When Athbi Alshlyh was growing up, he would play a lot of video games, even though he couldn't understand what was going on. Alshlyh spoke, read, and understood Arabic, but nothing released in the NES era was concerned with anyone like him. That's why, decades later, the 33-year-old Alshlyh has taken matters into his own hands, translating games himself.
Last week, I interviewed a modder who's translating Stardew Valley into Indonesian for his little brother's benefit. Alshlyh found himself in a similar situation. These days, some modern games actually are translated into Arabic, but that doesn't change the past. If you want to play the original Dragon Quest, for example, you're out of luck; there are no options for Arabic players.
Alshlyh's modding journey has involved more than just translation. On the NES, it's only possible for text to scroll left-to-right. In Arabic, text scrolls right-to-left. To even achieve a proper Arabic translation, Alshlyh had to overcome technical challenges, underscoring how little games used to think about their language.
Alshlyh, like many modders, is new to this. He's married, works in government, and has always carried a passion for games. These days, he wants more people to appreciate them the way he does, in the language that means the most to him.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Waypoint: What interested you in translating NES games into Arabic? Was there a specific event that set things into motion?
Athbi Alshlyh: This happened a very long time ago when I was a boy who loved video games. I think it's because I could not read English or Japanese in some games, and I wished I could understand what this story or game was saying. This shortage [is something] I feel now, and I want everyone who was the same age to enjoy the experience of the games in Arabic; it [helps] to enrich Arabic content and interest in the Arabic language.
NES text scrolls left to right. Arabic is read right to left. How'd you overcome that technical challenge?
Alshlyh: In fact, to be frank with you, I myself did not think that this could be true, but it was up to God first, and then someone [another modder] helped me to overcome this challenge and make the impossible possible. The idea came when I wanted to translate the Dragon Quest game into Arabic—it was a dream I had for a long time.
During the beginning of the project, I was ready to translate. I remembered the game Captain Tsubasa Vol. II - Super Striker, which was translated into Arabic by Adnan [another modder] on the NES platform a long time ago. [He was] the first person in history who had the text scroll right to left. Adnan is a story by itself we do not know who he is and how to translate the game. Captain Tsubasa Vol. II - Super Striker helped us a lot in understanding this mechanism.
Talk to me about the games you picked to translate—Dragon Warrior, Kunio-Kun's Soccer League, Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball. Why these games?
Alshlyh: I do not know. Maybe because I like these games is why I translated it into Arabic.
But I did not translate Kunio-Kun's Soccer League. This game was translated by Hisoka [another modder]. I just improved the Arabic text.
Outside of the technical issues, like scrolling text properly, what's been your biggest challenge while working on this project?
Alshlyh: We use a lot of third-party programs to help reverse Latin texts, so that they correspond to the Arabic text format and the way text is read. A lot of complicated things like that need a lot of time. Unlike other languages that write from left to right—like German, French, Italian, Spanish and etc.—they do not have [those] problems.
I recently spoke with someone translating Stardew Valley into Indonesian because the world largely ignores his language. Is that how you feel about Arabic?
Alshlyh: Excellent question. Yes, it is certainly a sad feeling when we see that there are a lot of people who speak Arabic but we have not seen games translated into Arabic. Unfortunately, lately, they are games that do not deserve to be translated into Arabic but something [is] better than nothing.
We have asked some companies to support the Arabic language in some games for a long time. I knew that this would not happen because of many things, so I decided to do this myself. Better than waiting for others, and I am really happy.
"It is certainly a sad feeling when we see that there are a lot of people who speak Arabic but we have not seen games translated into Arabic."
Arabic is often featured in video games, but it's usually as part of a shooter set in the Middle East, and often times they get it wrong. How do you feel about Arabic representation in games?
Alshlyh: This must change completely. Not all players like shooters or football. There are many players who want to games in Arabic, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Arc the Lad, Lunar Silver Star, Wild Arms, Tales of, The Legend of Zelda. Lots of games.
In my opinion, the reason is probably that some companies have unclear ideas about what an Arab player likes or maybe shooter or football games are easier and less expensive if translated into Arabic.
Growing up, had you wished more games were featured in Arabic? Is that one of the reasons you're translating these games?
Alshlyh: Yes. My goal is not to translate games into Arabic. My goal is to say that anyone can translate games into Arabic.