Like many others in my generation, I grew up playing games. That’s nothing special, really.
However, I did grow up in Saguenay, Québec. Saguenay is most well known for its blueberries, cool Native American names like Chicoutimi or Shipshaw, its aluminum smelters, green spaces and close to an 80 degrees Celsius difference between the coldest days of the winter and the warmest of summer. I should also point out that it is home to North America’s only fjord – we’re quite proud of that fact.
All in all, it’s a great place to live, grow up and play games. Games in the English-language, that is.
Before cable TV became a commodity, a Saguenay boy’s only means of learning English by himself was listening to American music or speaking to Anglophones. There was little interest for the former in our house at the time, and there’s one thing Saguenay’s not known for: its Anglophone population. With no benevolent Anglophones anywhere nearby, I could not have learned English to save my life.
Growing up as a francophone gamer in an overwhelmingly Anglophone gaming world, however, taught me two things. The first is English, the language. The second thing is that localization, which is intended to help French-Canadian boys like me, among others, enjoy the games originally written in English (or Japanese), can also act as an obstacle between a gamer and his hobby.
My home town, St-Ambroise, is a picture-perfect example of Saguenay’s almost complete uni-lingualism. According to the Institut de la Statistique du Québec, 0.4 percent of St-Ambroise’s 3,605 inhabitants were Anglophones in 1996. That’s 10 people, although I strongly suspect these numbers include a dog or two that bark instead of aboyer. As of 2006, the town is home to 3,475 people, again with 10 inhabitants who only speak English.
Aside from those 10 souls, not a lot of us Saguenéens were bilingual when I was a wee boy. And by bilingual, I mean someone who can read the back of a shampoo bottle and not sound like a brain damaged Céline Dion, at best, and like a heavily drugged Jean Chrétien, at worst.
For the better part of my early years, this wasn’t a problem. I was happy playing games in English for one good reason: they were, for the most part, text-free. Atari games were a piece of cake, as were most of the early NES games. The words “Press Start” flashed on the screen and there was a “Start” button on the controller; mental connections were made. Let there be game.
Things changed, however, when fate put the first Final Fantasy in my NES console. That was in 1990, I was 10, still in Saguenay and still almost completely and unbearably unilingual. Thankfully, francophone students all over Québec started taking English lessons in 4th grade, which I had started that term. This meant that I had a new best friend at my disposal: a mandatory, pocket-sized and soon-to-be-abused bilingual dictionary.
The book was a double-edged sword, however: both the savior of my gaming and the bane of my social life. I’d rush home at night, complete my homework in a flash and sit for hours in front of the TV, a dictionary on my lap, translating Final Fantasy so that I could complete the game and understand what terrible events were unfolding. My (unilingual) dad would sit on the couch and watch me play, oblivious to what was attracting me to the slow-paced, text-filled game.
“Maudit que t’es plate,” he’d say. Literally: “Damn, you’re boring.”
And he was right. In retrospect, watching me play FF I, especially when I got to a town for the first time and needed to talk to every NPC, must have been torture for him. To some extent, it was torture for me, too. Compared to translating everything in-game to some form of roughly understandable French, beating Chaos with all four Light Warriors naked, unarmed and using only level 1 spells was like a walk in a Moogle park. What kept me going, what kept me translating, was seeing two of my favorite activities united – playing and reading. And it only started with Final Fantasy.
On top of boring my dad to sleep, this also laid a pretty strong base for my knowledge of the English language. By the time I got to 5th grade, my conversational English wasn’t anything special – certainly not better than that of my classmates’ – but I could write a killer story. Or, if need be, tell my teacher that the princess was in another castle, or that I had to get the crystals back to save the world – you know, life-saving second-language skills for me to have if I ever got lost, say, in New York City.
I wouldn’t always play alone, of course. I managed to keep some friendships alive. Sometimes, my friends would even wait until I was there to play RPGs, so that I could tell what was happening without having to translate it themselves. I felt needed; I felt like a star, a kind of (admittedly self-proclaimed) bilingual étoile. I felt good.
But then localization became important to game publishers. The first game that I remember playing in my langue maternelle was The Legend of Zelda III: A Link to the Past. At first I thought, “Hey, I’m not gonna have to translate everything for them now, that’s great! We’ll all understand everything that’s happening right away!”
I quickly learned the following lesson: Localization is a heartless bitch. The day I played the “French” version of Zelda III, localization destroyed this Québécois‘s expectations and grated them, tasteless cheese and gravy over the French fries of my enjoyment. This was a bitter-tasting poutine.
Not that the translation was horrible. To be fair, it was decent in that it did translate what was in English into French, keeping the story, as well as the names and everything else, intact. It should have been exactly the same game, right?
And yet, it wasn’t. Oh, sure, the graphics were a perfect copy, the gameplay felt the same, Link was still this jolly, green fellow trying to rescue the princess, and I still hated the boomerang. But something had literally been lost in translation, especially since it was probably translated into English, then into French.
Freud identified this as the Uncanny – when something is familiar to someone, but at the same time feels foreign, étranger. I suddenly didn’t know this green guy anymore, and who was that princess he was after? Zelda? No. It had to be a different game.
It had lost its spark, and my own language was the cause, or so I thought at the time. Even though I should’ve been enjoying the incredible ease with which I could understand it all and how it all made sense, I hated the sudden ease and the sense it did make. Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t tell that the game was so clearly intended for a younger audience. In previous games, my limited knowledge of the English language helped create a powerful illusion of overall seriousness and maturity, but when I read the text in French, everything just became childish and silly.
The familiarity that I had developed with the game in English, this language that wasn’t my own, was gone. I managed to convince myself at the time that my own language, my beloved Français, had betrayed me, plunging its icy, chauvinistic poignard in my back. To some extent, I was right. Playing the game in French made the target audience obvious, and I didn’t relate as much, but that was the lesser of two evils: Bad translation was the mastermind of my disappointment – I know this now.
Today, I can spot “Engrish” in a game, and even though localization has indeed gotten better with time, playing a game in English is still a much more enjoyable experience to me than playing it in French. I’m no neurologist, but my uneducated guess is that this might be related to the various parts of my brain that have to be poked and activated in order for me to process something in a language other than my own. This might also be part of the reason why I’m writing this article in English; it’s different, it’s not what I usually do, and it breaks my mold.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother tongue. I’m a proud Québécois, and no francophone could ever publicly admit to hating French (other than to say it’s freakishly complicated – the verbs, man, the verbs!). Thing is, none of them in their right mind could say they’d prefer a French version of a game to its English counterpart – well, no bilingual Québécois, at least. I know I don’t. Never did, never will.
I tried, Dieu knows I tried. I was over at my brother’s place, last Christmas, and he insisted on playing me in EA’s NHL 10. In French. To my disappointment, it was France French, which makes no sense. Would a baseball sim be voiced and produced in Great Britain? A cricket sim in America? A pétanque sim in Québec? Then why wasn’t the hockey sim’s French localization done here in Canada? It makes sense that it be done in a country (France) that’s seen a total of three of its hockey players have a noticeable career in the NHL. Yes, that makes perfect sense, EA. Félicitations. /le sarcasme.
I’m not trying to discredit localization, far from it – it is a noble pursuit, bringing games to cultures that may not have their own videogame industry. So far though, I haven’t really been impressed with the games that have been localized for the French audience – probably because they were in fact targeting a European French audience. France’s French has its own expressions, its own accent, and is therefore very different from Québec French; it’s hard for us to relate. Not every translation is bad, of course, but very few titles successfully go from la langue de Shakespeare to that of Molière, in my opinion.
My love of gaming and the absence of any localization early on provided me with an opportunity to teach myself English at an age when I was probably too young to spend much time learning a second language on my own. In retrospect, I’d say those were not wasted hours, regardless of what my parents thought. I’m thankful then that my dedication to gaming in English had such an influence over my life. I just wish that the people responsible for localizing games into French were as dedicated.
Rémi Savard now works in a bilingual environment and likes to believe videogames are part of the reason why he got to where he is today. He never got on the Céline Dion bandwagon, and sincerely hopes there will NEVER be a pétanque videogame.