Thursday, April 21, 2022

Editorial - The Tricky Art of Localization

Back when I was a young gamer limitedly experienced with videogames, particularly RPGs that consume the bulk of my gametime nowadays, one thing I took for granted in titles of Japanese origin was their translations and/or localizations, the former defined as the conversion of text from one language into another, and the latter more concerned with truly adapting the game dialogue for another culture. In this editorial, I’ll explore the complex, sometimes tricky, art of videogame localization, and occasional obstacles with regards to the translation of things that normally don’t translate well to other cultures.

My very first JRPG was 
Dragon Quest on the NES, then titled Dragon Warrior for legal reasons, when I was unaware of the game’s Japanese origin. Back then, I didn’t give much thought to the narrative of the game, given that before I didn’t have much concern with the stories of videogames, which I found to be largely brainless diversions from a hectic scholastic life. At the time, I did notice that the game had an odd style of dialogue I would later discover to be Renaissance-era English, eventually finding that the works of William Shakespeare chiefly incorporated such a textual disposition.

Breath of Fire
 on the NES’s sixteen-bit successor system, the Super NES, would be the game that really got me into RPGs, with those of Japanese origin, as with today, being the chief source of my playtime, alongside games of other genres, whether of Western or Eastern conception. Again, I didn’t give a second thought to the Japanese origin of the game, let alone whatever translational foibles it might have had, which I would eventually come to realize decades later were somewhat more problematic than average for a game enduring the process of converting Japanese dialogue into English.

Back then I was still unaware of the localization process of videogames, and would play its sequel 
Breath of Fire II on the same system, although at the time I did notice thanks to an issue of Nintendo Power covering the game listed its single negative point as “Poor English translation”, and thence I began to realize, thanks to the magazine, that many of the games I had been playing were of Japanese origin. The second game in what was then Capcom’s flagship RPG franchise definitely had translation issues, given the narrative’s religious themes, and from then I gave some care as to how games handled their dialogue, although I was still unaware of the tricky localization process.

Later in the sixteen-bit era I would discover 
Final Fantasy VI, then known in the Anglosphere as Final Fantasy III due to many of the game’s numerical precursors not leaving Japan, and at the time I began to realize that it contained one of the better localizations of its era, thanks in part to translator Ted Woolsey, although I wouldn’t be aware of his name until generations later. Another 16-bit RPG released late in the SNES’s lifespan was Chrono Trigger, which unbeknown to me Ted Woolsey also handled, had dialogue more capable than usual for a game of its time, and I would very much concur with contemporary opinion that its translation was well above average for its time.

Which brings me to the school of localization mainstream gamers would dub the “Woolseyism.” However, I disagree with this nonminer, since Woolsey’s translations, in my opinion, were far from the infallible masterpieces, given various issues at the time. One was Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies that purged translated videogames of content regarding politics, religion, sexuality, profanity, blood, and so forth. TVTropes defines the term Woolseyism as consisting of pragmatic changes to a videogame’s linguistic content in cases where a direct translation would be unfeasible.

There were also issues with some of Woolsey’s dialogue sounding unrealistic, with another game he translated, 
Secret of Mana on the Super NES, having to compress what was to be a CD-based game into a sixteen-bit cartridge, given the fallout of Nintendo’s attempted negotiations with Sony for a compact disc addon to their base system, and Secret definitely had its share of awkward speech, despite getting content past Nintendo America’s antireligious censors such as a reference to “the gods” during its iconic backstory-revealing cutscene. Regardless, the game did very much have one of the far better localizations of its time.

Which brings me back to 
Final Fantasy VI, indeed sporting a number of changes that were indeed pragmatic, such as his change of protagonist Tina’s name to Terra, given that Terra sounds more exotic to Anglophone gamers as Tina does to Japanese players. Other name changes such as Lock to Locke were acceptable as well, given the potential reference to philosopher John Locke, although some seemed random, such as Edgar’s brother Sabin, known as “Mash,” a nickname of “Macias,” when, even given the text space limitations of the game, Woolsey could very well have easily just stuck to calling the martial artist Macias in the English version, since Mash, of course, is a bit of an asinine moniker.

Woolsey did make errors, for instance, regarding gambler Setzer’s motivations, the character one time saying, “The Empire’s made me a rich man.” The original Japanese text in this particular scene used an idiom meaning “business has dried up,” which he assumedly misinterpreted as “gone up,” and future iterations of the sixth Final Fantasy beyond the PlayStation port would fix this. There were, however, dialogues Woolsey did well, such as his description of the enigmatic Shadow as “He’d slit his momma’s throat for a nickel,” with a later version using the quote, “He’d kill his best friend for the right price.”

Chrono Trigger
 was also one of Woolsey’s revered localizations, many name changes being pragmatic, such as antagonists Vinegar, Soysau, and Mayonnai to Ozzie, Slash, and Flea, condiment names for characters in Japan generally being humorous, but Americans would more recognize the names of the musicians Woolsey changed them to. Same for Gurus Melchoir, Gaspar, and Belthasar (coming from the Magi that brought gifts to the infant Jesus), called Gasch, Hash, and Bosch in Japan. One unnecessary change, though, was Grand and Leon and the sword they form, Grandleon, to Masa and Mune / Masamune, the latter moniker being fitter for a Japanese katana like Crono’s.

In summation, there were many things that Woolsey did well, such as many of the name changes for characters in the Japanese RPGs he translated, although there were other areas where he didn’t do well, such as villain Kefka’s “Son of a submariner!” in the original SNES version of 
Final Fantasy VI, when dialogue such as “Son of a…they’ll pay for this!” would have sounded more natural. Thus, I think the translation term Woolseyism would be fitter as “translation pragmatism.” One good example of this would be the change of Nusutto Park to Burglin Park in EarthBound, with the former coming from “nusumu,” the Japanese term for thievery, and the latter in English being self-explanatory.

On the other end of the translation spectrum is the “Blind Idiot” Translation, where the translators of games to English just didn’t seem to care about their quality, with many spelling and punctuation errors, name inconsistences, and/or odd dialogue, among the prime examples of these being the original PlayStation version of 
Final Fantasy Tactics, with dialogue like “A gang of tortured thieves is trying to sneak into this town,” and so on. Sony’s American branch was especially prone to these, particularly when it came to Final Fantasy VII and the aforementioned Tactics, although Square’s American branch would eventually take over its games’ translation duties.

Another translation type that deserves special mention is the Cut-and-Paste Translation, where translators make major changes to a script, edit scenes, and implement other alterations due to things such as cultural differences and fear of attracting ire from the moral guardians. Fans tend not to care much for this, referring to such efforts as “Macekres” (pronounced like “massacres”) after localization producer Carl Macek, who effected changes to anime he localized that didn’t exactly sit well with those who hold their original Japanese version in high regard, and tended to go hand-and-hand with Bowdlerization, a process named after Thomas Bowdler, who created “family-friendly” versions of Shakespeare’s scripts, for instance.

On the subject of Bowdlerization comes the former policy by Nintendo of America to purge games especially during the eight and sixteen-bit era of all religious content, although in the former case, the first two Zelda titles got away with crosses, although they backtracked with 
A Link to the Past, going so far as to censor symbols of a religion hardly anyone has practiced for millennia (the Hylian language). Even in modern times has there been censorship of religious content in games, such as Mastiff Games’ purging of all Christian symbols from their translation of La Pucelle, and the PlayStation Portable’s remake of the first Star Ocean having a cross indicative of healing magic censored to appear more monolithic.

Much debate has arisen regarding the localizations by Working Designs whether they qualify as pragmatic or cut-and-paste, given their tendency to inject popular culture references into the scripts of what they localized, with many things changed that one couldn’t properly term them translations, and changes here and there such as in the Lunar games, where, for instance, “Mel governs Meribia” became “Mel founded Meribia.” There were also lines that somewhat felt unserious such as Ghaleon’s “My coming-out party can finally begin! Send in the clowns!” and “The world will once again be mine on a delicious half-shell.”

While the overall quality of videogame translations has somewhat improved in the past two decades, there are still many kinds that localization teams still don’t adapt well for Anglophone audiences, such as the tendency of dialogue in battles not to sound natural, such as characters unrealistically shouting the names of their abilities, which may sound really cool in Japanese (unless they’re botching English words), but sounds out of place in English. There are also dialogues outside battle that sound really odd to English speakers, for instance, such as “More, more!” when gathering items in 
Etrian Odyssey V, and “Mrr-grr-grr!” in the Bravely Default games.

I would like to mention English anime dubs, and one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with them is not translating the opening and ending credits, although I can somewhat understand not translating their respective themes. The mentioned issue of characters calling special moves again doesn’t translate well, and there are other things like Hawk the pig constantly uttering “Piggy trot!” when running in the anime adaptation of 
The Seven Deadly Sins, which may sound cute in Japanese, but really sounds out of place in the English dub, and simple huffing and puffing would have sounded far better.

Moreover, the English dubs of animes that clearly occur in Japan tend to use actors without a drop of ethnic blood, and what’s more, titles like Persona games leave the Japanese honorifics in the English dialogue, which sound unnatural and oftentimes lend the impression that the voice actors don’t actually know what they mean. Some argue that using ethnic actors would have issues of its own, although animated films such as Disney and Pixar’s 
Turning Red show that the use of Asian actors to voice characters obviously having their origins in that part of the world can still sound great.

Lamentably, some contemporary videogame localizations demonstrate that translation teams don’t wholly have enlightened attitudes towards that particular portion of gaming. For instance, titles such as 
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have dialogue like “Yahoo! Hi, Link!” (Who says “yahoo” anymore?) and Link’s Awakening “Annoyance! You are only getting in the way!” Games such as Tales of Vesperia also occasionally feature anachronisms such as “I plead the fifth,” a reference to the American Constitution’s “right to remain silent,” which won’t make a lick of sense to non-American Anglophones, and is vastly out of place in a game that doesn’t even occur on Earth.

Back to the issue of character and location names, occasional changes aren’t typically too big of an issue, although one issue I pointed out years ago in an editorial was that Anglophone players are sometimes in the dark as to their pronunciation. For instance, I had absolutely no idea “Cait Sith” was pronounced “ket-she” instead of “kate sith” until I delved into the world wide web and became knowledgeable as to how the Japanese pronounced character names. Thus, translation guides certainly wouldn’t kill the English versions of Japanese RPGs, be they without voicework.

On another note, RPGs may use onomatopoeia in dialogue, constituting the use of words mimicking their sounds, such as laughter, huffing and puffing, groaning, and the like. Rendering this while making translations sound professional can sometimes be tough, for instance, writing laughter as “ha ha ha ha ha,” screaming as “aieeeeeee,” and so on. There are occasional oddities in this regard mainly in Japanese RPGs, where, for instance, in 
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, a pudgy toad says “Oog…” My personal preference here would be to use terms like (groan), (laugh), (pant), and so on.

A final point to make on regional differences between videogames is difficulty changes, making them easier or harder. Since I don’t like hard games, especially artificially so, I much prefer the former option, but in some cases, like with Working Designs, they tended to increase the challenge of their games, sometimes making them unplayably difficult, and even they admitted forcing players to pay magic experience to save the game in the Sega CD 
Lunar: Eternal Blue was a bad idea. Making games more accessible, though some will disagree, in my mind would be ideal to localization.

In summation, what does constitute a competent localization, particularly from Japanese to English? In my opinion, one by translators who have an above-knowledge of the original language as well as significant experience with English and writing, perhaps with regards to composing fictitious works, and generally remains faithful to the initial script. However, I definitely don’t mind a little cutting and pasting, particularly if the initial dialogue wasn’t good to begin with or sounds really unnatural. Voice actors also need to question bad writing and be competent in that regard. Overall, while the tricky art of localization has significantly become more refined, translation turkeys still exist, and the points I made in this editorial would go a long way in continuing to polish the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment