According to The Escapist, the video game industry was worth about $105 billion worldwide in 2010. To obtain such profits, video game companies usually do not release their products only in the country where they were made. If that were the case, Americans would only be playing Microsoft’s systems right now, since Nintendo and Sony are both based in Japan.
By translating games into different languages, companies can expand their profits. While this process might be simple for games with little text, localization is much more complex with games chock-full of words.
As companies have discovered over the years, an effective translation often requires more than just converting each word of a language into another language; the game as a whole must be tweaked to suit different cultures.
The Awkward Birth of Video Game Translation
In the past, video game translation was often viewed as an afterthought. According to Kotaku.com, even the gaming giant Nintendo originally had no formal process or quality control for translating games. Most other companies didn’t take translation too seriously either because, for the most part, video games didn’t have the complex storylines found in many today.
However, laziness has created some infamously awkward video game translations. “Zero Wing,” a 1989 side-scrolling shooter for the Sega Mega Drive, features an opening sequence whose translation isn’t much better than Google’s auto-translate service today. For instance, instead of announcing, “We have captured all your bases,” the terrifying villain warns, “All your base are belong to us.” The phrase has since then become a popular joke on the Internet.
Another infamous translation comes to us from the 1988 NES game “Ghostbusters,” where players receive the following message upon completing the game:
It’s easy to see that this was translated poorly from Japanese. That language does not distinguish between the R-sound and the L-sound, which may explain the blatant typos at the beginning. While many other mistakes are in this tiny bit of text, it’s also interesting to see the phrase “prooved [sic] the justice of our culture.”
In a collectivistic society like Japan, honor is greatly valued. One individual’s good deeds are assumed to reflect the honor and justice of the culture as a whole, a concept that might not make sense to Americans. Aside from fixing the typos, these translators needed to realize that what makes sense to one culture might confuse another.
Translating Text and Dialogue
Luckily, video games today have far more nuanced translations. These are the results of hard work, careful planning, generous budgets, and clever use of technology. It is by no means an easy process. GoGamingGiant.com highlights some of the major challenges translators face.
For instance, translations need to be clear and concise in order to fit the space allotted to them. If text appears on the screen during gameplay, it needs to get the point across quickly, or it will draw the player out of the experience.
Also, many video games use dialogue boxes across the bottom of the screen during story scenes. This can be problematic for translators because the Japanese language can often convey ideas in a much smaller amount of space than English can. Thus, an English translation of a Japanese game has to cram ideas into shorter phrases, sometimes leaving out details.
According to NIS America, the company that translates the Japanese tactical role-playing game series “Disgaea,” the localization team sometimes has to think of clever wordings to prevent ideas from running over the allotted space of dialogue boxes.
Menu options also need to be clear. For instance, in the 1999 game “Harvest Moon 64,” the menu option for copying one file to another slot was erroneously translated as “Move,” which made some gamers accidentally overwrite one save file with another because they thought they were just moving the files’ location on the screen.
Translating a huge amount of text takes time and money. Nintendo’s now-popular “Animal Crossing” series, for instance, was originally intended only for Japan, according to Kotaku.com. The most recent entry in the series, “New Leaf” for the 3DS, had over one million English words in it, making it longer than 10 average-sized novels.
Although this Nintendo series reaps enough profits to make the translation worth it, other games remain in their native countries because there’s not enough foreign demand to justify the cost of translating. For example, while the visual novel genre of video games is popular in Japan, they are rarely translated because they appeal only to niche audiences in the United States and contain enormous amounts of text.
All the text found in video games must be translated carefully so that the player is fully immersed in the experience. Mistakes and awkward wordings bog down the story’s effect. In particular, while the “Ace Attorney” series by Capcom is famous for its vibrant translations, it features a few glaring mistakes. What was supposed to be a dramatic scene in one game is ruined by a silly typo: “The miracle never happen,” Phoenix Wright sadly proclaims.
In some rare cases, mistakes can be costly for video game developers. The Wii game “Mario Party 8” features a scenario in which Kamek utters the spell, “Magikoopa magic! Turn the train spastic! Make this ticket tragic!” This might sound innocent to American ears, but in the United Kingdom, “spastic” is an extremely offensive term for disabled individuals. Because of this, Nintendo had to recall thousands of copies of the game.
As ComputerAndVideoGames.com pointed out, Ubisoft had to recall the game “Mind Quiz” because it also featured the offensive term. An effective translator must understand the connotations of every word across cultures in order to avoid problematic mistakes such as this.
GoGamingGiant.com also noted that companies need to consider whether to have dubbed dialogue or only subtitles. In video games where a significant amount of dialogue transpires during the action, dubbing could be essential: gamers shouldn’t have to read text at the bottom of the screen in the middle of a battle. According to DCU.ie, the Japanese version of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” did not sell particularly well in part because it relies solely on subtitles, some of which contain typos.
However, if a video game developed in Japan features an art style and story deeply embedded in its culture, then some gamers may find Japanese dialogue with English subtitles more authentic. NIS America sometimes includes Japanese and English vocal tracks in its games to satisfy all players. Some games are so deeply rooted in their culture that localizing them “too much” could be an issue.
Traditionally, video games have been released in their native language and then later translated for different countries. However, since video games have such a huge international market, there is now more pressure for companies to release a game at the same time worldwide.
In October, “Pokémon X Version” and “Pokémon Y Version” were released around the world on the same day. This was quite beneficial to the thriving Pokémon community online. In the past, when Japan got the games months before the rest of the world, people playing the Japanese versions had a nasty tendency of spoiling secrets for English players. However, the simultaneous shipment of these games has allowed everyone to discover the mysteries of this new Pokémon region together.
An effective video game translation is more than a typo-free script. For this reason, adapting games for various regions is not merely called “translation” but rather “localization,” the process of making a game suitable to a certain locale. A perfectly accurate translation of the game’s original text might not resonate with all audiences.
For example, what is a translator to do if a game makes a pop culture reference? Perhaps one character expresses love for a famous Japanese singer like Ayumi Hamasaki. Well, most Americans have no clue who she is, so a translator might have to opt for an English celebrity with a similar personality. Some games with many pop culture references might have some of them removed entirely, though more appropriate ones might be added as well.
Ben Bateman, the localizer behind games such as “9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors” and “Sweet Fuse: At Your Side,” recently told StickItInYourPocket.com that he’s very careful when adding pop culture references to a game’s script.
For instance, if a game takes place in a fantasy world, a reference to Bill Clinton would be “exceedingly strange” since the characters probably wouldn’t even know about the United States. However, a fantasy character might exclaim, “It’s over 9,000!” even if they do not know the phrase is a popular joke online. He also believes a pop culture reference should not “call undue attention to itself” but rather feel woven into the script naturally. Plus, the reference should be one that will not confuse people 20 years from now, so he’s hesitant to include a recently-coined term “since it has yet to stand the test of time.” For example, we don’t know if people in 2033 will know what “twerking” is, even if Miley Cyrus’s performance of it caused a media explosion this year.
Cultural sensitivity is deeper than refining pop culture references, though. What might be appropriate in one culture might be frowned upon in another. Video games around the world are subjected to rating scales that evaluate what age groups they’re appropriate for. If a game is deemed suitable only for adults, that could limit sales, so it’s important for a company to decide its target age group and make sure their game is culturally acceptable for it.
For example, according to DCU.ie, Germany is more lenient than the United States is with sexual content, but faster to clamp down on violence. Blood and gore can appear on the screen for only a few seconds at a time, and blood is often made green to make it less realistic. China will not allow skeletons or dead bodies to appear on the screen at all, so defeated characters are often represented by tombstones. According to GamingIndustryIQ.com, Australia’s infamously strict censorship policies also cause games to undergo major editing. “Saints Row IV,” for example, had some missions scrapped entirely, and “Fallout 3” removed morphine references by calling the substance Med-X instead.
Credit: TVtropes.com and GingerGamer.BlogSpot.com
Even seemingly innocent games are sometimes censored when crossing borders. The 2004 GameCube game “Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door” features a character named Vivian. According to DidYouKnowGaming.com, “she” is actually a “he” in the original Japanese version of the game. Vivian’s Japanese profile clearly says that “she” is actually a man who enjoys dressing like a woman. This was retained in some translations of the game, such as the Spanish version, but Nintendo of America was afraid to step into that material.
With cultural issues in mind, some games simply are not suitable for certain markets. According to The National, an English-language news organization based in the Middle East, Arab gamers will probably never see a “Grand Theft Auto” game. A video game in which you’re fighting for an unjust cause flies in the face of Islamic values. Simply tweaking the game some would not make it acceptable.
Censorship is not the only issue at hand, though; cultures simply have different tastes. Some video games have undergone radical changes in order to make them more appealing to certain markets. We can see this in the long-running puzzle game series “Panel de Pon,” which originated with Nintendo of Japan. The characters in the game are cute little girls in fairy-like outfits. This might be fine for Japan, but in America, getting a boy or a grown man to play as a cute little girl isn’t so easy. Therefore, Nintendo of America removed the little girls entirely and replaced them with the more gender-neutral character Yoshi. On top of that, the original game’s name was changed to the aggressive-sounding “Tetris Attack.” Later entries of the series have entered America with Pokémon characters or no characters at all—anything but little girls.
In fact, many games downplay cuteness when they go from Japan to the rest of the world. Kirby, a pink, little puffball, often smiles on the packaging of his Japanese games. However, he puts on a tougher expression for the rest of the world. The series “Hot Shots Golf” typically uses female characters on its Japanese packaging but opts for men when selling in other regions.
The Future of Video Game Localization
Some companies believe that we can take localization even further. Ubisoft recently announced that it wants to use effective localization to break into the Arabic market, often ignored by international video game companies. According to The National, it has opened an office in Abu Dhabi whose goal is “to engage more with the regional gamers.” The company plans to release “Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” in Arabic, and its concerns go even deeper than accurate language translation.
Yannick Theler, the local general manager, has pointed out that English folk read from left to right, but Arabs read from right to left. As such, menu displays that the player needs to see first should appear on the right in Arabic games. The Abu Dhabi office will also host an Arabic Facebook page and forum devoted to Ubisoft games. Online communities are essential to games today, so marketing in a different culture requires a company to enter it on this level.
Video game localization has come a long way. In the days of old, we had to put up with messages like “A winner is you!” as found in the NES game “Pro Wrestling.” Now, video game text is translated carefully to ensure not only accuracy but also relevancy—it must make sense to the targeted culture. Some video games are transformed in order to fit the tastes and customs of different countries. As video game budgets rise and as the medium gains even more attention, expect companies to devote more energy to ensuring that everything in their video games resonates with their diverse markets.
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