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Forums - Gaming Discussion - The linguistic dilemma: localizations and translations in video games

What I'm going to present to you guys is an article that I had written to see how good my writing skills were. However, Nothing really came of it, so in order to salvage my work I decided to share it with you guys so that it will at least have some use.

The Linguistic Dilemma: Localizations and Translations in Video Games

我今天到教室去考试。I assume that the majority of you reading this article have no idea what that sentence means. Well, this sentence can be translated various ways:

Today, I’m going to my classroom to take a test.

I’m going to my classroom today to take an exam.

Today I’m going to class in order to take an exam.

I’m going to my classroom today in  in order to take a test.

Now, why bring this up in a video game-related context? Well, video games are a medium that has its games developed and produced from around the world in numerous languages. Some languages, such as French, can be translated into more easily as a result of the linguistic and cultural similarities with the Anglosphere. Thus, while there will unavoidably be some changes, it results in a much easier localization.

Now say, what about Japanese? Other than the games in the English-speaking regions, Japan has produced the most-noteworthy arsenal of releases. However, unlike French, Japanese is not related to English linguistically. There are many loanwords taken from English, but at their cores they come from two entirely separate language roots. The cultures of the two regions also have more divergences. Thus, when translating a larger work, the context of the phrases must be taken into account.

The translators spend time playing the game, so they’re familiar with the in-game context I mentioned earlier. Once they’ve covered things pretty thoroughly, they begin working on text files that the developer provides. Translated files are passed on to me for editing, and if I have any questions (like “Where does this scene take place?” or “How far apart are these two characters standing?”) I consult the translators. We work until all the files are finished, and then the developer implements them into an English version of the game.”

It is with this that the localization team faces the difficult question: How true to the source material should it be? There are games that attempt to remain as close as possible, such as the modern Persona games. However, even then compromises have to be made. For example, Persona 4 contains a character named Kuma who frequently makes bear-related puns. In Western releases he was renamed Teddie and the puns were changed to suit the English language.

If only I was ‘writing’ them.  There were plenty of puns and parodies Teddy [sic] had in the Japanese version that made my translating brain cringe.  Heck, I didn’t know the name was being changed to Teddie until late in the project!”

Sometimes, the effort to localize certain aspects is seen as unfeasible, and are cut entirely from the game. This was the case with Incredible Crisis, which had 2 of its mini-games removed as they related to kanji or the Japanese language.

In other cases, the aspects are seen as “too Japanese” to be reasonably understood by Western audiences. Such is the case with, Yakuza 3 which had its hostess bars removed. The unfortunate result is a product with less content, but these sacrifices allow Westerners to experience a game that may otherwise have been exclusive to Japan.

"At the time there was an argument with Sega internally that in order to make the game more compatible and appealing to the Western market, we would do better off removing those mini-games that are hard to understand and heavily rooted in Japanese culture"

This is assuming that the publisher even wants to maintain the original setting of the game. Other times, in an attempt to boost sales or interest, a game will be “Americanized”. However, doing so frequently leads to a dissonance between the changed aspects and the sections that were unchanged from the original Japanese version. Such examples are Clock Tower: Ghost Head, which takes place in the US now despite the presence of very Japanese architecture. Megami Ibun Roku Persona even had some of its characters changed into completely different people, most notably Misako being replaced by Mark, a black who loves to dance crazy. Gyakuten Saiban switched locations to Los Angeles. It is also important to note that all three of these games also received name changes in the West, to Clock Tower 2, Revelations: Persona, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney respectively.

Another issue with potentially hilarious or horrifying repercussions, is a poor translation. This can happen either through a rushed port, a team that doesn’t have the proper experience with translation, or a lack of communication between the developers and localization team. This was especially apparent in older games which often had no localization team. The infamous Zero Wing with its now legendary “All your base are belong to us”, was a result of a translation error. This was presumably done by a Japanese who was not familiar enough with the English language to properly re-phrase the sentences.

The localization team even has to deal with technical aspects that make their work much more difficult. Japanese, using a mixture of kanji and kana, can fit more information in a certain number of characters than English can. Thus, the English script may have to be cut-down, as was the case with Final Fantasy VI and Ted Woolsey’s translation.


Part of the dev team and some folks [were] brought in specifically to help with the localization for the English and European versions of this. Their job and was to rework some of the memory allocation and clean up some of the areas they wanted removed, some things that Nintendo wanted removed, and some other odds and ends. I had a small team over there to work with, but basically I was not able to do anything with the text until I got it down to a size where it would fit. There wasn't really such a thing as compression at that time. It was a very crude algorithm that they used. So I translated the game, I took a lot of care doing that. I was given 30 days to do it, which is not a lot of time. I think there were about 1,300 pages of text and it wasn't contiguous. It was broken into pieces. People who were scenario writers would just take a chunk of scenario and dump it in. They would put in the code-in/code-out piece or headers there and they didn't care where it was. They just stuck it in a file and balanced it so it all fit in the different pieces.

The voice acting may have to be delicately adjusted too, in order to maintain the original timeframe, as is the case in Final Fantasy X. The localization team decided to speed up or slow down the lines, depending on the original Japanese length.

Other times, licensing issues force change, either through the use of corporations such as Coca-Cola in Shenmue, or the use of real name that are more recognizable in one region. Street Fighter II had three of its characters rotated in order to avoid potential legal trouble with Mike Tyson.

Now, hopefully this has given some more insight to the work that is required to bring a game from one region to another! I think you all for reading, and I wish you farewell until next time!

Sources consulted:

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Which is why I propose that we scratch all languages and have everyone grow up bilingual in English and Japanese. No need for any localization then. China can keep their language because I won't dare try to take it away from them.

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