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The evils of enforced localization

[Yeah, this thing is still going, contrary to appearances. I've just been spending a lot of time slacking around on the forums and stuff. Hopefully I'll be able to provide new and exciting content more often from here on. I might even write a short one here and there.]

Today I want to spend a few words to denounce a monumental injustice that has been plaguing gamers worldwide for decades, an unspeakable evil imposed on us by the unforgiving laws of capitalism. I speak, of course, of localization.

Now, before you jump to conclusions, let me elaborate. Localization is a good thing, a very helpful thing. Everybody knows their spoony bards or that guy who are sick or how the 360 ruined Final Fantasy XIII for everyone because it's OMG TOTALLY BETTAR with the Japanese voice track (holy crap, did I just make three separate Final Fantasy references in one sentence?). But all in all, you wouldn't even have played those games if there wasn't an English translation.

First of all, let me give you a little background, because the upcoming rant is closely linked to my personal situation. I was born in Italy, where I currently live, from English-Italian parents. I was taught both languages at a very early age, which I consider to be a tremendous blessing and something I am deeply grateful for. A large percentage of modern Western fiction is produced in English, and my mixed heritage allowed me to enjoy a lot of that in its original form – my Italian friends swear they liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I just know it wasn’t the same film for them.

Totally un-localizable.

Translating fiction is always slippery territory. Localization – adapting a product to specific cultural differences in distinct markets – is pushing it until it almost crosses the boundaries of ethics. Human language is a beautiful, complex machine. Is it “right” for someone to take liberties in adapting a work for a regional market, to make it more palatable for people who wouldn’t understand the original? Let me give you a quick example: consider the character of Thorin Oakenshield from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Upon hearing his family name, English-speaking readers will immediately conjure up a very specific image, along with several more abstract ones. Translate all the book except for that name, and that feeling is lost completely. So the sensible way to go, in the opinion of many, is to change his surname so that the intended audience will catch the reference. But even that may not be perfect; take Japanese names, which are generally made up of kanji with very precise meanings. Imagine if they’d changed Mitsuru Kirijo’s name in Persona 3 (as someone explains in the game, the “kiri” in Kirijo means paulownia) to make the reference more direct for an English audience. The Italian translations of the first couple Harry Potter books had “Ravenclaw” inexplicably transposed as the equivalent of “Black Sheep”; this all fell apart by the time the movies started coming out, and I think there even was a note in the third or fourth book explaining that they’d changed the name to something closer to the original owing to a particular scene involving a raven emblem. In the end, it’s a very fine line to tread.

Which brings us to games. Back in the late ‘80s Italian localizations were mostly limited to hideously translated NES manuals, but the core product itself went untouched. The first fully translated game that I remember playing was the brilliant Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. The Italian version was dire, chock-full of stilted constructions and even spelling mistakes. Me and my friends actually believed that was a product of the eponymous Mindbenders' meddling - in the game, alien invaders attempt to enslave mankind with the use of machines that induce stupidity. Yes, we actually believed the characters spoke funny because the aliens had turned them slightly stupid.

Tell me he doesn't look like an idiot.

Then The Secret of Monkey Island came along. A lot of the humour was lost in translation, and the rendition was far from perfect, but at least the prose made sense. Thinking of the jokes that did not make sense, however, actually helped my young mind realize why translations usually subtract from the original. One notable instance is the infamous “red herring” puzzle. Very early in the game, our hero Guybrush meets a troll blocking his path. To get past him, he must offer him something. One of the first items Guybrush had picked up on his quest was a fish. Upon closer inspection (i.e. by selecting “look at fish” through the game's interface) it is revealed to be a red herring. The troll asks for “something that will attract attention, but have no real importance”, which is exactly the figurative meaning of the term “red herring”. This was an absolutely brilliant puzzle, one of many subtle touches that made Monkey Island the gold standard for adventure games. And if you played one of the many local translations, it was completely lost and replaced by something that didn’t really make a lot of sense.

In any case, Monkey Island marked the first time I actually experienced proper characterization in a game. Thus began my lifelong love affair with video game storytelling. (incidentally, it's left me feeling like a betrayed lover most of the time, but it still goes on).

Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation was a masterpiece of writing and voice acting, pushing these aspects to previously unseen standards of excellence. It was a true gem, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of the UK version, by total accident. I eventually got around to trying the Italian version, and I couldn't bring myself to keep listening past the first couple of exchanges between Snake and Campbell. It wasn't exactly bad; it sounded like a Cartoon Network parody of the real thing, so distant from the excellent performances of the original that it almost felt like a joke. Just as a side note, dubs always sound fake in Italian. That's mostly because of the huge differences in regional dialects; foreign works are generally adapted into proper Italian, which is a language nobody, not even the President, actually speaks in real life. Imagine if everybody in MGS spoke with the same kind of accent and expression as a GPS navigator. But it’s also true that the market for localized games is smaller than that of films and other forms of fiction; video game localizations get minuscule budgets, and players have never really experienced the kind of top-notch quality that games like MGS can deliver.

Seems like so long ago.

I recently received Fallout 3 as a gift, and my excitement was considerably marred when I found out there isn't an option to select the language. The game is fully localized, text, menus, voice acting, subtitles, everything. I've encountered this kind of issue several times in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is simply no way to know what you’re getting other than opening the box and playing the game. Most games (not all) will have a little tab showing the manual, in-game text and dialogue languages; this is all very nice, except for the fact that it conveniently ignores when a game is multi-language. In other words, if the box says “Italian” it can mean anything from a full translation with no language choice to a five-language disc that’s identical to what you would get in Germany or in the UK. And that’s when you’re lucky; a lot of games only have a useless “manual and game in Italian” caption which doesn’t even specify if the game is subbed or dubbed, while others have nothing at all (this last category includes Fallout 3). I’ve even tried comparing retail product codes, only to end up more confused than ever. A few Nintendo games like Metroid Prime 3 and Mario Galaxy are blessed with a "5-in-1 multilanguage" label, but this is hardly a dominant trend. Shop assistants will only know whether a game has Italian because, quite simply, that's all 99% of the consumers care about. Shopping online is just as frustrating, unless you buy exclusively from a country which speaks the language you want. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years, spending a few extra quid a pop to get games from the UK.

Not all adaptations are bad. Some are actually worth watching for the dub alone.

It's a strange phenomenon, that pretty much only happens in games. Original-language movies have become widespread, thanks to DVDs and satellite TV. Fans enjoy watching films in their original language, with or without subtitles. Even if they can't understand everything. They like to have a choice. Why, then, can't we have the same choice with games? It's got to do, of course, with the general perception of the medium. I'm not gonna get into another "games as art" debate, but as with any other kind of entertainment, I feel the recipients of the final product deserve a little more respect than just a hack translation job to make it playable. Software houses only care about maximizing profit (fair enough, I should add), which means you only get a localized version when it's expected to sell over a certain amount, and you get multilanguage when it fits on the disc (and while we’re at it: shouldn’t Blu-ray discs have solved that problem?).

As a native English speaker living in Italy, I realize my position is obviously a niche, at best. And yet, I know a lot of people who would much rather have the original voice acting, even if they don’t understand it completely. Be it because they prefer the quality of the acting, or because they want to improve their English, or simply because they enjoy the original product more. Even on the more global level, I know people who like to play Japanese versions. The market simply does not consider these people; if you want the Japanese, you import. That’s OK; my point isn’t that original versions should be made more accessible. Quite simply, it should be made clear what kind of version you are getting when you hand over your hard-earned cash. 99% of the stuff that’s written about games on the Internet (you might have heard of it) is either in English or in Japanese. If I buy a copy from my local retailer, I’d like to know what exactly has been changed. Most people don’t care about the localization; well, I do. It’s simpler on a global scale, because it’s gonna be either English or Japanese, and it’s pretty easy to tell the difference and filter stuff both ways. But in Europe, where we’re all cramped up and people are speaking all sorts of crazy languages just around the corner, things get a little messier. Countries that are closer to continental/northern culture - and, I might add, more internationally-minded - like Norway or the Netherlands get subs most of the time, even on public TV. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've heard that in Poland dubs are done by a single voice actor, who just reads the lines over the original track, like an interpreter. But is that really a bad idea? After all, they’re just saying “hey, you’re watching a dub, don’t pretend you aren’t”. All-out dubs, after all, are loaded with subtle compromises and affectations. Things can get especially awkward when dealing with material that explicitly references the original language - hence, for example, "Do you speak English?" usually becomes "Do you speak my language?"


I don’t want to bash “minor” localizations. Well, most of the time they suck, but that’s not their fault and it's not the point. It would be nice if everybody could speak all the languages in the world so as to understand every little linguistic nuance in every work of fiction, but that’s not gonna happen. Localizations are useful, even vital; a lot of countries (and I do mean A LOT) don’t even get them. But we’re living in a global age, and we can’t just keep pretending that the world ends around the corner. The point is that producers and retailers should offer a choice, or at least make it clear to the consumer. If it’s not sustainable to sell original versions in local markets, fine; just write it clearly on the box, and I’ll look elsewhere. Is it really that much to ask?
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About shinryuone of us since 3:38 PM on 10.29.2008

There was a HOLE here.
It's gone now.


I've been around Dtoid since the early days. You can catch me lurking around in the forums and occasionally blogging when I feel I have something to say. Have been gaming since the early NES days, mostly on PS3/PC/Wii nowadays. I also hang around on Twitter and Backloggery so feel free to add me!

Favourite games, in no particular order: Metal Gear Solid • FFV-VI-VII-X-XII • Street Fighter anything • Resident Evil 2-4 • Legacy of Kain series • Anything by LucasArts from last century • Vagrant Story • Persona 3 • Portal • Zelda series • Devil May Cry 3 • God of War series • Silent Hill 1-2 • ISS/PES series • Shadow of the Colossus • Super Metroid • Bionic Commando • GTA series • Uncharted series
PSN ID:Shinryu108
Steam ID:http://steamcommunity.com/id/shi
Mii code:6924 6708 6017 7005


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