Mandelin fell in with the ROM-hacking scene just as it was gaining momentum and notoriety. The gigantic worldwide success of Final Fantasy VII had broadened the JRPG audience significantly and, with a relatively small library of English language titles to consume, many hobbyist fans were looking longingly at SquareSoft's large Japanese-only back catalogue.
Before ROM hacking took off, English-speaking players of these titles would have to print off hardcopy fan translations and try to follow the on screen text as they played. But emulation changed all of that.
Soon, small communities sprang up, bringing together hackers and translators who would work together to extract the text from the ROM and replace it with an English script.
"There are basically two major parts of a ROM translation, whether it's for the SNES or any other system: the hacking part and the translating part," he explains. "First, the hacker has to locate the game's font and produce what's called a table. Using this, the hacker can then start to locate the text data."
"Once it's been found and figured out, the hacker can then dump the Japanese text to a file. The translator then takes this file and translates it. The translator usually just types the translated text using something like Notepad, but for really big projects, the hacker might create a custom program to make it easier on the translator."
"Sometimes, a person adept at editing/revising is brought in to smooth the text out afterward. Meanwhile, the hacker alters the existing font to have English letters if the font didn't already have any. The translated script can then be inserted back into the game. Of course, it's all a lot harder and takes a lot more time than that overview suggests, and the process can vary greatly from game to game and person to person."
The practice of ROM hacking, like emulation itself, occupies a grey legal area. In strict terms, it's a case of third parties tampering with companies' IP. But that's not to say there isn't an ethical framework holding up the scene.
"First and foremost, ROM translation is a hobby, not a way to earn money or stick it to the man," he says. "As an example, the central hub for ROM hacking and translating, romhacking.net, won't post translations for recent games, and in some cases, like with the Mother 3 project, we were fully prepared and willing to stop our work immediately if there had been any word from the game's IP owner."
"In general, I think all respectable fan translators know exactly what they're doing, and only work on translations out of love. I think companies (or at least their legal departments) understand this, and it's this mutual understanding that has kept ROM translators free from cease-and-desist letters."
Perhaps this is true for purely amateur ROM hacker fans, but we wonder whether those who try to make the jump from fandom to professional translator might be encumbered by this kind of shady past? "I don't think any of the unofficial work I've done has ever been a hindrance to my career. ROM translations and other unofficial translations were actually a step in my goal of doing this for a living."
"The experience I gained from years of this work definitely helped when it came to step into the professional world. Some of the side skills I picked up along the way were also key in me being where I am today. Things like knowing how subtitle timing works and already being familiar with certain kinds of software helped immensely."
"It's been interesting for me, being on both sides of translation. A lot of times, people will say, 'Fan translators are better than professional ones!' But every pro translator I know is/was a fan translator on the side too. Aside from some of the logistics, fan translating and professional translating are almost no different. Probably the biggest difference is that you have deadlines with professional translations. And sometime they're very intense. In one case, I had two days to translate an entire Wii game. That can affect quality sometimes."
"Also, with a professional translation, you usually can't fix any mistakes. So if you make an error or a typo (perhaps due to a tight deadline), it'll be out there in the public forever for fans to pick apart. With fan translations, you can always make revisions and release new versions easily."
"In a professional setting, you also have someone to answer to. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it means you can get lists of official names and things like that, which help a lot. If you're really, really lucky, you might even be able to communicate with the creator of whatever you're working on to get clarification for things."
"With fan translation, you're free to do whatever you want. Sometimes that freedom makes fan translating less stressful than professional translating. For instance, if you have an official list of names, but there are obvious mistakes in the names (as often happens), you have to go through tons of red tape to get things fixed... and sometimes you can't get them fixed anyway. A fan translator, working on the same thing, could ignore all that and use the obviously correct name."