“Liberties” In Translation

Translation is hard. I know this, having done it myself. There are so many different nuances and such that can be hard, if not impossible, to directly translate. So, you just sometimes have to go with your best effort.

I’m going to talk a little bit about that effort here. Or rather, lack of it. Since this is video games, I’m mostly going to be talking about Japanese-to-English translation, since that’s the most relevant area of video game translation to me (and in general, I’d think), but it can be applied to any translation.

I said that some things can be hard to directly translate, if not impossible. Specific cultural or media references, puns, jokes, and sayings are often the biggest culprits, especially in a work of fiction. What is to be done, then?

Well, what is the point of translation? It’s to enable communication between two different languages. And what is communication, than the transfer of ideas (and feelings) between people? So, a translation should transfer those ideas. When there is a stark difference (even a small difference) between peoples, that translation becomes a localization. For example, a work might reference a specific politician that did something or another. That reference would be completely lost if just straight translated; but if a reference to a similar incident of a politician doing a thing were put in, the idea that the original author was trying to get across would be preserved (probably; if the original was specifically referencing that politician for a specific reference, the localization wouldn’t actually work). Things might get a little hairy if the original has something cultural that has no true equivalent in the new language; but dealing with that is what a translator is supposed to do. For example, there are many ways to address someone in Japanese, based on honorifics, politeness levels, and so on, that aren’t really present in English (especially in American culture, which is quite generally casual). There are ways to do this, but figuring those out, and applying them, is the challenge of the localization.

What isn’t the job of the translators is to change the ideas and feelings behind the work. Unfortunately, we see a lot of that in translation, and not always due to the incompetence, or lack of imagination, of the translator. No, some translators feel it’s their job to improve the work. Or, should I write, “improve” the work. This is true at all levels, from the lowly online freelance manga translator, to the AAA-budget translation teams for prestigious games. Sometimes it works, but usually it doesn’t, and almost always it is disrespectful.

The biggest offenders I see today are two-fold: those that try to “fix” the “problematic” aspects of a work, and those that “punch up” “boring” dialog and prose. I’m not going to get into the first one: it’s just bad, and that’s all that needs to be said. The second, that’s more egregious.

It might seem innocent to add a bit of character to text. A lot of translators, and especially editors, are/were aspiring writers. They might think it’s better to add some more flavor to whatever bland, normal stuff was there before. This is particularly true for video games, where the original authors’ hand and voice is usually felt a lot less in the writing, for precisely the reason that these are generally done by a team of writers. The biggest example I can think of is adding accents to characters in jrpg’s. Most of these characters tend to have the Standard Accent (ie, modern Tokyo accent) in the original Japanese text. But localization teams will add various “fantasy” (bad European, often British Isles) accents to characters. This has been happening since the early Final Fantasy games, and continues to this day.

Another way it’s done, seemingly more often these days, is simply punching the dialog up with more emotion. Lines can be mostly rewritten just to add a bit of spice to a particular dialog, or even character. Even exciting scenes get changed to dial it up to 11. To my immediate recollection both Genshin Impact and Dragalia Lost are particularly guilty of this, but they are merely examples.

What he actually says: “Thi-…This is…”

I shouldn’t have to point this out, but both of those things change the very tone of the game. This is basic writing stuff: tone is extremely important, and really sets the feelings the author wants to communicate. Thus, changing the tone is changing in translation a key component of the original writing, and really shouldn’t be done. But it keeps happening.

Another big, disrespectful liberty that translators can make is to change names. A name can be a key component in a character’s identity, and changing that can change the story. Or it could be completely immaterial. But either way, the original author meant for that character to have that name. Now, there are some factors that might justify a changed name; one that immediately comes to mind is if the name is a word, where the meaning of the word is the key part of the name. This is mostly true for nicknames, but context is key. For example, you wouldn’t keep a character’s nickname as Inu, since the meaning of “inu” is what’s important; no, changing it to Dog would be better in that case. However, you would really have to think about changing a Spanish character’s name from Esperanza to Hope – “Esperanza” (and “Hope”) are real names, so you’d really have to think of the context, and the author’s intent. But changing a character’s name from Johan to Dave – or even John – that’s a bad thing.

Yet, translators do it all the time. I’m going to use Dragalia Lost as an example. I made a spreadsheet with all the characters and dragons that I could easily get both the Japanese and English name (basically, playable characters and dragons, and the ones from the current event), comparing the two. Now, to be fair, most of the names haven’t changed. Some are only slight changes, but fine (still unnecessary, though). But others are big changes, for no good reason. Since many of those are main characters, either in events or in the main story, they make more of an impression that some low-rarity character that might not ever have their name said aloud. And it just doesn’t make sense, most of the time: why make these changes, almost always completely unjustified, when over 60% of the time the names are completely correct and unchanged? (Some of it, I can tell, is incompetence, and some of it is someone thinking they’re more clever than the original creator.)

All in all, I want my translations to say what’s actually being said. Or at least something quite close to it. Certainly with the same meaning. I don’t want some other writer’s idea of what actually should have been said. I’m at a babby-level of Japanese, yet I still catch things very wrong with translations, and that shouldn’t be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s