Why Some Japanese Games Had Such Terrible English

Why Some Japanese Games Had Such Terrible English

It's easy to make fun of classic Japanese video games (JRPGs especially) for their poor English, and assume the reason for this was simply one of neglect. Which is kinda true, but there are other reasons behind it as well, and they're really interesting!

In a big interview with Edge magazine last month, American Alexander O Smith — a veteran localiser who lives in Japan, and who has worked on games like Final Fantasy XII and Phoenix Wright — shed some light on the myriad of issues he and other English-speakers used to face (things have gotten much better!) translating games from Japanese to English.

While one of these was publishers like Square not really giving a damn about foreign versions of their games until late in the development process, Smith says there were also technical problems that hampered their efforts, and go at least some way to explaining why so many classic Japanese games were plagued by stuff like basic spelling mistakes.

In the interview — which sadly isn't available online, since Edge's website has been closed — Smith says that one of the problems they faced was that many Japanese studios preferred to work with "double-byte, fixed-width" dimensions for letters/characters, which was fine for Japanese. English, on the other hand, has some letters that would only need to take up half that space. Ever wonder why you'd see old Japanese games (or even some more recent ones) where a word would look like TH IS or THI S instead of THIS? That's why.

At the same time, the way English had to be entered into games in this way meant that it was impossible to run an automatic spell-checker. When a JRPG can contain tens of thousands of lines of dialogue, and small localisation teams are having to go through everything by hand, mistakes happen!

So the next time you're playing an old Japanese game, and you see some weird stuff in the English localisation, spare a thought for the guys who had to get that job done. When you consider what they had to work with, it's a wonder they got the job done at all!

The interview can be found in last month's issue (Edge 278, the most recent is 279); if you're into localisation (or just Japanese games in general), try and pick up a copy, it's a great interview.


    ... and this is why it always surprises me to find that localization companies don't generally employ programmers. Building a tool that would take text written in plain, spell-checkable english and then convert it into the right format for insertion into the game wouldn't be an enormous amount of work and would fix most of these sorts of issues.

      I'm pretty sure they do! See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_localization

      EDIT: I have a headache atm, edited to sound less curt, sorry! :(

      Last edited 23/04/15 5:01 pm

        Most localization houses don't have programmers. They might have a few people that can script or whatever, but actual programmers are rare. They'll instead rely on the original game developer to do the localization programming. Or in the case of bigger publishers like Square Enix or Bandai Namco it's flipped and they will outsource the translation parts. Either way the programmers involved are the original developers.

        It's actually the reason we've missed out on localizations of some games in the past. For example, plans to localize PSP game Grand Knights History fell through because Vanillaware were flat out on Dragon's Crown and couldn't spare anyone for localization development. It's also the reason we missed out on Yakuza Ishin - Sega's dev team went straight into Yakuza 5.

        I know XSeed have one programmer on staff, but she primarily works on their Steam stuff and is a bit of an exception. The bulk of what localization-centric companies like NISA, Atlus, XSeed etc. do is translation.

        Last edited 23/04/15 5:13 pm

      Nowadays it's much more common for system interface & rendering libraries to support (or even default to) Unicode, so if the Japanese devs are using a standard system library all that's now required is to change the strings being used; the system looks after the rest.

      This may be another reason why localisation has improved.

      Of course, when you start talking about vertically written text, life gets complicated, because the dimensions of the actual windows will be stretched in the wrong direction. While Japanese does often write text in that fashion, it seems to be pretty uncommon in games. If you think about it, that's a bit odd, since a wide screen image has much more room around the edges than at the bottom.

    Haha.. oddly enough the "technical" aspects have always been well known in the fan translation community even back in the ye olde days of NES/SNES rom mods.

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