Castlevania SotN
Image: Mondo / Konami

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is rightly regarded as one of the finest video games ever made. A wonderful combination of Metroidvania gameplay, RPG mechanics, gorgeous 2D visuals and a sublime soundtrack, it continues to attract fans even today, more than 25 years after its release.

One aspect of the game that is particularly memorable for Western players is the English localisation, complete with iconic lines which have become memes in their own right. The man in charge of the translation was industry legend Jeremy Blaustein, who has also worked on translating titles such as Snatcher, Vandal Hearts, Metal Gear Solid and Shenmue during his amazing career.

Due to its unintentionally amusing English voice-over work, Symphony Of The Night is a title he's often asked about. Speaking to video game historian and regular Time Extension contributor John Szczepaniak several years ago in an interview which is included in The Untold History of Game Developers: Volume 5, Blaustein outlines the reason why the English dub is so charmingly clunky – the person directing the English language recordings was Japanese, not English.

During the chat, Blaustein touches upon the difficulty non-native speakers face when trying to localise a game from one region to another. "With what I know about localisation, I would say that I would be the wrong person to localise from English to Japanese," he says. "And that selecting me to do that job would be a beginning of a chain of events, <chuckles> that would lead to a poorly done job. That's no mark against me."

This then leads to his revelation about SotN:

Symphony of the Night, just so you know, was done by my old business partner, friend, and counterpart. And I did the script, I translated it. And then, he was working at Konami and oversaw the voice production. So he's got the actors in front of him, and they're acting. And he's got time constraints, and the tape's running. And it comes down to his ability to hear that native English, balance it against the library of movies, and books, and videos, and things he's seen in English, in his long history of being an American - which was none, because he was Japanese.

What I'm saying is, when you're directing something, and you're listening to a guy perform, what you should be doing is weighing that. For example, if I wrote the lines, I know exactly how I want them to sound. I know what's going on. I know the emotional content of the scene. When I hear a guy act I can judge it pretty well because I'm a native speaker and I've a good ear.

But if I heard a guy in Japanese, I couldn't reliably tell you whether or not he was being a great actor or whether he was true to the Japanese detective genre of the 1970s. You know what I'm saying? It's about getting the right people for the job.

Szczepaniak then replies that he's amazed that Konami would have a non-native speaker directing actors, to which Blaustein replies:

If you heard me speak, if I spoke a passable, say for example, Serbian, right? And we went to a Serbian restaurant, you and I, and I impressed you with my ability to order in Serbian. And you don't even speak a lick of any other language but English. You might be convinced that I was a good person to do the job, you know? It's not that much common sense. The ability to speak a language to the point where you can get anything done and go anywhere and do stuff is one thing, but the ability to perceive how well a person is emoting in a certain scene is pretty different. Two really different levels. But from a third-party perspective, I can see that it wouldn't be that obvious.

We have to admit, we wouldn't relish the job of directing English-speaking actors if English wasn't our first language – and, when weighed up against the time constraints (localisation was very often an afterthought in the '90s) and the fact that voice work in games was still in its infancy in 1997, it's little wonder that Symphony Of The Night's English dub turned out the way it did. It's certainly not alone in that regard, either; many games from this period featured amusingly ropey recorded dialogue.

Despite its janky nature, the English dub for Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night has gone down in history as a classic – so much so that, when Konami re-translated and re-recorded the dialogue for the game as part of the Sony PSP release Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, fans weren't happy – despite the fact that the quality of the recorded dialogue was arguably better. Konami also removed the famous "What is a man?" line, which Blaustein lifted from André Malraux's 1967 work, Antimémoires.