Localization Isn't Censorship, And The Difference Is Important
A localizer at XSEED had their name removed from an upcoming game over the deletion of KKK reference, raising fiery debates over intent and "censorship."
Image courtesy of XSEED
XSEED will release Akiba's Beat, a quirky JRPG from Acquire, next month. As such, the publisher has been translating and localizing the game. Yesterday, Kotaku reported that during development, XSEED flagged a sign with a KKK reference. When the developer was asked asked about it, they said it didn't intended to reference the hate group. No big deal, right? But one localizer demanded their name be removed from the game's credits, citing censorship. But this isn't censorship, and it distorts the word's power. It's a localization team doing their job.
The term "censorship" has become a boogeyman in the last 10 years, fueled by a broader awareness of (and debate over) issues of gender equality, sexual exploitation, race, and more. For some, this supposed sensitivity has lead to artistic censorship. These folks tend to prefer direct translations, where the goal is literally swapping one language for another, regardless of context. They often protest cultural changes, such as covering up revealing women's clothing.
But localization is a process, and translation is just one component of it.
"What's the difference between the text and the meaning of the text?" wrote designer Matthew Burns in his recent essay about language, All We Have Are Words. "Where does meaning reside, if not in the text? If the text contains multiple meanings, does the translator need to ensure that every one of them is somehow represented? Is the purpose of translation to provide a seamless experience to those who read and speak other languages, or is it to bring the unique qualities of one language into another? In other words, is the perfect translation one in which I remain completely unaware of the work's foreign origin, or is it one that makes me feel like I'm experiencing the language it comes from?"
To give a little more context, the discovery of a KKK reference in Akiba's Beat emerged because Acquire included a sign in one of the game's locations that riffed on the Japanese light switch company, NKK Switches, as KKK Witches. It's easy to see how someone might land on this parody through ignorance, not malice; Akiba's Beat is full of weirdness and NKK is one letter away from KKK.
It's also possible the KKK reference was on purpose. But you'd want to make sure, right? It's the same rationale where, when I'm writing stories about subjects I'm still learning about, I'm double and triple checking my facts and language usage. When reporting on disabilities, for example, I'm careful to ask about what terms might be perceived as ableist. We all rely on the expertise of others! The joy of working with others is having each other's back, helping to fill in gaps of ignorance.
If they did intend to reference the Klu Klux Klan, there would be a reason to start making an argument to include it, weigh the pros and cons, and have a debate. According to Kotaku, XSEED contacted Acquire for clarification, informing the developer of the connection between the letters "KKK" and a hate group, and were told they "had no idea the sign could be taken that way in English." The phrase was then changed to ACQ Witches.
XSEED localizer Tom Lipschultz, who has a long history of principally opposing any and all changes during the process of localization, called this the game's "most egregious change."
"I personally felt 'KKK witches' was pretty funny for its shock value, but when I mentioned it to my coworkers, they... were not as amused," said Lipschultz in a message board post. "For various reasons (some of which do include legitimate localization concerns, but most of which involved personal offense, worries over offending others, or worries over stores not carrying the game due to this "controversial" inclusion), they were insistent upon the name being changed. And of course, I fought this as best as I could, since I saw the forceful change of this as an act of censorship (minor though it be, and even understandable though it be)."
First, kudos to XSEED for letting Lipschultz speak out on this topic and criticize his own employer. You don't see that often. I tried asking a few developers about their experiences with localization for this story (I had seen some discussion about how localization had saved them from making accidentally ignorant statements or references in other countries), and they were afraid to speak publicly.
"Is the purpose of translation to provide a seamless experience to those who read and speak other languages, or is it to bring the unique qualities of one language into another?"
You could understand a company ditching artistic intent and and striking down Akiba's Beat's KKK reference purely on business grounds. Companies want to make money. What might not cause a stir in Japan could prompt a bunch of uncomfortable discussion in a country that is, despite being decades removed from the KKK as a defining cultural force, still wrestling with public displays of racism. Especially since, in the era of Trump, the KKK has found new meaning and voice.
On the other hand, given the niche games that XSEED releases, some of which push Western norms on sexuality, they have less to worry about. The publisher's fans are diehards who closely follow Japanese games like Akiba's Beat long before localization is announced. They know exactly what they're in for, so for many of them, the idea that any changes would be made for Western sensibilities is grating.
But the developer willingly consented to this change. Their hand was not forced.
"If 'Thomas' was name of a Japanese hate group, you bet I'd want localiser to tell me, and we'd change immediately," said Thomas Was Alone designer Mike Bithell on Twitter yesterday. "I continue to be baffled how anyone thinks this is censorship. This is how one gets understood correctly in another language."
While at Kotaku, I spoke with localizer Alex Smith, who's worked on everything from Final Fantasy X to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. While helping with Final Fantasy X, there was debate over Yuna's final words to Tidus. A direct translation had Yuna saying "thanks," but that didn't strike Smith as contextually accurate.
"And yet," said Smith, "'arigatou' has connotations that go beyond the phrasebook definition of 'thanks.' Literally meaning 'there was much difficulty,' the word encompasses a sense of shared experience. If the patriarch of a family was on his death bed, looking up at his children and grand-children, the word he might say in Japanese is 'arigatou.' It has the weight, and finality in this case, that we associate with the words 'I love you' in English."
The phrase "I love you" hadn't been uttered in a Final Fantasy game before. Complicating matters, the shot where Yuna speaks is a close-up, so the words needed to closely match the original Japanese cut-scene in order to line up properly. Thus, "I love you." Smith consulted with Kazushige Nojima, who wrote the script for Final Fantasy X, and pitched the idea. He approved.
Lipschultz makes the argument that because XSEED's conversation with Acquire was so brief—the studio agreed to the change and included it in the next development version of the game, it wasn't a big back and forth—it's impossible to know if merely inquiring about the sign was pressure to censor.
"How else were they supposed to interpret us asking about it at all?" he said.
I believe that's what they call a "stretch," and it's possible to argue Lipschultz was doing the exact opposite of a translator's goal: inserting themselves into the text and becoming the creator, engaging in the very practice he claims to defend. After all, if the original developers didn't know about the KKK, chances are that their intention wasn't to include the term for, as Lipschultz said, "its shock value."
Then again, Lipschultz is the same person who was banned from the message board NeoGAF after arguing there's "no such thing as 'underage' when it comes to art" in a thread about whether there's too much fanservice in games.
The fact that the KKK Switches sign is so innocuous, rather than a central plot point or a main character trait, makes it a weird hill to die on. As a result of his protest, XSEED policy dictates he won't have his name on any XSEED game he contributes to going forward—period. He considers this a worthy sacrifice as he vows to continue "fighting the good anti-censorship fight from the shadows."
This isn't the first time Lipschultz has drawn strict lines about censorship while at the company. He previously pushed back on XSEED's decision to alter the ages of various characters in erotic brawler Senran Kagura Burst for the 3DS, a game made by a designer who merely wanted to see boobs on the 3DS. Points for honesty.
"Senran Kagura Burst is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story," he said, "so changing a 15-year-old to an 18-year-old would suddenly recontextualize a lot of character actions and motivations, turning characters who come across as 'well-meaning but young and inexperienced' into characters who simply come across as immature and misguided."
At least with Senran Kagura, though, you have a designer who's publicly and unequivocally horny. In that same feature at Kotaku, I also spoke with localizer Brian Gray, who's worked with designers like Suda 51, also known for infusing their games with layers of eroticism. But with Suda 51, it's about intent.
"Is it the director, or is it Horny McHornHorn over in the corner? Was it only left in because it didn't need to be removed in Japan, or was it left in because it's actually a defining component of the game's identity? I don't mean to imply that these directors don't have vision, because they do, but if their products are so big that no one person can ultimately even look at it all, then of course you are going to find some strange things out in the fringes of that universe that might not be what they intended to make at all."
What's ultimately a little strange is that Lipschultz's principles were black and white enough for him to ask about a credits removal before realizing that Acquire, not XSEED, had made the change about the sign. His answer to Kotaku—"If I'd known that then, I might not have ever suggested removing my name from the credits. Then again, I still might've!"—signals that a knee-jerk reaction wasn't the best move. He's apparently fine with the decision, though, knowing more people are talking about the process of localization. On that point, at least, we can agree.
Localization isn't a science, and everyone has a different approach. Passionate debate is welcomed. But sometimes principles blind reason, and sometimes deleting a joke about the KKK isn't censorship, it's doing the right thing.