You Say Tomato: The Art of Translating Videogames – Part 3
Here’s the final part of the localisation article in which we learn of all the rude Japanese words and names that have been translated into inoffensive English over the years. Boo! Start here if you missed Part 1
With the arrival of the Internet, videogame hype machines normally controlled by a publisher’s PR department were blown open.
Suddenly anyone could buy a copy of Weekly Famitsu and, in one sitting post more information on forthcoming games than most western publishers would have lined up for six months.
Websites such as The Magic Box began publishing Japanese screens and adverts with accompanying translations. This led to discrepancies between the Japanese game details in those areas that were being changed for the western audiences. Hence, in the early stages of Final fantasy VII’s pre-Japanese release hype, it was widely understood that the leading female character was to be called ‘Aerith’ not ‘Aeris’ as in the final US game.
Other changes to character names have not been so superficial. Sega notoriously had to change the name of Phantasy Star’s antagonist from the inappropriate ‘Dark Phallus’ and Xenogears’s ‘Citan’ was renamed from the Japanese ‘Shitan’. However, it’s not only names that get changed in the trip across the oceans. It was allegedly thought that the Japanese PSone game Dew Prism, could be misheard in conversation as ‘Jew Prison’ and so the title was changed to the phonetically easier on the ear, ‘Threads of Fate’ for America.
This touches on the censorship debate, an issue that localisation teams have long had to contend with as Honeywood explains: “Back in the old NES and SNES days it was common practice to have to change sensitive wordings. Chrono Trigger had alcoholic drinks replaced by soft ones and pubs changed to cafes. In Xenogears, there were mature, controversial themes, with an evil ‘church’ betraying its common believers (‘lambs’ with Hebrew-sounding names) to an evil empire (‘Solaris’, a city in the sky whose inhabitants had German-sounding names, who slaughtered the lambs for use as Soylent Green).
“It was an obvious parable of WWII. The game also dealt with young priests being molested by the clergy. Although these themes were acceptable in Japan, the US distributors were eager to tone it down. They ended up forcing me to change the name of the ‘Church’ to ‘Ethos’, but I was able to get the themes across regardless, by careful rewording. In terms of expletives, I find Japanese doesn’t use as many rude words as English literature and broadcasting tend to. It’s often hard to express rough sentiments in English without resorting to swear words, and yet not sounding forcibly saccharine or family-friendly.
“Sure you can always try to use ‘gosh’ or ‘gee’, or do the old comic book ‘@#$%!’-type replacement but this often makes the game lose its realism; in these cases, we allow our translators freedom to do what they judge is best. Even when we do use expletives, we always notify the ratings board of how many times they appear in the title as it’s the frequency with which they appear which affects the rating rather than their severity.”
Similarly, Atlus, who frequently port games examining darker themes, are always careful. “In Robopon” explains Alexander, “there were certain sexual references in the game that were geared towards a different age group in Japan than our target audience in the US. We also always use lowercase “g” for god or gods and any pentagrams are filled in to look like stars. One of the characters in Go! Go! Hypergrind had a ‘Christ Air’ move, which looked too much like an actual crucifixion, so we requested that it be changed to the way that it is performed in real life”.
Sensitivities in translations can even be market specific notes CD Projekt’s Skladanowski: ”Some markets, such as Germany, have very specific guidelines for game rating, stricter than most other European countries. This will sometimes mean that the language needs to be toned down, or that rude language needs to be changed to something more acceptable.”
By working together at an earlier stage with the development team these days, localisers are able to influence changes and even add new original scenes in via an unlikely cross-pollination of practice as Honeywood explains: “Over the years we’ve built up close relationship with the dev teams so they trust us with making changes (within reason) to their text. Sometimes the planners are so impressed with changes to the translated version we propose, they give us extra information or add extra scenes into the game to improve the presentation of the changes.
“It’s more like we are planning the game together than translating. Take Horii-san in the North American version of Dragon Quest VIII. All naming choices and changes had to be painstakingly approved by him. Gradually we built up trust with each other, and by the end, not only had he allowed us to make a lot of naming changes to make the game more natural and funnier in English, but he worked with us to practically reinvent the game with British voice-overs, orchestral sound, new menu systems and added animations and graphics that were not in the original Japanese release. If the DQ team had just out-sourced the translation like Enix used to, the game would have come out as just another straight translation of the Japanese original. I believe this latest DQ is one of our greatest localisation masterpieces ever, and shows what happens when you work closely with the original creators.”
Atlus too implement some gameplay changes to better suit western tastes. “In most cases we try to add features that were not included in the Japanese version,” says Alexander, “such as the ability to switch between the original Japanese and English dialogue as is the case with Disgaea, SkyGunner and Rhapsody. In Thousand Arms we adjusted the encounter rate so gamers would not be stopping for a battle every two steps which can be often frustrating”.
Outside of gameplay changes Alexander explains how any changes to the actual storyline are decided on: “The amount of freedom we have to make changes to the text in a game depends on the nature of the game, the flexibility of the developer, and on how the project lead wants to approach the title.
“With Thousand Arms, we added many pop culture references to make the game funnier, but with Disgaea the game was already pretty funny to begin with, so we stayed fairly true to the original”.
Skladanowski agrees: “Generally, the more liberties the creators of the game took while writing the texts, the more leeway the translator has in rendering them in the target language, especially in humorous contexts. One example of this was during the translation of Warcraft III with its numerous references to American pop culture that weren’t part of the game’s main plot. They were in many cases supplanted by references to popular Polish movies, characters and events, no doubt contributing to the game’s warm reception by local gamers.”
The sheer amount of work that goes into successfully localising a contemporary videogame today raises the issue: how do companies decide which games to translate? Alexander explains Atlus’s practice: “Firstly, the overall quality of the game is rated. We will play the game and review it in a number of categories such as graphics, sound and gameplay. If the game has been released in Japan we will look at the reviews it was given in magazines. If the game receives positive feedback from the majority of the staff, then we hold a meeting to look at the title more closely. At this time, other factors are analysed such as cost, time, effort, and availability of the development team. The target audience, projected sales, expected release date and competition schedule are decided upon and a decision is subsequently made, although success is never certain.”
What is certain is that localisation will only get harder as games become larger and more complex. Nintendo now employ a team of editors, which works four hours behind the translators, reworking translated text into rich, textured English. Such financial commitment shows the importance of getting a translation just right and increasingly, the decisions that publishers have to take regarding localisation are becoming more complicated.
When Sega brought Shenmue to the West, it opted not to translate the game’s thousands of incidental items, such as street signs and advertising. However, they did replace all the voice actors with English speaking parts resulting in a confusing dichotomy of play world experience. The European Dreamcast release of Shenmue 2 then saw the original Japanese voice acting still in place but with accompanying subtitles giving the game an entirely different dynamic. These are not straightforward choices.
Sometimes, in acutely Japanese themed games less is more. The PSone’s Incredible Crisis, the epitome of a leftfield Japanese offering, remained largely untouched losing only a couple of levels because they relied too heavily on knowledge of kanji. Reportedly when the US localisation team received Treasure’s Bangaioh, rudimentarily translated with instructions to be finished, the publisher found it so funny they just decided to leave it alone.
Similarly, titles like Gitaroo Man, Wario Ware and Bishi Bashi Special have played on their unique Japanese-ness as a selling point. Diametrically opposite this viewpoint is publisher XS Games whose port of Japanese shooter, Shikigami No Shiro, lost all trace of its Nipponese origins and styling when released in the US as Mobile Light Force 2. Localisation is no exact science and, has no set rules and, as such, exemplary releases should be lauded by the videogame industry; an industry that still has some way to go in regarding translation as an artform rather than an inconvenience.
This article originally appeared in Edge magazine in 2005. The version presented here is pre-subbed.