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The Trials And Tribulations Of Video Game Localization

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How does a video game from another region get into your hands and how do companies make sure you get an experience that lives up to the original? As the gaming industry goes global, video game localization is an increasingly relevant topic. But not many people really understand what is going on in the process. Preparing for the release of a game in a new country or region involves many challenges that go far beyond simple translation.

When a game is well localized, it is free of typos and grammatical errors, dialogue is natural, and instructions make sense. But even that only scratches the role of the localization team in the process. As games get more complex and richer in text, not only do the challenges continue to rise, but the quality bar – and our expectations – constantly rise. There is now a greater focus on the ways in which games are adapted from their origin for our consumption. And rightly so, because bad localization can tarnish our experience with a game. Or it can live on in jokes and memes, like “Your entire base is ours!” From Zero Wing. or “You bard spoon!” by Final Fantasy IV

These days we don’t see as many hilarious blunders, despite receiving games that are much more complex and difficult to deliver to Western audiences, like the Yakuza series, where Japanese culture is an integral part of its identity. We chatted with nine different localization folks, who have worked on shows like Ace Attorney, Nier, and SMT, to learn more about the process and its struggles, finding out everything from the reasons direct translations fail to l adaptation of specific puzzles to the language.

Lost in translation

Lost in translation

Each language has its own complexities, rules and flavors. What is acceptable and understandable in communication differs by region. For example, the Japanese language uses a lot of hierarchical signifiers to show respect, but it looks awkward when translated into English. When accepting a task from a superior, English speakers do not say things like “I accept humbly”.

Japanese also does not require the same type of explicit context as English; sentences often have no subject, subject or other necessary information in English. “This is because Japanese is a high context culture, while English is a low context culture,” says Sega Lost Judgment producer Scott Strichart. “Japanese expects you to understand the implication of a sentence. There are a lot of other things under the hood in Japanese culture; you can of course appreciate it when someone says something. They don’t speak directly to people often. There is no subject, so to speak.

And then there is the question of how different cultures perceive certain terms. “The definition of a word in the dictionary and its actual use and the image it conjures up to a native speaker can sometimes be very different,” said Janet Hsu, director of localization at Capcom. “An example is that the English word” animation “is shortened to anime in Japanese, and then re-imported into English as” anime. ” The Japanese word [means] “Any kind of animation” including cartoons, but in English the word “anime” is strictly reserved for Japanese animation works. Now imagine trying to translate whole concepts and logical trains from one language to another directly, and you can see how quickly things can go off the rails.

It is important to look at how languages ​​differ, as the little things have huge consequences in the process. The hottest debates around localization today center around translation and its source fidelity. Fans worry that they might not have an authentic experience or that the localization teams are taking too many liberties. This is where most of the misconceptions come from, and locators have heard it all, from people assuming Google Translate can do the job to cries of censorship over changes in Western sensibilities. However, the biggest demand from players is often a “direct translation”.

The problem with direct translation

The problem with direct translations

Many localization specialists will tell you that direct translation is not their job. “Literal translation doesn’t exist because translation is a creative endeavor,” says Derek Heemsbergen, freelance editor of localization, who has worked on Dragalia Lost and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. “When people talk about direct translation, they mean literal translation as long as the translation can be literal. They want Japanese grammar and idioms to be preserved as one to one as possible, which makes the text and writing really awkward.

Literal translation does not exist because translation is a creative endeavor.


Direct translations can actually detract from the message and alter the intent. Jessica Chavez, a freelance localization writer who was previously on staff at Xseed Games and recently worked on Mistwalker’s Fantasian mobile game, says not everything translates. “There is a very famous example of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1980s when they decided to launch their product in China,” she says. “They really wanted to keep their slogan; it’s something that’s really iconic. Everyone knows it’s good to lick your fingers, right? So they directly translated it. And in Chinese, it was “eat your fingers”.

This example demonstrates the importance of a localization team, but many don’t know what localization really is. The goal, according to John Ricciardi, founder of 8-4, is to maintain intention and feeling. “We try to preserve the experience so that people, when playing it in English or vice versa, basically have the same feelings and have similar reactions. And I feel like if we did that, then we did our job. It’s not about having a one-on-one word [translations], because there is no one-to-one word. This is the great myth. People think that with translation you can just put it in a machine, and it comes out the other side. It does not work like that. “

Chavez shares a similar sentiment. “My personal philosophy favors intention and meaning over literal translation,” she says. “The main goal of teams when creating these games and releasing them in another country is to want to deliver the experience; they want players to laugh at the parts they wrote that were funny. They want players to feel what their original audience felt. I think it’s our job to communicate that, and a literal translation will lose that.

Yakuza: like a dragon

Chavez illustrates how things are changed during tracking, referring to cultural traditions regarding how babies are delivered. In Japan, Momotaro is a folk tale hero born from a giant peach. This story is used to say that babies come from floating peaches, but a good equivalent in American culture is storks giving birth. “So we deliver the same intention, this folk way of how babies are delivered, but we make it logical for a Western audience. If you translate this directly, you’re going to lose what the development team is trying to convey.

Of course, it helps people be more aware of Japanese culture and common phrases these days, but it’s still a tough line to walk to make sure an English player understands the meaning. The Yakuza series and its Judgment spin-offs have the added challenge of making Japan an integral part of history. “It’s a balance of authenticity, precision and clarity,” says Strichart. “I think someone who is going to play Yakuza, we have to expect this player to want to get a somewhat foreign experience; they want a game about the Japanese to make it look like the Japanese. “

Strichart says the team is careful not to over-locate, but wonders if Americans will know what Tonkotsu ramen is or if it needs to be changed to pork broth ramen. Often times, to resolve this issue, additional text can explain a term. Or, if there is a close English equivalent, the team will use it for better understanding. Strichart says that when something is changed it is to make sure the player can understand the content; the team tries to avoid explaining things too much. “We make sure that we never forget that [these games are] located in Japan, ”he says. “And it feels like it’s Japanese, even though it’s English.”

Become creative

Become creative

Locators use their skills in different ways, as it’s their job to solve anything that might be problematic. It can range from thinking about different ways to convey a character’s personality, to completing a puzzle or riddle in a language it was not designed for. Each game is different and has different obstacles to solve.

Strichart has spent the past seven years working on the Yakuza series, and anyone who’s played the games knows they’re full of minigames, but some minigames just don’t work if you try to translate them directly. “There are chat mini-games where you have to form words together or give answers to sentences that if you haven’t translated them correctly the wrong answer is too obvious or the correct answer is not obvious enough. Sometimes these minigames have to go through a lot more localization than we would just taking the words from the page.

And sometimes you just have to admit defeat. Strichart points to Mahjong, a tile game commonly played in Asia. “There is nothing more fun and humorous than the [Western] The audience of Yakuza interacting with Mahjong, who say to themselves: “I do not touch it”. We can only close this gap to some extent. Over the years we have added small numbers to indicate what the tiles are. We have added more and more complex and massive tutorials to the game where we try to make it as accessible as possible. And yet, only this wall remains.

Phoenix Wright: As Attorney Trilogy

Puzzles can be the most difficult to convey in another language, especially when they use clever mechanics. “Because all the gameplay of an Ace Attorney game is in the strength of the logic in the writing, the localization itself is the gameplay, and how detail-oriented you are as a locator will show just how the end product is playable as a game, “Hsu says.” Of course there are leaps in logic that the original Japanese can force the player to take. However, if the lines are poorly translated or the prefiguration is not set up correctly, someone playing the English version will have a much harder time than the original Japanese version expected, and it would have a negative impact. on the player’s experience.

Hsu says some of his favorite moments of the show’s localization were finding word puzzle solutions, like Spirit of Justice’s karuta card trick. In the English version, the cards say WHET NO 4, but have a different message once you identify it. “Nothing feels better than when you know you’ve finally found a really awesome localization solution that will hopefully provide players with that same sense of ‘aha! “When they solve it in English a Japanese player had with the original version.”

Chavez can attest that solving puzzles is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. She remembers a recent accomplishment of an unannounced project. “I had to translate an 11th century poem, and I had to change it into a code puzzle that had to be entered,” she says. “So in Japanese [version], they just had like “ka ki ke ko ku”, so they could have some kind of singing style for that. But I had to work it out from this English translation of that 11th century poem that I summarized in five lines, and I had to turn it into computer code. And that still makes sense! The solution you come up with at the end also changes and very slightly, and also makes sense. I was like, ‘I passed this one!’ Turning a super old poem into computer code was fun. “

Bringing characters to life in another language can also be tricky and often requires creativity and subtlety to convey their personalities and make them accessible to a North American audience. Sega / Atlus Editor-in-Chief Josh Malone fondly looks back on Judgment, his first full-fledged project as an editor, and finds the right way to portray foreign character in Japan, Ryan Acosta.

“If I had gone for an individual translation, Ryan would have used a corrupted form of Elizabethan English and the result would have looked more like a SMT angel than a devout otaku,” he recalls. “Instead, I had to pull out a Kagutsuchi and scan his heart – what were his conversation cues trying to tell me?” At that point, I started to think, “Okay, this guy is definitely a weeb, that’s what the writers were looking for,” so I took that idea and followed it. Fortunately, her character ended up being fairly well received, so I’m glad I made a decision and added some personal experience to her dialogue.

For Trails of Cold Steel, the team struggled to capture the personality of the elder Roselia. At first, NIS America planned to give him an old-school English accent, but when the team heard him read aloud, it didn’t feel right. NIS locators worked to find a good way to capture the different parts of her personality, from when she acts in a higher and mystical way to when she is just an annoyed grandmother. “The kind of middle ground between these two that we reached was that we would limit her use of contractions for more laid back scenes, and when she gets classier, she’ll talk without them,” says Eric Budensiek, editor. head of NIS America.

The Cold Steel Trails 3

Something that is not often discussed is the character count challenges for locators. The text must fit in a certain space depending on the game’s programming, often referred to as text boxes. Although programmers can sometimes make them larger and add additional text boxes to accommodate the English language, this is a rare luxury. “Japanese is a dense language; spelling there is more information in a smaller number of [characters]», Explains Heemsbergen. “So there could be a compound consisting of five kanji, so only five characters displayed on the screen, but the meaning in English is something like ‘super amazing magic potion of ultimate rebirth’, which is much longer.”

What makes this even more complicated is that Japanese scripts are already very dense and use the majority of space, so it’s up to the localization to rewrite, crop and condense the text in a way that passes all the information and fits into a smaller amount of space. And they have to do everything under tight deadlines.

Under pressure

Under pressure

Thousands of lines in games have to be adapted, and time and costs often come into play. Locators must constantly assess the battles to be fought and make timely choices. “The framework that locators have to work with is really very limited,” says Chavez. “We don’t have a lot of time on these things. So when you’re on a tough deadline, you have to choose between eloquence or “does that make sense?” “”

The work also requires doing research and sometimes going back and forth with the original team for clarity and understanding. The degree of collaboration depends on the developer, but it seems that the overall interaction is increasing, thanks to the evolution of technology providing easier and faster means of communication. Some interviewees explained that their location software has built-in collaboration tools, while others said they maintain an open dialogue with message boards. “There’s a misconception that the developer throws away text, we do it, they implement it and no one reads it,” Strichart says. “There’s this constant back and forth, and it’s a very collaborative process now. It must be, like you can’t run text and render and expect us to get it. Localization teams need context; it’s 100 percent of our job.

Despite the time taken to preserve intention, turnarounds can be brutal, and last-minute decisions – even those that seem small – can plunge an entire project into chaos. Chavez learned this firsthand while working on Half-Minute Hero for Xseed. Once the game localization was complete, the development team changed the font set to something easier to read. But changing the font style affected the character limits, which meant the team had to redo their work and come up with even shorter text. The kicker? They had a week to do it. “I had to go through every line in the game and either correct them or rewrite the ones that were outdated,” she recalls. Fortunately, it was a smaller game, and it was a completely wacky game. So it sort of worked out in the end, but there was a point where I was wondering, ‘What the hell is this? I’m doing ?

Deadlines are part of the job, but some are more demanding than others. Lost Judgment had a very aggressive timeline, something Strichart doesn’t mince words with. “Lost Judgment was the height of the challenge, just running this game in a year basically with the amount of audio and languages ​​we had to do,” he says. “It’s wreaking havoc. Under the weight of that, you almost look at it like, “Okay, next time we don’t have to do it that way, but this time let’s do it.” “

Lost judgment

Strichart said starting the localization process as soon as they did was tough because half the game wasn’t built yet. “For a team that was mostly used to being able to just activate the game and see how the characters interacted, you had to go ask the developers things like, ‘How far are those two? “Should they be screaming? It has been a huge learning curve for us.

Some games also require more research than others, and the only way to truly convey the material is to know it intimately and thoroughly. “I learned the subtle flavors of whiskey, the intricacies of pachislot machines, and the worst things to say to your bartender – all with the aim of creating a realistic dialogue that leaves a deep (or deeply silly) impression,” says Malone about his time working on the SMT and Persona brands alongside Yakuza and Judgment.

Chavez must have been very careful when working on Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympics as it involved a lot of anecdotes. “I had to do a lot of research to find out, ‘What’s the real world record for this? She also recalls how on Fantasian, the publisher “had a hell of a time” reading very technical scientific journals to try to understand the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that gives other particles their mass.

The job of a locator is far from easy, and it doesn’t help that people trying to break into the field can often be exploited. Beyond location, members don’t always get their game credits [see sidebar], the requirements can reach worrying levels. “I have heard stories from freelancers working for other companies, and they are asked to do like 10,000 characters [a day], which is insane, ”says Ricciardi. “Our standard for translators is at most 4,000, and that’s what I’ve learned over the years is comfortable in a day for a typical Japanese to English translator.” Ricciardi said he had also heard of people being paid as low as two cents per character. Just like other areas of the gaming industry, localization has its share of issues that need better solutions.

For the love of language and games

For the love of language and games

A lot of blood, sweat, and tears are required to adapt video games to other languages, and much of it we never see. Localizers are asked to be a lot of things: creative, problem solvers, and language masters, to name a few. People who do have a huge job to do and don’t take it lightly. “I’ve been in the business since I was 19, and for me games are everything,” says Ricciardi. “I like the games. I enjoy the games. I respect game makers. I want as much as possible, when we’re working on this stuff, to be able to maintain the integrity of what was intended with the game.

Localizers are asked to be a lot of things: creative, problem solvers, and language masters, to name a few. “


Hsu sums up the location wonderfully. “I like to think of locators as bridge builders – people who help bring entertainment from a different culture to their audience by building the smoothest bridges possible, so that most of the experience stays with them. intact and does not bend. out of shape during transport, ”she said. “Sometimes you can reuse words from the original language to help you build your bridges, and sometimes you might need additional contextual mortar to fill in the gaps and hold it all together. Other times, you might just find that a narrow stone bridge doesn’t fit the cart, and you need to extend it horizontally with more explanation or cover it with cement by rewriting a segment for clarity. Each sentence is a unique bridge with a role to play throughout the journey from start to finish of the game. ”


This article originally appeared in issue 340 of Game Informer.

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