True Tales from Localization Hell

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

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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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Tagged with cover story, Interviews, Japanese games, jrpg, localization, us gamer.

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