True Tales from Localization Hell

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

Interview by Bob Mackey, .

Lessons Learned from the Past

Blaustein made a name for himself with the English language localization of 1998's Metal Gear Solid.(Image courtesy of MobyGames.)

USg: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you specifically is [because] the game is being re-released for 3DS. And a lot of people have been saying, “Oh, yeah, the Dragon Warrior VII localization sucked.” But hearing your end of things, it does seem kind of unfair to just say, “Oh, that sucked,” because you were just in the dark [with] all these challenges you had in front of you.

Jeremy Blaustein: Yeah, it was almost insurmountable. You can’t say, “We can’t do it.” Ultimately, you’ve got Japanese text in front of you, and it can be translated, but the thing is, if you understand the Japanese language, you also understand that context is sometimes very very elusive. Japanese—to oversimplify the issue—they leave out subjects in sentences a lot, because Japanese speakers get a lot from the context of the conversation.

So, you could be talking about, “Grandma forgot to wash the dishes,” or you could be talking about, “Johnnie forgot to wash one dish,” and you can’t tell the fucking difference. And so, there’s just, there’s nothing you can do about that. And these days in Google Docs, they’ll have a Q and A file that they keep open from the translators. And this then goes to the developers, and there’s this process of back and forth to understand context.

For example... "Grandma washes all the dishes," versus "Johnny washed his plate;" maybe it’s his cup, maybe it’s his favorite cup, maybe it’s the cup we talked about in Chapter 11, and this is Chapter 14. Right? But if we translated it out of order, we’re not going to know. Maybe the player went to a scene, and just in the earlier scene, you saw him break his cup, and it’s a cup with a picture of a dog on it. But when you get to scene 14, it just says, "I broke that dish." It doesn’t say which dish, it just says "dish." So, the translator can only say, "I broke this dish." Hopefully it’s "I." It might be "he," it might be "she," it might be "Grandma." So, you play it safe by giving a generic kind of translation. You hope you’re right, maybe there’s a mistake in there. You get the file done. You’re never going to find it again.

The entirety of Dragon Quest VII's text in Japanese. (Image courtesy of Reddit.)

USg: So, how do you feel about the entire project in retrospect—and the finished product?

JB: I was demoralized because I knew that it wasn’t really being done as well as it could. But again, having said that, it couldn’t have been done better, because we [weren't] in a political position to demand that the developers be more responsive to comments, or open up better lines of communication with us. We were just a vendor, an afterthought, and the institutions didn’t exist—or the institutions didn’t have the IQ yet, the localization IQ yet, to see the importance of these things. The American market still was less important than the Japanese market to them, and it was just before its time. So, you really can’t compare the quality of that localization to what you see coming out now, because you see all these different reasons.

USg: I feel like we’ve had these conversations before in the 90s, but they keep popping up, where people are saying localization is censorship, localization is going against the wishes of the creators in certain ways. I’m just curious, from your perspective, what is the most important thing for people to understand about video game localization?

JB: Translators have to be loyal to the target audience, and they have to be loyal to the source. But there’s a third thing that they have to be loyal to, which gets to the subtlety of what translation is. It’s a little bit philosophical, it’s a little bit airy, but I think it’s very very true. [T]here’s no real term for it, so I’ll just put it the way I think of it, which is, the original writer, when they’re writing their script, describing things, they get their inspiration from something that doesn’t exist. Of course, they’re original writers. So, for them, there’s something floating up in the air that they’re reaching for, to try to describe with their own tools, their set of symbols, which is Japanese. The Japanese language is a bunch of symbols to try to create a feeling in an audience.

And this feeling can be shared by all speakers of Japanese because the symbols all create the same memories and the same feelings among Japanese speakers. That’s why it’s a shared set of symbols. Now, a translator’s job is to use a different set of symbols for a different audience, but to do what? Now, are we recreating the symbols, the Japanese symbols, or are we recreating the original vision, the thing that was floating up in the air that the Japanese writer reached for to try to create?

A revamped 3DS version of Dragon Quest VII will be heading to the US in September of 2016 after spending more than three years in localization limbo.

I’d say we are trying to reproduce the same effect that he was trying to create on the audience. We’re not simply copying symbols, because to do that is not going to achieve the real result, which is to recreate the feeling. Now, recreating this feeling requires an understanding that different cultures and different audiences come with a different background and different expectations and different memories and different things that inspire those feelings, so in order to recreate those feelings, recreate that experience, we cannot simply be content to translate those symbols, but first we must look for the source of the inspiration, and, in the same way that the writer was looking at the thing floating up in the air, we have to look at that, too.

It also should be understood that, when you’re reading a translated game or book or whatever, you really should understand that you’re actually reading the work of the translator. You’re getting more in a sense of the translator’s work than you are of the original work, and that’s just unavoidable. When I put something into English, I am composing the English. It’s only based on this skeletal structure, in a way. [Y]ou want the thing as it is, put it in Google Translate. See how that works out for you.

USgamer would like to thank Liz Lerner for her help with transcription, and Nick Daniel for his header art.

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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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