True Tales from Localization Hell

COVER STORY: Three veterans of video game translation recount their most harrowing projects.

Interview by Bob Mackey, .

"Traduttore, traditore." This 19th century adage meaning "translator, traitor" proves anxieties over moving a work from one language to another haven't recently sprung into existence. (Appropriately enough, this proverb works as a pun in its original language, but not so much in English.)

In short, translation is an imperfect art. Transforming words from one language to another stands as its own challenge, but capturing the essence of meaning—often tied to specific beliefs and experiences—is another obstacle altogether. And when you're dealing with cultures as different as those found in American and Japan, nuance isn't just helpful; it's absolutely necessary.

The state of video game localization 30 years ago.

While it's true video game localization (if you could even call it that) didn't rise far above "congraturations" in its earliest years, in the passing decades, it's transformed from an afterthought to a legitimate career path. Throughout the '90s and early '00s, talented localizers raised the bar for dialogue and voice acting in Japanese video games brought to the States, causing the industry as a whole to follow suit for fear of appearing stuck in the awkward past.

What follows is a discussion with three video game localization editors who paid their dues in the localization mines with some very notable—and beloved—projects. For the sake of revealing the intricacies of the process, this cover story will focus on their most difficult projects; the ones that, through technical issues, cultural barriers, or other problems, gave them their greatest challenges.

Alexander O. Smith

Alexander O. Smith. (Image courtesy of Kajiya Productions.)

The PlayStation era saw developer Square at the height of of both success and prolificity. After building a strong reputation in America over the 8 and 16-bit years, Square launched Final Fantasy VII, whose impressive graphics and epic, three-disc adventure helped bring scores of reluctant Americans into their RPG fold. During this period of newfound relevance, a localization editor named Alexander O. Smith began working for the company shortly after getting his Master's in Classical Japanese Literature from Harvard.

Though Smith began his career at Square with 1999's Final Fantasy VIII, it would be a year later before one of their RPGs bore his distinctive voice. 2000's Vagrant Story was the first game by the developer to carry Smith's distinctive Shakespearean stamp, which he would later apply to other RPGs like Final Fantasy XII and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. With an impressive amount of credits under his belt at Square, Smith's most taxing project would take the form of Final Fantasy X, which stood as the first time the developer embraced voice acting in their long-running series. Figuring out the best way to implement this new element, though, would be quite the learning process.

USgamer: Can you talk about the complications involved in working with voice acting for the first time?

Alexander O. Smith: Well, nobody really knew what they were doing, even on the Japanese side, and that led to one key miscommunication in the lead-up to the project. And, the miscommunication that happened was [voice director] Jack [Fletcher] had asked several months before the project began whether there was going to be ADR recording—to lip flaps, basically. And he was told by somebody—not at Square Japan but at Square Hawaii—who had been working as a go-between, that there would not be syncing to lips. And, the video that he had received at that point, a few months before we actually began recording, was indeed rough cut and didn’t have lip-flaps, or where it did they were garbage flaps that had nothing to do what was being said—the mouths were just moving randomly.

Essentially, it came down to having to rewrite the script to fit not just the lips, but also very, very strict length considerations. We had been aware of that when we were working on the original translation, but we didn’t realize how serious they were about not having the English voices go over the length of the Japanese voices at any point. Because the way that the game engine was triggering sound files was tied into the same system that it was using to trigger action on the screen, so if you had a sound file that went overboard by even half a second, it could throw off the entire scene and you could get a crash.

[W]hen it became clear that a lot of the script had been written roughly to length, but nowhere near as tightly to length as it needed to be... you’ve got to have a line in 2.3 seconds, you can’t write a three-second line for that, or a 3.5-second line. It has to be a two-second line. And it makes a really big difference, and when you get to five seconds and six seconds, you can start compressing the files a little bit and tweak the length without making it sound too strange. So, there’s a lot of rewriting for that, and of course, all of the well-articulated lip scenes, which were many in Final Fantasy X, had to be completely rewritten so the lines fit the lips.

(Image courtesy of Wikia.)

USg: I do remember that the US release of Final Fantasy X was supposed to be 2002, but it came out around Christmas of 2001. I’m not sure if that was something that was always in the works, or if that was something sprung on you.

AS: Yes, we had a really leisurely schedule, and then it got moved up by about three months. That was a marketing consideration. It had nothing to do with the progress of the translation or the game or anything. It was some sort of—they wanted to get it out before Christmas kind of thing. And, yes, now that you mention it, we did get things moved up. That sort of thing happens in general with a lot of games, you can get things moved up on you.

USg: So, where did the biggest difficulties come in? Obviously, you’re telling me this is everyone’s first time with voice acting, and from that point on almost all Square RPGs would have voice acting.

AS: Yeah, it was a real grind for me, personally, because the rewriting every night after a full day in the studio. Something had to give there, basically, so, in that case it was just me. I ended up putting in ridiculously long days for two months, basically, to get that out the door.

It was not made clear to us how precisely we had to match the Japanese timing. Or, if it was made clear to us, we didn’t really understand. We didn’t take it seriously enough. [There] wasn’t terribly good communication between the sound department and localization at the time, and so, nobody really sat down and said, “Look, these files have to be exactly this length.” And even if they had, since we’d never recorded anything, I’m not sure whether that would have meant the same thing to us before recording as it did during recording.

[With] a ten-frame [line of dialogue], you can’t even say "yes" in ten frames. It’s thirty frames a second, so ten frames is a third of a second, and you can’t say the English word "yes." You can say the Japanese word hai in twelve frames, but you can’t say "yes" in twelve frames, because the "s" sound drags out. No matter what you do, you end up around 25 frames or something. So, even at that level, it was challenging, because I was having to make a lot of decisions that I think affected the final quality of the game for reasons that had nothing to do with the scene or the writing or the emotion of the scene, it was all about technical difficulty. And, given maybe twice the amount of time, maybe I could have found my way through that a little better.

(Image courtesy of Wikia.)

It’s an entirely different skill set from translation, because you’re rewriting to very, very unusual constraints. "I have to end this line with a vowel sound." That kind of constraint. It’s a bit like poetry, or trying to write a haiku, because you have X number of syllables, and in the middle you’ve got to have some really rapid lip flaps, and in the end, you’ve got to end with an open mouth. And so, just learning all that and how to write those scripts and how to write lines that end in a vowel and don’t end with "You know" every time, because that’s an easy one. I think Rikku got her little, "You know—" she ends a lot of lines with "You know." And that was just sort of a, "Well, we’ve got to do something, and that can just be her thing, a vocal tic for her."

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Comments 30

  • Avatar for nimzy #1 nimzy 7 months ago
    As a linguist I always found the "literal vs. figurative" translation dilemma to be a really interesting debate to have, and Jeremy makes a good argument in favor of figurative translation. There are some points to be made for being as literal as possible ("What, exactly, did he say?") but if one keeps in mind that the goal of language is communication, the end result is going to be a need to translate using the same meaning. And that's always a judgment call.

    Also let me be the first to invoke that Star Trek Darmok episode. Japanese metaphors are notoriously difficult to translate.
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  • Avatar for colesabin #2 colesabin 7 months ago
    Great article Bob!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #3 kidgorilla 7 months ago
    This is so great
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  • Avatar for grappler51 #4 grappler51 7 months ago
    Fascinating article, thanks Bob! I love these in-depth looks at little known areas of the games industry.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #5 TheWildCard 7 months ago
    Great article Bob!

    That stuff about the laughing scene is so great.Edited August 2016 by TheWildCard
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  • Avatar for Ricolas #6 Ricolas 7 months ago
    Jeremy just accidentally triggered some PTSD. This is going to sound a little negative, but it really isn't. The whole thing is just a product of the times, with pre-merger Enix (rightfully) not really caring about the project while a few lifelong DQ fans at Enix America doing the best with what they had to work with to get the game out.

    The text had all been translated very roughly, and then a small team divvied it up and gave it a few passes, with regular trips to Japanese-fluent people in the office trying to figure out what some of the lines were really supposed to mean. This was long before the days of Dragon Quest having a strong American style guide, but we all knew Dragon Quest dialogue had a much more comedic tone than had come across in the NES localizations of 1-4. It was kind of jointly decided to try and bridge the gap, by creating a serious world with a high level of peasant education but where people tended to be pessimistic and snarky.

    As many of you know and many of you will find out when it rereleases (so excited for that!) you do NOT progress through the timeline linearly, which definitely made for a lot of errors that could only be caught in playtesting. Some of those problems, or similar ones, still made it into the release version as we'd send big spreadsheets of corrections back to Japan which would not always be accurately entered.

    My favorite problem, though, was hardware-based. As bad as the DQ7 graphics looked at the time, they actually put some pretty tremendous strain on the PSX because of how free the camera rotation was in most areas. There were a few areas of the game where the game would completely hardlock and black screen, and it turned out that the size difference between the Japanese and English texts pushed the area above the amount of RAM the system had, so the knife had to fall pretty heavily.

    With the intro and gameplay tuning and following the series' new style guide, I think people are going to really get into DQ7. The island vignettes and how they eventually all fit make for my favorite story in all the DQ games and the reduced grinding and cleaner localization ought to make it easier for everyone to piece together.
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  • Avatar for Hoolo #7 Hoolo 7 months ago
    What a great cover story to read. It's always interesting to see what goes into making a game, or in this case, making a game into a localised game.

    These are all great topics in the translation - MOTHER 3 in particular is a nice one, because it hasn't got an official translation (yet). The "amateur" scene, even if they are professionals, have to work harder to get their translations into the game. Have to say, though, did not expect the Dragon Warrior VII translation to require this kind of breaking the game down, being an official translation.

    While I understand it's hard to get people to share their time and memories for articles such as these, some other game localisations I would have loved to read about are Ace Attorney Investigations 2 (Gyakuten Kenji 2), Bahamut Lagoon, and Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana 2).
    From what I understand of SD3, the entire game was compressed in such a way that the translators had to break the game open completely to even begin gathering the text they wanted to translate. Bahamut Lagoon, I think, had some strange magic system that changed depending on the Japanese symbols you put in there? To translate that, with all the different combinations possible, must have been a real challenge.

    I guess these are all fan translations, though, because the stories for fan localisations are maybe more "out there", in terms of publicity? Games with official translations often don't really put emphasis on the translation woes, I suppose. Definitely interesting, though. The Bravely Second panel at PAX dealt with it a bit, I think...

    Hope to see a part 2 of True Tales from Localisation Hell!
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #8 nadiaoxford 7 months ago
    @Ricolas Wow! And here I thought the "too much text, too little space" problem was utterly eliminated when we switched from cartridges to CDs! Then again, with a game as massive as DQ VII...
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  • Avatar for seejamsrun #9 seejamsrun 7 months ago
    These are great interviews, Bob. As someone really looking to get into localization this entire article was incredibly illuminating and helpful.
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  • Avatar for Ricolas #10 Ricolas 7 months ago
    @nadiaoxford My favorite DQ7 comparison is BoF3, which of course looks a lot better, but look at how little you can rotate the camera vs. DQ7's mostly-360 rotation. The PlayStation only had 2MB of system RAM, plus some extra in the GPU, so without being able to actually change what the engine was loading it was pretty easy to accidentally max it out.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #11 jeremy.parish 7 months ago
    @nadiaoxford The problem with CD-based systems wasn't storage memory but dynamic memory (RAM). With those slow old drives you basically had to dump everything into RAM at once or else you'd have awful load times in the middle of events while the game looked for and swapped in new info. That's why you had such long battle transitions in RPGs. It's also why Chrono Trigger on PS1 was a mess; the game used an emulator that perfectly fit within the hardware's RAM space in Japanese, so it ran fine. But the English text wasn't as compact, so it introduced tons of load time that wasn't accounted for in the original JP release.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #12 SargeSmash 7 months ago
    @Hoolo : I haven't played much Bahamut Lagoon, but the one with the crazy magic system that had to be reworked was Treasure of the Rudras. An excellent game, I might add!

    I remember all the issues folks had in the early days with Seiken Densetsu 3 and the like, and I have tremendous respect for the folks in the fan-translation community. Playing games we missed out on back in the day is awesome!
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  • Avatar for Thad #13 Thad 7 months ago
    I think this is the best piece USGamer has ever done; kudos.

    @nimzy: Literal translations are just so stilted, and of course there's a list of cliches that just make me want to bang my head against the wall. "You're -- [character's name]!" "I will not forgive you." English speakers don't talk like that! It's fucking distracting!

    I've even seen anime that used the phrase "Please take care of me." That is a weird damn thing to say to somebody in English; the translation should be "Nice to meet you" or similar. No, it doesn't have the same literal meaning, but that's not the point; the point is that it's a traditional greeting given to a person you've just been introduced to.

    Of course, some games are so fundamentally steeped in Japanese culture that some amount of foreign phrasing is reasonable and desirable; Persona is a good example.

    @Ricolas: Always a pleasure to hear stories from the trenches; thanks for sharing.

    (Edited for linebreaks.)Edited August 2016 by Thad
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  • Avatar for Hoolo #14 Hoolo 7 months ago
    @SargeSmash I knew it was one of those late Square RPGs (haven't played either yet). Those people really did a bang-up job without developer input as to how the games work.
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  • Avatar for tigergt33 #15 tigergt33 7 months ago
    Great piece Bob ! Whether it brings positive or negative discourse, it's always fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes challenges of localization.

    Out of curiosity, does anybody know who is in charge of localization duties for the DQ7 3DS remake ?
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #16 cldmstrsn 7 months ago
    @nimzy Shaka
    When the walls fell

    Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2016 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #17 kevinbowyer34 7 months ago
    Terrific article. I enjoyed the translationd of DW VII so kudos to Jeremy B. for all the hard work. One of my favorite games of all time.
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  • Avatar for Timotribal #18 Timotribal 7 months ago
    Great read. DQ7 was huge. Never made it to the end.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #19 Kadrom 7 months ago
    Fantastic article. I recommend the 8-4 podcast episodes where they interview Jeremy B. and Richard Honeywood as companions to this read.

    Re: the localization is censorship debate--I agree with the takes that the localizers had but I think there is still some nuance to the discussion. I 100% agree that the "all translation is censorship" crowd who wants to leave keikaku untranslated are off base. I agree that localization is more about intent/spirit of the content. But I also think some games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions lost some of their original intent in sacrifice to western sensibilities, akin to taking crucifixes out of NES games. But some are just mad because their anime bikinis are gone. Like I said... there's some nuance.
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  • Avatar for softserve #20 softserve 7 months ago
    @Thad One thing that drives me nuts in particular is proper names versus pronouns. I don't know Japanese, I can only assume in the original text perhaps the character is literally saying "Oh, Softserve is looking at me" --. But it's absolutely bizarre in the context of the dialog a lot of the time, particularly when Softserve is also the person they're saying that to directly.

    You don't get as much of "he" or "she" or "they (I'm wondering if the one quote in this article about the context of Grandma's item is exactly this problem?). It always makes the translation seem shoddy to me, though, when seemingly no attempt is made to address it. A good example of this in recent times was Trillion or Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment for Vita.
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  • Avatar for Thad #21 Thad 7 months ago
    @softserve Yeah, great example. The Sky Render fan translation of FF6 is often used as the gold standard of joyless weeaboo literal translations, and Relm constantly referring to herself in the third person was a particularly grating tic.

    Though usually the third person awkwardness isn't in place of first person, but second. It's been over a decade since I took Japanese, but IIRC their equivalent of the word "you" is only used in intimate relationships.

    But pronouns in general are less common in Japanese than English. You're right that that's what the "Grandma's dish" example was getting at.
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #22 ShadowTheSecond 7 months ago
    The header art is pretty great--congrats to Nick Daniel on that! So is the article, of course.Edited August 2016 by ShadowTheSecond
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #23 kevinbowyer34 7 months ago
    @cldmstrsn my roommate has a cafe press tshirt of that image. This is only the 2nd time i have seen it in the wild.
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  • Avatar for moochan #24 moochan 7 months ago
    @Kadrom That's my take on localization. It's one of those "maybe they went a bit too far" argument. I say let the localizers do what they do but there is something to be said that there a time to be creative and a time to be more literal.

    Speaking of Dragon Quest personally I hate Dragon Quest 4 DS localization. The accents were both unneeded and honestly stopped me from continuing the game. And removal of the Party Chat doesn't help. And while they have toned it down them keeping the accents in all the other Dragon Quest games doesn't really make me all that happy.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #25 Kadrom 7 months ago
    @moochan I personally found the accents kind of endearing, or at least more personable than the Olde English they used in the NES games. I know Richard Honeywood did the translation for both Chrono Cross and DQIV, and in Chrono Cross giving all the characters their accents was Honeywood's solution to translating the various Japanese dialects the characters all used. I'm not sure if DQIV had the same thing going in the original text or if that was just his creative choice, but he ended up writing the style manual for the series so it has persisted.

    I ended up playing DQIV on iOS/Android tablet which was a bit awkward, but they added the party chat back into the game which made it the definitive version for me.
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  • Avatar for moochan #26 moochan 7 months ago
    @Kadrom Sadly I just can't play mobile games. The lack of actual buttons stop me from enjoying them. I get that a good number of people enjoy them but DQ4DS just frustrated me. DQ5, 6, and 9 was fine for me since the accents wasn't that heavy. Guess I'm someone that doesn't really enjoy accents in text. Always hated reading Hagrid parts in Harry Potter because of it.
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  • Avatar for mnicolai #27 mnicolai 7 months ago
    @Ricolas The thing about DQVII that I always feel compelled to remind people of is that the load times between screens were imperceptible. People say it looks like a SNES game, and unlike it's prettier PS1 contemporaries, it played like one as well.

    Mr. Mackey, great read, thank you.Edited August 2016 by mnicolai
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  • Avatar for docexe #28 docexe 7 months ago
    This was a fantastic article. It’s always great to get this kind of insight on the “behind the scenes”.

    And not going to lie, learning about all the work and challenges that take place during the localization process is part of the reason why I have taken a more nuanced view on it in the past few years, rather than what you could call... well, the “standard online weeaboo pedantry” of my early twenties.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #29 riderkicker 6 months ago
    @Ricolas Oh wow. It just sounds like DQ7 was a hallmark of inefficient game design! We should be lucky it didn't destroy many a PS1 with the burden it placed despite its "simplistic" exterior.
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  • Avatar for Smartmiltoys #30 Smartmiltoys 3 months ago
    @nimzy I should have clarified what the issue here is. The problem is that the character originally had a super shy gentle giant type of personality, which was really cute. Now she's this super macho weightlighting brochick. Why was this change made? No one knows.
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