English to Japanese Game Localization Considerations

Interview with Clyde Mandelin

The Legends of Localization website features the “best and worst” game translations.

Clyde Mandelin (who often goes by Mato on the web) is an author, blogger, video game localizer and more. Perhaps best known for his work on the fan translation of Mother 3, he also runs Legends of Localization, a website dedicated to “a detailed look at video game translation and how games change during the translation process.” Here, he’s interviewed by Quin Callahan in anticipation of our upcoming issue on game localization.

Quin: Some Japanese to English translations seem so poorly translated that it can make English speakers wonder how such a translation passed any sort of QA. You also mention on your site that this same issue can happen with English to Japanese translations, especially in terms of which honorifics and tone is chosen for a given piece of text. Why do you think it is so common that issues get into games or other media that a single person who natively speaks the language being translated into easily recognizes?

Clyde: I think the big reason is that most people haven’t had formal experience with what translation is and how it actually works. It’s generally seen as a simple 1:1 process that anyone can do as long as they know both languages involved. Most people also aren’t aware that there’s a big difference between translating into your native language and translating into a non-native language. This stuff is very basic for people in the know, but it’s not common knowledge for most of the world.

On top of everything else, having someone who speaks the target language natively needs to be in the equation somewhere, and it’s difficult and scary for the average person to find and communicate with such people.

So, for example, if an American game developer wants to release their game in Japanese, it’s very likely that that developer doesn’t understand Japanese to begin with. The combination of the lack of understanding of how translation works, plus the lack of a native target language speaker, plus the lack of understanding of the target language will naturally lead to poor results.

Quin: Perhaps this was more an issue in the past, but sometimes English voice acting in Japanese-developed games is strangely acted. I admit the reverse might also be true, with poor Japanese readings in games coming from English-speaking developers. How do you explain poor voice acting in blockbuster Japanese titles? Are there any titles coming out of English-speaking countries with similar issues in Japanese?

Clyde: This was a bigger problem in the past as you mention, but probably mostly because everyone in the industry was still learning and figuring out everything for the first time. I assume the poor voice acting was a combination of poor translation with awkward wording, inexperienced directors, inexperienced or no-experience voice actors, and a general “it’s good enough” attitude.

I don’t play a whole lot of English games translated into Japanese these days, so I’m not too familiar with the English to Japanese dub situation. A quick search shows there are very strong opinions on subs vs. dubs in Japan too, as well as bad examples like Painkiller: Hell & Damnation and Fear 3. Also, there’s the usual problem of “the more popular a game it is, the more criticism it’ll receive as well,” so super big budget games that are super popular like Skyrim and Fallout and Call of Duty all have plenty of dub-haters.

Quin: As the world becomes more globalized, is translation and localization becoming easier for both Eastern and Western companies?

Clyde: I believe so, but mostly in the sense that it’s now easier to reach out and find the resources necessary to do proper translation and localization. Before, you either had to know someone who maybe knew the languages involved, had to go out of your way to find an agency, or had to forego the translation/localization entirely. Now there are more resources and personnel out there that are easily accessible around the world.

Quin: Do you have any advice for a company looking to get text translated from English to Japanese?

Clyde: It really depends on what’s being translated, but the biggest thing of all is to make sure the final version gets proofed by a native-level Japanese speaker! Ideally, that Japanese speaker would also be the translator.

Also, it’s important to provide as many details as possible before the translation begins, and to be there to answer questions — or ask questions — as the translation progresses. Translation isn’t like a restaurant — you don’t just give your order and wait for the finished product to arrive on your table. If you do, your translation will have problems.

Quin: Localization often seems like an art. For instance, I can recall seeing a Japanese game’s English localization where all Shinto references were replaced by Christian ones to try and maintain understanding and tone among readers more familiar with that religious tradition, rather than maybe the original exact meaning of the text. What sort of balance do you try to maintain in your own translating and localizing?

Clyde: Since I’m a translator-for-hire, this is more up to whatever the client prefers and whatever the project calls for. In general, when I have the freedom to choose, I prefer to change text only when a straight translation wouldn’t work. But again, every project and every translation choice is different, so it’s always a case-by-case thing.

Quin: Understanding that both languages are complex and often very different, with entire websites like yours able to be devoted to exploring the topic, why do some of the common spelling and grammar errors we see in Japanese to English translations happen?

Clyde: Early Japanese games were often translated into English by non-native English speakers, so poor English skills were to blame most of the time. Today, native-level English speakers do that stuff now, so the grammar and spelling mistakes we see in modern games are usually no different from the types of mistakes you’d find in any writing field. In a best-case scenario you’d have people checking translations and proofreading the final translations before the final product is released, but that adds time and money that not every company can spare.

Quin: Are there any fundamental changes you’d like to see in how the West tends to view localizing and translating?

Clyde: I think it’d be helpful to clear up the misconception that every language can be converted into other languages in a 1:1 way. Movies and the like gloss over what translation is and how it works — translators in movies can instantly translate anything and make it all rhyme and pull all of the contextual information out of thin air as if it’s nothing. And since this is the most the average person learns about translation, it makes it seem like translation is quick and easy and should be cheap.

The term “localization” is still new to the average person in the West, and there’s no real clear definition of what “localization” means. If you ask different people you’ll get different answers. For some, it’s what’s done to make jokes work in translation. For others, “localization” is a synonym for “censoring.” Some professionals use “culturalization” to mean what we call “localization” and use the word “localization” for something more geographical in nature. Basically, it’s sort of a big mess and I’m hoping that the work I do helps clear the air at least a tiny bit.

Quin: On the flipside of that issue, are there any changes you’d like to see from the way Japanese businesses or fans approach localizing and translations?

Clyde: I’m not as familiar with the Japanese business side of things, but in general I’ve always felt that Japanese businesses are held back by excessive bureaucracy and a lack of motivation to evolve. From what little I’ve seen, the companies with passion seem to do the most well-received translations/localizations, while the old corporate giants are slow to catch up and thus produce translations/localizations of lesser quality.

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