Localization yesterday, we had a chat with its author Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin about the process of writing the book and the surprises he uncovered along the way. Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda takes a detailed look at the translation and localization of the original Legend of Zelda game on the NES. It contains secrets, mistranslations, altered content, and rare merchandise, and highlights the seemingly small localization choices that went on to change the Zelda series forever. You can read our review of the book here.

vrVCfQ4U_400x400Affectionately known as Mato, Mandelin has been a professional Japanese-to-English translator for 14 years. He’s worked on anime including Attack on TitanOne PieceCase Closed, and Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike as well as video games such as Kingdom Hearts II. He’s also spearheaded unofficial translations of games like Mother 3, Bahamut Lagoon, and Star Ocean.

He co-founded Starmen.net in 1999, a popular Earthbound fan site that’s still going strong today, and its companion site EarthBound Central in 2009. In 2011, he began a website called Legends of Localization, where he covered games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy IV, and EarthBound. The popularity of this site is what led him to develop it into a book series, with the first book being about The Legend of Zelda.

Zelda Universe: How did you first become a fan of The Legend of Zelda? What’s your favorite game in the series?

Clyde Mandelin: Zelda 1 is what hooked me. I first saw it when a kid brought the game to school and showed it off. I didn’t fully understand how the game worked because there hadn’t been anything quite like it before. I had played plenty of Atari and computer games before then, but after just a few minutes of seeing Zelda 1 I knew it was something big. Eventually I got an NES and a copy of the game so I could explore Hyrule on my own. Every step of the adventure was memorable, thanks to the game’s brilliance and the many friends who lent a hand along the way.

ZU: What got you into translating, and why Japanese specifically out of all the different languages?

CM: I spent the first few years of my life in Hawaii, where there’s a strong Asian influence. As a result, I had Japanese babysitters and went to a preschool primarily for Japanese kids. I don’t remember much of it, but I feel that’s where my interest in Japanese culture stemmed from.

Many years later, I came across a Japanese 201 college textbook at the local library. I read through it and enjoyed trying to decipher as much as I could. I later learned that the state university had a Japanese department, so I started taking classes there during my high school summer breaks.

A few years after that, during my college career, I found myself jumping between majors and not really knowing what I wanted to do in life. After a bunch of soul-searching I returned to my Japanese studies. Then, on a whim one day, I offered to help translate a Japanese script for a guy who was trying to reprogram a Japanese-only game into English. After just one day, I knew translating Japanese stuff was what I wanted to do for a living.

after just a few minutes of seeing Zelda 1 I knew it was something big.

ZU: Legends of Localization was originally an online project. What made you decide to turn it into a book?

legends-of-localisation-book-review-1-croppedCM: Legends of Localization was always a side hobby for me, so I never really considered taking it any further than its website form. Readers often suggested that I turn some of my work into books, but I had two concerns that held me back: I didn’t think many people would be that interested in localization analysis, and in the case of The Legend of Zelda, I didn’t think there was enough content to warrant a book.

After a few years of prodding from friends, I decided to give it a shot. The original plan was to release a single book about Zelda 1 and Zelda 2, as that would solve my concern about a lack of content. As I started to actually plan the compilation, though, it became clear that the book would end up 400 or 500 pages long. That’s when the book team and I decided to step back and break the games into separate books after all.

ZU: What was the hardest part about making this book?

CM: I’d never written a book before, so learning the process the hard way was a big hurdle. We also had a very tight deadline of two months or so. Coffee was my red potion.

Another surprising difficulty was acquiring every English and Japanese version, port, and re-release of the first Zelda game. Then, once I finally had them all, checking all the versions for certain differences was tough. For example, to conserve time, I needed to learn how to reach any room or screen as quickly as possible, usually with only three hearts. It was a fun, unexpected challenge.

ZU: You guys collected a whole bunch of Zelda games and merchandise in order to photograph them yourselves for the book (rather than relying on online images). Were you able to get your hands on anything rare or something you consider really special?

CM: I wanted a big part of the book to compare what the Zelda experience would’ve been if you’d grown up in Japan with what the experience would’ve been if you’d grown up in America or elsewhere. Merchandise fits right into that topic, so we sought out various Zelda-related items to compare and contrast.

For example, we bought both the Japanese and the American Zelda 1 board games so we could compare them side-by-side in the book. It turns out the Japanese game is very intricate and extremely faithful to the original game, while the American version feels very lackluster and sloppily-designed. We also bought all the various Zelda 1 LCD games, including a strange, European-only release that uses Minish Cap art.

I wanted a big part of the book to compare what the Zelda experience would’ve been if you’d grown up in Japan with what the experience would’ve been if you’d grown up in America or elsewhere.

I wanted a big part of the book to compare what the Zelda experience would’ve been if you’d grown up in Japan versus elsewhere.

ZU:  What was the biggest surprise for you during this whole Legends of Localization project about Zelda 1 — from the website to the book? And did you manage to learn anything new about Zelda 1 while writing the book?

CM: The biggest surprise was how many Zelda fans and retro gamers I crossed paths with while working on the book. When I write things for the website, I usually just sit at the computer and type. But the book had me going places, meeting people, and learning new things. Even the online response I received was great — whenever I would ask a question about something Zelda-related on Twitter I’d get a deluge of insightful replies.

I absolutely learned a lot about the first game — and the entire series — during my work on the book. Nearly-imperceptible technical differences, schoolyard rumors, secret tricks, bugs, subtle gameplay changes, text revisions… I thought I knew Zelda 1 inside and out beforehand, but I was totally wrong. Even now I’m learning and discovering new things about the game!

ZU: Is there something that didn’t make it into the English version of the game that you wish had?

CM: I think it would’ve been cool if the English version had had the same microphone gameplay mechanic as the original Japanese release. Not because it’s particularly useful or amazing, but because it would’ve been fun to read the hints in the manual and the game and suddenly realize, “Hey, I wonder what happens if I try the microphone!” The schoolyard rumors around it would’ve been a fun experience too.

Beyond that, there are some fun little bugs and glitches in the Japanese versions that were fixed in the English release. One even lets you get a bunch of extra heart containers for free!

ZU: We all like to laugh about stuff like “All your base are belong to us,” but what’s the worst example of game localization you’ve ever seen?

CM: I don’t know if there’s a “worst” for things like this — at a certain point the really poor localizations all share the same level of badness. But one game I keep running into all the time is Breath of Fire 2. The translation is terrible, the editing is nonexistent, and the lack of proper localization actually hampers certain gameplay elements to some degree. It’s a big mess.

More notably, the explosion of mobile games in recent years has spawned a new era of terrible localizations. Companies looking for quick profits will churn out games, hire the lowest bidder to localize them, and then toss the localizations online without any testing or quality assurance. So if you’re a fan of “All Your Base” then you’re in for a treat — a new era is here!

ZU: At the end of Legends of Localization Book 1 you mention that you’re considering writing similar books for Zelda 2 and Ocarina of Time. How likely are those to happen?

CM: I’ve already done a lot of prep work for Zelda 2, so that one’s very likely to happen. I’d actually love to look at each Zelda game in order as a way to illustrate how game localization has evolved over the years. There aren’t any concrete plans yet but the team has also been discussing doing a Zelda book once every year. I’m all for it.

I've already done a lot of prep work for Zelda 2, so that one's very likely to happen.

I’ve already done a lot of prep work for Zelda 2, so that one’s very likely to happen.

ZU: I assume you’ve seen the trailer or some of the footage of the upcoming new Zelda game, Breath of the Wild? What are you hoping for from the game?

CM: I’m really excited by the idea that the designers are going back to the series’ roots. I loved the open world of the first game and look forward to uncovering its secrets while getting completely lost. I’m also looking forward to seeing how references to the earlier games are handled in its localization.

ZU: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CM: You can easily find sites online that put translated game scripts side-by-side with the original scripts. Legends of Localization is all about digging deeper than that, though. I try to share why localization choices were made, what those choices mean, and what effect those choices have had. I try to do this with a laid-back, enjoyable tone.

When writing this book, I also tried to keep everything interesting and accessible for all readers. If you’re a Zelda 1 expert, you’ll definitely learn a lot of new info in here. If you’re not familiar with or a fan of the first game, there’s a lot in here that you’ll still find interesting — I explore how certain localization choices in the first game affected future games in the series, for example. And even if you aren’t a Zelda fan or a game expert, the book is filled with content about the game localization process, little-known retro gaming history, early game censorship, Japanese culture, quirks of the Japanese language, and more. If you’re even the least bit interested in any of these topics, this book is for you!

Thanks for your time Mato! We look forward to Legends of Localization Book 2.

Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda is available through Fangamer.

Shona Johnson
Shona is one of Zelda Universe's leaders. She ran her own Zelda site from 2001 until 2011, when she merged it with ZU. She works as an engineer and is also an avid writer, cosplayer and adventurer.