The Plight of Localization in Video Games

Localization is a term that many JRPG fans are all too familiar with. Perhaps to the point of irritation. I count myself among the less intense fans of JRPGs, as the only series I actually follow actively is the Final Fantasy series. Among the more popular franchises are the Tales series, the Final Fantasy series, the Star Ocean series, and the Kingdom Hearts series. The more committed members of the fandoms are often critical of the English localizations of these games. And they rightly should be. Japanese is notorious for its very nuanced language and difficulty of translation to English, with its undertones to pronouns, non-distinguishing of present and future, and non-translatable words.

In the translation of various titles for English releases of these games, many meanings are inevitably lost. Some not so inevitably, such as in the infamous case of, “This guy are sick,” in Final Fantasy VII. When localizing, translators and directors both try their hardest to transfer as much of the meanings in the original Japanese version to the English version as possible. Many gamers who have played the original version and then the English version often complain about discrepancies. For example, in Final Fantasy X, Yuna’s final words to Tidus before he disappears are “I love you,” in the English version. However, in the Japanese version, she says, “Thank you.” These two sentiments are very different, and while it is definitely a fact that there are romantic feelings between the characters in the game anyway, what does this mean? Does this imply that there is a slightly, if not very, different relationship in the original story? My point here is that localization makes for a complicated case when trying to translate not only the words but also the story itself.

Another example is Final Fantasy VI, where the character Setzer says, “The Empire’s made me a rich man.” I haven’t played the game, and I’m paraphrasing from the article by Kotaku (linked here). Apparently, this was a mistranslation, evidenced in the improved GBA port, as the idiom translated actually meant the complete opposite in context: “The Empire’s been bad for business.” As the name of the article suggests, this one line changes the character’s motivations and place in the story completely.

Other difficulties lie in the voice acting. Japanese has a pitch accent, meaning that it does not inflect the pronunciation of words to imply tone, sarcasm, etc. At least, not the way English does. While a person speaking in English who is speaking fast, harshly, and loudly is easily identified as angry, this may not be the case in Japanese. This conflict between the two languages creates an interesting predicament: how are English voice actors supposed to play their characters correctly? While voice actors are told what a character is like and the character’s feelings about certain things in the story, it remains a daunting task to effectively reproduce the same effect as in the original Japanese version.

This was a little bit of a shorter piece, but I was really looking to write one about foreign language in relation to localization. Hope you found this interesting, and that you share this with your friends! Feel free to leave some comments as well!

Lost in Translation

I must confess that I really hate it when people’s argument against foreign language is, “Everyone speaks English anyway,” or, “Just put it through Google Translate.” Google Translate is not at all effective. I only use it because its voices for various languages are pretty good, and I can get the pronunciation of a sentence that I write in.

Sure, translation is handy when you just don’t have the time to sit and learn the language, or when it’s a really short term thing. But there is a lot of stuff lost in translation, because what there are sentiments and concepts that exist as certain things in one language, and don’t translate completely into English or whatever other language it is. Famous examples on which lengthy papers and books have been written include saudade, sprezzatura, duende, and schadenfreude. There are very, very specific meanings, interpretations, and usages associated with these words, that are very hard to translate into another language.

A very good example exists in manga and anime. I myself do watch anime (though not much anymore, mostly because I tend to be picky) and read a few mangas. Manga, especially, is an example of imperfect translation. Translator notes around the panels often indicate the reason for a particular translation, or choice to leave a name in Japanese. For example, in the manga “Noragami,” the translator decided to translate the name of a character named Bishamonten as Vaisravana and Veena (different instances of the name). Bishamonten is derived from a name in Sanskrit from a Buddhist text. It makes very little sense to give the original name of the deity rather than what she is referred to as in the manga. Bishamonten holds more meaning in the original Japanese, and Vaisravana and Veena (which is even less appropriate, because it refers to an entirely different goddess from Hinduism, Saraswati) mean even less to English readers.

An example of an accurate and appropriate translation occurs in the anime Fairy Tail (though this may be because it’s been licensed and translated by more experienced translators). One of the protagonists’ names is Natsu, which means “summer,” in Japanese. Here, his name is not translated into English.

In the original Japanese text, any puns, jokes, or allusions apparent to Japanese readers will not be so obvious to English readers. Names play an important role in the way things are read in manga. This is because manga writers frequently do word plays and allusions to various things revolving around the way things are named.

Yet another example is a manga that my friend reads (the name escapes me right now), in which the female protagonist is frequently referred to as takane-no-hana, which means “a flower on a high peak.” The expression in Japanese refers to something out of one’s reach. This means absolutely nothing to the reader in English, so the translator decided to tell the reader in the beginning.

These are yet more reasons why you should learn another language, so that you can experience the original text in the way it was intended to be. Feel free to leave comments and share this post!