In 2017, gaming company Sports Interactive provoked the ire of Chinese gamers who couldn’t find a Chinese translation for its game Football Manager 2017. Soon after, a flood of negative reviews from those users followed on Steam (the largest online video game distribution platform worldwide), impacting the game’s standing in the marketplace.
Games that gain a popular following are bound to see demand for localization in other languages. Today, gaming is a truly universal pastime, and the force and power of the industry simply does not heed language barriers.
So how have gamers approached video game localization? The proliferating phenomenon of fan translation can tell us something about this unfulfilled demand, as well as just how insufficiently met that demand is and how companies should rise to meet it.
Video Games and Fan Translation
Fan translation projects are amazingly labor-intensive and specialized. Not only does the text displayed in a game need to be translated, the code also has to change to accommodate the new font in the target language. New characters, letters, and diacritic marks (like umlauts, for Germanic languages) must be programmed in. Languages that use logograms, like Chinese and Japanese, require new spacing, texture, and other small edits. All of this takes up space, and programmers sometimes have to rewrite whole sections of the game to make room for text translations.
Fans, by definition, band together out of a love and admiration of the product. However, as renowned video game fan translator Clyde Mandellin writes, fan translators are very often also professional translators by day. This usually means that fan projects are done completely for free by highly qualified translators who treat this as a hobby of sorts. Mandellin, himself a member of the famed Mother 3 fan localization team, actually wrote a letter offering their product to Nintendo free of charge, in case Nintendo intended to distribute Mother 3 in the west.
Fan translators, in the early days of these communities, could also be motivated to start projects because of the shoddy state of existing translations. Some companies contract their translation work to cheap but unqualified individual translators who don’t guarantee editing or quality reassurance. Fans who attempt to correct these mistakes are effectively re-translating for the company.
It seems as though fan translators aren’t simply fans, but rather subject matter experts who notice a performance gap in the video game industry and offer their services to fill it.
The Legend of Earthbound and Mother 3
Perhaps the greatest known case of fan-driven localization for a video game is Mother 3. To understand the fan translation behind Mother 3, we have to discuss the official Nintendo translation of Mother 2, or, as it was titled in North America, Earthbound.
American translator Marcus Lindblom, then employed by Nintendo of America, was tasked with localizing the game’s story. This was no easy task. The Mother franchise, written by popular Japanese writer Shigesato Itoi, revolves around a group of children living in what the author imagines of an American-suburbian fantasy world. Lindblom essentially had to localize a Japanese man’s vision of the west for the west, which was often an intentionally bizarre vision for added effect.
To succeed, Linblom in many cases had to completely change parts of the game. In one puzzle, the player’s path is blocked by a pencil-drawn statue of an octopus – an animal that carries a lot of cultural cache with Japanese audiences. The player is supposed to collect a kakeshi doll, which then erases the statue. In the source language, this would occur as intuitive to the player, as in Japanese the word keshi means “to erase”.
Lindblom felt there was no direct cultural counterpart to the octopus for American players, and likewise no direct English equivalent for the wordplay. So, thanks to his creative direction, Earthbound players navigating the game in English will now come across a pencil-drawn statue of a pencil, to which they have to apply the funny-sounding item “Eraser Eraser” instead.
When Earthbound was released, several factors (including a poorly received marketing campaign and the relative unpopularity of RPG games) doomed its sales. Nintendo resolved never to distribute Mother games in the west again, leaving fans to try every possible tactic to get their hands on an English copy. Finally, a group of highly trained programmers and translators began work on the aforementioned Mother 3 localization project.
Lindblom’s pencil statue endured into the fan translation of Mother 3. The team also recounts interesting translator’s decisions they made, such as writing to replace one enemy character’s unusual Japanese dialect with a recognizably quirky Cockney accent. Another villain’s name was originally “Yorkuba”, a near-homophone for the Japanese word for “greed”. One of the team’s more interpretive changes gave the villain the new name of “Fassad”, which is a homophone for the word “facade” and means “corruption” in Arabic. All these changes exhibited the team’s intense care and concern for the process of localizing the Mother games.
Mother 3 is one of many fan-led localization projects to bring old and beloved games from abroad to the English-speaking internet. More typically, games released today are considered for localization and distribution in other countries in advance. Mother 3 is also something of a white whale. Few Japanese games still withhold distribution in the West decades after their initial release.
For contemporary Japanese publishers, fan translation, which can potentially affect their sales when the game enters the market, are more detrimental than flattering. Further, it is unclear how legal fan translations are, and fans could be sued under two different charges of copyright violation. So unlike Nintendo (which at that point had figuratively buried Mother 3 as ancient history) today’s game distributors are forced to send cease-and-desist letters threatening legal action to their fans.
Challenges of Fan Translation
Not all fan translation projects end happily.
As anyone who has worked in crowdsourced localization will tell you, the success rate of such projects is unpredictable. Often, fans volunteer for the projects while also contending with full-time jobs or school schedules, occasionally leaving some segments incomplete. In fact, a professional localization expert would hardly bat an eye to learn, for example, that a project to crowdsource translations for a video game only succeeded for two out of four cases. In fact, they might even rejoice at this indicator of their value as true professionals.
Complex games, or games with more involved gameplay than visual novels or RPGs, will require quite a bit more time and coordination to localize. Fan projects have notoriously fallen apart over such games due to the internal disagreements that can arise during the process. Dedicated fans will know this was the case when fans attempted the translation of Final Fantasy VII and Mizzurna Falls.
Additionally, projects that may take fans or individually contracted translators five or more years to complete can be greatly accelerated by industry-standard translation technologies. Professional translation agencies provide employees with Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools that significantly increase productivity and efficiency. Just as important is translation memory ™, which helps translators remain consistent and avoid repetitive translation. In video games, key phrases are often repeated wholesale or with very minor changes throughout. TM makes it easier for translators to reapply work they’ve already completed, reportedly helping clients save up to 25-30% on Massive Multiplayer Online games, where an inordinate amount of text is involved. These translation tools can be costly, which is why not even professional freelance translators tend to acquire them.
Though the work fans do can often be a labor of genuine love, even reputable companies aren’t safe from ill-willed fan translations. Bad video game translations can go viral in unpleasant ways, even without accounting for the possibility of malicious practices.
In 2012, Minecraft, an incredibly popular world-building game, crowdsourced its translations in multiple languages. However, it failed to catch one user’s submission of a highly inflammatory slur. And because Minecraft’s code can only be updated when a complete update is ready, the developers were forced to keep the offensive translation up for a week. During that week, 5 million Minecraft users could switch the game’s language option to Afrikaans and see a racial slur displayed on the main menu screen.
Unlike fan translators, CSOFT International provides translation, editing, and proofreading with linguistic quality assurance and linguistic testing for games as well as apps. From a business perspective, standardized, professional translation services are the best way to localize video games, from guaranteeing completion of the project to ensuring the quality of the translation and intellectual property management. With dedicated subject matter experts and in-country linguists, gaming companies can expect consistent and dependable game content tailored to individual world markets and cultures without the risks of crowdsourcing translations from their fans.