Video games are a worldwide industry, with games being created in numerous countries and languages around the world. Japan has been, and still is, one of the epicenters of video games. RPGs are a bread-and-butter genre that western fans clamor over when the next big thing is released. Fire Emblem is currently one of those franchises that people want to get their hands on, in particular, because of the breakout success of “Fire Emblem: Awakening” on Nintendo 3DS. But it is a Japanese game, so how are non-Japanese speakers able to play it? Easy, it gets ‘localized’ into the language of choice.
Localization is nothing new to the industry; since the beginning of video games themselves, Japanese titles have been translated and content-modified for an English-speaking audience. Nevertheless, only until recently has more and more scrutiny been placed on the translations. Ten to twenty years ago, the Internet was not what it is today, and the average gamer did not have much information and behind-the-scenes knowledge of the inner workings of the localization process, or the industry as a whole. In my experience back then, all I ever knew about how a game came over to the West was thanks to the ‘Making of’ discs packaged with some of Working Designs’ titles (in particular, Lunar 1, Lunar 2 and Arc the Lad).
Right now, Fire Emblem Fates–the follow-up to Awakening–is embroiled in a controversy over its localization, specifically the cutting and censoring of content and quality of the English-speaking dialogue. Personally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more of a purist. I like what I’m reading to be as close to the original source material as possible. Others believe differently. I’ve had debates with many people about the quality and accuracy of the game’s English translations, and after comparing the official translations to a fan version, it’s clear there is room for interpretation in the text. In comparing these two translations, for example, I found some characters acted differently and, as a result, became different people.
This is not to say there were never any crazy changes made to games in the past. A person only has to look at “Persona 1” and the race-swapping of one character to see how extreme localization can be. Working Designs, linked previously, even tells us their process of how they don’t do a strict translation. So what’s changed between then and now? I’d argue social media is the reason why fans and gamers are more boisterous and angry about how a game gets translated.
Before Twitter and Youtube, we lived in the “magazine era,” as I dub it. There were websites, obviously, but little interaction could be had between companies and the consumers. Unless you were in the media, there was an ivory tower, a wall, between creator and fan. In 1995, how would I be able to say anything to or hear anything from Shigeru Miyamoto? I couldn’t, unless he popped up at a fan event, or I wrote a fan letter. However, such communication would be secret, isolated, and would have a little impact on the larger conversation.
However, thanks to social media, everyone’s views and thoughts are open for the public to see. Good or bad, we can now see people’s political and social thoughts and ideologies, or go digging for them. This is the crux of the entire issue: the unknown is lifted. An RPG is an interactive novel. Every character and setting is put there for major or minor purposes. What they say and do, how they interact with each other, defines not only the characters but also the world they live in and the narrative, meanings, and symbolism of the story.
Because Fire Emblem is being translated from Japanese to English, obviously not everything can carry over word-for-word. There are different syntax and spellings that make a rhyme incompatible between languages, or the available menu space is too small for the strict English translation and needs a smaller, similar word. So it is left in the hands of the localization team to translate the spirit of the words. However, that spirit can be tainted. If fans do not know anything about the localizer, there is no conflict of interest in their mind.
As there is an assumption of professionalism and them (the localizer) doing the right thing. That´s not always the case though, because when you’re reading people’s views on social, political and other matters. Well, it sure ruins the masquerade. As doubts creep in, and now people have to question ‘is that really what was said in the Japanese version? In the case of Fire Emblem it is completely true.
I’ve lived and worked overseas in numerous Asian countries. I didn’t speak the local language, and so I’ve had to rely on co-workers and friends to help me from time to time to accomplish important tasks. This requires a level of trust that what I say to them is properly translated to the other person. Watch a sports interview and some players have interpreters. This is nothing unique, but it is the real world. I feel the most interesting issue of this entire controversy is trust and professionalism.
If I hire a translator, I expect that person to translate what I say. I don’t expect him to make something up. I have to trust that person. If I learn that what I said was not translated correctly, would I re-hire that person? Of course not. There are real-world implications and consequences. Why should video games be any different? If the video game industry is supposed to be an adult, grown-up industry, why does it accept less of something so important that is basic in the real world? Why is expecting quality work considered childish and entitled behavior? If people spend money on a TV, is it childish and entitled to expect the remote to be labeled correctly?
People have given lots of arguments as to why they have zero-to-little issue with the Fire Emblem situation. “It’s either this or nothing”, “the original dialogue was too dry or boring or did nothing for the scene” to even the juvenile reply of “if you don’t like it, learn Japanese” or “Its only video games. There are more important things in the world.”
The first reply is the most heart breaking. There is a fan base that enjoys the series but due to company decisions, they are starved of one of their favorite titles. I can relate with my love of the Yakuza series. However, it feels almost abusive at worst, insulting at best, that fans have to go through this line of thought to get a product they enjoy. They have to settle for an inferior version of what other people are getting. It only shows there is a contrast between the real world and the gaming world. Would someone say “at least I got the meat” if they ordered a cheeseburger and didn’t get the cheese? No, they would demand to get the product they paid for.
Not every story or character can appeal to everyone. Star Wars is a huge franchise but not everyone likes it, just look at how divisive Anakin is. So when I hear someone say “Oh, the original dialogue was too dry for English ”it has me think where is the respect to the original creator, or the characters themselves? This video shows official version vs. a fan translation of a support convo. How people talk to each other influences the perception of who they are, their personality, or what is happening in the moment. Seeing the blank stares in the official translation, it could mean different things.
Do they hate or love each other? Did something embarrassing happen between them? Is one mute or injured? Are they hiding? The point is by changing what they said from the original text, those characters are different people. A character that could have been liked by a player could now be disliked and vice-versa. It should not be the job of the localizer to re-write an author’s work by making up stuff up. Again, their job should be to translate. If the character is boring, then the character is boring. If the author wanted the character to talk like a dragon, he’d have done that originally.
I can understand where people are coming from with numbers one and two. Obviously, I disagree with them, but I can respect their passion to get the product they want. Even so, the third and fourth replies, especially when coming from people in the gaming media, is not only a juvenile insult, it adds nothing to the debate. If a person could read and speak Japanese, why would they bother to care if it came in English? Additionally, not everyone has the time or the ability to learn a second, third, or fourth language to match every interest they have in life.
I like Bayern Munich, JRPGs and Three Kingdoms history. Does that mean I have to learn German, Japanese and Chinese to enjoy them? More importantly, it tells you that person doesn’t care about quality control. If a company cannot translate a game properly, a game which they are making the business decision to produce in a foreign language, how they can be trusted to do something so-called more important? If I can’t trust Jimmy to hit the ball in pre-season, why would I trust him in the regular season, or the playoffs?
Again, this all comes back to trust. We, the gaming public, have to trust the localization team that they are putting their ideological, social, and political differences aside and be professional by translating the game properly. It was easy to automatically trust them years ago when social media allowed us to live behind the iron curtain. But today it can’t happen, and so that trust is harder to earn and easier to break. Fire Emblem Fates is another example of us escaping the cave. We cannot unsee what we’ve seen in the industry today.
We have unparalleled access to it, and with it, a greater level of scrutiny can be focused on every move they make. Some people see this as a negative kind of thing, believing some segments of the fandom to be entitled whiners when raising grievances about their game of choice. Nevertheless, I see this as something positive, as I like the idea of consumers having more power to keep their industry in check and ensure higher-quality standards.
This is a personal opinion of the writer, and it doesn’t necessarily represent the other writers (nor The Gaming Ground´s) opinions.
The Gaming Ground
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