Localisation is, it seems, a somewhat thorny issue these days — but it’s one worth discussing.
Before I begin today, I’d like to emphasise that by no means am I attempting to present a “definitive” opinion here. By its very nature, this is a topic that is highly subjective and a matter of opinion, and that means you may not agree with my views. And that is, of course, fine; all I’m attempting to do here is to highlight one possible perspective and provide some food for thought on a complex issue with no “right” answers.
Preamble over and done with, then; let’s talk about localisation, beginning with a little personal context that may go some distance towards explaining why I feel the way I do about all this.
I first discovered a love for Japanese games with Final Fantasy VII. It’s a clichéd introduction to Japanese games in general — and the RPG genre specifically — but there’s a reason it’s a cliché. Final Fantasy VII was so unlike anything else around at the time that you couldn’t help being swept up in it. It was compelling, intoxicating, thrilling; it was one of the most visually striking and narratively dramatic games that we’d ever seen, quite rightly regarded as a significant step forward for both the RPG genre and the handling of narrative in video games, and an experience noticeably distinct from what Western developers were putting out.
It wasn’t perfect, though. Final Fantasy VII’s translation had serious issues in its original PS1 incarnation, many of which looked like a side-effect of an attempt to translate the script as literally as possible from its original Japanese. Awkward phrasing, incorrect grammar, peculiar choices of words; none of this actually hurt the experience significantly — for many people, including me, the original sloppy translation of Final Fantasy VII was actually rather charming — but it was very noticeable, even at the time, and it’s doubtful that it would have been allowed through quality assurance if the game was fully voiced. Since Final Fantasy didn’t incorporate voice acting until PS2 installment Final Fantasy X, however, we were collectively somewhat more forgiving towards clunky text, as no-one was reading it out loud to highlight how awkward it was.
As a European, I was somewhat dismayed to discover shortly after my love for JRPGs burst into full bloom that many games that had already been translated into English for the American market simply didn’t make it that last step across the Atlantic. In the PS1 era, we missed out on a lot of great games, including Square Enix titles Parasite Eve, Xenogears and Brave Fencer Musashi, well-regarded classics such as Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and its sequel Eternal Blue, and plenty of others besides. This meant I eagerly and gratefully snapped up any games that did come my way, and discovered some favourites that are often regarded as “forgotten classics” in the process.
Some of the most high-profile, well-respected localisations in the PS1 era took great liberties with the original script — and due to the relative rarity of fully-voiced games due to the CD-ROM medium’s lack of storage capacity, very few people were actually aware of this, especially since dual-audio titles were practically non-existent. Localisation specialists such as Working Designs were praised for bringing the compelling stories of titles like The Adventures of Alundra and the Lunar series to the West while making them accessible and understandable with their own distinctive stylistic voice in the English language. This is an approach still adopted by many localisation teams today, only now it tends to come under much stronger scrutiny as, due to the rise in number of dual-audio titles, it’s much easier to compare the English translation to the original Japanese audio.
What the way of working in the PS1 era meant is that Japanese games localised for the West tended to be examined entirely on the merits of their English script rather than “in context” by comparing to the original Japanese. There are pros and cons to this approach: treating the game as if it is, to all intents and purposes, an English-language game allows you to consider how it looks from the perspective of someone who isn’t fully immersed in Japanese popular culture, which can be a valuable way of looking at things. However, it can also lead to misunderstandings when you come across something that isn’t directly translatable, or something which has different “meaning” in Japanese to how it does in the West.
We most commonly see this today with many Western critics’ quasi-Puritanical reactions to nudity in Japanese games. In Japanese media, the use of nudity has a number of specific “meanings” that aren’t necessarily sexual in nature: the idea of “skinship” is a common theme in Japanese media that is often more about a general sense of closeness and friendship than sexuality, for example, whereas in the West we tend to associate nudity in narrative entertainment media with imminent sexual activity. (This isn’t to say nudity in Japanese games never leads to sexual encounters, of course, though that tends to remain the domain of eroge and nukige rather than more mainstream console and handheld games, where such content is more strictly regulated.) Meanwhile, nudity is also used elsewhere in Japanese media as symbolism for opening yourself up to someone, or understanding someone. Senran Kagura is a great example of this latter interpretation; concluding a battle by stripping your opponent naked is a potent symbol of your complete dominance of them through a comprehensive understanding of how they fight.
Part of the difficulty of translating Japanese is the fact that, as a language, it is fundamentally different to English — and not just in terms of the characters used to write it, either. Japanese is a heavily contextual language in which one simple word or phrase can mean multiple things according to who says it, how they say it, when, to whom, where they are saying it and why. One can, of course, make this argument for English too, but Japanese has contextual cues down to a fine art.
Take the phrase “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, for example, which is very common. Depending on context, this can mean “pleased to meet you”, “I look forward to working with you”, “please take care of me”, “thank you for the service you are about to provide for me”, “it’s up to you”, “please come again” and plenty of other things besides. There isn’t a single, universal translation that a localiser can use when they come across “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” in a Japanese script, so they have to make a judgement call on what it means according to the context, so far as they can determine from the material they have available to them — which may, of course, vary enormously depending on if the game is being localised alongside its Japanese release, or localised after the Japanese version has already been completed and been on the market for some time.
The localisation process is full of these judgement calls, and different companies work in different ways. There are a variety of different reasons for this, but an important consideration for any localisation team is how important a sense of “Japaneseness” is to the work, and whether it is important to maintain that in any localised version.
With something like Persona 5, the answer is pretty obvious: it’s a game about Japanese kids doing Japanese things in a Japanese city, so of course you can’t go changing the fundamental character of the work by attempting to transplant it to a Western setting. The Japaneseness needs to remain intact as much as possible, so a localisation as authentic to the original script as possible is the most desirable outcome. That means keeping in things like honorifics and mentions of Japanese culture and history, while adapting words and phrases that aren’t directly translatable (such as the aforementioned yoroshiku onegaishimasu) to reflect the meaning according to the assumed context.
Atlus did a pretty good job with Persona 5’s localisation, all told, but that didn’t stop some people complaining about it — most notably a number of members of the commercial press. You cannot, it seems, please everyone, even where the best approach to take is as seemingly obvious as it is in this instance.
With other games, the “correct” approach might not be so clear. Take something like Ace Attorney, for example, which did undergo significant changes from its original Japanese script but nonetheless still contains quite a few elements of Japanese culture, particularly with regard to spirituality and religion. In this instance, the changes were made both to make the games more accessible to a wider audience, and also to make puns work better in the translated languages.
Take the protagonist’s name, for example. In Japan, he’s known as Naruhodo Ryuuichi, an unsubtle pun on the Japanese word “naruhodo”, meaning “I see”. Calling someone “Mr. I See” in English would be awkward, so he became “Mr. Wright”, allowing for plenty of similar puns in the “Wright/right as homophones” genre.
Interestingly, when Ace Attorney starts to get more Japanese, it makes no attempt to hide it or indeed explain what a Shinto shrine is doing in the mountains just outside an American city. Later games make reference to Japanese concepts like youkai and suchlike, and oddly enough, they don’t feel as jarring as you might expect. This is perhaps why, despite the major changes to the core cast of Ace Attorney when compared to the original script, fans have generally been pretty happy with the localisation on the whole; while full of changes, it is still fairly true to the original intention.
NIS America’s localisation of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia is a point of contention for many Western fans of Japanese games. NISA took a lot of liberties with the original script, de-emphasising the overt religious references — themselves a satirical parody of the quasi-religious fervour with which console fanboys will defend their “platform of choice” — and adding a layer of technology-themed puns atop them. The main characters were no longer megami (goddesses) — now they were “CPUs”, or “Console Patron Units”. They no longer underwent a megami henshin (goddess transformation); now they activated their “HDD” or “Hard Drive Divinity” mode.
Purists were — and still are — angry with these changes, feeling that they compromised the fundamental meaning of the work in an attempt to insert unnecessary humour. But Neptunia has, from the outset, been a series built as parody and satire, so it makes a certain degree of sense for such things to be added in an English localisation, particularly as the underlying meaning of the main cast as goddesses is still intact beneath the new terminology.
In other words, Neptunia is an example of a game where overt “Japaneseness” isn’t a particularly important aspect, aside from its anime-inspired aesthetic. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that the reason Neptunia has become such a worldwide phenomenon since its original release despite consistently mediocre review scores from a bewildered press is because it is so inviting, welcoming and language-agnostic. It doesn’t require a deep involvement with or understanding of the otaku subculture to appreciate — though for sure it has additional depth if you have at least a passing awareness of it — and has, instead, attracted many new fans through its colourful characters, engaging gameplay and well-written, witty scripts that are very much products of their time, and deliberately so.
As satirical games, it’s particularly important to consider the context in which each Neptunia game was released, as this gives additional meaning to a number of different installments, particularly when we consider their English incarnations, which are now handled by Idea Factory’s own international offshoot.
Hyperdimension Neptunia U, for example, which concerns the power that the press has to manipulate public perception, was released in the West during the height of discussions over press ethics as a result of the “GamerGate” controversy — and indeed makes a pretty on-the-nose reference to the whole thing at one point. Megadimension Neptunia V-II, meanwhile, made a plot point of the difficult transitional period between two console generations: something that was actually happening at the time as the PS4 started to gather momentum.
This puts these games in an interesting position in that it prevents them from being truly “timeless”, but at the same time that is how satire works: it’s most effective as a direct response to (and mockery of) something that is fresh in people’s minds, particularly if that something is a specific event. Satire is also unique to a particular culture, since everyone sees these events in a different light according to their own societal norms and attitudes. To return to the earlier example of Hyperdimension Neptunia U, for example, Japan’s understanding and awareness of GamerGate and press ethics in general is very different to the discussions this matter has spawned in the West, so it needed handling differently according to the cultural contexts in which the game was released.
And this is what Neptunia has done particularly well ever since its first installment, especially in English. Its use of memes and cultural references that are relevant at the time of release is a deliberate, conscious decision; it can make the games seem a little dated or hard to follow when revisited some time later, but as direct responses to events and the overall landscape of the games industry at the time of their respective releases, the Neptunia series is hard to beat. And a big part of that comes from the localisation; if it relied on Japanese-only 2channel and LINE memes rather than cultural references more easily digestible by the West, its English versions wouldn’t have nearly the same impact or widespread appeal — and it already struggles against the tide so far as the press is concerned, at least.
Where the matter of how much power localisers should have over a work becomes somewhat more complicated is when we come to works that have content edited or cut completely on the grounds of “taste”, or in an attempt to avoid the notorious “Adults Only” ESRB rating, which was once the kiss of death for a title hoping to sell any copies at retail.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this in recent years is Criminal Girls, which underwent a number of changes. Specifically, its BDSM-themed minigame (which is used as part of the progression system to teach the characters new abilities) was rebranded from oshioki (“punishment”) to “motivation” in its English incarnation, the suggestive moaning was removed from this content and a pink mist was added to obscure the provocative imagery. The mist initially covers the picture almost completely but gradually clears with each advancement in your relationship with the character in question until what lies beneath is clearly visible. This also, conveniently, coincides with the most provocative picture in each series, usually involving the character exposing part of her breasts or behind, sometimes even pulling down her panties or hitching up her top.
Criminal Girls is often derided as a particularly heinous example of “censorship” at work and it’s easy to understand why: on paper, the changes made sound pretty major, though they at least stop short of cutting out the minigame completely — which would have been difficult, anyway, since it is so heavily intertwined with the game’s progression system.
But in actual fact, personally speaking, I found the modifications made to the game, surprisingly, very much work in context, particularly if you take the time to give it a deeper reading — something it actually deserves, since far from being mindless ecchi fanservice, it’s actually a rather thought-provoking work at heart, featuring some challenging and powerful themes in its latter hours.
The core theme of Criminal Girls is the concept of building trust between the player-protagonist and the “delinquent” girls he commands in their attempt to ascend out of the underworld and get a second chance at life. In this sense, the rebranding from “punishment” to “motivation” makes sense, particularly as the activity is framed as you removing corrupt influences from them rather than actually inflicting pain on them deliberately as a consequence of something they’ve done wrong. The girls come out of the experience more powerful and able to do things that they weren’t able to do previously thanks to the removal of the things that have been holding them back, while the protagonist becomes closer to them; it’s an inherently positive experience for everyone involved, whereas the term “punishment” has negative connotations.
The pink mist can be read as symbolism, too, and fits nicely with the core theme. When you first begin your relationship with a girl, she is completely obscured, the pink mist reflecting the fact that she is unwilling to let you see her true self or “let you in”. As your relationship increases in intensity and the girl comes to trust you more, the mist lifts, revealing the girl underneath as she “exposes” herself to you, both physically and emotionally, the changes in her costume being another example of how nudity can be used as a reflection of closeness, trust and friendship rather than being a purely sexual thing. As you try a new activity, the mist returns, reflecting her uneasiness with a change to the status quo, but again this, too, will eventually lift. Far from being a simple case of edited content, it’s actually quite an artful addition to these scenes that works well.
Regardless of how well it works in context, the question that many people have fixated on is whether or not these changes should have been made in the first place. And there isn’t really an easy answer for this, since different people have different attitudes. Some would have preferred the original experience as Japanese players had it. Some found the suggestive moaning in the Japanese original awkward so are actually quite pleased these sequences now play out somewhat more quietly. As for me? Well, I’ve outlined how I feel about it above, but to summarise, I certainly didn’t feel like my time with Criminal Girls was in any way compromised as a result of these changes, and in some ways they even added an additional layer of meaning.
And this is, for me, is the most important question when it comes to localisation: does it capture the original meaning and intent of the source material? Does it even, perhaps, enhance it? Answering that question involves considering whether or not the work needs an inherent sense of “being Japanese” to be effective from a Western perspective, and how best to handle the localisation accordingly.
If the story and characters are quintessentially Japanese and the work makes frequent reference to Japanese societal conventions, then a more literal approach to the translation, as seen in Persona 5, is preferable. In all other scenarios, so far as I’m concerned, I’m more than happy to experience the work as interpreted by a localisation team; after all, as we’ve discussed above, localisers have to make all sorts of judgement calls throughout the translation process, even for the most mundane words and phrases, so there’s no guarantee that even a supposedly “literal” translation is word-for-word accurate to the Japanese anyway.
In some cases, a localised version even becomes the “preferred” version of a work, and subsequently has an influence on the Japanese creators; Final Fantasy XIV is a good example of this, with its George R.R. Martin-inspired dialogue and prose being so well-written and consistently applied to the English version that it had a profound impact on producer Naoki Yoshida and his team, who now work closely with the English language team for a coherent worldwide experience.
In the end, as clichéd as the argument is, the only true way to experience a piece of Japanese media “as originally intended”, without any interference from people who weren’t originally involved with it, is to play it in Japanese. For many, that’s reason enough to pursue the study of the language — that and all the Japanese games that don’t get localised that you’ll suddenly have access to, of course!
But there’s also a great deal of value to be extracted from viewing a work through another lens, considering how meaning and context can change between cultures and whether “literal” is always the best approach. Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised, and it’s important to celebrate the localisers who do a good job in this way.
Ultimately something to be conscious of is the fact that we’ve never had it so good in terms of the number of Japanese games that make it to the West — and I know I certainly don’t want a return to the dark days of the European PS1. Therefore, it’s important to remember that while it can often be worth making your opinion known when a company makes a decision you disagree with, it’s just as important — if not more so — to make it known when you’ve had a good time with something, even if you didn’t expect to in the first place. Nothing but negativity can breed contempt, after all, and Japanese games in general get enough of that from the mainstream press without enthusiasts getting in on the action too.
So personally speaking, I’m never going to make a blanket sort of statement about particular companies’ approaches being “good” or “bad”; every work is worth considering on its own individual merit — and as a complete work, rather than fixating on one aspect or scene — and every quality localised game is ultimately our gain, as English-speaking fans of the medium.
Your mileage may, of course, vary. But me? I’m just grateful for all the amazing games I get to play these days: games that speak to me, resonate with me and which have, without a doubt, enriched and made my life much, much more fulfilling. And I’m grateful to those who bring those games to me in a language I can understand.
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