Monday, July 29, 2013

Dialectic Translations and Slang

Perhaps it can be said that there isn’t a single aspect of any language that is quite as… colorful…as slang and, more interestingly, dialect. Where many languages can often be linked to each other in terms of grammar, vocabulary and structure, slang and dialect are where each language sets itself apart, and lends a distinct “flavor” to the words spoken.

Without going into too much detail (wouldn’t want to attract the wrong kind of crowd through Internet search engines ;) ), blasphemy and references to genitalia are very common in most forms of slang, but Dutch for instance (one of the most creative languages when it comes to slang if you ask me) uses lots of diseases on top of that, and Japanese has such a peculiar way of expressing contempt, that I’m still not sure how it works (one of the most insulting words, Kisama, consists of an honorific prefix paired with an honorific suffix for cryin’ out loud).

In that sense though, translating slang isn’t all that hard, because you have a specific vocabulary to work with. Dialect, on the other hand, poses a far trickier problem from a translational point of view. Each dialect is likely to have a certain stereotype attached to it, which could prove very hard to localize if the target language does not have any dialect with the same kind of image.

One of the biggest dialects in Japanese is Kansaiben, spoken in the Kansai area surrounding Osaka and Kyoto. This is a dialect that, despite being quite different from Standard Japanese (which is more associated with the Tokyo area) has found its steady place in popular culture, on TV, in comics and in videogames etc, which is probably largely due to the fact that it is associated with comedy (Yoshimoto Kogyo, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in Japan was founded in Osaka). Furthermore, because of Osaka’s background as a merchant city, it is also often associated with commerce.

The problem is, how do you translate this to English (or any other language for that matter)? Most languages tend to have at least one dialect that is associated with the countryside (and by extension “backwardness”) and so does not pose too much of a problem when translating, but when it comes to dialects with a very specific image, like Kansaiben, what do you do!?

Often, especially in written texts, it is not translated at all, losing some of the charm of the original text. One popular solution in the American localization of many Anime seems to be to include characters with an Australian or British accent, which can be used for comic effect, but still have entirely different associations. On the other hand, in the Japanese dubs of foreign movies/cartoons/games, dialect is often ignored despite having a wealth to choose from (one famous example of the contrary is Shrek, whose Scottish accent was replaced with Kansai dialect by a popular comedian from Osaka).

It would definitely be nice if translators would make the effort to create translations that are more diverse, not only for comic effect, but for the sake of believability as well.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A short introduction to Dutch

The Dutch language is currently (one of) the official language(s) in 3 countries across the globe: the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname.

Belgium was originally part of the Netherlands, until it revolted and declared independence in 1830. Suriname, situated in the north of the South American continent, used to be a Dutch colony until, again, it was granted independence (no one seems to like hanging out with the Dutch much) in 1975.

Aside from this Afrikaans, one of the main languages spoken in South Africa, another Dutch ex-colony, is pretty much a slightly more modern version of medieval Dutch. Furthermore, the fact that the Netherlands was the only European country allowed trade with Japan from 1639 to 1854 means that the Dutch language has left its footprints in Japanese as well:

There is quite an extensive list of Dutch words in the English language as well:

Linguistically, Dutch is closest to German, its neighbor to the immediate East, with some clear influences of English (to the West) and French (to the South) as well. Like English, the word order is Subject-Verb-Object and there are no grammatical cases, except for personal pronouns. Furthermore, all plural verb conjugations have the same form for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person.

Also, there is very little distinction in gender. Masculine and Feminine nouns are treated almost completely the same, with only neutral nouns getting a different definite article, but the only indefinite article in the language remains the same.

It is, in short, a version of German, simplified by English influences, which is indeed what most non-native speakers of the language have confirmed to me. This does not mean, however, that it’s easy to learn, apparently. Despite my insistence that Dutch is grammatically not very complex, many people have complained to me about how hard it can be to learn. I’ll admit, the pronunciation can pose some problems.

The guttural sound of the “G”, and some rather complex diphthongs (ui, au, ei/ij etc) and triphthongs (ieuw, iauw etc) are known in the Netherlands as easy ways of telling Native Speakers from non-Natives.

Not only that, but the Dutch language also seems to have a reputation of being lengthy and verbose. That is, including many different short words that change the nuance of the sentence ever so slightly but still significantly, and all of which are quite hard to translate separately. Words like ook, maar, toch, wel and weer etc. are injected freely into conversation and often serve to subtly express nuances of annoyance, politeness, surprise etc. (but mostly annoyance )

Don’t let this deter you from trying to learn how to speak Dutch though. I can tell you that speaking an extremely minor language can be very useful if you don’t want people to know what you’re talking about, and Dutch is a very colorful and expressive language in that regard indeed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Game Localization Markets - Japan, the US and Europe

The world of videogames has lost a lot of the boundaries that it was plagued by until fairly recent times. Nowadays, most if not all of the major games made in Japan, the US and Europe are localized into all major languages, and because videogames are now big business on an international level, most localizations are delivered within a relatively short period (several months) after the release of the original work, and lots of games are even released in all major regions at the same time (give or take a week or two).

And even in case a game does not get translated into any of the other regions, which might happen for minor and more low-budget games, the fact that most of the current consoles are region-free means that avid fans will be able to play pretty much anything they can import, without any trouble.

But it wasn't always like this. Even games that are now major international bestsellers used to be minor at some point, and as such, might not have seen an international release. Probably one of the most renowned series in this regard is Square Enix's flagship RPG series Final Fantasy. The 13th installment in the main series is on the verge of being finished, but in Europe only half of those were initially released.

Many games that were originally considered to be ill-fitted for a Western audience are now multi-million dollar franchises across the globe; not only Final Fantasy, but Dance Dance Revolution and Dragon Quest amongst many others have proven themselves to be very popular outside of Japan, despite initial doubt as to their success.

RPGs especially, focusing more on strategy and turn-based gameplay than on reflexes and direct action were not considered to be appropriate fodder for a Western audience, which was expected to be looking for more immediate gratification. Halfway through the 90s some of the major Japanese RPGs for the Super Nintendo (and later on for the PlayStation) would start making their way over to American shores but, with the exception of the Final Fantasy series, hardly any of them were judged appropriate for Europe.

Of course there was also the problem that, in order to localize RPGs to Europe, the vast amounts of text would have to be translated into several languages at once which came down to a rather sizeable financial gamble that few developers were willing to take.

Nowadays, this is not much of a problem. Japanese RPGs have become very popular in the West, and localizing them can hardly be called a risk anymore. Even the more obscure and hardcore RPG has found its niche outside of Japan, showing how Western taste has become broader over the years.

That said, there are still several genres that have failed to find their way Westward. Gambling games like Horse Racing and Pachinko/Slot Machine simulators, Visual Novels, and Love Sims/Dating Games are all fairly big genres in Japan yet few if any have made it anywhere outside of Japan. The latter two are perhaps not deemed suitable for the Western market, for being very text heavy and featuring mostly still images, and no real action to speak of. This is kind of a shame, because from a translational point of view it would offer quite a nice challenge.

On the other hand, perhaps slightly more worrisome, we see that even major American releases don't sell all that well in Japan. Hugely popular series like Grand Theft Auto and God of War have sold millions in the West, but have done no more than decent in Japan. This is an interesting fact that tends to create heated debate on gaming forums.

And it is here that one of the greatest challenges of video game localization lies. If Western games don't do that well in Japan, can it be blamed on the localization? Does the humor employed in many action/adventure games not catch on in Japan? Is the famous 'one-liner' uttered by your average Action Movie/Game Hero something that does not work well in a Japanese environment? What about the language of street thugs and mafia members in GTA?

Surely it can be said that, if the humor doesn't come across, or the believability is lost in the target product, the translation is, at least partially, to blame? In order for Western games to do better in Japan, and perhaps to bring (even more) obscure Japanese games to Western shores, clever and creative translation is the key.