A few months back, a man by the name of John Szczepaniak came out of the woodwork to approach the Ralph Retort with the bold and brazen claim that he was being targeted and harassed by Social Justice Warriors who wanted to destroy him and his kickstarter project. He leveled some pretty serious accusations against translator Hanako Abe, her sister Agness Kaku, and their husbands, who are currently involved with him in a libel/defamation suit. John’s plea was that these individuals had cut off his access to media outlets to tell his story, and only the Ralph Retort would listen, and wouldn’t Gamergate just love to rally to his cause and show these Social Justice Warriors what for and maybe buy a copy of the book he wrote, too.
Well, if anything, John has a lousy sense of timing; coming right after the reveal that Steve Tom Sawyer of Revue Lab had been running a con on practically everyone he’d been involved with, including claiming that his ex-girlfriend and her friend who ran him out of her apartment were SJWs who’d forced him from his home, I was incredibly skeptical of anyone coming to gamergate with wild claims and their hand out.
I read the Kickstarter updates which included long vitriolic rants about how the Kaku sisters and the interpreters that had been provided courtesy of Hanako were terrible, unprofessional and had sabotaged his project, and he even went so far as to incite his backers against them. He came across as positively unhinged, and even some of his backers seemed at least uncomfortable with the tone he’d taken.
I read Agness Kaku’s Versus blog, which included a facts dump regarding the case against John, filed because of the disparaging and potentially damaging remarks John made against Hanako Kaku and other interpreters’ professional reputations.
I read the email dump, wherein Hanako came across as going above and beyond and John came across as hopelessly disorganized.
And I read a tweet where Ralph agreed to let Agness Kaku tell her side of the story, so I waited to read that. And I waited. And waited. As I waited, I saw Agness respond to questions and provide updates on the legal case, but I certainly didn’t see her going around spewing the hatred of the kind of folks that John had used Ralph’s platform to paint her as.
I wanted the story that Ralph decided not to tell, and even though Cirsova is a small platform, I wanted to give Agness Kaku the opportunity to tell it. So I asked, and she graciously told me that she’d be happy to answer my questions.
Cirsova: From what I’ve read, your sister, -Hanako- and yourself were both initially supporters of this project. I’d like to know some about this early period of your relationship with John Szczepaniak and his project.
Agness: I was a supporter (Kickstarter backer) of the project. My sister wasn’t. She’s 45, a 20-year conference interpreter, adjunct faculty at a grad school and a mother of 2 grade schoolers; video games aren’t her thing. So re: the early period, there’s just me.
I’m a curious person; that’s a necessary quality for a writer. I will talk to anyone, listen to anyone. I met John in 2011, and I kept in touch because 1) that’s what I do with bloggers/media people who approach me—like I’m doing with you right now—and 2) I believe that independents should support one another (I’m rethinking that one). TBH, I initially pictured John very differently: late 30s to mid-40s, trilingual, 5–10 years as magazine staff writer, and now enjoying a stable freelance career. I suppose I supported his “dream” under the assumption that he was a peer. I regret the day I mentioned Hana to him.
C: I must say, upon reading the email dump, what struck me the most was Hanako’s drive to go above and beyond the job of a translator. I’d like to know more about what drove her to “take the reins” so to speak and do the extra leg-work that was being asked of her.
A: Hana was driven by professionalism. The outrageousness of John characterizing Hana and other interpreters as “pampered” kills me. Hana worked her butt off to get to where she is; so did the other 5 interpreters. They’ve never asked for Kickstarter handouts to further their career. Hana has 2 Master’s degrees, entirely self-funded. The same is true of Haruko, who has an MA in Medieval Studies from University of Bristol. Another interpreter John accused of having “no stamina” is a certified interpreter for the California justice system, which is no picnic. Even the student assistant went above and beyond her guide duties, helping John communicate at TGS even though she has only a smattering of English. I don’t think Hana and her colleagues know anything *but* doing their best to get the job done.
C: Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’ve always been under the impression that interpreters’ primary job is to facilitate an understanding between two parties who lack a common language; this doesn’t entail direct translations so much as conveying the thoughts, ideas and meaning of what is said between parties. Am I correct in this assumption?
A: Yes and no. The mission is to facilitate an understanding, but the process by which you achieve that varies widely according to whether you’re trained or not, what level you operate at, who you’re dealing with, which language pairs you work in, etc. Even at the top level, it’s always a mix of the hard and soft; the two approaches you mention aren’t necessary mutually exclusive. (Keep in mind though, that I’m not an interpreter myself; this is just stuff I’ve gleaned through observation.)
C: Was there a fundamental misunderstanding of the roles of interpreters at the heart of this?
A: As much as I’d like to, I don’t think so.
First of all, John knew what he was getting with conference interpreters: the kind of thing you see at international business disputes, court cases, etc. He specifically said this kind of “topnotch” hard interpretation what he wanted. He says this in his uphates as well, and in fact claims the interpreters were underqualified, that they misrepresented their qualifications—a very serious libel.
Second, both I and Jeremy Blaustein (MGS) let John know that the norm was to use interpreters (speech) to conduct the interviews, but hire a J-E translator (text) to produce a clean English text of the interviewees’ answers. So John was clued in to the fact that he can’t expect the interpreters to write the book for him. With a $100K budget, you can definitely afford that.
Third, when the interpreters resigned, John tried to replace them with the teenage assistant, who, as I said before doesn’t speak much English. If he really wanted a more ‘qualified’ interpreter as he claims, I can’t see why he’d do that.
C: I have to ask, did you or any party related to you contact or communicate with other backers of the project?
A: John first started telling this lie in November 2013. In some ways, it was the smartest lie he told; it cut us off from the people most able to help us—other backers. It’s terrible to watch people get taken in, and not be able to reach out because they’ve been made to fear you. Hate you, even.
Four months after John began lying about me trolling/stalking my fellow backers, I saw this:
I was in a lot of pain TBH—around that time, I’d started to lose work and a lot of people in my professional circle were eyeing me like I’d been exposed to ebola—and contacted Jouhaine through Google Hangout*:
March 15, 2014 9:02 AM
Hi Jouhaine, my name is Agness Kaku—one of the people being slandered by John Szczepaniak on his Kickstarter project.
First off, I apologize for contacting you uninvited. This is not something I do lightly, but you expressed a desire to see the original, non-redacted version of the letter I sent to John’s interviewees.
You probably don’t read Japanese, but here it is. You can at least see which sections were redacted.
The password is “sheldrake”.
– Letter to an interviewee: http://goo.gl/H9BfPV
This is the other letter he refers to, sent to some of his supervising editors (English):
– Letter to one of his supervising editors: http://goo.gl/lO7Giq
Please feel free to contact me on Facebook or LinkedIn if you have any questions. I won’t contact you again. Apologies once more for reaching out; 4 months is a long time to hope someone would be skeptical of John’s claims.
Four days later, I gave our lawyer the “Go.” Throughout April, our French translator translated John’s updates and other libel evidence into French. John’s KS had ~1500 backers and a large number of comments, most of which were antagonistic towards us. Due to budgetary and ethical concerns, I selected only those posted by backers that clearly matched a LinkedIn profile and expressed strong belief in John’s libel and willingness to further hurt our reputation. These were filed with our counsel, then the following notice sent out via LinkedIn:
This is a courtesy notice of your inclusion in the victim impact documentation filed with the Criminal Court of Niort as a part of a libel case against Jan “John” Szczepaniak of Saint-Laurs, France regarding his false and malicious statements about Haruko Ota, Hanako Abe (née Kaku) and Agness Kaku (Kickstarter updates dated November 22, 2013; January 17, 2014; and March 13, 2014). No action is required on your part.
The purpose of this filing is to demonstrate to the court that Mr. Szczepaniak:
Defamed the plaintiffs to an audience that has a significant share of professionals from industries in which the plaintiffs works, including but not limited to video games and IT.
Successfully manipulated and encouraged backers into joining in the libel with reckless disregard for the professional, emotional and physical well-beings of the plaintiffs.
The information presented to the court consists of:
- Your name
- Your comments on “The Untold History of Japanese Video Games” Kickstarter project page, in original English and French translation
- Your company affiliation and job title
- The record of your visit(s) to the LinkedIn profile of Agness Kaku and/or Hanako Kaku Abe, if any
If you wish to make an official statement about this matter, please do so before June 5, 2014 to allow for third-party translation into French before the June 12 hearing.
The plaintiffs and their families regret any upset caused by this notice. A brief outline of the case and an FAQ can be found here: http://versusjs.blogspot.jp/
Two people responded. We sent the notice because it’s good legal practice—the cops send them for parking tickets, for example—and because these backers had the right to know there’s a suit on. I may not like these people very much, but the fact remains they were tricked by John into doing his dirty work—and in many countries, that means legal liability not just for them, but for their employers.
C: Can you tell me some about John’s campaign to smear you and your sister? Having not heard of this incident until recently, I’d appreciate a better idea of what has been happening.
A: Over the last 14 months, John’s posted 5 uphates, all public, on Kickstarter. Our Google results went to hell. John had kicked me out as a backer a couple of days before posting the first uphate so I wouldn’t be able to rebut. He’s systematically kicked out other backers who challenged him, including a well-known localizer just for posting the URL for VersusJS on the comment thread. John has also emailed at least 2 of my clients directly. In the meantime, his retro game friends have posted libel to professional mailing lists, HG101 and other forums, Reddit and 4chan. I’ve also had people claiming to be Japan-based backers alert me to some vague danger. (This is not a big deal for me, BTW. As long as they keep the interpreters out of it, I’d actually welcome something I can fight with my fists. What are they going to do, try and stab me as a stretch goal? That’s cute.) In December, John went to The Ralph Retort with yet more lies, trying to exploit GamerGate the way he used his backers.
C: The only ‘evidence’ I’ve seen presented by anyone is that you are ‘friends with the wrong people’.
A: Allow me a small tangent: I was raised partly in the developing world, and I mean the kind of places where dissidents were found executed in ditches. So it blows my mind to see this casual acceptance of the idea that you can have “the wrong people” as friends. And not even friends—just Twitter followers/ees. That’s really screwed up.
Like I said, I will engage anyone. Anyone. And nobody’s going to tell me I can’t. That’s why I talked with Ralph, that’s why I try to follow anyone whose name pops up in Twitter recommends, that’s why I chat with people on the street. Freedom of association is something you have to stress-test, or it gets taken away. Have you read this Deadspin call-to-arms? IMO, this whole GamerGate furor is pointless. I’ve talked to people on both “sides,” and you know something? There’s no side. Most of you are 30-year-olds who love writing about games, and just wanted a publication where you could do that well and not worry about the bills. But instead, most of you are plugging away unpaid or barely paid at game writing while being underemployed at your day jobs—and often carrying student debt. You’re seeing the few who have the Life of Dorito Swag at big pubs, tweeting 24/7 about their great life while producing fluff, and thinking, This is bullshit. Some of you are getting laid off, and noticing that with every layoff, the pub looks more and more like Omega Theta Pi; some of you never got even that shot. Pro? Anti? Pay half the poor to kill the other half? It grieves me to see you at each others’ throats when the industry needs that anger for better things. /tangent
C: Like many people, my attention was brought to the matter because John was trying to leverage Gamergate supporters to back his side. As someone who supports Gamergate, I have to wonder, how have Gamergaters been treating you?
A: But who is a GamerGater? There’s no cohesive identity there. A hashtag does not an identity make. Right now, if someone uses the label, they “represent” GG in that moment. That doesn’t work. You can’t have that kind of loosey-gooseyness if you want a real movement that produces change. So until things firm up, I’ve decided to stop lumping people together. I won’t think that the kids who act like POS personify GG, but I won’t think that thoughtful correspondents like you personify GG either. Right now, GG is a pre-movement. If strong people don’t come together to aim high, it’s going to die in a pool of its own vomit like most pre-movements.
But that’s probably not what you were asking about.
If you want me to name some kind of a tendency I noticed among readers of Ralph’s ‘John Victimized by SJW’ stories, I’ll say this: they need a better radar for the realities of the game industry. For example, me having influence in the IGDA? A localizer? Freelance? A floater? Nobody who works in games would buy that for a second.
C: I’m very disappointed that Ralph seems to have flaked out on giving you an opportunity for a rebuttal. Is there anything in particular that you would’ve liked to have said addressing his audience?
A: Ralph didn’t flake, bless him. He’s a businessman and the particular outrage he was offering didn’t sell, so he took it off the shelf. What would he have gained by publishing my rebuttal? It would just have made it obvious that Ralph had been taken in by John, and that’s embarrassing. (Boy, do I know that feeling.) If I’d had the chance, I would have said this:
Last summer, someone named Devin Monnens posted John’s smears on the IGDA LocSIG mailing list. Mr. Monnens is an acquaintance of John, a fellow retro game aficionado. As a non-IGDA member, I had no idea until an employee at a client company told me, ”Most of the industry has heard [the libel] by now…everyone who goes to GDC [is on that list]”. I posted a response, only to be told off by the mod. Few months later, I noticed that Kate Edwards was talking the talk about protecting our own against harassment, etc., etc. I publicly challenged her to apologize for the fact that the LocSIG let someone get away with a major rule violation on the ML then scolded ‘our own’ for defending herself. It did not go well. Ms. Edwards seemed increasingly deferential to John at my expense, which struck me as bizarre. It was kind of a relief to find a plausible reason in John’s plea to The Ralph Retort: he’s a due-paying, voting member of the IGDA, and that’s presumably why he gets to use their list as a wall. So for those who say an IGDA membership gets you nothing, hey, something to consider.
- IGDA LocSIG mailing list. Devin Monnens’ post was on May 30, 2014; my rebuttal was on June 5.
- I tweeted at Kate Edwards on September 27; she made a post on LocSIG on November 8.
C: Thank you very much for your candid response and taking the time to speak with me.
Agness Kaku can be found on twitter @agnesskaku
Updates on the legal proceedings against John S. can be found at http://versusjs.blogspot.jp/
*: These linked documents are still available and are recommended reading.