Video Games: Localization vs. translation

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is a turn based strategy game for the Nintendo 3DS, developed by Intelligent Systems and published in the west by Nintendo of America. Normally I would begin to describe the game, then actually review it, but I’d like to take the time this week to directly address the audience, and discuss one particular aspect of Conquest that has been bothering me, namely the localization of the game.

For those unfamiliar, localization is the process by which a piece of media, movies and video games mostly, is prepared for release outside of its country of origin. Localization is distinct from translation because translation is an academic process, whereas localization is largely a business process. What makes a good translation is simple and set in stone, a good translation is both accurate and invisible. Accuracy just means that the translated work is as close to the original work as humanly possible, something will always be lost in translation, but translators should minimize this loss. Invisibility means that the person viewing the translation should never be aware that the work they’re reading was translated. These are not necessarily the goals of localization, however. A localization’s job is to make money.

In many cases, the goals of translation and localization line up. Books are a good example of this, no company hired to publish a translated version of Plato’s Republic would dream of changing the text to appeal to a larger audience, because any audience would be disgusted by the adulteration of such a work and refuse to buy it. In video games, however, this is not often the case.

This isn’t to say that some measure of localization, in the form of changing aspects of the game to suit the target audience is entirely a bad thing. An example of a rather large change to a game that I liked is in Akiba’s Trip. In that game, the player can access a fictional online message board that in the original Japanese version was filled with references to Japanese internet culture. In the American release, the message board was entirely re-written to instead make reference to American internet culture. This change makes sense, as the original jokes would be entirely lost on the American audience. With the change, the original intent of the game is kept intact, and more players will be engaged by the humor of the game. From an academic point of view, this is bad, since it is not a preservation of source material, but from a localization standpoint it works well.

Another game, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 made the decision to preserve an aspect of its culture of origin to its detriment. The original script was in Japanese, which has a number of honorifics. These honorifics were crow bared whole-sale into the English script, and the game suffered unnecessarily for it. Keeping the honorifics made the script more technically accurate, but left the script worse because of it.

There are a lot of arguments that can be made for what makes a good localization, but it’s safe to say that the localization of Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is like an itemized list of what not to do. In no particular order of importance, they changed names where it made no sense, they entirely re-wrote several characters, the voice acting quality is noticeably lower than the original counterpart, characters were given traits and quirks where none previously existed, and some ancillary features were removed in part or in whole for no adequate reason. To add insult to injury, the game was released in North America about 9 months after its original release in Japan. Essentially, fans of the Fire Emblem series had to wait almost a year for the game to have its script painstakingly ruined. A particularly egregious example is a Japanese vocal song that was literally translated as opposed to re-written for English. Vocal songs are usually re-written so that the actress singing doesn’t have to awkwardly fit syllables to notes, as words are often different lengths of syllables in different languages. The literally translated song lyrics come off as clumsy and strange, as some words are compacted and others stretched to fit into the note pattern.

It is truly baffling how much time and energy, and therefor money, was spent on the localization of this game. Remember, localization is supposed to be one step in the process of making money. It really is a shame, because Conquest is one of the best Fire Emblem games to date, but its localization is absurdly bad. Since I have decided to address the audience directly, it would be rude of me not to allow the audience a chance to speak.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the nature of localization versus translation, and I can be reached at cju3@njit.edu.

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