Japan may not be the all-conquering video-game powerhouse it once was, but there are still plenty of gamers in the West who want to get their hands on the latest “Mario,” “Final Fantasy” or “Street Fighter” title. And it goes without saying that they want to play them in their own language — not in Japanese.

This is where localization comes in.

At its core, localization is the process of converting a game from one language to another. Spoken dialogue, subtitles, menus, interfaces, manuals, marketing materials — all of these and more must be translated from, say, Japanese to English, to French, to German. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Cultural references are worked around, voice talent is cast, games are tested for bugs, and so much more.

While the larger game publishers tend to have a localization department in-house, this work is increasingly farmed out to specialist localization companies, many of which are based here in Japan.

St. Louis, Missouri, native Mark MacDonald is executive director at 8-4, a Tokyo company that has worked on entries in major franchises such as “Dragon Quest,” “Castlevania,” “Tekken” and even a “Mario” title (geekier readers will notice that 8-4 is a reference to the number of stages in “Super Mario Bros.”). A note on the company’s website sums up the role of a localization firm thus: “Our involvement ranges from super minor (i.e., ‘translated one character’s 17 battle lines and took the game director out to dinner’) all the way to 100 percent full involvement (i.e., ‘translated and edited the entire script, recorded all of the voices, debugged the entire game from top to bottom, and then partied in Maui for six weeks on the dev team’s expense account’).”

“Basically, we get spreadsheets of text in Japanese from a client, and we use our stable of translators and editors to get them into smooth-sounding English,” MacDonald explains. “Often we offer advice on changes to help the game work for Western audiences — everything from changing a character’s style or personality, to graphical alterations, user interface and gameplay tweaks.”

In the old days, localization was an afterthought. If a game did well in its native market, the idea of selling it abroad might follow, and the text buried deep within the code would have to be rewritten retroactively — an arduous task, not least because of formatting issues and a limit to the number of characters that could fit on each line. Some translations did the trick, but you sometimes ended up with classic blunders such as the oft-quoted line “All your base are belong to us,” taken from the European version of 1991’s Sega Mega Drive game “Zero Wing.”

The global video-game industry is estimated at $44 billion in 2011 (and rising), and if a Japanese game is to succeed in the West, careless translations just won’t cut it.

“Everyone agrees a good translation or localization is better than a bad one, but it’s very difficult to show how a good translation affects the bottom line — how well a game sells,” says Washington, D.C-born Matt Alt who, with his wife Hiroko Yoda, cofounded localization company AltJapan working on such series as “Dragon Quest,” “Dynasty Warriors: Gundam” and “Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.”

“The general consensus in the industry now is that localization is an important part of the game process; it’s the ‘face’ of the game in foreign cultures.”

As the game industry grows, so too does its need for localizers with specialist knowledge and know-how.

“Ten years ago, only a handful of people and one or two agencies specialized in this kind of work,” says Alt. “Now the playing field, no pun intended, is crowded with all sorts of individuals and companies trying to make a go of it. It has been fascinating to me to see this field grow from a point where literally nobody knew what the word ‘localization’ even meant, to now, where you hear college kids saying they want to get into it.”

Video games often take several years to make, and localizers are typically engaged by a publisher midway through development — usually toward the end, as resources are freed up. But sometimes it happens earlier on, with localizers helping to translate business documents and attend meetings connected with the game’s foreign release, or even to work on the story. For example, 8-4 was involved in just-released multiplatform title “Shadows of the Damned” from early in its development, and reviewers have praised its well-written and voice-acted script.

The localization process can be somewhat arduous, says Kengo Watanabe, founder and chief executive director at frognation, which has offices in Tokyo and London. Watanabe has been in the industry since the late 1990s, when he worked on cult PlayStation classic “Vib-Ribbon”; more recent titles localized by frognation include “Demon’s Souls” and “Patapon 3.”

“The process used to be more relaxed, and we could play the game before we started,” he says. “Now most titles are aiming to release around the same time worldwide, which means the game in the original language is not ready at all when we start working on it. You usually get a very limited amount of info at the beginning and lots of imagination is needed to work on fragmented lines in spreadsheets.”

“In an ideal situation, we play through the game in what is called the ‘familiarization process,’ ” says Alt. “This is the bit that often gets would-be localizers salivating, because it essentially means the client is paying you to play the game. But it is nowhere near relaxing — you need to be taking notes, playing every possible branch of the storyline, deliberately triggering dialogues or actions you probably wouldn’t if you were doing it for fun, and things like that.

“Once you have a sense of what the game is about, you dive in to the translation work, which is often handled on a bunch of spreadsheets. Then comes the proofreading phase, the editing phase, then potentially the recording phase, the Q.A. (quality assurance) phase … Head spinning yet?”

Sometimes the task is just too much, and difficult decisions must be made. When the third installment in Sega’s “Ryu Ga Gotoku” series was released in the West as “Yakuza 3” in 2010, its minigames based around Tokyo’s hostess clubs were cut out due to concerns that Western gamers wouldn’t understand the references (or, more likely, would find them misogynistic). But it backfired when players and reviewers complained about the omissions.

“There was a lot cut from the Western version of No.3, and fans of the game were upset about it,” producer Masayoshi Kikuchi told us in an interview last year. “So we’ve listened to them, and we’ve kept (the localized version of ‘Yakuza 4’) almost exactly the same as the Japanese version.

“The only part we’ve removed is a mini-game game called ‘Answer X Answer,’ because it’s a quiz based heavily on Japanese general knowledge that people outside Japan are unlikely to know.”

“We usually try to be creative,” says Watanabe, when asked how his team gets around words, phrases or concepts that are difficult to interpret for an overseas audience. “It is more important to appeal to players in the target market than to show respect to the original dialogue. It’s not like translating literature, you know.”

“I wouldn’t say anything is impossible to translate,” ponders MacDonald, “some phrases you hear pretty often in Japanese that get translated differently depending on the context, or require some creativity on the part of the translator, are ‘yoroshiku onegai shimasu’ (lit. ‘please treat me well’), ‘otsukaresama’ (‘good job’), ‘natsukashī’ (‘feeling nostalgic’), things like that. You have to think outside the box sometimes — often the textbook translation just doesn’t fit, or it sounds clunky. Sometimes you need to be really creative, keeping in mind the characters and situation that they’re in.”

When you pick up the controller to play — or pore over a game manual, or take in the voice acting in an animated cut scene, or navigate the menu, or learn the names of the characters, or chuckle at the script — the absolute last thing that should be on your mind is the localizer manacled to his computer, eyes straining as he peers at a drab spreadsheet for hours on end. It’s about making the game every bit as much fun to play in your own language as it is in the original.

“Gaming is still very young,” notes Watanabe. “Compared to books or movies, there are a million new things creators can do, and people are very enthusiastic to spend a long time on it. It’s great to be part of that.”

For more information, visit www.8-4.jp, www.altjapan.com and www.frognation.com. “8-4 Play,” 8-4’s regular podcast about Japanese video games, is available for free on iTunes.


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