The Trials And Tribulations Of Video Game Localization
How does a video game from another region make it into your hands, and how do companies ensure you’re getting an experience that lives up to the original? As the gaming industry becomes more globalized, video game localization is an increasingly pertinent topic. But few people actually understand what goes into the process. Preparing to release a game in a new country or region comes with many challenges that go well beyond simple translation.
When a game is localized well, it’s free of typos and grammatical errors, the dialogue is natural, and the instructions make sense. But even this is skimming the surface of the localization team’s role in the process. As games become more complex and text-heavy, not only do the challenges continue to grow, but the quality bar – and our expectations – constantly rise. There’s now a larger focus on the ways games are adapted from their origin for our consumption. And rightfully so, as poor localization can tarnish our experience with a game. Or it can live on in jokes and memes, like Zero Wing’s “All your base are belong to us!” or Final Fantasy IV’s “You spoony bard!”
These days, we don’t see as many hilarious blunders, despite receiving games that are much more complex and challenging to bring to a Western audience, such as the Yakuza series, where Japanese culture is integral to its identity. We chatted with nine different people in localization, who have worked on series such as Ace Attorney, Nier, and SMT, to discover more about the process and its hardships, uncovering everything from why direct translations fail to adapting language-specific puzzles.
Lost in Translation
Every language has its own complexities, rules, and flavors. What’s acceptable and understandable in communication differs depending on the region. For instance, the Japanese language uses a lot of hierarchical signifiers to show respect, but this sounds awkward when translated into English. When accepting a task from a superior, English speakers don’t say things like, “I humbly accept.”
Japanese also doesn’t require the same kind of explicit context that English does; sentences often don’t have a subject, object, or other information necessary in English. “It’s because Japanese is a high context culture, whereas English is a low context culture,” explains Sega Lost Judgment producer Scott Strichart. “Japanese expects you to understand the implication of a sentence. There’s a lot of other stuff under the hood in Japanese culture; you just naturally can appreciate when someone says something. They don’t speak directly about people often. There’s no subject, so to speak.”
And then there’s the issue of how different cultures view certain terms. “A word’s dictionary definition and its actual usage and the image it conjures up for a native speaker can be very different at times,” says Capcom localization director Janet Hsu. “An example is the English word ‘animation’ being shortened to anime in Japanese, and then getting re-imported into English as ‘anime.’ The Japanese word [means] ‘any kind of animation,’ including cartoons, but in English, the word “anime” is strictly reserved for Japanese animated works. Now, imagine trying to directly translate whole concepts and trains of logic from one language into another, and you can see how things can quickly go off the rails.”
It’s important to look at how languages differ because little things have huge consequences in the process. The hottest debates surrounding localization today center on translation and how faithful it is to the source. Fans worry about not getting an authentic experience or localization teams taking too many liberties. This is where most misconceptions originate, and localizers have heard it all, from people assuming Google Translate can do the job to cries of censorship over alterations made for Western sensibilities. However, the biggest request from gamers is often for a “direct translation.”
The Problem With Direct Translations
Many in localization will tell you direct translation is not their job. “Literal translation does not exist because translating is a creative venture,” says freelance localization editor Derek Heemsbergen, who worked on Dragalia Lost and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. “When people talk about direct translation, what they mean is literal translation in as much as translation can be literal. They want Japanese grammar and idioms preserved as one-to-one as possible, and that makes for really clumsy text and writing.”
Literal translation does not exist because translating is a creative venture.”
Direct translations can actually harm the message and change the intent. Jessica Chavez, a freelance localization writer, who was previously on staff at Xseed Games and most recently worked on Mistwalker’s Fantasian mobile game, affirms that not everything translates. “There’s a really famous example of Kentucky Fried Chicken back in the ’80s when they decided to release their product in China,” she says. “They really wanted to keep their slogan; it’s something that’s really iconic. Everybody knows it’s ‘finger lickin’ good,’ right? So they directly translated it. And in Chinese, it came to, ‘eat your fingers off.’”
This example demonstrates the importance of a localization team, but many confuse what localization actually is. According to John Ricciardi, founder of 8-4, the goal is maintaining the intent and feeling. “We try to preserve the experience so that people, when they’re playing it in English or vice versa, are basically getting the same feelings and having similar reactions. And I feel like if we’ve done that, then we’ve done our job. It’s not about having one-to-one word [translations], because there is no one-to-one word. That’s the great myth. People think that with translation, you can just put it into a machine, and it comes out the other side. It doesn’t work that way.”
Chavez shares a similar sentiment. “My personal philosophy is intent and meaning over a literal translation,” she says. “The whole goal for teams when they’re making these games and they’re releasing it in another country is they want to deliver the experience; they want players to laugh at the parts that they wrote that were funny. They want players to feel what their original audience felt. I think it’s our job to communicate that, and a literal translation is going to lose that.”
Chavez illustrates how things get altered during localization, referencing cultural traditions regarding how babies are delivered. In Japan, Momotaro is a popular folktale hero who was born from a giant peach. This story is used to say babies come from floating peaches, but a good equivalent from American culture is storks delivering babies. “So we’re delivering the same intention, this folktale way of how babies are delivered, but we’re making it make sense for a Western audience. If you directly translate that, you’re going to lose what the dev team is trying to convey.”
Of course, it helps that people are more aware of Japanese culture and common phrases nowadays, but it’s still a tricky line to walk to ensure an English player understands the meaning. The Yakuza series and its Judgment spin-offs have the extra challenge of making Japan integral to the story. “It’s a balance between authenticity, accuracy, and clarity,” Strichart says. “I think someone who goes in to play Yakuza, we have to expect that what that player wants to get is a somewhat foreign experience; they want a game about Japanese people to feel like it’s about Japanese people.”
Strichart says the team is careful not to over-localize, but does question things like whether Americans will know what Tonkotsu ramen is or if it needs to be changed to pork broth ramen. A lot of times to solve this issue, additional text can explain a term. Or, if a close English equivalent exists, the team will use that for better comprehension. Strichart says when something is changed, it’s in order to ensure the player can understand the content; the team strives to avoid over-explaining things. “We make sure that we never forget that [these games are] set in Japan,” he says. “And that it feels like it is Japanese, despite being in English.”
Localizers use their skills in a wide variety of ways, as it’s their job to solve for anything that could be problematic. This can range from thinking of different ways to get a character’s personality across to making a puzzle or riddle work in a language it wasn’t designed for. Every game is different and has different obstacles to solve.
Strichart has spent the last seven years working on the Yakuza series, and anyone who has played the games knows they’re rife with minigames, but some minigames just don’t work if you try to translate them directly. “There are chat minigames where you have to form words together or give responses to sentences that if you didn’t translate them correctly, the wrong answer is too obvious or the right answer isn’t obvious enough. Sometimes these minigames have to go through a lot more localization than we would just taking words from the page.”
And sometimes, you just have to admit defeat. Strichart points to Mahjong, a commonly played tile-based game in Asia. “There’s nothing more fun and kind of humorous than the [Western] Yakuza audience interacting with Mahjong, who are just like, ‘I don’t touch it.’ Or people who are trying to get into it and trying to understand it and still can’t. We can only bridge that gap so much. Over the years, we’ve added little numbers to indicate what the tiles are. We’ve added increasingly complex and massive tutorials to the game where we’re trying to make it as accessible as possible. And yet, it still remains just this wall.”
Puzzles can be the hardest to convey in another language, especially when they use clever mechanics. “Because the entire gameplay of an Ace Attorney game resides in the strength of the logic in the writing, the localization itself is the gameplay, and how detail-oriented you are as a localizer will show in how playable the final product is as a game,” Hsu says. “Sure, there are some leaps in logic that the original Japanese may force the player to make. However, if the lines are translated poorly, or if the foreshadowing is not set up properly, someone playing the English version will have a much tougher time than the original Japanese version intended, and that would negatively impact the player experience.”
Hsu says some of her favorite moments from localizing the series have been finding word puzzle solutions, like Spirit of Justice’s karuta cards trick. In the English version, the cards spell out WHET NO 4, but have a different message once you sleuth it out. “Nothing feels better than when you know you’ve finally found a truly great localization solution that will hopefully provide players with that same sense of ‘aha!’ when they solve it in English that a Japanese player had with the original version.”
Chavez can attest that figuring out puzzles is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. She recalls a recent achievement from an unannounced project. “I had to translate an 11th-century poem, and I had to edit that into a code puzzle that had to be input,” she says. “So in the Japanese [version], they just had like, ‘ka ki ke ko ku,’ so they could have kind of a chanting style for it. But I had to work it from this English translation of this 11th-century poem that I boiled down into five lines, and I had to turn it into a computer code. And it still makes sense! The solution to when you get to the end of it also changes and ever so slightly, and also makes sense. I was like, ‘I nailed this one!’ Changing a super ancient poem into a computer code was fun.”
Bringing characters to life in another language can also be tricky and often requires creativity and subtlety to convey their personalities and make them relatable to a North American audience. Sega/Atlus lead editor Josh Malone fondly looks back on Judgment, his first full-fledged project as an editor, and finding the right way to represent the foreigner-in-Japan character, Ryan Acosta.
“If I had gone with a one-to-one translation, Ryan would have used some corrupted form of Elizabethan English and the result would have been more like an SMT angel than a fervent otaku,” he recalls. “Instead, I had to pull a Kagutsuchi and scan his heart – what were his conversational cues trying to tell me? At that point, I started thinking, ‘Okay, this dude’s definitely a weeb, that’s what the writers were going for,’ so I took that idea and ran with it. Thankfully, his character ended up being quite well-received, so I’m glad I went out on a limb and added a bit of personal experience to his dialogue.”
For Trails of Cold Steel, the team struggled with ways to capture elder Roselia’s personality. At first, NIS America was planning on giving her have an old-timey English accent, but when the team heard it read out loud, it just didn’t feel right. NIS localizers worked to find a good way to capture the different parts of her personality, from when she’s acting more high and mystical to when she’s just being an annoyed grandma. “The sort of middle ground between those two that we reached was we limit her use of contractions for the more casual scenes, and when she’s being more fancy, she’ll speak without them,” says NIS America lead editor Eric Budensiek.
Something not often discussed is the challenges of character counts for localizers. Text has to fit within a certain amount of space per the game’s programming, frequently seen as text boxes. While sometimes programmers can make these bigger and add extra text boxes to accommodate the English language, it’s a rare luxury. “Japanese is a dense language; orthographically, there’s more information in a smaller number of [characters],” Heemsbergen explains. “So there could be a compound that’s five kanji, so only five characters displaying on the screen, but the meaning in English is something like, ‘super incredible, enchanted potion of ultimate revival,’ which is much longer.”
What makes this even more complicated is Japanese scripts are already very dense and use up the majority of space, so it’s up to localization to rewrite, trim, and condense the text in a way that gets all the information across and fits into a smaller amount of space. And they have to do it all on tight deadlines.
Thousands of lines in games need to be adapted, and deadlines and costs often factor into the equation. Localizers constantly need to weigh what battles to fight and make choices in a timely manner. “The framework that localizers have to work with is really quite constrained,” Chavez explains. “We don’t get a lot of time on these things. So when you’re under a hard deadline, you have to choose between eloquence, or ‘does it make sense?’”
The job also requires doing research and sometimes going back and forth with the original team for clarity and understanding. The amount of collaboration depends on the developer, but it seems like overall interaction is increasing, thanks to evolving tech providing easier and faster ways to communicate. Some interviewees explained their localization software has collaboration tools baked in, whereas others said they keep an open dialogue with message boards. “There’s a misconception that the developer throws text over, we do it, they implement it, and no one reads it,” Strichart says. “There’s this constant back and forth, and it’s a very collaborative process now. It has to be, like you can’t throw text and renders and expect us to get it. Localization teams need context; that’s 100 percent of our job.”
Despite the time taken to preserve intent, the turnarounds can be brutal, and last-minute decisions – even those that seem small – can throw an entire project into chaos. Chavez learned this first hand when working on Half-Minute Hero for Xseed. After the game’s localization was complete, the development team changed the font set to something easier to read. But altering the font style affected the character limits, meaning the team had to redo its work and come up with even shorter text. The kicker? They had one week to do it. “I had to go through every single line in the game and either fix them or rewrite the ones that went over,” she recalls. “Luckily, it was a smaller game, and it was a completely wacky game. So it sort of worked out in the end, but there was definitely a moment where I wondered, ‘What am I doing?’”
Deadlines are part of the job, but some are more taxing than others. Lost Judgment had a very aggressive timeline, something Strichart doesn’t mince words about. “Lost Judgment was the ultimate pinnacle of challenge, just turning around that game in essentially a year with the amount of audio and languages that we had to do,” he says. “It takes its toll. Under the weight of that, you’re looking at it almost like, ‘Okay, next time, we need to not do it this way, but for this time, let’s just get it done.’”
Strichart said starting the localization process as early as they did was difficult because half the game wasn’t built yet. “For a team that was mostly used to being able to just turn on the game and see how the characters interacted, you had to go ask the developers things like, ‘How close are these two standing?’ ‘Should they be yelling?’ That was a huge learning curve for us.”
Certain games also require more research than others, and the only way to truly convey the material is to know it intimately and thoroughly. “I’ve learned the subtle flavors of whisky, the intricacies of pachislot machines, and the worst things to say to your bartender – all for the sake of crafting realistic dialogue that leaves a deep (or deeply silly) impression,” Malone says about his time working on the SMT and Persona brands alongside Yakuza and Judgment.
Chavez had to take extra care when she worked on Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games because it involved a lot of trivia. “I had to do a lot of research looking at, ‘What’s the actual world record for this?’ or ‘What’s the name of this specific area in the Amazon?’ So it took a lot of checking back and forth.” She also recalls how on Fantasian, the editor “had a heck of a time” reading very technical scientific journals to try and understand the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that gives other particles their mass.
A localizer’s work is far from easy, and it doesn’t help that people trying to break into the field can often be exploited. Beyond localization members not always getting their due in game credits [see sidebar], the demands can reach concerning levels. “I’ve heard stories of freelancers working for other companies, and they’re being asked to do like 10,000 characters [a day], which is insane,” Ricciardi says. “Our standard for translators is like 4,000 at most, and that’s from what I’ve learned over the years is comfortable in one day for a typical Japanese-to-English translator.” Ricciardi said he’s also heard of people getting paid as low as two cents a character. Just like other areas of the game industry, localization has its share of problems that need better solutions.
For the Love of Language and Games
A lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into adapting video games into other languages, and much of it we never see. Localizers are asked to be many things: creative, problem solvers, and masters of language, to name a few. The people who do it have an enormous task on their hands, and they don’t take it lightly. “I’ve been in the business since I was like 19, and for me, games are everything,” Ricciardi says. “I love games. I appreciate games. I respect game creators. I want as much as possible when we’re working on this stuff to be able to preserve the integrity of what was intended with the game.”
Localizers are asked to be many things: creative, problem solvers, and masters of language, to name a few.”
Hsu sums up localization wonderfully. “I like to think of localizers as bridge builders – people who help to bring entertainment from a different culture to their audience by building the smoothest bridges they can, so that as much of the experience remains intact as possible, and doesn’t get bent out of shape during transit,” she says. “Sometimes, you can reuse words from the original language to help build your bridges, and sometimes, you might need some additional context mortar to fill in the gaps and hold it all together. Other times, you might just find that a narrow stone bridge is unsuitable for the cart, and you need to expand it horizontally with more explanations or pave it over with cement by rewriting a segment for clarity. Each sentence is a unique bridge with a role to play over the course of the journey from the start of the game to the end.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 340 of Game Informer.