Subject: Translation, Localization, and You
Posted on: 2020-11-04 16:25:38 UTC

"Pfft. Where's everyone going? Bingo?"
--Leon S. Kennedy, Resident Evil 4

I suffered through Fate Stay/Night's interminably poor pacing (a common issue with Visual Novels: I loved it, but it was a struggle to get through), but Fate/Zero was really where the series caught my attention.

I promise, I have a point here, and it's not a point about Fate. Give me just a moment.

The superb animation from Studio Ufotable was a big draw, but the larger and more interesting cast and tighter writing kept me coming back. And the best of all in my eyes were Waver Velvet and his servant, Iskandar, who I like for... a lot of reasons... but they're also a perfect double act. Waver in particular has a really fun arc and a lot of character development over the course of the series.

So naturally when I found out that there was a spinoff entirely dedicated to following an adult Waver as he solved magical mysteries in London with a Saber-lookalike (of course) Watson by his side, I wanted to read it immediately, and there was no way in hell I was waiting for an anime adaptation that might or might not ever come (we did eventually get that anime. It was... fine, but it kinda fell apart in the final ending. At least it pulled it together for a strong ending scene...), so I sought out a fan translation of the first few books.

And it was absolutely awful. I mean unreadably bad. I suffered through it, but the prose was stiff and difficult to read, the whole thing was interspersed with Japanese and literal translations of Japanese phrases with the equivalent English inserted as parenthesized notes. It's clumsy, and while I did manage to read it, it wasn't easy, and it wasn't terribly enjoyable. I won't link it here or read out passages, because I think it's in poor taste to point and laugh at something someone did for free as a service to the community (there would be no way to read these novels at all in english if it wasn't for these efforts) but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, under any circumstances.

Here's the thing, though: For a very vocal minority of fans, this is the standard for what a translation should be, in that it's perfectly, 100%, utterly accurate. It's a literal, direct translation of what the Japanese text is, a perfect rendition of the author's vision. Sure, most would rather have it cleaned up a little bit so it's not so clunky and hard to read, but this is the kind of translation they want. For these people, and for a lot of people who don't know any better, a translation's quality is linked to its "accuracy" to the original work: how well the sentences match up, how little was changed.

In 2011, someone by the name of coke released a translation of Kara No Kyoukai, the predecessor to both Fate and Tsukihime, and a key cornerstone of the shared universe of both. I can't speak to the translation's quality, but I can say that it outraged these sorts of fans. Reddit user savepoints summarized the position here when explaining to a newcomer why they shouldn't read the translation. Below is an excerpt:

I'd kindly invite you to read and compare a section from the original Japanese text to coke's translation, or to ask someone who did read it in Japanese, because anyone who did will tell you that it's not a good translation.

It's not just the weird naming, it's the fact that coke himself literally said that he added his own stuff and removed some other things, to "make it flow better". And that's not referring to weird sentence structures or adjectives or anything, we're talking about complete sentences which were removed or added for no proper reason.

It's really only ok for getting the general gist of the story, but why wouldn't you just watch the movies for that instead of a translation project that's more akin to a fanfic?

So... yeah. Accuracy, by which I mean exact trueness to the original script, is what matters. Be accurate. Always be exactly 100% accurate.

This is a terrible way to translate a work, and it's not how professional translators do their jobs. Allow me to explain.

"Enough expository banter! Now, we fight like men! And ladies! And ladies who dress like men!"
--Gilgamesh, Final Fantasy 5 Advance

I'm not going to spend too much effort distinguishing between Translation and Localization here, but sometimes it will matter. So here's a quick rundown: Translation is the process of changing the language of a game, localization is the process of adapting it to another culture. Not all translations are localized, and some are localized more heavily than others. However, given the inherent changes necessary to make a work readable in another language (translating idioms that don't make sense in the target language, for example), the line between a strict translation and a localization can be blurry sometimes. Localization changes are frequently looked down on by diehard fans as "censorship", or "attempts to hide that the game came from Japan", but it's not that simple, and strong localization choices, even subtle and minor ones (like changing a reference to an obscure, no-longer-manufactured Japanese soda to be a reference to Crystal Pepsi, which has the same connotations) can go miles in making a work comprehensible and accessible to a broader audience.

In my opinion, there are two ways to make a translation and localization great: The first is to make it as utterly unnoticeable as possible, and simply be quiet and careful about preserving the identity of the game while bringing it between countries while also trying to find good equivalents or explanations so that the target audience can understand what's going on. The above "crystal pepsi" example comes from one such localization job, specifically for the classic anime FLCL ("fooly cooly"), which is still blatantly set in Japan and uses Japanese honorifics for its characters in English. You might not even think any translation changes were made at all in the dub if you never watched a subtitled version of the anime, but across the board there were a lot of small, clever changes designed to make the show make more sense to westerners across the board (well, as much sense as it made to the Japanese... FLCL is a weird show...). The other approach to translation and localization is to go all out, radically changing aspects of the work you're translating to make it work better in its destination country and preserve the soul of the work. But while the latter often gets a bad name, neither approach is wrong, invalid, or "bad", and both approaches mean making changes to the work. Even translating a work inherently changes it, and localization does so more. If you want to make a good translation or localization, you need to accept that, and you can't be afraid of making the changes that need to be made.

The most famous example of a localization that changes everything but still works (and I know I've talked about this before) is Ace Attorney. Janet Hsu of Capcom took point on the localization for most of the series (as well as Shu Takumi's extremely underrated non-Ace Attorney adventure game, Ghost Trick), and in my opinion is an absolute hero. The work she and her team did on Ace Attorney was crucial to making the games successful in the west, and a lot of what the Ace Attorney fandom thinks of when they think Ace Attorney was put in by her team. It was her team that did the work of changing the entire game's setting to be a future America rather than Japan, changing all the puns and pop culture references to their english equivalents, and even changing entire character personalities as required (for example, turning Simon from an overly serious prosecutor into a full-blown weeaboo, which was probably helpful for finding a convenient way to explain Rakugo to American players). And while it probably wasn't required to make the setting a weirdly Japanese version of California (or Japanifornia, as it's known to fans), without these changes and translations, a huge element of Ace Attorney's quirky, goofy, comedic identity just wouldn't have connected with western fans. You shouldn't have to know that "Naruhodo" means "correct" or "I see" in Japanese in order to appreciate the humor of a funny game about wacky lawyers, and could you really call a translation that was truer to the dialogue of the original but was unable to convey its tone or appeal "better" or "more accurate"? I don't think so. But if you're unconvinced, take a look at the anime dub, which is extremely faithful to the Japanese script for the Ace Attorney anime (based on the first game). Sure, maybe you're happy that it's a more faithful translation, but it feels flat. Lifeless. The characters don't have the same spark and animation to them. You can see the Ace Attorney that you might know from the games there, but it feels like it's been chained up, trapped under a blanket of cultural differences and language-specific jokes that haven't been changed. Something's been lost in translation.

But there are plenty of other examples of this kind of scorched-earth translation. I quoted Resident Evil 4 at the top of this post for a reason: In the west, the definitive campy action horror game just wouldn't be the same without protagonist Leon S. Kennedy's cheesy action hero shtick. Leon is like James Bond if James Bond was thoroughly uncool. He tries to hit on the ladies, but the ladies aren't interested, his one-liners are lame, and his greatest talent speech-wise is annoying his enemies with distinctly lame comebacks that are somewhere between playground fodder and dad jokes ("you're (sic.) right hand comes off?"). But in Japan, he's not like that at all: He's a dead serious, objective-focused special agent. This is a radical change, but it's a change for the better: RE4 is b-movie horror about a special-ops agent sent to rescue the president's daughter from cultists, including a 20-year-old with the face of an old man and the body of a child dressed like Napoleon. No matter what aspirations it may have, it's not a game you can really take seriously, especially when you buy your guns off a merchant who shows up in the weirdest places possible and talks like a pirate. So the localization team didn't try, instead drawing on the same action and horror movie tropes that were already present to rebuild the protagonist as someone who fits the game.

Every translator, even dead-serious ones translating important historical artifacts, leaves a mark on the works that they translate. That's not a flaw, it's a key part of being a translator. Steven Mitchell's Gilgamesh: A New English Version has an opening that's probably longer than the poem itself that talks about his analysis of the poem and the reason why he made the choices he made in translating it. And the summation of all the choices he made is something that works: Mitchell's translation is the de-facto standard, and having owned a few copies in my time, I can say that it's by far the most readable and enjoyable I've seen, making one of the oldest poems we know of feel fresh and new again. Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is similarly loved, for a lot of the same reasons.

"What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets. But enough talk... Have at you!"
---Dracula, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

In short, what makes a translation good is not how well it sticks to the original. It's how well it conveys the spirit of the work, how well it feels like it fits into the target language, and just straight-up how enjoyable it is. And it frustrates me that a lot of fans don't recognize this, and attack translators and localization teams for doing their job, out of some kind of misguided belief that by not sticking exactly to the "original vision", they've given the fans an inferior version of the work. I started this post with a quote from a complaint about a fan translation that moved stuff and added and removed things to make the work flow better. But I hope I've conveyed that in the grand scheme of things, those changes are relatively small, and also that making those changes is a translator's job. You cannot translate a work without altering it. The goal of a translator is to alter it in a way that conveys the intent and meaning to their audience, not to keep everything exactly the same, or to try and defer choices onto the reader by being as literal as possible and littering their work with enormous translation notes ("Just according to keikaku! (TN: Keikaku means plan)").

And to their credit, some fans do understand it. The Ace Attorney fandom has made heroic efforts to do what Capcom won't and bring Ace Attorney's untranslated spinoff games to the west, and they've kept the same philosophy that the official translation teams do: translating cultural references and jokes to make sense in English, and trying to strike a balance between being faithful and comprehensible. But every time I read a stiff, awkward translation by fans who take pride in how well their work reflects the "original vision", I'm reminded of just how far away we are from people understanding and respecting the work that real, official translation and localization teams do. Sure, not every change they make is necessary, and sometimes the end result can actually be inferior or straight-up bad. But shockingly often, they succeed in ways that you never even notice.

In short, please, respect translators. They are the unsung heroes that make the games you love what they are. And if you want to hear more about this sort of think, check out Legends of Localization, which was invaluable to me in finding examples for this article.

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