Friday 15 March 2013

Down the Local

“Welcome to The Local.  Come in.  Get a pint in.  Get me one, too.  Then sit down, the game’s about to start.  Not there, you mong, you’re in the way!  That’s better.

“So, what brings you Down the Local today?”

“What the hell is this place?  This blog isn’t about pubs.”

“No, this blog is about games.”

“So, what’s the connection then?  Local Games for Local People?”

“You thought you were being funny there, but you’re actually right.  In a certain sense you’re right, anyway.  However, the games I want to discuss here were originally made for different local shops and different local people.  Specifically, Japanese local shops and Japanese local people. “

“Oh, right, so you wanna talk about Japanese games?  Don’t loads of ugly geeks sat in front of illuminating boxes do that already?”

“Yeah, but-”

“I can’t be bothered with another white-boy otaku bitching about how the Japanese games industry isn’t what it used to be since Nintendo sold themselves out-”

“That’s not what I’m gonna do.  I actually want to look at how games created by and for people raised in one culture are changed and adapted for people in a different culture.”

“Isn’t that just translation from one language to another, like you hope what you can do badly in translation Google?”

“That’s a part of the process, but no, I don’t think it would be an accurate description to just use the word ‘translation’, because there’s more to it than that.”

“You’re gonna have to give me an example so I can get my beans wrapped around your beanstalk, old croc.”

“Okay, a really simple example would be a player name entry screen.  In the original Japanese version you might have a matrix with hiragana and buttons or tabs to switch to a katakana matrix and back again.  Maybe there’s one big matrix that displays both hiragana and katakana.  Of course, other countries don’t use the same writing system, so the Japanese matrix would have to be changed to Roman alphabet, or Cyrillic alphabet, or Hangul, or even alphabets specifically for use in Spanish or German or Norwegian, or whatever.”

“I’m starting to get the picture, brother from another mother.  Hit me up with another exampbizzle.”

“Sure.  Take Pokémon, but in particular their crazy names.  It would have been silly to just transcribe the katakana names from Japanese directly into their alphabet equivalents.  The Japanese names, just like the ones we’re all so used to from playing the English version, have their own wordplay and little jokes that would be completely lost if direct phonetic transcription were to have happened.  Some names were kept the same for whatever reasons, but most were changed so that a different audience could appreciate them.  For each Pokémon the challenge came in creating a memorable name that would transmit an image or feeling appropriate for that particular monster, while adding a clever little touch to make you think.  That’s a pretty difficult task.”

“That makes sense, but could you be a bit more concrete?  At the moment you lack rigid form, like a drop of milk from a narwhal’s teat, gyrating in Zero G.”

“Imagine it’s 1999.  Imagine opening up your brand new copy of Pokémon you just got from Granny Eccles.  Imagine placing the cartridge carefully into the slot on your Game Boy.  Imagine flicking the little gray switch to the right.  Imagine yourself selecting ‘New Game’.  After playing for a few minutes, your excitement bulges as you realise you’re about to get to choose your first Pokémon!  Then you’re faced with the toughest decision you’ve had to make in your gaming career thus far: Do you choose fushigidane, zenigame or hitokage?  WTF?”

“Right.  Not being able to understand Japanese, you sound like a blithering lunatic.”

“Exactly.  But look at the English language names and you get a greater sense of expectation as to what you’re about to choose.  Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander, even to a child, immediately invoke fairly strong images as to what kind of creature relates to what name.  This point in the game is too important for the localizers to get lazy with naming the Pokémon and the final names were carefully and thoughtfully chosen.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a native English speaker so I’m biased (and the fact my Japanese isn’t really that good), but I actually think the English names for these Pokémon are cleverer than the Japanese ones.  There’s an interesting, albeit short, interview with Seth McMahill, the man who created Pokémon names for the English language versions of Ruby and Sapphire, at that goes into much more explicit detail about the name creation process.” 

"The reason games localization exists is to sell as many copies of a game as possible.  The only way that can happen is by making a game that people can play no matter what language they understand or culture they are familiar with, i.e. globally.  If your potential players are going to be unable to relate to the characters or connect with the themes in the game, they won't become immersed and they definitely won't enjoy it.  That's where localization comes in."

“Wait, what was that word you just said, that one just before?”

“Ah, I let it slip!  I was trying not to mention that word.  Localization.  Or localisation, if you spell properly.  That's what this is all about.

“As I mentioned before, but I wouldn’t want to limit things to this only, I want to know specifically about the localization process from Japanese to English.  The reason being is that by doing this I get to combine two passions of mine by exploring the relationship they have to my mother tongue.  Does that even make sense?  Probably not, but I actually want to explore more than just language, and even more than just games.”

So, welcome Down the Local.  Mike the Villainous Landlord has just called time, so that’s going to have be all for now.  I hope I’ve given you the lowdown of what I’m aiming for.  As I play more games in Japanese that I’ve played already in English, and even games that are new to me, I intend to go into more detail about the things I find interesting from the perspective of game localization.

In this first post I’ve only given two examples of what might happen when a game gets localized.  I’ve tried to explain that localization isn’t only translation, but it’s also more than just renaming items, monsters or weapons so they’re relevant to a new audience.  Looking beyond what I’ve only really brushed over here, localization can come to include a range of other areas, some of which I’m more interested in than others.  For example, there could be major stylistic changes to the appearance of certain characters or even a complete renovation of the personality of the hero of a series; something I'm planning on discussing in as much detail as I can in a series of posts (been thinking about this one for bare time).  There could even be issues concerning local laws that must be addressed by changing elements of the game depending on the territory being localized to.  There are a lot of things to consider past what I’ve mentioned here.  The Wikipedia page actually has some really good, different examples of localization for various well-known titles that are worth looking at.

Instead of looking at a game and discussing how it was translated, I want to try and figure out the reasons behind why it was changed.  This is what I intend to do for games I’ve played in both English and Japanese.  Furthermore, I want to speculate on what I would do with specific aspects of a game without any first-hand experience of the English localization and try to explain why.  There are other things, non-game, that I also want to examine in terms of localization.  I should probably say now that I’m not a professional working in the games industry.  This is all going to be totally new ground for me.  If any readers want to start a conversation about anything I touch on, or even want to suggest something for me to look into, then DO IT!  I’M HERE!  COME ON!  DO IT NOW!


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