Demian Smith had the (mis)fortune to get a job working as a translator on the very first Yakuza game for the PS2. If you haven’t played it, know that for a game set in Japan and called Yakuza, it wasn’t that Japanese.
Instead, Sega decided that, to try and sell the brawler to the Western market, it would thoroughly localise the title, bringing in big-name voice actors like Michael Madsen, Rachael Leigh Cook and Mark Hamill (though only later, once the initial voice work done in Japan was deemed “unsuitable”). The publisher also figured it would be a good idea to, when localising the dialogue, try and make things a little less “alien” to Western minds, who were brought up thinking mobsters were Italians in black cars, not Japanese guys with amazing tattoos.
I recall one meeting concerning how to translate terms used in the hierarchy, like oyabun, wakaishu, chinpira, etc. Personally, I wanted to keep it all in Japanese, but SEGA insisted that it all had to be in English. I first I suggested, half jokingly, we use the mafia equivalents. They actually considered it for a while… Luckily, that got vetoed, and a straight-up translation of the ranks, like brother for aniki and henchman for kobun, was used. The end product, in my opinion, was generic and less authentic.
So Smith, who had to trawl through hundreds of pages of scripts, had to not only translate the game according to Sega’s wishes, but clean up an existing translation from Sega’s Japanese staff that was full of gems like the following:
Prisoner 1350: Oops… You seem like a fuse, too…
Majima: Kazuma Kiryu is he.
Shinji: That’s just a groundless rumour that the ones who don’t have money to pay back are spread around, we are…
Unsurprisingly, the first Yakuza bombed in the West, the game’s target market – hardcore gamers with a taste for all things Japan – put off by the heavy-handed localisation efforts. Subsequent games have shrugged this off, thankfully, but many fans of the series maintain that it would be a lot more successful in the West had the first title not been botched so badly.
Mind your f**ks and s**ts: Localizing Yakuza 1 龍が如く翻訳物語 [Japan Subculture Research Center]