There's an old translator's joke that goes something like this: If you literally translated what is said when a Japanese businessman calls another businessman, you'd get two people constantly apologising. Not exactly fall over funny, but it's true.
The Japanese language is different from the English language in a myriad of ways: it sounds different, the written characters are different, and the grammar is different. The sentence structure can lead to sticky or simply stinky translations, and the best translations are able to retain the nugget of the original but still shine in English.
"If you do a literal translation, it sounds horrible and stilted," says Mark MacDonald, executive director at Tokyo-based localisation firm 8-4 which is responsible for the English language versions of many top Japanese-made games that make it over to the US. Stuff that may flow in Japanese does not if the words are simply flipped to English. It's necessarily to inject that flow, that rhythm of English and that vibe of Western culture into localised games. That is, if you want the localisation to work.
Generally speaking, Japanese sentence structure is subject-object-verb, while English is subject-verb-object. That being said, Japanese language is far more flexible about word order than English and words can even be omitted in Japanese! The University of Tokyo has an introduction to Japanese grammar that's worth checking out.
The cultures vary as well. It's not just the traditional bit, like the levels of politeness that exist in Japanese. It's also pop culture, points of reference, etc. So when video games are localised into English, it's not just a matter of going through games line-by-line and putting things in another lingo. Oh no, it's not that at all. Players need to be working from the same start point, and the easiest way to centre them is through language. That's only the beginning.
Founded in 2005 and named after the last stage of Super Mario Bros., 8-4 is one of the leading groups translating and helping to rewrite Japanese games for a Western audience. The 8-4 team has worked on an array of projects - from Soulcailbur IV to Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Playing the Japanese originals shows just how games get tweaked for Western players. The 8-4 team hasn't simply localising the language, it's localising the experience.
In the gallery below, Kotaku compares the Japanese versions of the game with the English versions. Want to know what'd different? Let's dive in.
The opening for the NieR's Japanese version is subdued. The music is relaxing. It's a bit like watching fish swim.
"Weiss, you dumb ass!" The localised opening is a 180-degree about face. It could not be further from the Japanese version. From the get go, it kicks you in the teeth and grabs you by the nards. Upbeat and powerful, this is one of the best game opening cinematics of the past year. When asked about the discrepancy, 8-4's Creative Director John Ricciardi says his localisation house worked closely with the English language voice actors, overseeing the recording in Los Angeles. The f-bomb is in the middle of the game. Ricciardi thinks that it must have resonated enough with Square Enix for the company to stick it at the beginning of the game.
This is the sign-in screen for the online portion of PS3 role-playing game White Knight Chronicles. The highlighted symbol did not make it into the Western version of the game. During the first year that novice Japanese drivers get their licence, they must affix a magnet in the shape of green leaf called 若葉メーク (wakaba mark) to their car. The mark is ubiquitous, and Japanese people immediately equate it with someone being inexperienced or new. Culturally, the mark does not translate to English.
So how did 8-4 translate the green leaf mark? They didn't. Instead, a "Newbie" smiley face was used. It works in English and serves the same function as in Japanese. As MacDonald explains, localisation isn't only about text, but encompasses graphics as well. The menu's appearance was also revamped for the English language version.
While the vast majority of the tweaks 8-4 are text-related, gameplay itself sometimes needs localisation. The Japanese version of Nintendo DS game Glory of Heracles moves more slowly than the Western one. The reason for this was that, during localisation, 8-4 suggested tripling battle speed. The result is that the English version is more playable for Western gamers than the original (compare the Japanese and English versions). "You know, Japanese devs are not always open, so we have to choose our words carefully when giving feedback," says 8-4 president Hiroko Minamoto. "Japanese developers know what they are doing, but maybe not for Western gamers."
Playing action game Undead Knights in Japanese is a totally different experience from playing it in English. "They came to us early on," says MacDonald. "They showed us the cutscenes, but how we got there was up to us." The localised version doesn't match up with the Japanese one, because 8-4 had the freedom to write lines it thought worked for the game and for players. Thus, the Japanese text in this scene does not match up with the voice over. It reads: "Child of revenge... The house has come... Swing your blade until your heart's content... Stain your enemies with blood." In 8-4's localisation, those lines became, "Awaken, my child... and take the gift I have bestowed upon you. Together, we will right the injustice you have suffered..." MacDonald points out that these discrepancies were the creator's vision for the game. He didn't just want the game translated into English - he wanted it written in English, free of stiff translation constraints.
One of the difficulties in localisation is bringing games and game characters to the West, but still retaining that special uniqueness. In a way, it's like explaining a joke. Japanese jokes are funny, and so are American ones. But try telling a pun-laden Japanese joke in English or vice-versa. Monster Hunter Tri character Cha-Cha is colourful in his native Japanese. To retain his "Cha-Cha-ness", 8-4 took elements from the Japanese original and expanded on them in English. In the original, Cha-Cha sometimes refers to himself in the third person, but also uses first-person pronouns. In both versions, he speaks in broken fragments, but if you've played the English localisation, you'll notice that Cha-Cha refers to himself in the third person. That, and 8-4 seems to have looked up every "cha" word in the dictionary for him to say! "Pretty much every character has their own personality," says Ricciardi. "What we try to do is get that personality across by evoking the same feelings."
Localisation isn't about simply translating words, it's about translating experiences. Good game localisation takes the essence of something and distills it into another language, while evoking the same reactions in players as the original did for its native audience. In that way, game localisation is different from movie subtitles or book translating. Things like user interface and even gameplay need to be taken into consideration so that even though the games may be be different, the feeling is the same.
For more more info about the kanji tattoo at the top of this feature, check this post.