True Tales from Localization Hell

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

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

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