Friday, October 21, 2011

Translating the Terminology of the Era: “Unlock”

Greetings! It seems I’ve been granted the privilege of contributing my own humble little column to the AGM Media Center, a regular offering where I’ll be picking out a theme related to video games and the related industry and examining it from the standpoint of a Japanese individual professionally tasked with game translation - a game localizer, one small iota of the industry, Tokyo resident and loyal taxpayer (?) setting out to address my topic of choice in layman’s terms.

Put simply, I’ll be positioning myself in front of the game screen and proceeding to then freely transcribe my thoughts into what you might refer to as a “column”.

You can call me Hanenashi Error. On that note, the theme of this first column addresses issues with the term “unlock”, an English term which shows up frequently in Western titles, a verb insinuating “creating a state of being able to use something” originally withheld from the player in a game’s early stages which then becomes available for use following the fulfillment of a specified requirement.

That “something” may be a previously hidden character or item. When I game is translated from English into Japanese, “unlock” is often translated as “kaijo” (解除), or occasionally “anrokku”, depicting the phonetic Japanese pronunciation of the English “unlock” and displayed in katakana.
(*Editor’s note: Katakana is one form of the Japanese writing system often used to depict vocabulary borrowed or derived from languages other than Japanese).

(**Editor’s note: “Kaijo” in Japanese is often used in contexts where in English a word such as “release” or “cancel” would be appropriate, for example, to “release restrictions” or “cancel a contract”.)

“Unlock” in the context outlined isn’t a term with a rooted history in Western developed games, as its gradual permeation into the vocabulary of game players began with the proliferation of the Xbox 360 and its accompanying system message.

This message, which I imagine most readers are familiar with, is the one printed below: Achievement unlocked “Unlock” in similar contexts now pops up with reasonable frequency on titles released on platforms other than the Xbox 360 as well.

The result is “kaijo”or “anrokku” being assigned as the “official” place-holder for that particular bit of terminology in more and more games localized for the Japanese marketplace. The result is this piece of language finding its way into the vernacular of Japan’s core user base.

However while I find this particular relationship to be something intriguing, I actually make every effort to avoid taking “unlock” and simply replacing it with “kaijo” or “anrokku”. For instance, using a word such as “kaijo” in order to depict the appearance of or availability created by the player of some previously concealed element, doesn’t quite fall under what could be considered the terminology’s breadth of general use across games in Japan, with the same being true for “anrokku”.

I stated previously that the use of such terminology is gradually spreading in Japan, but in all honesty, this is actually seems to be mostly limited to casual conversation amongst players, often discussing Japanese versions of titles developed overseas, with purely Japanese games – consumer games in particular – not yet generally using the term in this context.

While I do believe that, as long as the meaning gets across, it should be fine to use the terms “kaijo” or “unlock”, I am also somewhat concerned about using terms which are rarely used in Japanese games only in the Japanese localized versions of games from overseas. I think this is because I believe that “the ideal game translation is one in which the target language is so natural as to be mistaken for the original text”. It’s this sort of hokey “pride” that just wouldn’t seem to allow my finger to hit the Enter key after translating “unlock” as “kaijo”.

There is also one more reason. While the word “unlock” is generally perceived as an extremely simple and basic term by native English speakers, the term “kaijo” is seen by young Japanese users – especially elementary/junior high school-aged users – as rather formal and stiff. For elementary school-level users in particular, there is the possibility that the user may not even know the term “kaijo”.

When using the term “kaijo” in games aimed toward a wide range of users, I’ve actually had it changed to a different term by editors in the past. Please don’t bother with the “So you HAVE used it before!” comments… LOL Because of these reasons, unless the game in question is aimed toward core gamers, I generally try to avoid translating the term “unlock” as “kaijo”. For example, when a hidden character or mode has been “unlocked”, I would use the term “You can now use XXX!”, slightly changing the words used depending on what exactly it is that has been unlocked.

However, within a few years, the term “kaijo”, as in “to bring forth a hidden element”, may come to be more widely used in Japanese games. Words and terminology change with the times, and there are some actual cases in which words or phrases translated directly from English have become the standard terms used. For example, the phrase “chuui wo harau”, which literally means “make a payment of caution” (and technically makes no sense grammatically in Japanese).

This phrase was not originally thought up by a Japanese speaker; rather it is derived from the English phrase “pay attention”. This sort of language which has been brought over from foreign languages into Japanese is known as “Western context” by linguists, and the phrase “chuui wo harau” has been so widely used that these days it doesn’t sound unnatural in the slightest.

The gaming industry is evolving at the same dizzying speed – if not faster – than the world of language. Because of this, like the Western-derived term “chuui wo harau”, the term “kaijo”
– which is the direct translation of the English “unlock” – may someday soon come to be widely used and accepted in the Japanese gaming world, being integrated into purely Japanese games without any sort of awkwardness.If this happens, I may just stop calling that sort of phrase/term “Western context” and name it “Western game context” and write a dissertation on it (LOL).

Until that day comes, I guess I’ll just continue to hold onto my wack pride and go on with the tedious process of deciding exactly when to use “unlock” and “kaijo” when translating. In closing, I’d like to finish off my first column by leaving you with the following image. Thank you for reading my little essay.

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Hanenashi Error

Game translation, Subtitling for sports and entertainment programs, Game news article translation, column writing, entertainment translator active in many fields.
Took part in the Japanese/English translation of around 20 games