Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Video Game Localization

Video game translation and localization – namely that of games originating in Japan - have come a long way since the days of Zero Wing*. Back in the 80’s, it was common to come across unnatural, incorrect, and sometimes just plain ridiculous translations in video games.

Video game translation and – namely that of games originating in Japan - have come a long way since the days of Zero Wing*. Back in the 80’s, it was common to come across unnatural, incorrect, and sometimes just plain ridiculous translations in video games. Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, with the comparatively extreme technological limitations and the relative 2-dimensionality of video games (compared to today’s standards), this wasn’t so much a problem as a source of entertainment for most gamers. Zelda II’s “I AM ERROR.” Final Fantasy II’s “You spoony bard!” Metroid’s “DESTROY THE MOTHER BRAIN THE MECHANICAL LIFE VEIN.”** These were amusing and even somewhat endearing little mistakes that gave us a bit of a chuckle. The stories from which they came generally weren’t all that deep and involving, and there usually wasn’t all that much text to begin with, so slight mishaps like these were easily overlooked.

But now, things have changed. We now have video games which more closely resemble interactive films and cartoons than the simple 2-D side-scrolling games of Ye Olde Dayes, and games that are much more rich and involving story-wise. Nowadays, there are many games in which the text and dialogue are by far the game’s main feature, and at the same time the world market for video games has expanded exponentially. With the expansion of the gaming market, the localization industry has also grown considerably. Unfortunately, there are many in the industry who either do not understand or else just plain don’t care about the importance of translating video game text directly from the original Japanese.

When translating/localizing, say, a sports game, there usually isn’t much trouble translating the text into English first and then into FIGS (“F”rench “I”talian “G”erman “S”panish) or other target languages, as most of the terminology used will have exact corresponding translations for each language, and there isn’t much dialogue (as in “conversational speaking parts”, as opposed to menus, rules, announcements, etc.) to begin with anyway. But when it comes to RPGs and other text-heavy genres, failure to translate from the original Japanese can cause significant discrepancies.

One reason for this is that Japanese is basically a “stand alone” language. It isn’t a Romance or Germanic tongue, and apart from a handful of foreign-derived terms its etymology is completely different from any European language. On top of this, the culture of Japan is also completely separate from most of the countries to which its translated/localized games are sent. Therefore, when translating a game from Japanese into any other language, you’re going to have to deal with very subtle and usually completely foreign linguistic nuances and cultural references that can be very tricky to handle. To take it one step further and translate the same game into a 3rd language from the already-translated text is to bring the true intended meaning of the text even further away from the source, when there is a good chance that localizers of the first translation have already been forced to make adjustments to – or even do away with altogether – many of the aforementioned subtleties and nuances. Obviously, this can take away a great deal from the gaming experience, sort of like making a Xerox copy of a Xerox copy of an original painting.

While translating a game from Japanese directly into English may be just fine for the large chunk of gamers in the world who are native speakers of/fluent in English, I feel that the widespread habit of waiting for the English translation of a game to be finished before even starting on translations into other languages is extremely detrimental to the non-English speaker’s gaming experience. Actually it’s downright unfair. People in Lima, Milan, or Moscow pay just as much money on and spend just as much time interacting with video games as someone in San Francisco, London, or Melbourne. It’s not fair that they get the short end of the stick as far as quality and retention of originality are concerned, especially when the technology and manpower required to fix this habit is not only completely feasible but also readily available. Hopefully, with the ever-expanding video game industry and the even more ever-expanding world of the Internet and IT, game developers and distributors will change their ways and start offering everyone an equal gaming experience, regardless whether or not they happened to be born in an English-speaking country.

* - Zero Wing was a game released in Europe in 1991 for the Sega Mega Drive. The game itself wasn’t very well-known, but it’s Engrish-laden opening sequence – featuring the now infamous “ALL YOUR BASES ARE BELONG TO US.” – is now legendary.
** - Admittedly, these examples do not exactly fit with the theme of this article, as these pieces of dialogue actually were translated directly from the original Japanese - only badly. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever played video games in English and Japanese, and was therefore at a loss for relevant examples. Sue me.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Translation-based Smartphone Apps: What’s The Score? (Part 2 of 2)

Awhile back, I mentioned how I had downloaded and tested out a few translation-related apps for the iPhone. This article will serve as a sort of basic review of those apps, and hopefully will also shed some light on the "How will these affect the industry?" subject.

Today, I'd like to review two particular (free) apps: the Infoseek-based "Japanese Translation (Lite)" app; and the wwwJDic (Japanese-English dictionary) app, based on the well-known wwwJDic website by Jim Breen of Monash University. As both of these apps are Japanese/English*-specific, these reviews may not come in extremely handy to translators dealing with other languages, but hopefully they can at least help give you a general idea of the kinds of translation-related apps that are currently out there, as I'd assume that iPhone/smartphone apps particular to other languages probably won't be that far off.

*(The Japanese Translation (Lite) app is actually Japanese-English/Chinese/Portuguese/Korean/French/German/Italian/Spanish, whereas the wwwJDic app is strictly Japanese-English.)

App #1: wwwJDic (Japanese-English dictionary)

The Basics

This app is basically an iPhone-ported version of the popular Japanese-English dictionary website of the same name. Since the dictionary used on the website is arguably one of the best online J-E dictionaries around, this should have been a nifty little app which could be used in a translation pinch or in times when you just can't think of/don't know a particular word and are nowhere near a computer.

Unfortunately, the app does not contain the actual dictionary database - rather, it connects you via the Internet to the website's database - so it's not always exactly lightning quick. In fact, I'm sad to say that about 5-7 out of 10 times I try to translate a word, I get an error message. As far as I can tell, either a LOT of people use this app, thus creating an unbearable load for the servers, or the app was just poorly designed on the tech side. Either way, it's a bit disappointing. (Judging by the App Store comments from other users who purchased this app, I'm not the only one having this problem.)

On the plus side, though, when I am actually able to fully utilize the dictionary, it's pretty much just as good as it's parent version. If only they could do something to fix the stability issues or else somehow include the entire database in the app itself, this would make for a really handy pocket dictionary.

Buy or Don\'t Buy?

Well, it's free, and when it does work it's quite useful, so if you're a Japanese-English translator with an iPhone then why not?

How it will Affect the Industry

Honestly, I'd have to say that this particular app should have virtually no effect on our industry and the way we do our jobs. This has nothing to do with the quality of the app - it's just nothing new or revolutionary.

App #2: Japanese Translation (Lite) (Infoseek-based text translation program)

The Basics

The Japanese Translation ("日本語翻訳LITE") app is - while not nearly as exact or concise as the previously-mentioned wwwJDic dictionary - a relatively useful little app. Put simply, it's an iPhone version of Google Translator or Babelfish, except you can only translate from Japanese into English, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, French, German, Italian or Spanish, or vice versa, but not exclusively between any of the non-Japanese languages listed. Both single words and whole phrases/blocks of text can be translated.

Overall, this app is OK. I did have some minor issues with it, however. For example, the translation screen consists of two empty spaces, one on top of the other (top = your entered word/phrase, bottom = the translation), with a "Translate" button in between. Theoretically this is perfect, as it's simple, easy to use, and all you really need. Unfortunately, when you attempt to input text to be translated, the pop-up iPhone keyboard tends to get in the way of the Translate button, and according to some of the comments at the App Store, can almost completely obscure the button depending on the languages for which your iPhone is set to display keyboards.

My other issue was with accuracy. Word-to-word translations were generally OK, but like Google Translator (in most cases), you only get one possible translation per word. This means that, for example, were you to try to translate the word "lead" from English into Japanese, you may get the definition for the noun (the metal) or you might get the verb (to lead a battalion, etc.). For someone who has little to no understanding of the language into which they're translating, this can be quite problematic.

Buy or Don't Buy?

This app is also free (there is also a pay version with several extra features, which escape me at the moment), and it isn't by any definition a "garbage app", so if you think you may have a use for it, then go for it.

How it will Affect the Industry

Again, I doubt this will have any significant effect on our industry or how we do our jobs. As with the wwwJDic app, dictionary/translator apps and programs exactly like this have been around on regular cell phones (not to mention the Internet) for years, so I really don’t see this particular one upturning the translation world anytime soon.

Next week, I'll review a couple more of the smartphone apps I've been testing out. This time I'll try to focus on more broad-scale apps (i.e.: not only Japanese-based apps).

Anyone know of any good, helpful apps relating to translation or interpretation? On the other hand, know of any horrible ones that should be avoided at all costs? Let us know in the Forums.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Translation-based Smartphone Apps: What’s The Score? (Part 1 of 2)

Already for some time, with the rise in popularity of the iPhone and other smartphones, there has also been an increase in the number of translation- and language-related applications as well. How – if at all – do these apps affect the translator and his work? I have no idea. So I decided to do a bit of investigative reporting.

As an iPhone owner and translator, I was admittedly a bit worried when confronted with the fact that there was yet ANOTHER thing which may in some way threaten the future of my career/industry/source of income. But then I remembered The Process: this sort of thing pops up pretty much every week, and I write an article about how it will or won’t destroy the translation profession, and then a few days later I forget all about it and nothing whatsoever changes, then I find a new thing to write about.

So I’m going to break this article into two parts: Part 1 – this one – will consist of my completely uninformed opinion regarding smartphone translation apps, without ever having used one nor done research on them, and my predictions as to how they will affect me/my job/your job/the fate of the planet.

Part 2 – not this one – will be written in a few days, after I’ve actually downloaded and experimented with some of these apps, done a bit of research on the subject, and am actually able to formulate an informed opinion on the matter. I will then compare and contrast my uninformed predictions with my newly informed predictions, and see how spot-on – or shamefully off – I was.

So, here’s what I think:

Not much at all.

I don’t mean that as in “I don’t care enough to think about it”. I mean it as in “I really don’t think these apps are going to make much difference/cause many problems as far as translators go at all”. We’ve had Internet-based dictionaries/translation engines, electronic dictionaries/translators, and cell phone-based dictionaries/translators around for years now, and while all of those put together have certainly encouraged some changes – both positive and negative – in the translation industry, I don’t believe that the addition of the same exact product on a slightly different medium is going to have much of an effect on anything at all.

This sentiment is especially applicable if these smartphone translators are anything like the handheld electronic translators I’ve used in the past. I’ve owned a couple of them, and although it was admittedly several years ago, they were basically garbage. Expensive dictionaries that required batteries – that’s about it.

I’m assuming that these smartphone apps are probably closer to the normal PC/Internet-based translation programs/dictionaries out there, though, which means basically the same thing: nothing much will change. This is due to the fact that we already have all of this stuff, and in much more easy-to-use formats; although an iPhone is obviously more portable and less space-eating than an entire PC, it’s much easier to type up long sentences and paragraphs on a proper PC keyboard, as opposed to the tiny, touch-sensitive imaginary keys on a smartphone.

So basically, my hypothesis is this: these apps are probably going to be less than impressive, and will likely have no effect whatsoever on our work as translators. Now, for the actual research to commence...

I’m going to download and try out several of these apps on my iPhone now, and Part 2 of this article should be up in a day or two. How right are my predictions? Will I be proven completely wrong, and be regrettably forced to not only apologize, but also to warn you all that “THEY’RE TAKIN’ OUR JOBS!”?

I doubt it. But we’ll see...

To Be Continued...