Q&A: TI6 translator Jack Chen on the unique nature of his job

One of the best aspects of having an esports ecosystem develop as naturally as Dota’s did is how passionate individuals with unique skills found niches and contributed in their own ways. One area in which this passion is most apparent is translation. They are some of the unsung heroes of LAN events in Dota, working long hours to make sure that Chinese players’ words are heard by English-speaking fans. With such a disconnect between China and the West, Chinese players and teams do not enjoy the same level of popularity from foreigners when they play in Seattle at The International. This is the true challenge of an esports translator: to humanize players who might come across as Dota-playing machines to those unfamiliar with their struggles.

Slingshot’s Cameron “Turbo” Regan caught up with Jack “KBBQ” Chen to hear about the struggles of translation and getting players to open up.

Cameron “Turbo” Regan: Do you speak often with the Chinese talent and teams at TI?

Jack “KBBQ” Chen: The teams not as much because they’re busy preparing for stuff. The talent I get to work with on a daily basis, so yeah we’ve talked a lot.

CR: What’s the general feeling about Chinese team performance from the talent?

JC: Well, in China they say it’s an even-numbered year so it’s a Chinese team that’s supposed to take TI. So far it’s been a little bit uneven, but they haven’t really exceeded expectations because some teams had visa issues – LGD and Vici Gaming Reborn – but I think EHOME has been a pleasant surprise. Newbee has had more trouble than people expected for various reasons, and so it’s probably EHOME and Wings that are carrying the Chinese hopes right now.

CR: Are they very disappointed about xiao8 not going through?

JC: Anytime you’re talking about these legend-tier players like xiao8 or the people who didn’t make it here like (Xu “BurNIng” Lei), (Liu “Sylar” Jiajun) or (Bai “rOtk” Fan), it’s a huge disappointment. At the same time, though, expectations have to be tempered because of this last-second change. You have to build new lineup, new chemistry, and it’s so hard to do all that.

CR: Can you give some insight into the translation work that you’ve done for the event?

JC: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff like subtitles, helping out with the teams and talent, anyone who needs communication. For myself personally, instead of doing the usual post-game interviews for this event I’m going to be doing mostly the elimination interviews. And so that’s something new, a little bit harder, but it’s still interesting, and I like it.

CR: Is it hard to work such long hours translating at events? How do you keep yourself energized and your mind clear?

JC: The days can get pretty long because you never know what’s going to come up and it depends on how many (translators) there are. However, those actually tend to be the more fun events. The Shanghai Major was probably one of my favorite events. Not only because — alright, so everyone rips on it, right? It became legendary for how bad it was, but at the same time it meant that I had a lot of things to do, and I got to be very active and feel involved. I think when you’re working in just about anything you want to feel that sense of involvement. You don’t want to feel like you’re going through the motions. You want to feel like there are things you can help solve.

CR: So you thrive off those challenges?

JC: Yeah, in a sense. Whether it’s usual translation stuff, or at the Shanghai Major some of us translators had to be hosts for the questions on stage. That was something that I had never really done before, and I had to do it in Chinese as well. It’s uncomfortable. You’re very nervous, but once the lights come on it’s good. It’s time for action and it’s fun.

CR: Who has been your favorite player to speak with when you got the opportunity? What’s the team you’re cheering for at the event?

JC: I think my favorite player – I might be a little biased because I’ve spent a lot of time with this team. I’ve spent a lot of time with Wings Gaming leading up to the event. So I got to know them in China a little bit and I spent a lot of time with them after The Summit. I hope that they win because they represent a lot of things, they represent the new blood in China finally coming to the surface. For players, I think I’ll stick with that team and go with (Li “iceice” Peng). He’s extremely entertaining. He has kind of like, this — I don’t know how to say it. Like this villager way about him, he says whatever he wants and whatever he feels without reservation or pretense. And I really like that. Unfortunately, he kind of clams up on camera, but his personality is a lot of fun.

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CR: Is it very difficult for you to get a player to open up on camera when they’re doing an interview? Is there anything you like to do to get them to open up a little more?

JC: It really is. Honestly, even I clam up quite a bit speaking officially. But I think the best way to do it is to engage them in conversation a little bit first and get them loosened up, because they know there’s a lot of pressure on them and their every word will be scrutinized closely and they’ll get flamed in China for saying anything that could be negative or damaging. So there’s a lot more pressure on these Chinese players who don’t come from this culture of outward expressiveness already. And they have so many fans who will pay attention to every word.

CR: We’ve seen that the Chinese community can be very critical of their teams, did you see very many negative reactions to, say, Vici Gaming not making it to The International?

JC: See, from the fans, on-site at the (TI6 qualification LAN), a lot of fans came through the rain to see their favorite players play. So for Vici Gaming specifically, rOtk has been a bit of a punching bag for a couple of years. They’re saying that he needs to move on, it’s time to go, “You’re just dragging your feet and not letting new blood in.” So, some of that stuff continued after his team under-performed. That was probably the most negative thing I’ve seen. People want these older players to step aside.

CR: Do you think there are a lot of players who are new and coming up, but aren’t getting a fair shake because of the “old guard?”

JC: I think so. I might not be the most qualified to judge this, but the Chinese pool of talent and players is very deep. There are a lot of very capable players, but the question is: Do you have leadership? Can those players get through the natural barriers to rising up? Because the old guard is very entrenched and they’re holding down the fort, and they have a lot of the power within the organizations. Most of the time they’ll just build a team around themselves each year. That limits opportunities for up-and-coming stars to really expose themselves. That problem really does exist in China.

CR: To go back to translation. We saw the translation community develop organically in Dota, from people who were passionate about Dota and had the skills to perform translation. Was it difficult for yourself and others like Josh and Tiffany to get things going in the beginning?

JC: I can’t really speak for Josh or Tiffany, who I consider to be like the OGs of this. For myself, it happened partly by chance. And it was difficult; it remains difficult. You have to learn a lot of game-specific terms, and that’s why even if you get someone who’s a professional with language and translation they would still have to go through and learn all of these terms. It’s an ever-growing challenge. In terms of being able to do it sustainably, it’s not the easiest because you depend on events unless you’re doing something on the side. It is kind of hard to stay in it and keep going.

CR: Being here at the biggest esports event of all time, what kind of emotions do you feel when you step into the arena, working here, meeting the players and the talent?

JC: I’ve had the chance to meet most of the talent before so I wasn’t like awed by them, but it’s always nice to see them. I think the most emotional moment for me was being out there in the stands when the opening ceremony came on. You feel the vibration of the drums, and you see the dancing. I thought “wow, this is how far the game has come.” That was probably the most emotional moment. And seeing the teams’ reactions, the upsets — it really starts to hit home for you.

CR: Any shout outs?

JC: I have too many, I’m afraid I might miss some. Shout out to the people I’ve worked with at Defense of the Patience. Shout out to the people like Beyond the Summit, who’ve invited me to tournaments to work, and of course to Valve for making all of this possible and inviting me to official events. It’s been fun.

Cover photo courtesy of Valve.

Cameron "Turbo" Regan is a Dota 2 freelance writer with previous industry experience working for Team Empire.

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