Off the map: The creative difference

Most of us who work in localization and culturalization have a pretty solid understanding of the types of content that are typically adapted for international markets. I would venture that the majority of content localized today involves pretty straightforward text copy and other media that are descriptive, logistical or administrative in nature — things such as user interface text, medical records, technical manuals and so on. I’m essentially referring to nonfiction types of content.

Because we operate within a consumer ecosystem that’s increasingly driven by digital content, we’re also seeing a continued increase in the need for adapting creative content, meaning more and more content like books, films, television programs and video games. When it comes to both localization and culturalization, these kinds of content present unique challenges, as many people who work with them are well aware. In the field of video game localization it’s often said that “It’s not ‘typical’ localization; one really has to know and love games to fully understand how to adapt them.” So why is creative content considered to be unique?

One aspect of dealing with creative content is pretty straightforward, and that’s dealing with all the new and unfamiliar words and phrases that arise in fictional content. Each translator has his or her own way of dealing with these, and it’s really not too different from perhaps many of the unique terms that arise in medical and scientific literature. Where things begin to get complicated is when a broader context exists for the unique milieu in which the terms are found. It’s not just about interesting and creative terminology for its own sake, it’s how the objects appear in a context that may not have existed previously. If translators have no familiarity with the creative intellectual property (IP), then their ability to capture the intent of the designers may be challenged.

In my own work, I’ve had this experience numerous times. For people who know me well, it’s no secret that I’m a major geek who can readily quote lines from Star Wars (yes, I even possess a Jedi Knight costume) and I’m also an avid gamer. So when I had the opportunity to work on the game Star Wars: The Old Republic, I brought with me not only my geopolitical and cultural expertise but my very thorough knowledge of Star Wars’ fictional universe. During my culturalization review of thousands of pieces of content, I was able to evaluate through my cultural lens as well as in the context of what is logically consistent and “true” to that fictional content I know so well.

Arguably, I would say that my intimate knowledge of that particular creative IP empowered my work in a way not typical of properties for which I have no passion or prior understanding. Of course I wouldn’t work any less diligently on any other project, but I’d say that those aligned closer to my personal interests and knowledge certainly leverage additional benefits. No doubt this is the case with anyone who is able to work on something for which they have a personal passion or interest.

One of the reasons that familiarity with the creative properties is so important is because they often generate issues that go way beyond the terminology, including many culturalization challenges such as new symbols, environments, costumes and outfits, races and species. These new realms demand new skills, such as the ability to manage what in essence is the creation of worlds. And thus this is a fundamental difference at the heart of dealing with creative content: we as localization and culturalization professionals are responsible for being partners in the art of world design.

Essentially every creative property is some form of manufactured world with its own form of cultural rules, systems and processes. We act as creative partners with the original writers, artists and designers to convey the uniqueness of these new environments to other cultures. The need for cultural adaptation to be so closely tied to creation only underscores the necessity of localization and culturalization being fully integrated with the entire development cycle.

This sounds like an incredible challenge — how does one even begin to evaluate if something never seen before might be appropriate for a locale? That’s where another critical aspect of creative content comes into play, and that’s the issue of precedence. Many of the issues that arise with creative content have very few or no examples where a culture has been exposed to that specific case. So when companies are seeking to release a new creative IP in specific target markets, they may not have any knowledge as to how culturally compatible their IP might be. One method for helping to mitigate potential cultural impact is to examine similar media to ascertain if there have been prior problems. 

Let’s consider the South Korean market as an example. Even rudimentary market research for this locale would reveal that North Korea is a potentially sensitive topic, and in fact most people would probably 
surmise this just from their general knowledge. What fewer people may realize is that as contentious as the relationship with North Korea might be, South Korea has often shunned content that portrays the north as an enemy. So when game titles such as Ghost Recon 2 and Mercenaries cast North Korea as a villain in the plots, the games were banned by the South Korean government. This could have been avoided by reviewing other media that had encountered similar restrictions (such as the James Bond film Die Another Day).

Oftentimes it’s possible to circumvent major changes to content just by doing a careful examination of precedence. I know many cases where an issue that could be potentially problematic was left alone because other media have widely leveraged that same issue, which effectively lessens the impact. That doesn’t automatically mean a company leaves it in without thinking of impacts, but the issue comes to them “pre-mitigated” to a degree.

Going back to my example of Star Wars: The Old Republic, as familiar as I and so many people are with that IP, I actually found a few cultural issues that I would have recommended for a change. Surprising to be sure, but because that particular creative content is so prevalent and ingrained, to change one of the issues I found would mean altering “canon” for that world — something that is highly unlikely to happen.

Lastly, working with creative content means working with very creative people who are quite passionate about their ideas, stories and designs. This can be a very rewarding experience, but also somewhat challenging at times, as managing their expectations for what does and does not work on a specific language or locale may yield pushback and defensiveness. We need to respect their work but also help them (delicately sometimes) to understand the nature of our work and how our function is to really help as many people as possible around the world enjoy their ideas.

The intent of highlighting the particular challenges of creative content for localization and culturalization isn’t to downplay the critical importance of other content, nor the role everyone plays in adapting content for international markets. Rather, it’s meant to emphasize that working with content that has a fictional context brings specialized challenges and responsibilities. We are partners in a world-building exercise, sometimes of epic proportions, that will be experienced by millions of people.