Why Localization Occurs

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WARNING: The following is an opinion article.

Localization and translation are not the same thing. Translation is simply changing one language into another one. Localization occurs when the contents have been modified to better fit into a new market. One of the original ideas of Source Gaming was to eradicate the gap the knowledge that exists when products are localized. Since there has been a lot of controversy over localizations recently with both Triforce Heroes and Xenoblade X, I decided that it was a good time to discuss why localization exists and why it’s important. This is a set up for the next part, which will discuss the differences between localization and censorship.

Localization is the process of bringing the work closer to the reader. Literal translation is bringing the reader closer to the work. It’s a distinction that readers of the blog may be aware of, but the general public doesn’t seem to be. I’ve discussed the difference before as the difference between lunchbox and bento. In either case, I think it’s important to try to remain as true as possible to the spirit of original source material and not to alter the overarching meaning.

Box art differences is an example of localization. (Source)

Localization is a necessity because even though we live in a global society, one that is mainly predominated by American media; there are still significant gaps that exist between cultures and countries. Even though Quentin Tarantino and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano both make movies about gangsters and have undoubtedly inspired each other…their movies feel very different, even without the language differences. Localizing movies are usually pretty difficult (Though Inside Out has some interesting localizations) — instead they are usually just remade– see Great Britain Office and American’s Office as an example, but games are a totally different story.

Games have the ability to be easily altered for the purpose of localization. Furthermore, Literal translations can actually negatively affect the gaming experience as it might pull the player out of immersion. Liberal translations can still give the game the same “feeling” even in other languages. When I personally see literal or awkward translations in video games it makes the game’s story less natural to me.

Video games have a long history of localization. Localization is a necessity because there are just some things that are not culturally accepted or legally allowed in other countries. Some famous localization changes were Poison was changed to Billy, or Square’s Tom Sawyer reportedly not being localized because it would be considered racist by Western audiences. Since video games have the ability to change, why would companies not adjust it to meet the needs of the market? It makes perfect sense that they would. After all, video games are a commercial product and are meant to be sold.

(Original Source)

Pokemon and Animal Crossing are perhaps my favorite examples of localization. For Pokemon, a lot, if not most Pokemon have unique names in every language. These names are changed and a lot of times are done in ways they still convey meaning about the original Pokemon. For example, Tepig (tepid and pig) in Japanese is called Pokabu (Poka being short for Poka Poka — an onomatopoeic word to describe warmness, and bu which is the sound a pig makes in Japanese). English speakers and Japanese speakers are able to quickly identify what the character could be by name alone — a feat which deserves a lot of praise.

In Animal Crossing, a huge emphasis is placed on seasons and festivals. Therefore, it makes sense that various regions of Animal Crossing have different festivals and items. Nintendo has actually produced a brief video about the history of localizing Animal Crossing. As the series has grown, so has the involvement of the localization team and the amount of changes that have been done to each regional release.

There are many examples of “bad” localization. For some fans of the Zelda franchise, they consider the use of memes within the American version of Triforce Heroes to be an example of improper localization. The inclusion of memes downgraded the experience for many, and moves the series away from being ‘timeless’ and ‘epic’.

Original Source — @PI20XY on Twitter.

I feel that the localization of The Binding of Isaac could have been handled better as all the item names were straight translated into Japanese. For example, “Are you a Wizard?” makes you cross eyed but would probably leave many Japanese players scratching their head. There are some English speakers who might not be aware of the meme but with Japanese there is an extra step created by the language barrier. Using Japanese memes would have increased time required for, but it might have created a better overall experience.

Essentially, localization is required to make a product more accessible in a different market and for the players. There are good and bad examples of localization, and localization has existed for a long time. In the next article, I and some of other SG translators will discuss the differences between localization and censorship. 

If you are interested in learning more about localization, I’d highly recommend listening to Chris Pranger’s discussion on it with Part-Time Gamers.

Let me know in the comments what your favorite example of localization/ regional differences in video games.

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  1. With the Triforce Heroes, I get the sense that the outrage is a referendum on the specific reference being made. We’ve had “out of place” pop culture references in localizations since at least the SNES, and even since the rise of social media, you’ve rarely seen people go out of their way to complain about them. Unfortunately, doge is a rather hated meme among some circles. A less divisive reference probably wouldn’t have gained any notoriety.

    1. I don’t know the hate on doge though…I just like that dog’s face. It means something to me…like filling me with determination. (lol)

    2. Yeah, pretty much this in a nutshell. Mario & Luigi games have pop culture references everywhere (like the use of 1337 speak in Mario & Luigi Partners in Time), but people don’t complain about that. So yeah, depends on the meme.

      And to some degree, the tone I guess. Mario RPGs are mostly comedic games without a serious storyline, Zelda games are mostly serious action adventure titles.

      1. Zelda aren’t typically that “serious” in terms of games (Look at the character designs even- heck, even link was given white tites so he didn’t see ‘too cool’), and this particular spin off is really not meant to be taken seriously. I see so many people hating on it for that fact as well as a few “Nintendo is kiddie!” comments-and with that, the nostalgia from the mid 2000s begins to pour in.

  2. I’m surprised Zero Wing wasn’t mentioned… I don’t know if it’s an example of translation gone wrong or what it was, but whatever happened, it’s atrocious: http://www.vizzed.com/vizzedboard/retro/user_screenshots/saves7/73731/Zero%20Wing_Mar23%2023_34_40.png (But it’s kind of one of those “so bad, it’s good” things.)

    It’s interesting, because Nantendo and I were recently just discussing the differences between NoA and NoE localization in Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash… in the NoE localization, the dog costume is called “Dog Suit,” but NoA’s is called “Man’s Tiniest Best Friend.” I noticed a lot of NoA localizations try to make things a bit more interesting, like in the case of “StreetPass Quest” (NoE/NoJ) vs. “Find Mii” (NoA.) That trend continues in each StreetPass game, with each NA game having a completely unique name rather than “StreetPass ___.”

    I see why there was outrage with the way NoA handled the Triforce Heroes localization, but I think they were just trying to keep the lighthearted and ridiculous nature of the game in spirit. I know die-hard Zelda fans take their fandom seriously, but they need to chill out a bit… it’s a spin-off, it’s not like it happened in a serious, mainline Zelda game. (‘~’)

    1. NOE usually opts for more literal translations even for the titles (Fatal Frame is known as Project Zero for example) but NOE usually has to translate to several languages so wordplay is probably much harder than being more literal.

      NOA’s localizations are sometimes liked more than NOE’s in tone such as with Splatoon where NOA’s dialogue is filled with more puns and character; but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I personal love that treehouse is getting more exposure such as at E3 and that they are having fun with their jobs.

  3. I find it interesting Chris Pranger gets so much hate from fans for simply speaking the truth- in hindsight, yes Xenoblade did well, but it wasn’t as sure of an investment (A lengthy, wordy, voice acted game is expensive to localize!)

    Pokemon, Earthbound, Animal Crossing, Mario Bros USA/2, and Pikmin 2 are some of my favorite examples of Nintendo localization.

  4. I love Inside Out as I watched that movie 3 times at the movie theater (lol), but didn’t notice there was a difference between the Western version and the Japanese version, not until I read the Japanese official fan book of it. But it is understanding why according to their culture, that bell peppers are known to be the most disliked vegetable in Japan than broccoli, while carrots are in second.

    Some Japanese games that has been western localized pretty much changed or deleted things that they might have felt disturbed or insulted for some reasons. For example, Bowser’s victory pose in Super Mario RPG is different, while his pose in the Japanese version was disturbing as he was showing a finger (although it wasn’t sticking out but that’s what the pose mean). Street of Rage 3 in Japan had a enemy character called “Ash”, who can also be playable by using a secret code, but was deleted in the west due to his opposite sex visual. Animal Crossing back in the GC era had a gorilla character named “Jane” in the game, but her color was changed due to her Japanese version was black skinned as may have reflected to racial tension, and later erased out from the later sequels.

    I don’t know about Puyo Puyo and Panel-de-Pon’s part, but maybe having all main characters as females wasn’t very appealing to western players back then, which they decide to change all characters and world settings to a lot more appealing, like turning Puyo to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, while Panel to Tetris Attack (starring Yoshi) and Pokemon Puzzle League. And since those parts has been strongly memorable to western players, I think nobody would believe what was the original really looked like.

    Translations are something more important to localization too. If you’ve already know what the Japanese version looks like, then you’ll find out how many parts have been mistranslated, and finding few things you don’t even know where that point came from. For example, Dragon Ball Z’s most famous quote (and meme) “It’s over 9000!!!” part…in the original Japanese version, it’s actually “8000”…so nobody knows where did the additional thousand came from. Even they’ve quoted Goku’s father Bardock to be a brilliant scientist…which there’s no evidence of such description though. I know they wanna make things interesting to the western viewers, but placing something that didn’t even exist in the first place to a show is really wrong. They need to know more on Japanese language if they need to learn how to translate them.

    I don’t know about Triforce Heroes’ part, but speaking of that, where in the Hyrule History does that game take place? Is it meant to be part of some route’s history, or was it meant to be non canon like Hyrule Warriors?

    1. My theory that has absolutely no basis is that puzzle games back in the day sold better when there was a known character attached (unless it was Tetris.) Dr. Mario, Yoshi, and Yoshi’s Cookie are three more I can think of off the top of my head. I’m guessing NoA thought Panel de Pon would do better with Yoshi’s Island character rather than a bunch of fairies. *shrugs*

      As for Triforce Heroes, it’s been stated that it officially takes place after A Link Between Worlds, and that Green Link is apparently the same one. Yeah, I don’t get it either… probably should’ve just been a non-canon spin-off. (~_~)

    2. There have been other Movies with animated differences in them per region such as Wreck-it-Ralph and Cars 2.

      Those puzzle games were partly because they thought that “girly” looking games wouldn’t sell in the west and also in the west they had the whole “Sega does what Nintendon’t” and they were trying to “out cool” each other. Fairies and magical girls apparently aren’t that cool.

      Also localizing dubs is a completely different cup of tea because the length of saying something varies in different languages so they have to figure out how to compress what is being said to match the lip movement or add fluff if what they are trying to say is shorter than the lip movement that matches it. Some of it is simply changed to match the humor or wordplay of the region (Such as Hetalia’s over the top dub adding more western stereotypes and verbal tics/accents than the Japanese version.)
      Localization has less to do with matching with the original creation, but matching the tone and specific idea of the work and usually the changes are ran by the original creators- In anime, we may not understand a festival but likening it to a fair or carnival helps get the point across or the example above about Bento boxes and Lunchboxes- some people keep in cultural words that might be known to the audience like bento or festival, but others change them if they don’t believe their audience would understand the intended meaning. (Japan is a word play heavy language since they have several alphabets so the way something sounds and the different ways to spell it make many puns possible, and their numbers are often tied to certain associations because certain numbers sound simular or are spelled similar to other words. Localization is a tough job and at the end of they day they have to decide to keep the work pure or to edit the work and make it more accessible or understandable.

      Triforce Heroes isn’t supposed to be that serious of a game and has many silly jokes in it as a whole.

  5. I think the issue with Tri Force Heroes is that it is not supposed to be taken seriously. If it was over glorified to the position of say Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, I feel like it would’ve hindered the tongue-in-cheek ambiance of the game. You collecting cloths and playing with others. It’s just suppose to be fun with friends, not epic.

    1. Yeah, I agree with you. When I first watched the Japanese trailer, I felt the game wasn’t meant to be epic. The story line, features, characters, even the main villain looked so………awkward.

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