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by John Szczepaniak - August 31, 2009

"You would not believe the number of women who send me underwear in the mail. It's really discouraging," said Bill Swartz of Mastiff when I asked about fan reactions to localization. Having worked at Koei and then for 11 years running Activision Japan, before starting Mastiff and localizing titles like Falcom's Gurumin, Swartz has seen a lot over the years. Still, it's an incredible statement. "Yeah, happens all the time. It's like I'm going to open my own intimate apparels store based on the quantity of stuff that flows into this office."

Fans are an intense bunch, and whoever you ask, stories of their reactions are always interesting.

Highly acclaimed publisher Atlus (Shin Megami Tensei) also attracts attention. Editor Nich Maragos recalled, "We did a panel at Anime Expo, and afterwards one fan asked for our address. Days later we got sketches along with a box of Pocky - definitely more useful than underwear."

Aram Jabbari of Public Relations added, "While sometimes we laugh, the truth is those communications are fun - they care as much as we do."

Atlus also get their oddballs, as Director of Production Bill Alexander revealed, "The most entertaining correspondence I remember, involved a gushing fan who promised the whole office hours and hours of... umm... 'favors'."

Chrono Trigger

A polarising figure is pioneer Ted Woolsey (Chrono Trigger), who in a Player One Podcast spoke about families enjoying his translations and negative reactions like 'kill Ted Woolsey'. "The fans have been the most unexpected part. I really appreciated the supportive responses. I used to receive all kinds of mail, illustrations, scripts, photos and-random stuff. That's pretty cool, and I've never regretted nuking my PhD to take the job. I even unlisted my phone because folks started calling me, wondering about who married whom. Or, on occasion to razz me and hang up - ah, kids. I never received any underwear though."

Another industry legend is Jeremy Blaustein (the Silent Hill series). He told me that while he'd never received 'anything even close' to underwear, or actual death threats, the biggest detractor in one case was Konami. Blaustein previously blew wide open the politics of localization in two podcasts by Push-To-Talk.

In terms of transition between countries games are without peer. More are localized into English and marketed as mainstream than either books or films. How many chart topping films/books originate in a non-English language? Places like Metacritic say not as many; localization is an integral part of the games industry. Fan-translations of games meanwhile add another interesting layer.

Localization started when Japanese companies exported content with significant material needing translation, on systems like the Famicom, Mark III and MSX (which was as far-reaching as the Middle East and Brazil). But it was only with the 16-bit generation, on the SNES, TurboGrafx CD and Sega CD, that localization really entered public awareness.

The genre at the frontline has always been RPGs, an American invention borrowed by the Japanese. Yet Japanese companies were reluctant to release domestically-produced RPGs in the West. As Blaustein recalls of Konami during the early 1990s, "Originally the perception was, 'RPGs will never be popular in America'. Common wisdom was that RPGs were for the Japanese and action games were for the West. I thought all along that was bullshit. The problem was one of translation; the players just weren't getting it, and if they got it they'd love it."

To plug this hole small publishers willing to take risks were needed. The first of many was Working Designs, working with NEC's TurboGrafx systems and the Sega CD. Loved and hated for their methods, they brought over games that would have otherwise been ignored. With cartridges the leader was developer and publisher Square, but while some of their RPGs made it over many were passed up for Western release - leaving holes in several series. When Final Fantasy IV eventually reached America its translation contained errors and, according to Woolsey, it had been quickly rewritten by Square's VP and finance guy in order to make sense. It didn't sell as well as hoped.

Woolsey explained, "Back in the 1990s Japanese developers were frustrated they weren't seeing acceptable sales in the US. At the time anime wasn't as popular and it was thought that the look of Japanese games, combined with the fact that Americans didn't have earlier games to train on, as Japan did, would mean they wouldn't be familiar or satisfied with the [content]. To fix this it was suggested that something similar to US comics, including scatological humor and other familiar references, would resonate better."

Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest

Square's wanting to cater specifically to the US led to development of Mystic Quest. It wasn't the success they'd wanted and eventually Final Fantasy V was cancelled, despite Woolsey nearly finishing the translation, because Square deemed the US market not ready. Later Square again attempted to cater to the US with Secret of Evermore, which although praised by critics angered fans, who wrongly believed it replaced Seiken Densetsu 3.

Japan's desire to chase the West has seemingly returned, if comments by various developers at TGS 2008 is anything to go by. To Blaustein, this is a mistake, "I think the Japanese have experienced a profound loss in confidence as creators. When they were making the stuff that Americans wanted to buy, they weren't so self-conscious. They were making games for their own marketplace, that they liked. And that's the only way any creator can make artwork."

An important statement, it raises questions about what is inherent in Japanese creativity. As an American accustomed to Japanese culture, Woolsey feels both have their merits, "I have always been a huge fan of Japanese design and the arts, ever since I saw the Japanese woodblock prints decorating the hallways of my grandparents' house when I was young - they had a dozen or so original Hiroshige prints, some of which were a tad on the eerie side. Like most fans of that aesthetic, I've always enjoyed navigating worlds created by Japanese developers. I think there can be a distinct style and design sense that informs many titles. There are references, visuals and story elements which seem exotic or particularly fresh but which are really just a part of the pantheon in Japan. I'm also a big fan of the Halo and Gears of War series though, and don't feel these are missing anything."

Even when Japan-centric titles make the journey west, there is huge amount of work, as shown in Atlus' fascinating production diaries. There are also difficulties. In the 16-bit era it was non-contiguous text and a lack of ROM space, as Woolsey recounts for Secret of Mana, "Probably 40 percent or more of the text was nuked - there just wasn't space. Story elements, nuance and personality had to be stripped out. It was, in some ways, the hardest game I'd worked on. I loved that game, but am probably most dissatisfied with the result. I was there for over a month, and the screen text was being modified every day. Certainly tried my best, but that thing nearly killed me."

Chaos Wars

As games started using voice actors, the work increased exponentially. Lack of motivation, poor initial scripting, union restrictions and limited budget can create a train wreck - evidenced by O3's nepotistic work on Chaos Wars. But Blaustein offered a defence, "Maybe the guy had no budget at all. Sometimes you're forced to do things you wouldn't normally because of no budget."

Further challenges are one person trying to make hundreds of characters sound unique (as with Suikoden); dealing with dialect differences, because an Osakan style of speech can't necessarily be replaced with a southern lilt; and doing a ton of background research. Blaustein tells a great story about that, "You could find the best translator and he will do a terrible job. Why? Because you have to do research, maybe in the field of dragons and knights and if you care enough you'll look into European history, and find out how things reference each other. There's games where I had to go deep into the arcane issue of the five element theory, Chinese Yin Yang and Shintoism. One involved so much Chinese mythology, it was practically Chinese itself."

Then there's dealing with hardcoded text and imagery, missing source code and even hardware manufacturers nixing a project, like Sony with Working Designs and Goemon. In June 2005 Victor Ireland contacted journalists requesting statements to help reverse Sony's decision. It didn't work and eventually Working Designs went under. Bankruptcy also claimed Rent-a-Hero for the Xbox: localized by AIA, they collapsed before release.

Beyond the obvious need for natural-sounding dialogue, coherence and respecting the original creators' vision, everyone had their own interpretation of what a good localization is. For Atlus, as Alexander explained, "A good localization is one in which our work is virtually invisible; it doesn't call attention to itself, but rather lets the player become immersed."

Blaustein also emphasised the benefits of a single localizer, "One person doing a job gives it the print of that person, which is better than having multiple people doing it. Half of the crap you see is because it was done by committee - a dozen hands not knowing what another is doing."

Swartz compared dissimilar language localization to tailoring a suit: you can make the effort to reweave it until it's as good as the original, give it a nip and tuck so it just about fits, or use a safety pin and hope no one notices.

Generally everyone agreed on needing to create a parallel experience for the English-speaking player, but as Blaustein reiterated, "People mistakenly think if you translate the words or names directly, somehow you're going to be conveying more of the original essence." He explained how certain words have an exotic echo to the Japanese ear - to replicate this in English you need to change the sound, such as when Woolsey renamed Tina in Final Fantasy VI to Terra. Blaustein agreed, "I'd say Ted was right on the money with Terra. I had this exact conversation with Kojima on Metal Gear Solid. We were talking about characters, and I said, for a Japanese person it has a foreign quality. Decoy Octopus, however you slice it, sounds hokey in English. Looking back, it worked, but not for the same reason the Japanese worked - to them it comes across as impenetrable."

Translation needs to be seamless. Leaving some things unexplained would alienate those unfamiliar with the culture. Using kappa as an example, Swartz was critical of sometimes lazy localizations, "I would argue that if you were to just say kappa, then you haven't localized it. You've done a mish-mashed job which is going to be dependant on pre-existing knowledge. If it's there seamlessly for the Japanese because they have a knowledge of what kappa is, then it's incumbent upon you to either explain it or insert a word so that it's seamlessly apparent to the target audience."

Sometimes it's not just the script but a game's structure which is changed, and generally these are made for everyone's benefit. "The Japanese version of Tenchu was a fantastic concept with some technical issues," said Swartz. "Working with the original developer we added levels, fixed camera issues, frame issues, did a bunch of cleaning-up and created an amazing product."

And there are times when change is crippling. Working Designs made Silhouette Mirage and other games far more difficult during the localisation process. In the case of Exile 2, as Ireland explained, this was due to a mistake when tweaking one of the parameters and only having a limited amount of chances to get it right before the game shipped. In the end they made one of the most difficult games ever, by accident.

While some changes are good, fan expectations can restrict what a company does. Jabbari of Atlus admitted, "Gamers are now exposed to much more information about what's in Japan. Sometimes you can't make certain changes because the fans have expectations that you need to consider."

La Pucelle Tactics

Touching on this, Swartz recounted an interesting story with La Pucelle, "There were a couple of scenes where there were these cross-like structures, and the whole thing was the most incredible temptress in a teapot, in that we were accused of censoring it. We even ran the screenshots side-by-side. But some random fan got hold of it and it turned into a firestorm. That to me served as a reminder of how sensitive the hardcore market is. I read a lot of the postings, and people really spent time, and there'd be one guy with some Japanese trying to rate our translation." Despite the scrutiny, Swartz wasn't dismayed, "It was amusing and gratifying. Mostly gratifying, because we spent a ton of time on that. It wasn't like you get the assets and pass it to the translator and then he comes back and you're done. It was hundreds of hours of my time, of the producer's time, sitting around the table, reading stuff out loud, asking ourselves 'does this express motivation', and so on."

But how affecting are audience expectations? On a Gamasutra podcast Ireland stated that the Japanese are less questioning of games, which can create problems where a localizer needs to fill in gaps.

As Woolsey explained, the Japanese can have a different method of conveyance, "Some Japanese writers, and there are all kinds, link themes, ideas, and images together in ways that are less story driven, and more suggestive or lyrical. There are times where a translator, without access to footnotes, needs to pad a bit to get a point across. Some central themes in RPGs, such as filial piety, duty and obedience to teachers, elders and authority don't play quite as well outside of Japan and need additional verbiage to explain."

Of course, as shown, fan reactions to something they don't like are intense, so what happens when a localization isn't liked or, worse still, doesn't happen at all? The fans do it themselves. The first landmark translation was in 1993 with SD Snatcher on the MSX, by Dutch group Oasis who sold the work at MSX fairs. The rallying cry for internet-based groups was "FFV" years later, which led to a scene explosion and countless patches, some even on systems like the Saturn and PlayStation 2.

Lady Sword

Along the way hidden treasure has been discovered, such as in Lady Sword, where the programmer left notes detailing a drunken keyboard incident and his views on the cold war. I asked if Atlus ever found treasure. Maragos replied, "Quite often. Scenes that have been cut but remain in the text files present a problem. We have to figure out whether it's accessible through gameplay or a relic from development." And there are other, mind-blowing, hidden messages in games, which openly criticise the programmer's colleagues.

Professional reactions to fan work are mixed, as noted by Woolsey, "I've been amazed. Some have been quite good, done by sharp people who know Japanese and how to write. Some have been almost comical. I recall one site, with some fairly vocal contributors, who were advocating translating using Japanese grammar (subject, object, verb). They claimed to have the most faithful translations, but when you read them it sounded like Yoda."

This fervent reverence for the original Japanese was also commented on by Swartz, "I'm sure you've heard the concept of ritual languages - if you want to do something really cool, you do it in a language people don't speak. It's why magic incantations are rarely in English. It's why the church services were in Latin for so long. Hebrew is great. Any kind of language people don't speak becomes cool, because if you don't understand it, you have to assume it's better than something you could understand. And I think there's a lot of that in Japanese and with hardcore gamers."

Mother 3 (fan translated)

Atlus is well aware of the Japanese appeal. "To some degree, Japanese games brought to other regions appear to be popular because of what they are: a taste of another culture," said Jabbari.

And, as Blaustein added, this makes things especially tricky, "With localization, you're bridging these two worlds. When you find a foreign culture attractive, how do you retain this attractiveness when the process you're doing is one of making things familiar?" An interesting example of the need for familiarity is Retro Game Challenge, which Blaustein was intrigued by. As it turned out, the Japanese original was more familiar than at first thought.

In terms of fan effort, Blaustein made an amazing revelation: professionals can be helped by their work. "One of the most shocking things in my career has been to see the extent to which fans go. On any number of occasions I've been given the task to translate a game, I've gone on the internet to gather my research, and how many times do I find that a fan has already played the Japanese game, done a translation and put up JPEGs of everything? It's absolutely frightening, because they will spend more time than I am allowed for the official translation. Sometimes I may even use their website, because if it's a series, and I jump in at two or three, I need to go back and learn the series' history. Phoenix Wright is a perfect example. I relied on this incredible fansite (Ed note: probably the fantastic Court Records) where he showed items - I needed to know, when translating, what does that thing look like? I'll find out things that the client should have told me."

With the resurgence of classic games via download services like Virtual Console and PSN, are fan translations harming the release of previous Japan-only titles? A few have come out, but why aren't more available?

Policenauts (fan translated)

Alexander at Atlus said it was expense, "Unless the localization has already been done, it's just not cost effective. It's a risky proposition to localize a sizeable game for download. To put fans' minds at ease, we consider every option, so if something doesn't happen it's because it's not feasible, not because we didn't think about it."

This was echoed by everyone. "There's no inherent reason why it couldn't be done, but the juice has to be worth the squeeze," admitted Swartz.

While unlikely to ever happen, Blaustein offered an idealistic solution, "It's cost prohibitive... But nothing would lend itself better to input from the fan community - it's perfect! Have contests or something, harness the power of the fans who would do it happily."

With so much unlocalized content available and an army of passionate, capable workers, this is true, nothing would lend itself better - Policenauts is downloadable in Japan, while fans have translated the original. But whether publishers are willing to work with the fan translation community remains to be seen.

(Special thanks to MP83 for the title logo.)

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