Video Game Translators Are on Your Side, So Stop Hating on Them

Localisation is a tough, taxing and thankless job, but because of it we can enjoy games that otherwise would have been lost to us.

Kate Gray

Some of the cast of 'Persona 4', a game that benefitted from some skilful translation work. (Image via)

What I'm about to talk about involves me quoting Italian, talking about my dissertation, and doing that thing where I over-analyse video games, which is apparently Very Bad, because games are just a bit of fun, innit. But if you're totally cool with all that, despite the fact it's entirely wanky, then good. I like you.

So. There's this Italian phrase I quite like: "traduttore, traditore". It means "translator, traitor". Or, in clearer terms, it means that the person who translates something, for example, from Italian into English, is a traitor. Not a traitor to the language, or the Queen, or any of that – just a traitor to the person who originally wrote the piece in another language.

Look, it's way prettier in Italian. Like most things.

I liked this phrase so much that I made it the focus of my dissertation. I was studying Latin poetry, and I was frustrated with every translation that I came across. There were translations that "bowdlerised" the text, taking out all the rude words and completely refusing to translate entire poems about butt-fucking (AKA the best ones). There were others that translated beautiful wordplay and clever use of double meanings into boring, blank verse. The problem with translation is that the people who do it aren't always as interesting as the person who wrote the original text.

A good localisation job, like decent plastic surgery or a fart at a funeral, is best when it's subtle and expert enough to go unnoticed.

The question is: how do you translate something? Do you focus on the general sense, the literal translation of words, the sound, the timbre, the cadence of the original sentences? Well, tough luck – you can only generally have one or two of these boxes ticked. Ya traitor.

Fans of video games have a big problem with translation, just like whoever the Italian bloke was who decided "traitor" was a nice way to describe someone who's just doing their job. Accusations of censorship are particularly loud at the moment, with plenty of Japanese games having characters removed, hemlines lowered and ages raised, alongside the more traditional "translation" of changing words around.

But I think that some translators and localisation teams, especially the ones that work with Nintendo, are among the best I've seen, and I'm super picky about that kind of thing.

A good localisation job, like decent plastic surgery or a fart at a funeral, is best when it's subtle and expert enough to go unnoticed. If a reference, a food, or a location would be instantly understood by a native of the original country and language, then part of the translation job is to make sure a fitting replacement is found for the native of the country the translation is intended for. For example, the cultural relevance and ubiquity of, say, sushi in Japan could be translated into something like pie and gravy in the UK, or burgers in the US.

Consider 2001's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, originally a Japanese game but translated into English for a Western audience. The setting of the games is transplanted from Japan to America, and with that comes a bunch of secondary translation. For example, Kurain Village – a traditional Japanese place with paper screens and wooden charms and kimonos – becomes a village just outside LA where the residents just like dressing like old-fashioned Japanese people. Short ribs become T-bone steak. Intricate Japanese puns become intricate English puns, and that's bloody difficult to do, trust me.

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It can seem faintly ridiculous at times, but that's because these games aren't designed to make the job easy for the localisation team. You know how it's faintly irritating when you have to change an American recipe in cups and Fahrenheit into good old-fashioned metric measurements? It's like that, but a billion times harder, and you can't just consult the batter-stained back pages of a Delia Smith book for help.

The main goal with game translation is not always to convey the original sense of the text, but to make it appeal to a new audience who aren't always aware of the original country's culture. Video games like those in the Persona and Yo-kai Watch series keep a lot of their cultural references in, because either their audience tends to skew towards those who understand Japanese culture, or because the details make sense in context. In a game like Ace Attorney, though, the story is much more dependent on language – someone can be proved innocent by something as simple as a misspelling of their name.

In Persona 4, there's a scene with a malfunctioning kotatsu – a sort of warm table-blanket, god knows why we don't have those in the UK – that was kept in because the context makes it clear what's going on. But the game is also excellent at translating silly jokes, with one heavy meat dish being referred to as a "portal to the Meat Dimension". That's some damn good localisation, because it requires a knowledge of language and a sense of humour.

In Ace Attorney, the character names (and the hundreds of plays on Phoenix Wright's name, like "Trite" and "Phoenix WRONG") are a masterpiece of translation, courtesy of localiser and all-round pun-master Alexander O. Smith. Creepy, manipulative murderess Dahlia Hawthorne has a name that evokes the Black Dahlia murder case, while Dick Gumshoe plays on two common slang terms for a detective. Recurring character Larry Butz is made fun of for his last name, with "when something smells... it's usually the Butz" popping up as often as he does, which is an attempt to carry across the pun of his Japanese name, which also means "as I thought". It's often used in a similarly exhausted way.

That it is, Larry. (Screenshot via)

Of course, there's Pokémon, too – the names of each individual Pokémon are these carefully crafted puns, which – admittedly, sadly – don't always translate perfectly. Consider Pidgey, which is called Poppo in Japanese, after the noise the bird makes, but is just a weird portmanteau of "pigeon" and "pudgy" in English. Worse than that, the French version is just Roucool – roucoule, the French for "coo", and literally just the word "cool". Pidgey isn't cool.

But then you have something like Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee, two martial arts Pokémon that are named after famous martial arts men, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. In the original Japanese, they're named Ebiwalar and Sawamular, in reference to boxer Hiroyuki Ebihara and kickboxer Tadashi Sawamura respectively. The localisation team would have to know the references being made in the original names, and be able to parse them into a Western equivalent.

And then there's the sort of localisation that works in other ways. Games like The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles and the Dragon Quest series feature a range of regional British accents, which is a level of characterisation that goes above and beyond regular translation. If you heard a Scouse accent, it would instantly make you think of a person wildly different to one with a run-of-the-mill, "posh" Southern one. It's that extra layer of thought that goes into localisation that brings a game to life. Consider Ni No Kuni's Welsh Drippy, as an example.

'Xenoblade Chronicles' featured a wealth of British accents in its Western translation. (Image via)

This is something noted by the localisation specialists themselves, too. "A good localisation... will be truer to the intentions of the original creators than a strict translation," says Ace Attorney translator Janet Hsu. "By allowing a Western player to be entertained by it in the same way the creators intended their Japanese players to be entertained by the original – you're laughing at the same points, and crying your eyes out at the same points, too."

Hsu's got a point there, and an interesting one – sometimes you have to sacrifice the literal and accurate translation in favour of one that promotes an enjoyable experience that is truer to the intentions of the creators. Games offers a weird insight into translations in this way, because when people are writing subtitles for films and translating books, their main priority is to get across the sense. With games, it's the experience you're trying to translate, because the player is a much bigger, more active part of the equation.

Localisation is something that can bring people closer. It means that people who don't speak the same languages have a shared connection through being able to love something together.

If a game relies on silly puns and general comedy, like Pokémon, the translators have to consider the frequency, number and type of jokes, and whether they can replicate all of these factors accurately. A direct, 100 percent accurate translation definitely wouldn't be nearly as funny. If it's a logic game, like the Professor Layton series, the puzzles have to make as much sense as the original, and rely on common knowledge in both languages. If the game relies on visual jokes or a mystery hinges on a name, as with Ace Attorney, something similarly rib-tickling has to take its place.

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There will always be differences – linguistic, cultural and otherwise – between countries, just as there are between eras. It is a localisation team's job to bridge these differences so that people can share and delight in the same things, in roughly the same way. Even though their work can often change the meaning and setting of a game in such a way that it ends up being quite different from the original, I still see localisation as being something that can bring people closer. It means that people who don't speak the same languages have a shared connection through being able to love something together. Localisation is a tough, taxing and often thankless job, but it's because of their work that we can enjoy games that otherwise would have been lost to us.

It takes a lot of work to find out the differences between the original and the translation – years of study in the language and an in-depth knowledge of the country and its culture. Sadly, we can't all speak other languages fluently. And yes, it sounds harsh to say that you should either learn a language or learn to appreciate a translation, along with all its flaws and downsides, but it's true. Translation is never, ever perfect. The translator will always be a traitor, and the best thing they can do is what they're already trying to do – offer you a different, but still enjoyable piece of entertainment. They might be traitors, but at least they're on your side.


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