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.”

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’!'”

Culture Shock
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.”

Technically Speaking
“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.

“Leaving the task of translation to the end is going to put the rest of the localization behind schedule,” she says. “Once you receive the translated text, you need to get it integrated back into the game. You also have to schedule time for recording localized voiceovers – which means time for auditioning and casting actors, recording the lines, putting them in the game. Then you need to spend several weeks linguistically testing the game.”

The localization process is complicated even further by the need to work across different platforms and several different languages, all for simultaneous release.

“Releasing simultaneous localizations can be very challenging,” says Chandler. “Each language requires a team of translators, voiceover actors and testers. Some companies are now working on up to 10 simultaneous localizations. When you add in multi-platform releases, this greatly increases the workload.”

The process of videogame localization is far more technically complex than a movie or TV show.

“Videogames are, by nature, interactive, allowing for player variables to fit in the predetermined text strings,” says O’Hagan. “Many games allow players to make up the name of a character. Then, the name has to appear every time it is mentioned and may be embedded in a phrase or a sentence. Similarly, the player may choose to go down a particular path by inputting their selection, which needs to be understood by the game software, in turn affecting the translation of the predetermined text strings. This can be particularly challenging with highly inflected Roman languages with gender distinctions and gender agreements of nouns and verbs.”

Highs and Lows
For a translation master class, check out Phoenix Wright on the DS, which features the work of one of the industry’s foremost translators, Alex Smith. With the ability to switch between Japanese and English, the Japanese versions offer a rare insight into the localizer’s craft.

Phoenix Wright was a fantastic and utterly frightening game to work on, because let’s face it, Phoenix Wright is all about the text,” says Judd, who worked on the game. “Fortunately, they allowed us ample time to determine different speaking styles for the characters, names and even touch up some of the graphics to fit the U.S. Alex Smith, genius that he is, offered us many great suggestions. Of course, Takumi Shu’s base text was also exceptional – it never hurts to have quality base text to work off of.”

But as a brief look at the wonderful Audio Atrocities makes clear, even high-profile titles still slip through the net.

“I guess the bar on quality has increased over the past few years so there really aren’t as many examples as before,” says Judd. “Of course, Resident Evil 1 will live in infamy for its poor voice acting and awkward sentences. I have to admit the ‘Don’t come‘ [Japanese: Kuru na] voice in Sega’s House of the Dead 2 still cracks me up to this day.”

“The translation of Final Fantasy VII into European languages is notorious for the bad quality of its translation,” says Mangiron. “One example commonly quoted is that ‘party,’ which refers to the group, was localized as ‘fiesta’ in Spanish.”

Localization, Localization, Localization
While the slip-ups are still funny, the days when bad translations were something to be expected are thankfully behind us.

And while it’s the producers that get the high-profile interviews and the artists that get fans salivating, it is the localizers we have to thank for bringing us the games we need – and for that, localizers, we salute you.

A hero is them.

Gearoid Reidy is a journalist working in Asia. His website is www.gearoidreidy.com – but don’t come! Don’t come!

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