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True Tales from Localization Hell

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

Interview by Bob Mackey, .

The Mother of All Fan Translations

(Image courtesy of Starmen.net.)

USg: So what was the most difficult part of the project, especially in comparison to other projects you worked on?

CM: For Mother 3, definitely the most difficult part was getting the font routines to work properly. The game wasn't designed for a variable width English font at all. It was totally designed for a Japanese font with twelve characters, or, twenty characters per line, and that’s it. There’s multiple font routines throughout the game, so, digging into those, figuring out how to make it all work. The way it was designed, we basically had to rip it apart and recode it from scratch, and probably multiply that by ten times—that was the core of the work.

USg: Did editing the text take a lot of passes, just to get that distinct voice correct?

CM: So, I did an initial translation when we first started, and that took maybe a month to two months. Then I let it sit, and I let all the decisions that I needed to eventually make, I let them kind of just stew in my mind for about a year, and then I came back. A lot of time had passed, and I had a lot of new ideas, and I was able to implement them, with puns and cultural references and things like that, rather than having to rush it. I guess, EarthBound’s localization was pretty rushed, and we had maybe two to three times as much time, so I guess we were a little lucky in that regard, a little spoiled in that regard.

USg: In terms of working professionally and working as a hobbyist, what were the main differences? I realize that, as someone who worked on localizations, you rarely get the access you need. I’m just curious as to how your experience differed in a professional capacity.

CM: Yes, so I think the biggest difference is, and everyone can just guess, that in a professional setting, you do get access to certain resources that you wouldn’t as a fan. But not all the time, but a lot of the time, accessing those resources, you have to go through a lot of red tape, to the point where it hinders everything and slows everything down. As a fan translation, you kind of just get to cut all that tape and just breeze right through and do whatever you want. If you want to change names, you can change names. If you want to do things this way, then you can do it that way. If you’re doing a professional localization, it’s kind of like you’re stuck in traffic on a highway or freeway or something like that, but if you’re a fan translation you’re kind of allowed to break those rules and go along on the emergency lane, just speed past everybody.

(Image courtesy of Starmen.net.)

USg: As someone who does this for a living, what do you think is most important for people to understand about the process of localization?

CM: Well, in terms of the backlash, that’s been happening forever and ever. I remember when I first started to analyze EarthBound back in the late 90s. At the time, I had just a couple of years of Japanese under my belt, and I remember being really upset that they changed this or changed that. And then, as I graduated and became a professional and had however many years of experience now, I’ve realized, I can look back and say, that’s why they did it, that makes total sense, why was I so upset? So, I think a big reason is, a lot of people think that localization, like, if I’m working on a professional localization, they think if anything gets changed or censored it’s because of something that I might have done better, than corporate policy, where I have no say in it.

Or, I think a lot of times people don’t understand the way localization works as a business. It’s where people might hire me, and I’ll translate the stuff for them, and I’ll hand it to them. And after that, they’re free to do whatever they want with it. So, if they want to muck it up or change things however they want, I can’t stop them. They’re free to do whatever they want, and I’m still in the credits there, so I become maybe a target or something like that. For the most part, I think a lot of the backlash is against large companies lately, and a lot of those large companies will have in-house localization teams, so it kind of makes sense to yell at the company, but a lot of the time companies will outsource to other houses that do specifically game localizations and stuff like that, and they’ll do the localization work without any censoring or anything like that, and then they’ll hand it back to the company.

So it’s really not the localizers’ fault that certain things happen, that certain choices are made. A different part of the whole process, has more to do with the executive side of things, I suppose.

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Comments 29

  • Avatar for colesabin #1 colesabin A year ago
    Great article Bob!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla A year ago
    This is so great
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  • Avatar for grappler51 #3 grappler51 A year 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 #4 TheWildCard A year 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 #5 Ricolas A year 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 #6 Hoolo A year 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 #7 nadiaoxford A year 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 #8 seejamsrun A year 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 #9 Ricolas A year 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 #10 jeremy.parish A year 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 #11 SargeSmash A year 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 #12 Thad A year 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 #13 Hoolo A year 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 #14 tigergt33 A year 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 #15 cldmstrsn A year ago
    @nimzy Shaka
    When the walls fell

    Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2016 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #16 kevinbowyer34 A year 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 #17 Timotribal A year ago
    Great read. DQ7 was huge. Never made it to the end.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #18 Kadrom A year 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 #19 softserve A year 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 #20 Thad A year 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 #21 ShadowTheSecond A year 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 #22 kevinbowyer34 A year 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 #23 moochan A year 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 #24 Kadrom A year 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 #25 moochan A year 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 #26 mnicolai A year 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 #27 docexe A year 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 #28 riderkicker A year 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 almasdar #29 almasdar A year 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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