Paper Mario’s Controversial Translation

Nintendo’s Paper Mario video game localization team has sparked a dispute about how it translated sensitive language from Japanese to Traditional Chinese.

Even without the pressure COVID-19 has put on game developers, video game localization requires several considerations. From redesigning food graphics or fashion choices, to adapting jokes to better communicate humor through culture, a video game localization team can stumble into sensitive content without even realizing it.

Nintendo’s July 2020 release of its newest game Paper Mario: The Origami King has sparked a dispute on social media about its localization process, specifically related to its translation into Traditional Chinese.

The argument centered around the translation of a conversation between game characters Toad and Mario. In the Japanese version of the exchange, Toad says he wants “human rights” and “freedom,” but the traditional Chinese version translates to “plain outlook” and a “peaceful life,” according to social media activist ShawTim.

The Japanese words for “human rights,” 人権, and “freedom,” 自由 are both part of the Japanese Kanji characters, many of which derive directly from Traditional Chinese. In fact, the only difference in the two words would be that the second character in “human rights” would look like this: 權.

With such a direct translation clearly available to the translation team, ShawTim’s believes the changes might shed light on pressure from the Chinese government, or at least the Paper Mario Chinese localization team’s proactive measures to avoid making waves in Mainland China.

Still, Niko Partners Senior Analyst Daniel Ahmad pushed back on any conjecture that the change was forced by the Chinese government. In a twitter thread, Ahmad questions the claim that the Chinese government exerted any direct influence, adding that the game has not yet been released in Mainland China.

He goes on to retweet an explanation that points out how the Chinese translation uses puns to make a statement about both better governance and origami. The tweet says that the joke is about toads not being forcibly folded into origami. “Toad needs a neat appearance” and “Toad needs a peaceful life” are puns — the pun is that 平整 (neat) and 平静 (peaceful) both have the component word 平 in it, which is a Chinese word for flat.

Along with the punning that occurs in the Chinese translation, the two end-words reflect linguistic play. Pronounced “Ping Zheng” and “Ping Jing” using Pinyin phonetics of Mandarin Chinese, respectively, the second character in each phrase carries a “J” and “Ng” sound to create a slant rhyme. In this way, the translation might elicit more of a jocular tone than a politically indignant tone, even while insinuating heavy subject-matter.

Whatever the video game localization team’s intentions on the translation, this dispute reflects a natural response to the sensitive nature of localization. Even in the absence of geopolitical disputes like that between Mainland China and Hong Kong, the process of translating from one language or region to another could unleash a world of unintended connotations.

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.


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