There’s a story behind the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. The untold story of the controversy behind the first volume of the book has infrequently made its way into the public eye, but only in bits and pieces. The only people who may be well acquainted with this event are those who happened to be following John Szczepaniak and the Kickstarter that required a journey to the far east to discover some of the hidden gems buried within the eastern world of interactive entertainment.
At the time of the writing of this article, there’s a libel case against John Szczepaniak, the author of the multi-volume series The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. Why the suit came about and the events that led up to it are somewhat interesting and helps piece together the controversy between various parties that has been brewing for the past couple of years.
Things started back in early November of 2011, where John Szczepaniak contacted Agness Kaku, a translator and localization expert who worked on games such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, about being interviewed for her work as a translator in the interactive entertainment space. At the time, Szczepaniak, a freelance journalist and writer, was contributing to outlets such as GamesTM and Hardcore Gaming 101.
Over the next couple of months John and Agness worked on the interview that eventually went live on Hardcore Gaming 101. As of June 2nd, 2014, the interview was suspended from Hardcore Gaming 101, presumably in light of the libel case between John and Agness.
Following the interview on Hardcore Gaming 101, John and Agness had established enough of a rapport that he pitched to her an idea that would eventually become The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers.
It started in early March of 2013, when he e-mailed her about an idea that would require extensive translation work and began asking about the pricing that would go along with it. According to an e-mail from the Versus.JS.blog dated March 9th, 2013, Agness states…
“I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but my older sister is a pretty highly-regarded E-J conference interpreter. About the only major thing she hasn’t done yet is the G8 summit.
“So I threw your query over to her and this is what she has to say.“
Agness’ sister, Hanako Abe, had forwarded some of the listed prices for interpretations and translations, writing…
“Interpreters aren’t paid by the hour. It’s a flat fee for up to 4 hours, then another flat fee up to 8 hours. It’s hourly overtime pay beyond the 8-hour mark. The fee depends on the level of the interpreter, but a top-notch one would start at ¥60,000 for half-day, and from ¥90,000 for up to 8 hours.”
With this information, John discussed his with Agness, detailing other successful Kickstarter efforts of a similar nature and how he would go a step further in talking with all sorts of Japanese game developers for rare and unique stories about the history of the industry…
“Similarly, there have been phenomenally successful Kickstarter projects, including one where a woman who makes Youtube videos received $158,000 to make a series on “”feminism and video games””. At first I thought this would result in some great interviews with women in the industry – I mean, for $158K you could fly to anywhere in the world and interview major figures like Roberta Williams (Sierra), Rieko Kodama (Phantasy Star) or Junko Kawano (Shadow of MeM**ies). Unfortunately it’s not going to feature interviews, and instead seems to be just game playing with commentary…
“I don’t know if I have the popularity to pull in that kind of support, but I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, have a nice contacts list, and I’ve helped a friend with two self-published books. For considerably less than the above, I’m sure I could budget for time in Japan, arrange as many interviews as possible, and produce a self-published book containing a rich variety of first hand recollections.”
Agness encouraged John and offered support, as well as received word from her sister, Hanako, that she would be willing to help with securing interpreters in Japan for John. According to the e-mail exchanges, John was very grateful for a lot of that support, writing on May 6th, 2013…
“I don’t want to leave launching the KS for too late. I want to run it for ~30 days, ending no later than the end of June. So even if I haven’t finalised my interpreter, I’m going to make the video and at least send some preview links out before the end of May.
“You’ve been so tremendously helpful with this project – I really want to emphasise how grateful I am. It’s far more than I could ever have hoped for. I’ll feel very guilty if I launch this and it fizzles out. If it succeeds, expect a very nice mention in the preface. And a complimentary copy!”
The Kickstarter for The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers went up in late May and ran until the end of June, as mentioned by John. He managed to secure £70,092 on a goal of only £50,000.
During the time of the Kickstarter campaign, John and Agness loosely communicated together to promote the book, discuss the artwork and cover some of the other basic elements of translation work before John headed off to Japan. In between this time, John and Hanako were also setting things up and preparing to contact interviewees leading up to the end of the Kickstarter.
Between June and September, Hanako and John worked out travel arrangements for the interpreters, pricing and lodgings.
Hanako was placed in charge of coordinating interpreters and scheduling when they would be available for the interview bookings when John arrived in Japan. The idea was for John and selected interpreters to appear at the scheduled bookings, talk with the designated individual, schedule in a break and then proceed either with more of the interview or talk to another developer.
Throughout August John and Hanako worked out the logistics. According to the e-mails phone interpretations with the interviewees would be about 5,000 yen per session, which is just under $50. Every other face-to-face interpretation would be 80,000 yen for a full day, which comes up to around $675 per session. You can check out the full fees and expenses for the project between Hanako and John right here.
Before August was finished, John had already managed to rack up a sizable tab using Hanako to establish connections and setup interviews.
However, as the scheduling, appointments and logistics progressed throughout September, Hanako had mentioned on a few occasions that the project was eating up a lot of time, mentioning on September 25th, 2013…
“Since everybody is busy, and there is no one to delegate, I guess I will handle the extra logistics. Let’s try to make this more efficient, since it is already cutting into my prep time for other work and precious family time as well.”
Previous to this, on September 14th, 2013 Hanako had mentioned about revisiting her role in the project due to the increased amount of logistics involved, writing…
“I would also like to revisit my role in this project with you tomorrow. The latest exchange about Mr. K********’s interview is an example where I had to step in, send more emails and make suggestions. I believe my role is to book interpreters, lay out basic logistics (to a certain extent, that too needs to be discussed), communicate with the interviewees on a per-request basis. I am spending a significant amount of time on tasks outside the scope of the agreed role.”
John had mentioned in an e-mail response to Hanako about the logistics that he would limit the bookings for November, and he assured her not to cut into her own prep time.
I asked Agness about Hanako’s commitment to the project and if she ever mentioned about it becoming burdensome or wearing her down. According to Agness…
“Jon indicated to me face-to-face that he was overwhelmed, though that wasn’t the word he used. I also heard secondhand that he claimed he was having a meltdown. (Search email archive).
“I’d say Hana wasn’t close to being overwhelmed. You have any middle-aged professional moms in your circle? Doctors, lawyers? It takes a lot to overwhelm ’em AYK.”
Things began further breaking down when John sent an e-mail explaining that he was displeased with one of the bookings. The name was blocked out on the Versus.JS blog to prevent any further public damage to the interpreter…
“Ms O*****’s interpretation today was abysmal. I’ll forgive mistakes with technical terminology, because video games can be highly esoteric. But I understand enough Japanese to know she skipped sentences, missed out words, made mistakes when translating my questions (including a very simple question relating to business licensing agreements), and when translating answers she would regularly trail the sentence into vague silence – which was blatantly not present in the original Japanese. Additionally, her accent when speaking English made it very difficult to understand several words. Plus a myriad of other small mistakes too petty to mention.
“I would absolutely in no way describe Ms O***** as a “”HIGH”” tier interpreter, and frankly I am shocked you booked her for today. I would have been displeased even if she were booked as a junior interpreter. What a waste of 80,000 yen.”
On a separate occasion, another interview also turned out poor from another interpreter that John was displeased with. You can listen to a segment from that session below. At around the 7:30 mark John intercepts to make a few corrections.
Uploaded by William Usher on 2015-02-09.
Additionally, the mistakes that John mentions in the e-mail were corroborated by two other third party individuals who corrected some of the mistakes and cleaned up the audio. According to one of the individuals, who did not want to be named, they offered some corrections to the interpretation (although they are not a native English speaker), mentioning that…
“I am sorry for telling that, but the translator said “That happened here also” for the word “today”, she used not a word for “nowadays” but “NOW—this moment, the interview” so it sounds really impolite for him because it means that HE misunderstand something in this interview. So he asked her “oh really?” and she answered a bit strange, so he decided to continue the conversation with next sentences“
In the e-mail from John to Hanako, he mentions about not wanting to use that specific interpreter again, writing…
“I do not think you give M***** enough credit. She’s obviously a native English speaker, which is what I need – since it’s the spoken English which I will be transcribing. In addition, M******’s English is very clear, her enunciation perfect, and she speaks loudly. Ms O****** I struggled to understand due to poor pronunciation and she swallowed her words.
“I realise Ms O******’s booking was a one off just for today – but please, under no circumstances book her for anything else. If no one else is available I would rather not do an interview.”
According to Hanako, the criticisms were hard to believe but she noted that he would be refunded.
I reached out to Agness and asked if she had listened to the recordings to judge the quality. According to Agness…
“How would I do that? I was just a backer, no access. Besides, I knew the interpreters were overkill-qualified. I even introd’d one to Jon myself (“M”). The 6 interpreters have 9MA, MBA & PhD among them. Their skill never in doubt.”
Additionally, given his involvement with the case, I asked Agness’ husband, Peter Duimstra, about the project and whether or not he was able to listen to the audio quality of the interpretation to determine if John’s frustrations with Hanako and the interpreter were legitimate. According to Peter…
“In answer to your question, I have only heard the single recording John made available online: the brief, cherry-picked excerpt taken from Haruko Ota’s second interpreting session. I have tried to suggest, on more than one occasion, that John simply release all of the interview recordings to his backers, and let them judge the quality of the interpreting for themselves. They are no less qualified than John in this regard, and, after all, they funded the interviews.”
When asked about how he felt about the events that lead up to Hanako stepping away from the project and John’s frustration with some of the interpretations, Peter stated…
“I’ve looked over the evidence many times. I’m damned if I can find so much as an ill-considered remark by Hanako. Every time the project takes a bad turn, John is in the foreground doing something stupid. It’s comical, but also quite tragic.”
According to one of the third party individuals who had to correct some of the mistakes in the above audio clip from the interpreter that John was displeased with, here is what they had to say about the rest of the interpreted interview…
“I finished!!!!!! I wrote my coments and translations in blue, so you easily find my supplements. And first, she didn’t translate your questions correctely and because of it, you couldn’t get correct answer from [REDACTED]-san so often. And also she often added some thing that people ([REDACTED]-san and you) didn’t mention at all, and often it doesn’t make sense because of her misunderstanding.
I suggest you to fix some of your questions, or readers feel that [REDACTED]-san is lack of intelligence to understand your question correctely and talk something not exactely be required.”
John had mentioned that one of the problems is that he didn’t spot the errors in the interpretation right away, stating that…
“At the time, mid-October, I was also not aware of the extent of how bad all the interpretation was, so I clearly stated that some of the interpretation was good. Only later when transcribing, and having the audio checked by fluent speakers, did I discover how poor a lot of it was. Only Maiko’s was of a quality that did not require correction.”
Following this incident, John apologized for his tone but stood firm in his belief that the interpretation was not up to par for what he had paid for, as evidenced in the e-mail he sent on September 28th, 2013.
Despite this incident, Hanako did manage to work out the logistics for coordinating the interpreters for the interviews. John also mentioned that he was pleased with her work, writing on September 29th, 2013…
“I want to sincerely thank you for handling the logistics for these tasks. I do not know what I’d do without you (well, apart from get sued for failing to deliver this book).
“I appreciate that you’ve taken on more than an interpreter of your calibre normally would. Money doesn’t make up for my taking you away from your family, and I realise the trouble of having dragged you into this. Only 6 more weeks though!”
The collaboration between John and Hanako, however, did not last six weeks.