Localizing the whole living story

In one of the games I worked on, there’s a section where the main character examines a ladder several times. In Japanese, he makes a number of jokes that play on the word hashigo, which means both ladder and bar-hopping in Japanese. Specifically, he makes a series of jokes about going out drinking with someone who gets progressively more and more sloshed.

In English, obviously, this would seem like absolute nonsense if translated literally. I did what any other editor likely would have done, and wrote up a series of jokes in English that had to do with ladders, such as “Ladder? I don’t even know her!”

Admittedly, this is something of an extreme example, but I’ve chosen it because it illustrates what I feel is one of the core precepts of quality video game localization: entertainment is more important than literal accuracy. A translation that captured what was being said literally in Japanese would have been, at best, humor of the absurd, and at worst, complete nonsense. In a larger sense, this means that video game localization should favor what is being said over what’s been written. Beyond the words on the page, at least two cultures (that of the writer, and that of the reader) must be taken into consideration, and bridges of meaning built between them.

My job is to localize Japanese video games into English. Specifically, my title is “localization editor.” Some people might think this is a pretty strange job for someone who only knows enough Japanese to say thank you and maybe an impolite hello, and can read even less. In fact, despite an interest in the idea of language, I’m depressingly monolingual. Even after four years of German classes in high school and college, I’d likely send a native speaker into fits of laughter if I tried to do anything more complex than ask where the bathroom was. The only language in which I’m moderately skilled is English, but given the way I approach the projects I work on, that’s been the only language I’ve needed. It’s possible you could classify my job as being closer to “writer” than “editor,” although it’s an odd and fine line. Do I look for grammar mistakes, misspellings or errors of that sort? No, not really. In fact, I entirely rewrite nearly every line I process, sometimes introducing errors of that sort that one of my coworkers will later have to ferret out and correct. Do I edit and modify the story? Not really, at least not in the way a real story editor would.


Focusing on characters

Instead, I help to breathe life back into translated lines so that they read naturally, and so characterizations are engaging and consistent. Although I apply knowledge of the story as a whole to the changes I make to each line, the nature of most projects means that I can’t manipulate things like which character is speaking, what his or her expressions are, how much time there is to speak and that sort of thing. It’s not quite as restrictive as writing for dubbing scripts, where lip flap and other timing issues have to be taken into consideration, but it does require some massaging to make lines and conversations sound and feel natural. I’m given essentially free reign in terms of what I can change and how, although significant changes to names, terminology and the like usually need to be cleared with the rights-holders back in Japan.

Apart from that, however, it’s usually up to me: I develop an idea of how characters should sound as I read through the game, and develop small characteristics and mannerisms for them that reflect that. Most games are primary dialog, which means developing unique patterns of speech is important. A lot of Japanese speech patterns are simply untranslatable. For instance, if a character ends his sentences with –usa to indicate that he’s a rabbit — don’t ask — how do you represent that in English? Adding a more-or-less literal “rabbit” to the end of each sentence feels forced and weird, rabbit. Leaving –usa in isn’t an option either, since that defeats the purpose of translating and localizing in the first place. There isn’t really a rabbit “noise” in English that you could use in the way that –nyan could be turned into meow. In this particular situation, I chose to have the rabbit character insert rabbit puns into his speech: “Lettuce pause for a moment” or “I’m afraid I carrot do that.” This preserves the rabbityness, and also works well with the character’s personality, which lends itself to bad puns.

In all honestly, I’m not particularly familiar with “standard” localization practices. This job, which I got more or less right out of college, is the first experience I’ve had with this field of work, and there wasn’t a lot of training — by which I mean there wasn’t any. I got my hands on a script at some point and said “I think I could make this sound a little better.” My bosses seemed to agree, and from there on I was pretty much cut loose to develop my own philosophy on how best to proceed. I’ve touched on the core of that philosophy a bit already, but as much as it’s about putting entertainment first, it’s also about balance. Fans of Japanese entertainment in the West are frequently very concerned about accuracy. This isn’t without some precedent — there was a period of time where anime, manga and video games were aggressively Americanized, sometimes being entirely rewritten or heavily edited.

Fortunately, the industries involved have moved on, and this is rarely a concern anymore. However, in some places it has caused things to swing the other way, producing translations that are too literal. Game scripts are treated as priceless cultural artifacts, and word-for-word accuracy is prized over meaning, emotion and ease of speech. Japanese is a very different language than English, and staying too close to the original word choice, sentence structure and so on can lead to sentences that have an odd, stilted sound. One of my favorite examples was a line I read, I think, in an issue of Naruto: “I’m going to where Itachi is.” On a technical level, this makes perfect sense. The speaker plans to go visit, or at least attempt to visit, Itachi. Unfortunately it sounds really strange. No native English speaker would ever say this in normal conversation, and so it draws the reader out of the experience. A line like “I’m going to find Itachi” would feel much more natural, or possibly “I’m gonna kill him” or “I can’t wait to see Itachi,” depending on what the emotion being conveyed is. The line itself, and the meaning of it, changes some, but only in the service of making the character feel natural.

Of course, in order to make that kind of judgment, I need to get a feel for the character I’m writing for, which isn’t always a straightforward process. If I’m dealing with a game that continues a series, I can look at the characters from previous installments and figure out what they’re supposed to be like, but that’s the exception and not the rule. Most of the sequel games I’ve worked on were sequels to games I’d worked on before. In most cases, I use two things to figure out how to characterize something: the input of our translators, and the place the character has in the story. From our translators, I’ll usually ask for a sort of summary of the characters that covers things like what their individual tone is, any quirks of speech they might have, what their intentions are, how they fit into the story, what characters in other media they might be similar to and so on. From those summaries I’ll compile a file of my own that breaks down what each character is about. From that, I’ll build an English characterization that I refine as I work through the game.

The place each character has in the narrative will inform a lot of characterization decisions I make, but especially ones that relate to things that are awkward to translate, or don’t translate well. For instance, take the character I mentioned earlier, who ends his sentences with –usa. His position in the story is that of a sort of game master, and the player and the characters are intended to resent him to a certain extent. He’s mercurial in temperament and has a tendency to “forget” important things. In short, he’s supposed to be kind of irritating. I felt that forced puns would be somewhat amusing but also a little grating, and also decided to have him give the other characters stupid and somewhat demeaning nicknames since in Japanese he refers to most of them with –kun, which is usually reserved for children and reinforces the idea that he’s in control, and everyone else is “less” than him. Both of these are things he doesn’t do in the original Japanese, but I decided they helped represent the type of localized character he was supposed to be.

This is the kind of balance I’m talking about: making the character feel natural while still remaining true to the source material. I think every video game localization editor falls at a different place on the scale. I tend to be more liberal with my work, skewing a little more toward the “change” end of the spectrum. Others, less so. At the heart of this philosophy, though, is respect and love for the original text. I tend to look at a project not as a collection of lines and words, but as a whole living story; something that somebody put a great deal of work into. I might change some of the superficial details, but only in service of the greater whole. To dip into metaphor, which is one of my favorite things to do, I might say that I’m like a house painter: I decide what color the trim and the door are going to be, but my choices are intended to accentuate the house that the architect designed.


Working with translators

At times, I’ll admit, my lack of Japanese knowledge can be a problem. I have a little basic knowledge of how the language works mechanically — I know, for instance, that Japanese doesn’t really have plural nouns, and I understand the usage of things like honorifics such as –usa and –kun, but by and large I know essentially nothing. It would be literally impossible for me to do my job without the day-to-day help of our team of translators. Whenever I feel like something might be off, things don’t add up or I’m just confused, I ask for help and clarification. Sometimes we’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes discussing a single sentence, hashing out the best way to say it in English and communicate all the necessary meaning. They help me understand not just what’s being said, but how and why.

One of the founding principles of our localization process is that a fresh look at something brings a fresh perspective and new ideas. This is why one person (or sometimes several persons) translates, another edits and another proofs. Each will see things the other might have missed, understand the text in new and enlightening ways, which will ultimately lead to a better, more polished and more enjoyable product.

This is why I believe it makes sense to have an editor like myself in addition to a translator. The translator can focus on the straight translation, and leave the finessing of words and sentences to the editor. The editor and translator can work more or less in tandem, meaning that translation and editing can be done in nearly the same amount of time it would take a single person. Usually the translator (or translators, since many projects have more than one) will start, and then I begin editing after they have completed a few days’ work. This allows me to essentially shadow them, editing files ideally a few days after they’ve been translated, and allows both parties to concentrate fully on their tasks instead of one person having to both translate and then finesse, which would result in a slower translation speed. So far, this system has produced the best results in terms of speed and quality of the final product.

The system and philosophy that I use are likely somewhat unorthodox, but they weren’t developed without a good deal of thought. To echo Sy Sperling, whose trademark phrase on hair restoration was “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client,” I’m not just the editor, I’m also a customer. I’ve loved video games pretty much since I knew what they were, and I’ve loved stories and telling them for probably a little longer. I might tend toward a liberal interpretation of the text I work on, but so far it seems to have paid off. Several games I’ve worked on have been praised specifically for their localization, such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors as well as Mimana Iyar Chronicle and BlazBlue: Continuum Shift. Some people probably disagree with my methods, and they might even be right, but if it’s a choice between a literal translation and a fun one, I’ll likely choose the ladder.