This interview with swedish translator Jan Malmsjö was conducted by “Smart Cat” and posted on the Swedish Nintendo forums sndb.se on January 8, 2010.
Jan has translated manuals and other material for Swedish Nintendo distributor Bergsala AB from the late 80s until around 2000. He also translated a couple of games into Swedish. More about all this below.
This interview was translated by Stefan Gancer with corrections by Patrick Todd. Please, enjoy 🙂
Smart Cat: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Malmsjö: For me, it started with my wife and I at the time. We had decided to study medicine. However, we had to learn more about biology so we started taking courses through municipal adult education, and in the meantime, we both drove taxis to support ourselves. We were also interested in sci-fi. There was a small publishing company called Delta that was run by a guy named Sam Lundwall. They distributed quality Sci-fi from writers such as Robert Heinlein and the likes. They put out a flyer where they were looking for translators. So we jumped on it. This was in about ‘81 when I started translating my first book. Sam Lundwall thought we both did so well that he recommended us to try the “real” literature. At the time, the profession of translator wasn’t something you could educate yourself to be. You had to slip into it on a banana peel or through contacts. Now there is of course, since a few years back, an interpreter and translator course at the University of Stockholm. But it did not exist back then.
Smart Cat: Do one have one language that you dedicate yourself to?
Malmsjö: I don’t know how that education is structured. Primarily, it’s not about knowing the foreign language well, but being able to articulate it well in Swedish. What you don’t understand in a foreign language you can always look up in a book. I would argue that’s how it is. In the past it was very common for publishers to receive calls from people who had been an English teacher in high school for 20 years and considered to be “ideal” as a translator. But you do not need to be able to translate the language you are translating from perfectly, but rather the language you are translating to. I mostly translate from English but I have also made some translations from German and Norwegian.
Smart Cat: Did you and your former wife work with the same material so you could proofread each other’s translations?
Malmsjö: Yes in the beginning we did. But then then we did more separate work.
Smart Cat: When did you buy your NES?
Malmsjö: As soon as the first NES box was released I think we were relatively early with getting one.
“…we were irritated about how badly the supplied materials were translated. So my now former wife called Bergsala and expressed our opinions about it.”
Smart Cat: For the kids?
Malmsjö: It was probably mostly for ourselves because they were too young then, so they could hardly play. So it was probably mostly for ourselves, but of course also for them eventually and we were irritated about how badly the supplied materials were translated. So my now former wife called Bergsala and expressed our opinions about it.
Smart Cat: Do you remember if there was something specific that annoyed you?
Malmsjö: No, I don’t exactly but it was in general a very stiff and silly language. It was simply damn poorly translated. Owe (one of the founders of Bergsala) offered us to take care of it instead. So I started translating while my wife continued with other stuff. In the beginning we had a deal where I didn’t get paid much, I did it mostly because it was fun. I don’t remember exactly how long I was doing that.
Smart Cat: You said 10 years the last time we talked.
Malmsjö: Yes, but it was more because I remember that I got the N64 and that was around 99-00 wasn’t it?
Smart Cat: Well, it was about ‘97.
Malmsjö: Okay, anyway it was around 2000 that I stopped doing it. The reason it ended was primarily because Nintendo of Europe revised their terms for translating stuff for the games, because NOE wanted to make everything themselves. So they hired an English translation firm that translated into all languages, even Swedish. So when Bergsala bought the games they got the games with translations already done, with the cost of that embedded in the price of the cartridge, and then they simply did not need my services anymore.
““I’ll fax you a manual now” and it’s a hell of a rush and then I had to sit down on Christmas Day translating a manual for some game.”
It was around 2000 sometime and I’d already been thinking about quitting because it was tedious and boring as hell. Translating manuals is not fun no matter what it’s about and it was also a very uneven workflow. Once Owe called me on Christmas day morning at 8 o’clock or something like that, and said “I’ll fax you a manual now” and it’s a hell of a rush and then I had to sit down on Christmas Day translating a manual for some game. It could go 2-3 weeks without anything to do and then it could be 5, 6, or 7 that should’ve been finished yesterday. It was difficult with the planning and it could be damn hard at times. It was actually nice getting away from that.
Smart Cat: How long did it take to do a job like that?
Malmsjö: The manuals went fairly quickly but it’s impossible to answer precisely. For some stuff, for example Zelda, it could be quite thick books or booklets, and it took the course of several days to translate such a thing. But the smaller ones for Game Boy, well they took a couple of hours. The job did go a little quickly sometimes, sometimes you didn’t need to think too much, you know, press the A button to jump and the control key to turn left and right, you just had to write that down. In short, one can say that a small product took a few hours; a greater product took a few days.
Smart Cat: Did you translate everything for Bergsala?
Malmsjö: Yes, basically everything. Both game guides that were released.
Smart Cat: Yes, I sent pictures of them.
Malmsjö: Yes, I recognized at least one of them but the other I can’t say if I worked on.
I remember when those, what were they called, the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles? When that came out, I got some promotional materials sent to me and I called them and asked: “What the hell is this?”
“…Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles? When that came out, I got some promotional materials sent to me and I called them and asked: “What the hell is this?””
They were called Michelangelo and stuff… and this flyer was completely incomprehensible because I didn’t know what it was all about. Was it a game, or a stuffed animal…? And then it turned out that it was all of those things.
Smart Cat: Yes, that’s a whole concept.
Malmsjö: Yes, that it was.
Smart Cat: What was the deal/ contract?
Malmsjö: There was no contract. I was called when needed, we had a deal where they sent material and it was done by fax. I translated it and faxed it back.
Eventually it became so that I still got the material by fax, but sent it back by e-mail when that became a thing.
Smart Cat: E-mail?!? When did you start using it?
Malmsjö: Of course I don’t remember, but it was relatively early. It must have been about ‘90-91, I had moved so it must have been around then that I got a modem. So I was of course quite early on the e-mail train. I don’t remember exactly but we began using it as soon as it was practical and better than faxing.
Smart Cat: Do you know if they sent the material to Japan afterwards?
Malmsjö: No, I don’t think they did, I think they printed the materials themselves. But then when we got to Shadow Gate and some other stuff, it went on to Japan of course.
Smart Cat: When we were on a study visit to Bergsala a while ago, Owe said the manuals were printed and packaged in Japan.
Smart Cat: You said it was packaged in Sweden.
Malmsjö: I don’t know if I said it was packaged in Sweden but I didn’t get the material until it had come to Sweden. They couldn’t get it earlier even if Bergsala begged Nintendo and said: “We know that the games are out there already, can’t we get the manuals sooner?”. So it was really hard to get them to do that. So when the games came it was then that we got the manuals, and that’s why it was such a rush to get it done fast. Who printed them I don’t know.
Smart Cat: It says “Printed in Japan” on the back of the manual.
Smart Cat: Did you translate from any languages other than English, and did you translate into other languages (other than Swedish)?
Malmsjö: I don’t think so, and I did not work with translating from other languages.
Smart Cat: Are you interested in gaming?
Malmsjö: I was in the beginning but I got bored quickly, so for me it was just a pure moonlighting.
Smart Cat: How long did the interest in games last?
Malmsjö: Well, at least until the SNES. That far I still thought it was pretty fun, anyway, some of them, Mario Kart and something called F-Zero.
Smart Cat: It’s one of the earliest games. In the manual there is a short comic too.
Malmsjö: Oh, yeah yeah, yeah, there was. Yes, I remember it now that you say it.
Smart Cat: I assume that your commitment also included the Game Boy?
Malmsjö: Yes, it did. They actually sent all their material to me when I started this. It was most convenient for them to have all the material in one place and as long as I made it to their liking, I could just keep doing it.
Smart Cat: I peeked through my manuals and found the following versions of Ice Climber.
I suspect that the top one is the old version since 99% of my manuals use the word “Control Button” instead of “Direction Button”, and the manuals that use “Direction Button” are for two of the older games.
Malmsjö: That’s right, “Direction Button” is not me because I called it the control button, so it’s safe to say that from when “Control Button” was used was when I started translating.
Smart Cat: Did you translate the magazines and Nintendobiblioteket? (Nintendobiblioteket(Nintendo Library) was a guide based on the Nintendo Power guides but translated into Swedish.)
Malmsjö: Nintendo-magasinet (Nintendo Magazine, was a swedish Nintendo magazine released between August 1990 and July 1994), I did not do those, but there was another, a subsidiary of Bergsala, that made those. But I translated one or some of the guides, though which ones I don’t remember at all.
Smart Cat: Were you a member of Nintendoklubben (Swedish Club Nintendo)?
Malmsjö: No, I never was, but I got the magazine anyway.
Smart Cat: Yapon handled rentals, and while the games were in normal VHS cases the manuals were pasted on the inside of the cases sometimes. Do you know if you’ve done work for Yapon? (We think they imported games that Bergsala didn’t, for a so-called gray market). Here is another variation on Yapon manuals:
Malmsjö: Yes, I did some stuff for Yapon and I recognize that one, Bart vs. the Space Mutants.
Smart Cat: Then there was the second variation, the blue one.
Malmsjö: I don’t remember if I did it. Maybe it was someone else who did those?
Smart Cat: I have never examined one myself but it could be that it is the same text as in a normal manual, rearranged with a new layout.
Malmsjö: Yes, it may well be.
A short text and a date when the game was coming.
Malmsjö: I think I recognize that I’ve seen the material, but if I have written any of it, I don’t know.
Smart Cat: What you said earlier about the Turtles, it may have been one of these that you had?
Malmsjö: It is possible, I do not remember it. The Turtles I remember because it was so unique and at first, when I got only text without pictures, it was completely incomprehensible to me. It was so hard to grasp what it was. I went down to Bergsala and there was some random Japanese person who presented it and showed stuffed animals, dolls, games and t-shirts with the turtles on them. There was a huge hype for them of course.
Smart Cat: You did all the work from home did you not?
Malmsjö: Yes, but I went down to Bergsala, not once a year but at least once every two years, and sometimes it was because it was something special. Maybe someone from Japan was there who wanted to meet the translator or if it was something that needed to be discussed.
Smart Cat: Well, such as what?
Malmsjö: I think there was something in connection with these turtles and I remember Owe saved me at one point. I had no business cards. This polite Japanese man, who was a big shot in Japan had come here, he was bowing and smiling and immediately hands over his business card to me, and I had no card. So I theater whispered to Owe “What do I do now? I have no business cards! ”
But then Owe saved me and said: “Mr Malmsjö just moved so he has not received his cards from the printer yet”.
“Aha!” said the Japanese man and nodded. For him it was inconceivable that you wouldn’t have a business card.
Otherwise, as a translator you are quite anonymous, and in particular at a place where you translate the instructions. It’s never mentioned who did it. I have translated manuals for television sets, VCR’s, and things for the authorities, and there is no mention of who translated there either. It’s of little importance who translated if it’s not so bad that you have the urge to call and yell at them.
Smart Cat: That was how it started.
Malmsjö: Yes, for my part.
Smart Cat: Sometimes it happened that they bought the remaining stock from another European distributor and supplemented it with a simpler, usually black and white, manual in Swedish. This was not unusual at the end of a console’s era when the next console had been released and the older console’s games no longer sold that well. So instead of buying a lot of a game from Japan that they could end up making a loss on, they bought the remaining stock from other European countries.
Malmsjö: If it was bankrupt stock or not I do not know, I got the material, it just came and they never told me where things came from.
Smart Cat: Oh, I see.
Smart Cat: A few games were also translated into Swedish and we’re of course curious to hear if you worked on those too.
Malmsjö: I think I translated that one and it was fucking hopeless because we didn’t get the game, so I was unable to play and watch it. Not even Bergsala had the game so we couldn’t play it. The only thing we could get from the Japanese was a list of isolated words, not whole sentences. For example this game had:
“One of the three magicians has the Sword of Hope”, but that arrived in a list that included “one”, “of”, “the”, “three”, etc, and not in any sensible order. All the words that were in the English version were listed straight up and down without any order.
It was hell to bring order to it, sure one can translate word for word, but then you miss the different forms of words! It was a disaster before we got any order on that. There are some words that meant several things and if you didn’t have the game to look at, or the context, you didn’t know which word it was.
They took in some of our criticism before “Shadowgate”, because that one was done differently. Then, I got the game and I played the Japanese version.
Smart Cat: In English?
Malmsjö: Yes exactly, it was a Japanese version so you had to have a Japanese console that could handle the Japanese format, but the text was in English. I then got to play through the entire game with a game guide so I didn’t have to sit and think so much and then translate it all, and when it was done I sent it to… Bergsala, I think, or maybe I faxed it directly to the Japanese, it’s possible. And they made a test cartridge that they sent back to me.
So I played through it and I saw that some things were wrong, so I wrote down what was wrong, and they changed it. That went on for a couple of rounds back and forth, and the people in Japan muttered, because apparently it’s very expensive to make one of those master carts. It cost thousands of crowns (Swedish currency Kronor (SEK), approximately 10 SEK = 1 dollar) to make one of those. In the end, however, it was all done and we got it approved, and Owe had approved it and everything. And then as you pointed out the Japanese managed to change Gå (Walk) and Slå (Hit) into Gä (approximately Welk) and Slä (approximately Het) and that was not how it was spelled in the final version we had sent to them. I also know that there was someone at Bergsala proofreading because we really didn’t want it to be like with “Sword of Hope”, a bloody spectacle. This would be great since this was the first real game in color that would be in Swedish and damn good, but then they did this “Gä” and “Slä”. It’s the first thing see when you start the game, you get it straight in your face.
Smart Cat: And not just once.
Malmsjö: Everyone went all crazy. It got this way because the Japanese didn’t wait. They sent the final version to us for approval and we saw it immediately: “Fuck, it says Gä and Slä”, and Owe threw himself on the phone, but they had already printed the order, they had already made all the games. They hadn’t waited for the final approval and Owe was really angry so they made a financial deal and Bergsala got the games cheaper. It was the only thing the Japanese could do since they didn’t want to remake all the carts. They refused to do it, so Owe got a lower price and had to put a correction note in the game box.
Smart Cat: There are a couple of more games but I don’t think they have any known typos.
Malmsjö: No, this thing with “Shadowgate” is the only one I can remember because it was so incomprehensible: How the fuck could they send it? And they sent it with UPS so it came with one of those little brown trucks to my home, when I lived in Nynäshamn, and a man runs up to me and gives me it and I take a look at it and find that “Damn, this is all wrong”. So I call Owe and Owe has also discovered this so he calls Japan, and we learn that they have already made all the games. One can only wonder what they were thinking.
Smart Cat: How much proofreading was done otherwise?
Malmsjö: Well, we didn’t normally do it. Only in exceptional cases, if there was something special as in the case of Shadowgate, etc.
Smart Cat: Do you know if you did a job that went unused?
Smart Cat: In the Nov-Dec 1991 issue of Nintendo-magasinet there is a question (the magazine had a section where reader questions were answered) about if there would be more games in Swedish: “Yes, Déjà Vu and Uninvited are two games that are being translated right now as you read this. They use the same type of control as Shadowgate.” But Uninvited was never released in Sweden.
Malmsjö: No, I don’t remember Uninvited at all.
Smart Cat: The SNES also got a few translated games, among others Tintin (in Tibet) and Shadowrun. Were you involved in these translations, too?
Malmsjö: Tintin in Tibet, I don’t remember it, do not remember it at all. Bergsala tried to use a translation firm in Gothenburg, probably because they thought it was closer or better or something like that but it turned out that the translations were bad, took longer and it was more expensive.
It may have been the end of the ‘80s … Well, I can’t say because I don’t remember it either.
And one of the problems when you call a translation firm is that they have a staff who work office hours. You can’t call a normal company on Christmas Day and ask them to do a job that is going to be done in the afternoon, it doesn’t work like that. What Bergsala thought was good with me was that I did the job as fast as I could, regardless of when they called. In this way, it worked fine. Anyways maybe it was the other translation firm in Gothenburg who did it, and this Shadowrun I don’t remember either (Malmsjö is actually credited as one of the translators of the game in the game’s credits).
Smart Cat: About names for characters in games? Here are some examples of some variations.
Example 1: Super Mario Bros. 1 manual (English)
Super Mario Bros. 1 Manual (Swedish)
Here you have chosen to translate The Hammer Brothers and Piranha plants while Lakitu and Spiny’s names are unchanged. In Example 2 you were really imaginative with the names.
The Guardian Legend Manual (Danish)
The one who translated the Danish part of the manual remained quite faithful to the English “original names” (the only difference is that Grymgrim called Grimgrim in England) while the Swedish translation has far more changed names.
How was the selection process and did you translate everything that was directly translateable?
Malmsjö: Yes, how did I chose to translate the names in the manuals, yes. I don’t remember it exactly either but I think what was agreed upon was that if the only time it said something was in the manual, and only the characters were in the game, then I could come up with something on my own.
Smart Cat: What do you mean?
Malmsjö: Yes, well, I look at the material that has been sent; that there are piranha plants and strange fish and other characters. And if the names of these balls or crayfish or whatever are only mentioned in the manual itself, and they’re not in any text in the game itself, then it doesn’t matter what’s in the manual and you may not even need to have any names. But I think if I could Swedifie the English name, I think made them sound the same, or I just did what I wanted to do.
Smart Cat: Did you see the finished products or was it just text files that they sent to you?
Malmsjö: In the beginning, I got some games, it was just in exceptional cases that I saw something but it happened that they sent me a cartridge now and then.
Smart Cat: You said you had the received some carts as thanks you for the help.
Malmsjö: In the beginning yes, that’s how it was. But I stopped getting those and got paid instead.
Smart Cat: Computer or typewriter?
Malmsjö: I worked with a typewriter in the beginning but then I got my first computer in ‘83, an IBM PC. I could not afford to buy it right away but it was a PC with a clock frequency of 4.7 kHz, I think. Incredibly modest. Furthermore it had no hard drive but instead double diskette stations, a matrix printer and a color screen that could display three colors at the same time, and it cost 42000 kronor(??). I leased it from IBM because I couldn’t afford to buy it but compared to a typewriter I saved 30-40% time working with a word processor.
Smart Cat: Do you have any good/fun or bad memories from the time working with Bergsala to share?
Malmsjö: It was pretty fun to have that contact with them? We met on fairs and the like and I was down to Bergsala in Kungsbacka a couple of times as well, and got to know some people there and it was pleasant and nice. But the actual translating was quite boring so I don’t miss that part really.
Smart Cat: You talked about those help files on CD, what was that?
Malmsjö: It was a database, a form of FAQ. You put the disc in your computer and wrote a game name in the search field and a form of FAQ would appear. With this you could browse and get the answer you wanted. It was used by Bergsala’s support (You could call and get tips and tricks just like the American Nintendo hotline) with these discs in their computers. I was strictly obligated to keep it a secret of course. I couldn’t even talk about it. Having the disc I could have opened a private guide line, but of course I didn’t.
Smart Cat: Do you regret your choice of career?
Malmsjö: Well, I haven’t done much else, I studied after all. I have among other things worked as traffic inspector at Stockholm taxi for a while and in a camera shop. Then I started studying law and then we wanted to be doctors, and while we were studying we slipped in to this translation business and discovered that by translating books we earned as much as a GP doctor minus seven years of student loans. Then we thought we couldn’t care less about the studies and moved to the country and became moonlight farmers instead. One may regret that you don’t go for a “real” job/education, but the advantage of translating is that you can work at home. But at the same time, it is very lonely. It is a solitary activity mostly and completely uncertain as you always work in a freelance capacity.
This year has been very bad with long periods without any translations and it’s been a little bit of a shock as it has never happened before. The book market has always been like a rocket which has increased, increased and increased and now suddenly it’s not like that anymore. I was actually recognized by Svenska Deckarakademin (approximately; Swedish Crime Novel Academy). I got a prize for “Commendable translation act” and that was fun. It was the first time that I got a pat on the head and the latest book that had come from the printing, or the second latest in any case, was awarded “Best crime novel translation”, that was nice.
Smart Cat: There I understand. Congratulations.
Malmsjö: Yes, it is needed sometimes when you’re sitting here and feeling sorry for yourself. 😀
Smart Cat: Then I thank you for your time. It’s always fun to hear stories like these.
Malmsjö: Well, I can sense it even though I do not quite understand your interest in this.
Smart Cat: You know how collectors are, we can geek out on anything.
Malmsjö: That’s true. I collect strange things too, postage stamps and those deer horns on the wall, and things like that.
Smart Cat: Hehe, you see. But anyway. Thanks you for your time and have a Happy New Year!
Malmsjö: Yes, thank you the same. Goodbye.
Smart Cat: Goodbye.