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Localization, the Good, the Bad, and the Memes


Continuing off my last article on how localization, culturalization, and censorship water down the product, lets dig into the grey area, localization.

What is Localization?

A lot of people confuse translation and localization. The reality is that most people handling localization don't even know the original language. Localization is the process of going over translations and editing it to suit a different region. Translation is usually handled by software. Localization can often result in culturalization and censorship. All culturalization and censorship is part of localization but not all localization results in culturalization and censorship, and this is where discussion is often derailed with semantics. Culturalization is essentially whitewashing, and censorship has never accomplished anything beyond making self-important hypocrites feel good about themselves at everyone else's expense.

Why is it necessary?

When introduced to South America, the Chevy Nova sold poorly because the literal translation meant 'no go'. Sometimes a literal translation can have unintended meaning in the target language:

Sometimes a literal translation loses meaning, like with wordplay jokes. The job of a localizer is to recognize these instances and find as good a compromise as they can to relay the original intent. Sometimes there are no good answers or elegant solutions.

Complicating factors

When dubbing live action or animated material, it is not enough to simply get a good translation, it needs to fit the motion of the speakers mouth. Older games had similar problems with character limits in the NES/SNES era. Sometimes the source material is referencing a change in dialect and the options are to ignore it, make something up, or use existing accents in the target culture. I cringe every time I see someone in traditional Japanese clothing speaking with a southern accent to reference the Kansai dialect. Sometimes a short phrase can imply a lot of meaning that won't carry over without turning it into something verbose. Lastly, there are the interests of the people paying the localizers to do their job. If the management doesn't care about the integrity of the product, the only option is to either quit or sell out.

Where localization fails

When localizers take liberties with the writing and try to enhance the original. When they try to insert their own political views and hijack the material. When they insert memes where there are none, or change memes that are there. When they become overzealous and change as much as they can. When they resort to censorship and culturalization to reach a wider audience and/or avoid offending people.  Once culturalization and censorship are adopted as acceptable tools for localization, the project is beyond salvation. If they have no qualms about those things, then they have no interest in preserving the integrity of the product at all, and it will be mangled beyond comprehension.

Enhancing the original:

A direct translation can seem dry, and it may be tempting to spice things up, but this usually ends badly. This is where entire personalities get altered or lost. The more localizers do this, the less original creativity is retained, the more butchered the overall project becomes.

Inserting political views:

Not only is this unnecessary, it further deteriorates the original content. It can also antagonize the audience.


People like memes, they make us laugh. The problem is that inserting memes where there are none is the same as trying to spice things up with your own creative writing, the only difference is that it's extremely obvious. Changing meme's to a similar meme in the culture it is being localized for is tempting, but unnecessary. A good case and point is Shomin Sample, which left the Dandy Sakano reference intact. Sure people watching had no idea who he was, but those who looked him up got even more laughs out of it. Even without knowing the memes origin, people got the joke. Also, as with inserting memes, it's extremely obvious and is often perceived as muking things up out of boredom. There may be a few exceptions to the rule, but generally this is something to avoid. Imagine Psy from Gangnam Style being called Weird Al, it would be as obvious as it is cringeworthy. Once again, the more these kind of changes are done, the more the original work and creativity get lost.

Overzealous and unnecessary alterations:

This is often where localization starts to turn into culturalization. When localizers stop looking for things that need changed and start looking for things that can be changed, the line gets crossed. Some people argue that localization teams do this to write their own paychecks, the more things they alter, the more work is done, and the bigger the bill they can write. Whether this is true or not, what is certain is that the more things altered, the more of the original content is lost.

A good study for this would be with honorifics like san or chan. The karate kid came out in the 80's, leaving san intact, it is also a classic in the west. Most people, even if they aren't into Japanese games or anime, know what san and chan are, sama and kun are a little more obscure. There are times when leaving them out is fine and nothing of great importance is lost, usually in modern settings where age and rank aren't an issue.

In Ruroni Kenshin, Yahiko makes a big fuss about the chan honorific being added to his name. The literal translation of chan is child, but is usually translated to 'little'. Little primarily refers to size but is sometimes used as slang for young children when placed before a name, it also has a condescending and insulting tone to it. Chan, on the other hand, is a polite and respectful way to denote age. So when Kenshin and other characters are surprised by Yahiko not wanting to be called 'little', it makes no sense and the intent of the original material is lost. Yahiko, who was supposed to seem childish and unreasonable, ends up making perfect sense, flipping all the roles. When doing a period piece, leaving honorifics in can enhance the experience. When the material takes place in a medieval European setting, it makes a lot of sense to remove them. When it comes to chan, changing it to 'little' is cringeworthy.

On the flip side, there is the idea of including more Japanese words in localizations. Often people will take nonsensical phrases to show the extreme. For example "George-senpai is kawai baka desune". Most people don't want that extreme. It's when a word doesn't translate well, or loses significant meaning that leaving them in becomes a good idea. It is normal for words from other languages to become common in English, most people know what habanero, mademoiselle, or blitz mean. Now people are becoming more familiar with Japanese words, everyone knows what sushi, ninja, and samurai refer to. Recently, yokai, shikigami, and shinigami have started to enter the mainstream and no longer need to be changed. The goal should always be to preserve as much of the original content as possible while making it easy to understand, which isn't an exact science.

When dealing with supernatural creatures it is generally a good idea to leave the original name intact. Anyone who enjoys fantasy settings is likely to enjoy learning a bit of lore along the way. Most people have no idea what Illithid are until they play D&D. If people can learn obscure names from European cultures, or completely new creations, there is no reason they can't do the same with Japanese fictional creatures. Renaming them as western equivalents loses varying degrees of meaning.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that the more changes are made, the less original creativity is retained. Too much localization can turn it into a completely different game, at which point people have to wonder why they didn't just make their own game. It's like adding water to whiskey, it might make it more palatable for lightweights, but it loses potency and flavor and turns away the connoisseur. Now, deliberately missing the point, publishers are trying to get foreign developers to alter their version to match the western changes, on some misguided notion that if people don't see any differences then there isn't a problem. Now people on the other side of the world have to suffer because their entertainment is too hot for the west to handle. The real issue is that the original creators made an excellent product, it is arrogant for localizers to think they know better. If a localization team could do better, they would have made their own game. When it comes to localization, a good team should strive to change as little as possible and respect the creative genius behind the original.

What can gamers do?

Vote with your wallets. Do not pre-order, do not buy into day 1 sales, wait until there is sufficient information before making a purchase. Be patient and do research. People like to argue that if the games don't sell then less games are brought over, but that assumes the publishers are too incompetent to figure out why it didn't sell. It's one thing for a game to sell poorly because it's a foreign title, it's a whole different barrel of fish to sell poorly because of things that could be avoided; like a botched localization full of censorship and memes. Publishers frequently take the fans for granted, writing them off as guaranteed sales, catering to the lowest common denominator. The only way the fans will get through is if the danger of losing the core audience becomes very real. Be informed, don't hesitate to boycott, and never boycott in silence.

  Goku wants to end bad localization, will you help him?

- “Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.” ― Terry Pratchett

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About Mordeth Kaione of us since 11:13 PM on 09.13.2017