Best of ND 2016: Evaluating Localization: In Defense of NOA Treehouse

Anthony dissects the “censorship” controversy surrounding recently localized titles.

By Anthony Pelone. Posted 12/29/2016 13:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Nintendo Treehouse

Censorship! Dialogue changes! Removed content! Too many memes! These are the cries decorating message boards and Twitter pages everywhere, all directed toward one familiar name: Nintendo of America’s Treehouse, the localization branch that translates the game into English (among other languages!) and readies the game for American release. Often regarded as one of the best localization groups in the gaming world, their lively scripts for games like Animal Crossing, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga are praised as some of the greatest in the American sphere.

Bear in mind that those titles are only the tip of the iceberg in Treehouse’s excellent resume, yet the group has come under some heavy fire over the past year for controversial changes to recent releases. What changes, you ask? Why, renaming characters, referencing the latest memes, and removing a breast size customization, that’s what! Such heinous acts have rightfully deserved widespread scorn, as angry fans have taken to harassing Nintendo’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as those of Treehouse employees and Nintendo Marketing PR.

Okay, maybe confining all of Treehouse’s detractors into a wholly negative (though very real) stereotype isn’t fair, but is all this scathing criticism really valid? In case you hadn’t read the article’s title, I think not. Much of the complaints involved come from those who lack proper understanding of Japanese language quirks as well as standard localization practices (not to mention an abundance of cherrypicking and misplaced priorities), and I’d like to take the time to bring those to light. But before I begin my defense, I think we need to ask ourselves a certain question…

What is localization?

Indeed, what is it? Well, I’ll tell you it’s not as simple as just translating a game from one language to another. “Localization” is the term for adapting a foreign piece of media, be it movies or cartoons or games, for another foreign market. Note the term “adapting,” as translation is only one, very early part of the process; for starters, localizers often work with the original team (and in many cases, have to) to properly convey the work to the localizers’ respective languages and audiences while adhering to the restrictions and wishes of the original team. For example, anime broadcasted on TV may have Japanese alphabet characters painted out so not as to confuse American audiences (in certain instances, these may be replaced with English lettering). A more recent example is how Pixar took the time to edit certain scenes from last year’s Inside Out so they’d make sense within other cultural contexts all the while maintaining the original intent. (What would a young Japanese child be grossed out by: broccoli or bell peppers?)

In regard to video games, there are a number of unique traits for the medium. For example, as Japanese titles often release first in their country of birth, their developers may consider player feedback to improve experiences for international release. In relation to Nintendo games, notable instances involve the first two Smash Bros. games receiving balance changes when they released in America and Europe, and how the Mario & Luigi games tend to alter boss stats when they make it over here.

Needless to say, anyone who’s watched Treehouse E3 streams or read interviews involving its staff members knows they work incredibly closely with the developers at Nintendo. I mean, forget how Bill Trinen is Shigeru Miyamoto’s personal translator, the team is in constant contact with Japan as they discuss which games should be marketed in America, review game concepts in their infancy, and even contribute to development (for example, they actually came up with the name “Game & Wario”). There’s also the matter of how to translate Japanese cultural references into equivalent American ones so as to maintain the spirit of the original, raise possible objections for suggestive content that might not be suitable for an American audience and how they can cross that bridge, and adapt the game script and characters under the close eye of the original developers.

So what’s the big deal? Well, recent criticism of the Treehouse boils down to five factors: script/dialogue changes, name changes, accusations of censorship, content removal, and the inclusion of Internet memes. For this article, I’ll be evaluating just how much these complaints hold water while providing in-depth counters and citations of my own. For starters, let’s begin with script alterations.

“They changed the dialogue! Now the creator’s original message is gone!”

Just like how movie adaptions of books won’t retain every single scene from the source material, game localizations won’t lift every line of dialogue exactly as-is from the original language. Yes, plot twists and the like will remain as they are, but not every instance of characterization or humor will make it over international waters. But why do these slip through the cracks? For clarification, I happened to reach out to a friend on NeoGAF– Masked Man, who works as a game translator in Japan. While tight-lipped on what exactly he does over there, his Japanese skills are the real deal and is a valid source not just on NeoGAF, but he’s a frequent contributor for Source Gaming, a great site dedicated to translating various articles, essays, and interviews regarding developer Masahiro Sakurai and the Super Smash Bros. series. On the subject of direct Japanese-to-English translations, he had this enlightening comment to share:

“There are a number of issues at play, first and foremost being the word order. English is Subject-Verb-Object, whereas Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb, making “direct translations” all but impossible. Beyond grammar, however, one other major problem that plagues a lot of Japanese texts is their (over-)reliance on ellipses and unfinished sentences. As a high-context language, Japanese tends to omit information understood between speaker and listener. (People rarely include the subject of a spoken sentence, which can lead to some confusion between the two parties.) Unfortunately, these sort of mix-ups are unacceptable in a piece of interactive media where many dialogues are intended to guide the player to their next destination. In a low-context language like English, the pregnant pauses and sentence fragments common in Japanese carry little of the nuanced meanings of the original—they just sound like unfinished thoughts. This is why many localizers focus on making dialogue flow as a cohesive, comprehensible conversation.”

As someone who’s been taking Japanese classes over the past year, I have to agree with Masked Man. Not only can translated Japanese come out as rather vague, but it tends to be rather dry and very literal within acceptable English standards. Let’s use Fire Emblem Fates as an example: the above comparison is taken from two sources, the official Treehouse version on the left and a fan translation on the right that aims for a direct, no-flair translation. Did you notice how much better King Garon’s speech flows in the localized version, while the fan translation comes across as unusually stilted and curt? Granted, that the former was done by professionals speaks for itself, but the latter’s a typical case of what happens in literal translations, and so that’s why localizers have to embellish and alter the dialogue so as to meet, once again, acceptable standards of the English language to render it natural to the player.

Like any other language, the fact of the matter is that Japanese is home to unique traits like Kanji wordplay, and no matter hard you try, there will be elements lost in translation. This also boils down to cultural contexts that would be lost on American audiences; for instance, Treehouse scriptwriter Nate Bihldorff once mentioned that for Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, references to a Japanese superstition involving sneezing had to be erased. With how excellent that game’s localization turned out, I don’t think anyone is complaining. I know I’m not for Fire Emblem Fates; granted, I don’t think the game’s story is all that hot, but as I’ve completed the Birthright route and am well into Conquest, I’ve found the official script has rendered it rather tolerable (like Awakening before it, I have caught myself laughing at the My Home/Support conversations). When examples like this are among the best the localization’s detractors can come up with, I know the localizers have done their job.

But can localizers truly do no wrong? Of course not, and thus far we’ve ignored the Fates elephant in the room: a certain support conversation revolving around two deadly assassins, Saizo and Beruka. While in the original they introduce themselves through their respective grim backstories, they instead size each other up in the localized version with a protracted series of ellipses. Personally, I actually think that’s hilarious and would rather have that over hackneyed backstories of child assassins and whatnot (as a matter of fact, I’m saddened I didn’t have the chance to discover that for myself!), but that’s a case that has raised legitimate concerns of whether or not localization can indeed go too far (however, others have raised the suggestion that was simply a translation placeholder that somehow made it through Q&A). Regardless, I do have my own opinion on the subject…that’ll tie into a later point. For now, let’s move on to character renaming.

“They changed Lutz’ name into Percy!”

I come bearing disturbing news, my Nintendojo readers: the female lead of Fire Emblem Fates had her name changed from Aqua to “Azura” for the American release. Oh, and your Nohrian princely brother Marx? His name is now Xander. There’s also Zero the bisexual thief, whose name was changed to Niles. Welp, pack it up guys, the game’s ruined.

Except not, because anyone who’s been paying attention recognizes Nintendo has been doing this for over three decades. If you’re going to take issue with Fates’ name changes, you’re going to have to do same for “Koopa” being changed into “Bowser” (or, for that matter, “Nokonoko” into what we know as “Koopa Troopa”). Same goes for “Rosetta” being renamed as “Rosalina.” Or “Bado” into “Groose.” And “Shizue” into “Isabelle.” Don’t forget “Christine” as “Goombella.” Oh, and let’s not pretend they haven’t always done this for Fire Emblem: the mage Soren in Path of Radiance was originally known as “Senerio,” and the default name for Awakening’s avatar (Robin) was originally “Reflet.”

Name changes in the localization field are nothing new, but why exactly does this happen? My friend Masked Man comes to the rescue here:

“Many developers like using Western-sounding names because they sound exotic to a Japanese ear. When transliterating these names into English, however, the magic is lost. Take, for example, the protagonist of Final Fantasy VI. The name ‘Tina’ is by no means a common name in Japan, so it likely sounded strange and new to many Japanese players. Using ‘Tina’ in the US would be the Japanese equivalent of using a plain old name like ‘Ayaka’ or ‘Ayumi.’ (No offense to the Ayakas and Ayumis of the world!) When Ted Woolsey localized FFVI, he rightfully decided to come up with a new name for the game’s heroine that carried a more mystical feel without straying too far from the original. Thus, ‘Terra’ was born. It’s all a matter of capturing the sense of the original name and presenting it to a different audience.”

Localization detractors often claim names are changed for no reason, but the above quote proves that’s not the case. That’s not even considering the role of English and Japanese phonetics; to the American ear, what sounds like a cooler name for a Japanese ninja: Suzukaze or Kaze? What rolls off the English tongue better: Lutz or Percy? Furthermore, it’s not like this isn’t a process done without the approval of the original creators. For example, while Treehouse isn’t directly involved with Pokémon localizations, various groups like The Pokémon Company work together to come up with Pokémon names for each territory, as you can’t expect an American child to pronounce and decipher the meaning of “Fushigisou” (who we know as “Ivysaur”). Another example is the Ground-type Sandshrew, who is just called “Sand” in Japan; here, that’s a common plural noun that wouldn’t make for an appealing pet name, but by combining it with an animal name (“shrew”), they formed an alliteration that sounds completely natural and professional. Wow!

In short, name changes are the most common factor in the localization field for any and all media. Whether or not it happens depends on the context of the project, such as where it takes place or the age group it’s aimed at, and is absolutely not done for “no reason.” I mean, I dunno about you, but I think I’d rather have “Fawful” than “Gerakobittsu,” thank you.

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