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.