The myths and misery of translating Japanese video games


Special To The Japan Times

Given ever-expanding access to the culture of Japan, people worldwide have many different reasons for studying the Japanese language these days. But I don’t know if job opportunities for non-Japanese have expanded as rapidly. Many folks probably fall back on the same set of options as always: eigo kyōshi (英語教師, English teacher), torihiki-gyōsha (取引業者, trader) and honyakusha (翻訳者, translator).

Yes, there are others, but these are supposedly the easy options, and of them translation has the most street cred — if you’re translating, surely you’re almost an artist, nothing constrains you!

Of the different types of translation, literary translation is clearly the most prestigious, but video-game translation may be the most coveted. It’s the kind of job that brings a smile (or perhaps a smirk?) to people’s faces when you mention it.

I can say from experience that translating terebi gēmu (テレビゲーム, video games) is not nearly as cool as it sounds.

First, it’s important to realize that you might not even be translating game content. If a company sends you a document that contains the word kyōtai (筐体, cabinet), then you might be handling the kind of games that are still popular in Japan at gēmu sentā (ゲームセンター, arcades) and require a massive cabinet to store the innards — yes, an old-school arcade game. The translation will probably be for the hoshu manyuaru (保守マニュアル, service manual). You’ll likely be translating the instructions into English for a guy in Taiwan who will be fixing the games when they break (and referring to the manual as he rummages around inside the kyōtai).

The text you’re translating will be soul-destroying stuff along the lines of “Gēmu tesuto mōdo de wa, gēmu no settei, purei dēta no kakunin ga dekimasu” (“ゲームテストモードでは、ゲームの設定、プレイデータの確認ができます,” “In Game Test Mode, you can adjust settings for the game and check play data”).

Once you’ve proven your attention to detail and ability to not go rogue with your own “interpretation” of material like this, you might be trusted to translate the setsumeisho (説明書, instruction manual) for a console or handheld game.

You may get closer to the actual game — there are gamen gazō (画面画像, screen images) right there in the file (resist the urge to translate this as “screenshot,” a word that may irk some companies) — but the material will be just as dry.

You’ll have to be up to date on the latest yōgoshū (用語集, terminology file). This will vary from console to console: Nintendo may use “+Control Pad” (十字ボタン, jūjibotan; literally “the button shaped like the character 十”) while Playstation asks for “directional buttons” (方向ボタン, hōkō botan) unless you’re referring to them individually, in which case it’s “Up button,” “Down button,” etc. These details matter.

In instruction manuals, as with many aspects of game translation, it’s best to keep the translation simple and to keep in mind that you are “localizing” (rendering a Japanese product for an entirely different market, not just individual words and phrases into English). Thus, sōsa hōhō (操作方法) becomes “controls” rather than “method of controlling” or “how to control.” This makes more sense when you imagine it as the title of a page and the list of controls underneath.

In that list, you’re bound to encounter X suru koto ga dekiru (Xすることができる, You can do X), the simplest Japanese construction to explain what someone can or can’t do within the game. You’ll find text like “Jūji botan wo osu to, kyarakutā wo ugokasu koto ga dekiru” (“十字ボタンを押すと、キャラクターを動かすことができる”). While it’s tempting to follow the Japanese word for word and do a chokuyaku (直訳, direct translation), consider aiming again for simplicity: “Press the +Control Pad to move the character” is a concise translation that helps avoid any unnecessary verbiage.

You’ll also pick up gaming terminology as you go through the manual. Yoroi means armor, and you’ll encounter it as both 鎧 and ヨロイ. Teki (敵) is enemy, but it can occasionally refer to an opponent, which is usually aite (相手, opponent or other player) in Japanese.

The kanji for enemy will return in the compound muteki (無敵), which you might guess means “no enemies” due to the character 無 (mu, nothing or no), but this actually means “invincible.” Most characters won’t have this power for long (the game wouldn’t be much fun otherwise), so you’ll often see ichiji-muteki (一時無敵, temporary invincibility).

The best way to learn these words is, of course, to play the games yourself in Japanese. The original Nintendo DS is region free and can play both Japanese and non-Japanese games, so that’s a good place to start. A few of the old-school role-playing games from video-game company Square, such as “Final Fantasy VI” and “Chrono Trigger,” are available on the Google Play store and for iOS. If you switch your smartphone’s language settings to Japanese, the game should play in Japanese.

Playing games will also help you learn the dialogue and story content, which are the most challenging to translate. Not only do you need near-native familiarity with the source, you also need to be preternaturally gifted at writing snappy, character-conveying English.

The greatest fallacy of video-game translation is that translators need only be fans of the games in order to translate them well. As with any other type of translation, such as notoriously dense tokkyo (特許, patent) translation, video-game translation requires training both in terminology and in English composition. With patent translation there is less room for translators to err due to “creativity” precisely because of all the constraints of legal terminology.

The lack of constraints with the translation of dialogue and story, conversely, can leave unprepared translators floating in space without any context to hold on to, especially if their writing and self-revision skills aren’t up to par.

  • Joe

    ゲームテストモードでは、ゲームの設定、プレイデータの確認ができます = You can check game settings and play data in game test mode.

    • Educated_Opinion

      Translation is often about understanding the context. Just putting it into Google and flipping the grammar around is not the solution. Sometimes you have to add words, but you have to be careful about what words you add or change as it changes the meaning.

      While what you have translated is true (both play data and game settings can be found in game test mode), it is not what was being stated. The information is about where you can check the play data, not the game settings.

      A more accurate English translation is: “You can check the play data under game settings when you are in game test mode.” or even :”In game test mode, you can check the play data under game settings”

      • Daniel Morales

        You’re both wrong, but Joe is closer. What I think he misses is that ゲームの設定 is actually an action in and of itself (Japanese is an efficient language like that) – the 確認 doesn’t apply to it (which is tough to tell without more context). Game Test Mode is a mode that lets the arcade creators change the settings (cost per play, what screen gets shown when it isn’t being played, etc.) and check the play data (amount of money earned, number of times played, etc.)

        Quibbling over the semantics of this sentence is really besides the point, though. Game translation, like a lot of translation, is a slog and is probably overly romanticized (I was guilty of this as well).

  • Educated_Opinion

    There are two camps of thought on translation in North America. One is to make it comprehensible, the other is for it to be enjoyable. The people who make Japanese culture popular in a foreign country desire accuracy because they want to be able to understand the story from a Japanese perspective. The mass market though, only wants to challenge the mechanics of the game, so they don’t care about the accuracy of the translation.

    At the same time, there are cultural concepts that are difficult to translate for mass consumption. By North American standards, the idea that you wash before you bathe only applies to swimming pools, and the concept that an adult would share a bath with a relative who is older than a toddler borders on sexual abuse. There is a real lack of respect for elders, and dedication to education is the exception rather than the rule. Lacking a common ground, it is difficult to translate Japanese cultural values.

    A skilled translator provides a translation to others so they can share in the love of that culture, while accepting it alongside their own. This does not come from translating manuals. There are many programs that can translate a manual. Also, anyone can translate a story into their language and culture, but it takes an artist to translate a story in a way that it keeps the cultural meaning in which it was created.

    • Daniel Morales

      I agree with your point, but unfortunately a lot of translation is just “shoveling cultural snow,” as Murakami might say. It’s technical manuals, patents, medical translation, financial reports. Even with video games, there is a lot of auxiliary stuff that isn’t “art” and has no Japanese cultural norms that need conveying. Aspiring game translators who think otherwise are in for a rude awakening – this was the point of my article.

  • Hirayuki

    Well said, Daniel–and happy New Year from a fellow translator who remembers working with you back in the day. :)