July 09, 2011

By Ofer Tirosh

Video Game Localization: How "Kirby" Translates from Japanese to English

The video game industry and game developers continue to enjoy market growth while other media and entertainment industries have been at a standstill. In 2008, figures showed that 9 video games were being sold every second of the day, on average. Because of this, video game localization has also grown in demand. However, despite video game localization demands, video game developers do not always make it enough of a priority. The most famous example of botched Japanese to English translation and localization of a video game was Toaplan's Zero Wing, for the Sega Megadrive system in 1991. Zero Wing's opening transcript went like this:

  • In A.D. 2101
  • War was beginning
  • Captain: What happen?
  • Operator: Someone set us up the bomb
  • Operator: We get signal
  • Captain: What!
  • Operator: Main screen turn on
  • Captain: It's You!!
  • Cats: How are you gentlemen!!
  • Cats: All your base are belong to us
  • Cats: You are on the way to destruction
  • Captain: What you say!
  • Cats: You have no chance to survive make your time
  • Cats: Ha ha ha ha
  • Captain: Take off every "zig"
  • Captain: You know what you doing
  • Captain: Move "zig"
  • Captain: For great justice

It was such a nonsensical Japanese translation that it became an internet phenomenon by 2000. "All your base are belong to us" was a gamer headline; made into t-shirts, marketing billboards, catch phrase variations and even a Wikipedia entry.

This 20 year old example is a gross blunder that doesn't happen to such extremes these days, but still illustrates the oversight and nonchalance that is sometimes given to proper video game translation and localization.

The video game industry climbs ever higher in both global market size and sales. While it used to be something primarily for young males, it has clearly grown to include families, all genders, and even fitness enthusiasts - plus the original target audience. So then why do developers spend years to develop a game, only to rush through video game localization? Wouldn't sales reach their full potential with professional localization and language translation service?

Half of sales come from outside North America, for major release video games. Publishers need to be more thorough and conscientious about localizing anything from cover art to graphic design and even story character names. For example, in 2000 Square released Final Fantasy IX, whose main character was Zidane, in a literal Japanese translation to English. However, for European markets, Zidane had to be changed, because of a famous French footballer with the same name. Square was afraid of legal repercussions and other problems it might cause. So Zidane was changed to Djidane for the French translation, and to Yitán for the Spanish translation.

Localization is also needed for aspects of a video game other than dialogue and character types. Japanese to English localization for the Kirby game, which is also a cartoon and popular child's icon, involved a change in Kirby's appearance on the cover art. Kirby goes from a cutesy, innocent figure to an angrier, more intense Kirby on the American game version. Nintendo marketing department obviously believed that a hard-core, aggressive Kirby would do better in American markets than the innocent, sweet-faced Kirby of Japan. This type of thorough, professional localization is needed from culture to culture worldwide, for any major global release of a video game.

 Not Your Everyday Translation Service

Localization requires more than just accurate translation of text, as these examples show. Localizing a video game can require changing design, layout, character names or video game settings, and much more. Generally speaking, it requires a translator of a foreign native language who has been immersed in the culture of the target language, long enough to thoroughly understand and identify cultural and linguistic differences. Companies like Nintendo may even ensure the highest quality of localization by employing the collaborative efforts of Japanese translators in the U.S., and English speaking translators in Japan.

Because the video gaming industry is so lucrative, and growing exponentially, there are increasing opportunities in localization. Offer localizing services to video game developers, or even mobile game applications. It does require training and skill acquisition for translators to localize efficiently, but it also provides access to thousands of open positions and other valuable opportunities. Game developers now need to step up and make sure that the professional translation agency and localization experts employed, are used to their full potential.

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