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.
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.
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’.
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.