When you’re one of the world’s most respected Japanese literary translators, it’s little wonder that strange work requests come in from time to time. But Jay Rubin – best known for being the translator behind most of the works of Haruki Murakami, probably the world’s best known Japanese author – genuinely didn’t know what to make of a request from, of all places, Microsoft.
What was the world’s biggest software giant doing contacting a Harvard professor such as Rubin? Its Japanese game studio had long been working on Lost Odyssey, the recently-released RPG that was the company’s biggest assault on the elusive Japanese games market – and its mastermind, Hironobu Sakaguchi, had chosen to make a game whose main purpose was to emotionally grip players. To do that, he’d enlisted Kiyoshi Shigematsu – a hugely popular short story writer in Japan – to craft over thirty short stories based around Lost Odyssey’s protagonist, Kaim Argonar, and his thousand years of living as an immortal.
These stories were to be presented in the game as text interludes, in a style similar to that of Japan’s ‘sound novel’ game genre. And so, to translate Shigematsu’s work with the utmost respect, Microsoft turned to Rubin, an unsurpassed talent in his field.
But rather than jumping at the chance, Rubin was initially cautious. Not a gamer himself, he actually opposed what he perceived as senseless violence in games. But, on relenting to Microsoft’s persistence, he was surprised to find the material much more subtle than he’d been expecting.
"I thought there was no way in hell I was going to add to the world's supply of senseless violence," he says, "but I agreed to at least have a look at the material. I was shocked to find that both pieces carried a strong message that violence is a terrible human failing and that the taking of life deserves only punishment."
But how does someone who spends his time in more scholarly pursuits feel about working on a game, still seen as a lower form of media than books, film and even television soaps?
“The strong moral core opposed to violence, and the vivid imagery with which Shigematsu brought home this lesson for his young readers, convinced me that I should sell out immediately,” he laughs. “No, seriously, I wouldn't have translated a bunch of blood-and-guts slice-'em-ups, but it certainly didn't hurt that they were willing to pay well for these fundamentally wholesome didactic pieces.”
It was this wholesomeness that convinced Rubin to participate on the project, eager to help the spread of “texts that had echoes of the brevity of life and the evanescence of earthly power. This was an essentially Buddhistic message that could do kids a lot of good.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the pieces, Rubin admits to being mystified as to why Microsoft would seek high quality translations of what are essentially text sequences in a triple-A quality game. Asking him about the discrepancies between literature translation and the often patchy quality of game translation, Rubin is quick to assert that the situation isn’t that dissimilar even in his sphere.
“You'd be amazed at how little appreciation there is, even in the literature industry, for the subtleties of translation – there aren't too many New Yorkers and Knopfs – so I think it will be a while yet before the game industry catches on. If Microsoft gave it half as much attention as they did to these supplementary texts, though, it should be all right.”