Location, Location, Location
Easier said than done. Localizers also have to consider just who is standing in that middle ground.
"The baseline for localization work is to instill in the localized product the same look and feel as the comparable local product," says Minako O'Hagan, a lecturer in Japanese and a researcher in translation technology. "At the same time, with some Japanese games, overseas fans may like the game because of its Japanese flavor, [and] therefore the translation should not kill the unique cultural touch."
"This is a complex issue," says Carmen Mangiron, a translator who works on converting the Final Fantasy series into Spanish and a researcher in the field of videogame translation. "Many hardcore gamers prefer that the games remain as Japanese as possible. Other casual gamers would prefer that everything is localized and explained to them."
"You can't please everyone," says Judd. "On one hand, we have the '1337 gaming purists.' They want games to feel like art, and they want to know the games have been unaltered. It's a fine line, but localization is, by its nature, going to end up altering the base content. Some will shout, 'Why is he not called Rockman? That was a perfectly good name!' Others might have said, 'Why do they call him Rockman if he doesn't have a guitar? That blue suit is hardly rockin'!'"
Even if it were a simple task, localization is far from mere word-to-word translation.
"What do you do when you have a character that speaks incredibly polite Japanese?" asks Judd. "How about dialects? Humor? Most of these areas do not translate directly into another language, so you cannot rely on translation to get you by. That is where 'localization' comes in. You need to rely on your own sense in all these issues in order to create content based on the original without being constricted by it."
Any liberties taken with the source material are a gamble. Minako O'Hagan gives the following example from Final Fantasy X.
"The last scene shows the main female and male characters, Yuna and Tidus, bidding farewell. They had developed a strong affectionate feeling toward each other, but all Yuna says to Tidus in the original is 'arigato' [thank you]. This was translated into 'I love you' for the American version, because the American translation team felt 'thank you' just did not do it, and also that 'I love you' fit better with the lip synch for the original Japanese sound. Interestingly, however, there was a reaction against this decision from the fans, who realized that the original was more in keeping with the way Yuna had been portrayed as a reticent Japanese girl."
Every country has its own cultural fixations. The U.S. is notoriously gun-happy yet sex-shy. Japan is quite the opposite: While there's no problem with sexualizing schoolgirls or transvestites in children's cartoons, even Japanese-developed titles like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Rising often have their violence toned down for the Japanese release.
O'Hagan says, "When Crash Bandicoot was being localized into Japanese, at the insistence of the Japanese side, [the outsourced localization team] had to change the main character from having three fingers and a thumb to having four fingers and a thumb. One can speculate this had to do with the association with Japanese mafia, which is often represented by gang members missing a finger as a result of ritual punishment.
"Such cultural issues are likely to have gone completely unrecognized if the localization company had not consulted their Japanese counterpart. These issues are beyond the matter of translating what's there and call for an astute attitude to hidden cultural traps."
"If you are working on an RPG with 100,000 words of text, it is going to take one translator about 50 days to translate it," says Heather Chandler, the author of The Game Localization Handbook and the founder of Media Sunshine, a videogame consultant firm. You can have a team of translators working on it, but it will still take about 30 days, because one translator would have to read through it all.