Gamers are rarely considered enlightened. With the unthinking fanboys and swearing racists, the hardwired brand loyalty and the willingness to suck up EA's latest Slightly Updated Sports Roster 2007, gamers are not exactly known for their sense of culture. But gamers are enlightened in one point, one that makes gaming almost unique amongst the art forms: its lack of English-language bias.
When was the last time you read a book translated into English, watched a movie with subtitles or listened to foreign language music? For the vast majority of consumers, that answer is "never." But gaming is dominated by non-English language companies - and the average customer couldn't seem to care less. Put simply, foreign games sell in a way that foreign movies, books and music just don't.
For this global industry to overcome the fate of the Tower of Babel, there is a small army working behind the scenes. These are the localizers, the unsung heroes who make modern gaming possible. Yet good localization is something that's only appreciated when it's missing. Get it wrong, and the best you can hope for is to live in infamy as the butt of another internet joke - a world where a winner is you, and all your base are belong to us. But get it right, and a good localization can turn an otherwise obscure Japanese niche title like Katamari Damacy, Phoenix Wright or Animal Crossing into a beloved worldwide hit.
As early as two generations ago, localization was an afterthought. In the dark days, it was commonplace to have an eight-month wait for companies to release an English version of a surefire hit like Mario Kart 64. Now, we live in an international gaming world - a world where a Japanese-developed hit like Zelda: Twilight Princess appears in English two weeks earlier than the Japanese version.
Publishers have finally awoken to the reality of the global marketplace - but most gamers still know nothing about the process that turns zany Japanese nonsense into the latest best-seller.
Word for Word
The average English-speaking gamer is much more likely to encounter a Japanese to English conversion than any other. But converting Japanese to English is, linguistically and technically, one of the most challenging processes in the translation field. Japanese and English are just about as different as two languages can be.
"There are a lot of differences between English and Japanese," says Ben Judd of Capcom. Currently a producer at Capcom's headquarters in Osaka, Japan, Judd is also responsible for the creation of Capcom's new internal localization team - as well as being the voice of DS lawyer Phoenix Wright. "[Japanese] polite language has multiple levels hidden within levels and is certainly not limited to 'please' and 'sir.' There are ritualistic expressions that just cannot be translated into English and vice versa: 'itadakimasu,' 'God bless you,' usage of the word 'sorry.'"
Take a simple word like onigiri. For a Japanese speaker, it's an everyday word. It's a rice snack with about as much variation as a hamburger. But good luck explaining onigiri in the middle of a dialogue-heavy videogame. Do you translate it into some awkward construction like "rice balls"? Do you, as the Pokemon cartoon infamously did, ignore reality and call a ball of rice a donut? Or do you, like anime fansubs, leave the Romanized word and add a two-line footnote describing it as a ball of rice containing fillings like salmon, wrapped in nori. Blast, now you have to explain what nori is, too!
Now, multiply this by the 100,000 or so words you might find in a text-heavy game, and you have an idea of what the average game localization looks like.
"Sometimes, there just aren't good solutions to these problems," says Judd. "Oftentimes, we don't get the luxury of footnotes in games. Handhelds often have insane space restrictions and manuals cost per page, so usually we can't even use that real-estate to help non-anime users understand. You walk a fine line and you can never forget to shoot for the middle ground."